Competitive sport and exceptional leadership

Catriona McAllister

CEO, Jersey Sport

Could you tell us about growing up in Scotland and where your love of sport began

I was fortunate to grow up on the shores of Loch Lomond surrounded by beautiful scenery and abundant places to play.  As a farmer’s daughter, I was active from a very young age helping on the farm and was always on the go.  I went to a very small primary school with only 24 pupils so we all had to play sports to make up the team.  For as long as I can remember, I loved playing all types of sports but was particularly fond of football. I got cross when I was told I needed to play netball because I was a girl.

When I moved to secondary school at Balfron High School, I loved PE and was introduced to hockey.  It turns out I was good at it.  My mum happened to work with some ladies who played hockey, and she arranged for me at the age of 14 to start playing at their club.  After just one training session, I played senior women’s hockey for the team and continued doing so for many years.  I loved football, but back then, there were very few women’s teams and none in our area, so I had no option but to pursue hockey.

You studied ‘Sport in the Community’ at Strathclyde University where you became an active member of the football team. What is it about sport that motivates you?

My time at university finally allowed me to play football competitively on a women’s team.  One of my classmates played football in the top Scottish league, and after seeing me play a few times with the University team, she persuaded me to go and join them.  By this point, I was playing Hockey in National League two, so it was a big decision to make a change of sport at that stage.  I love both equally, and I can’t explain what it was about football that made me go in that direction. Maybe it was because girls were meant to play!

We had a strong University team which won the league on several occasions, and we also had some wonderful tours of Holland and, later in my football career, Germany.  I also played rugby, and I just loved all team sports.  I am very fortunate to have played at the highest level in all three sports, and the great thing about sports is that every time I moved for work, there was always a club where I knew someone, and I had an instant set of friends.

I was an experienced sports professional but felt that an added qualification would keep my theoretical knowledge relevant and would aid me as I tried to seek promotion further down the line

You secured your first job as Sports Centre Manager at the Edinburgh Academy for two years then went on to become Area Facilities Manager for Perth and Kinross Leisure. What did your average day look like?

My first career job was at Pennypit Community Trust, a disadvantaged area just outside of Edinburgh.  From there, I moved to the Edinburgh Academy and Perth & Kinross Leisure.  A typical day as Area Manager involved me in the day-to-day operations and strategic management of two of Scotland’s biggest sports centres; Perth leisure pool and Bell’s Sports Centre.  I managed nine facilities across the geographical area of over 2000 miles of stunning Perthshire countryside.  

Visiting the sites was always a highlight as the landscape changed throughout the seasons.  I managed a team of around 200 contract staff.  As you can imagine managing the staff team was a considerable part of the role.  I was also heavily involved in developing and implementing strategies across the nine sites.  We staged several major sporting and nonsporting events and served the local community and sports clubs using the facilities.

Whilst working in Perth, you were also attending Northumbria University where you later achieved a postgraduate diploma in Sports Management. Why did you decide to go back to university and was it more challenging the second time

I have always been career-minded, and I felt that having a further postgraduate qualification would aid me as I tried to seek promotion further down the line.  I didn’t, however, want to study full-time, and the distance learning option, whilst hard to fit in around a stressful full-time job, was the right path for me.  By then, I was an experienced sports professional but felt that this added qualification would keep my theoretical knowledge relevant.  My experience and expertise put me in an excellent position to continue progressing in my career.  Undertaking the qualification was challenging, but I did enjoy it, and it has proved beneficial over the years.

In 2007, you became Head of Sport and Exercise at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh where you stayed for 7.5 years. You were responsible for developing sport at all levels whilst also managing the high-performance partnerships and scholars’ programme. What was your greatest achievement during this role?

Undoubtedly, my most significant achievement was winning the right to build Oriam, Scotland’s Sports Performance Centre at the University.  The Scottish Government announced that they would provide funding of £25 million towards the facility and invited partners from all over Scotland to bid for the right to host the centre.  As project director, I led our bid through two stages and can still remember receiving the phone call to say that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, would be arriving at 9 o’clock the following day to announce us as the winners.  It was 6 p.m., and I could not get hold of any of the universities press team and had to wake the Principal up from a nap to tell him the happy news.  Our bid partner was the City of Edinburgh Council, and the then CEO Sue Bruce was an exceptional female leader.  I learned much from her during that time and how to lead and represent your organisation.

Jersey Sport represented an excellent opportunity to show that you can get more people playing sport and being physically active with the right strategy and commitment. We need to advocate with the new Government for the support we require to implement and make the strategy a reality, delivering real improvements in islanders' physical and mental health.

In April 2015, you were made CEO of Oriam and were responsible for overseeing the construc-tion and operation of Scotland’s Sports Performance Centre which cost £33 million. Your lead-ership of Oriam was described as exceptional and you were named in the top 10 of women of influence driving the agenda in Scottish Sport. What did this accolade really mean to you?

The accolade was nice but achieving the delivery of Oriam with an excellent team of professionals will live with me for a very long time.  As described above, team sports have always been my thing; therefore, I enjoy the success and high performance of the whole team rather than individual praise for my achievements.  However, in Scotland, there aren’t enough female leaders in sports, so I was particularly pleased to play a small part in showing other females what can achieve.

You came to Jersey in 2017, having accepted the role of CEO at Jersey Sport and your task was to lead the development and implementation of an innovative strategy for sport and active liv-ing in Jersey. What made you want to apply and had you ever visited Jersey before

Having successfully delivered Oriam, which was a high-profile Scottish Government project, I felt it was time to look new and fresh challenge.  I had other options at the time.  Something about the role Jersey kept niggling at me, and I decided to make an application and see where it led.  One of the attractions was that it was a brand-new organisation, and during a career, you seldom get the opportunity to get in at the start of something and shape it strategically.   

Jersey Sport represented an excellent opportunity to show that you can get more people playing sport and being physically active with the right strategy and commitment.  We still have a great deal of work too, but in the five years since I started, the strategic foundations have been laid, and now, we need to advocate with the new Government for the support we require to implement and make the strategy a reality, delivering real improvements in islanders physical and mental health.

I had never been to Jersey before, and after the interview partner and I were told I was to be offered the job because the Board knew we were staying for a few additional days and wanted us to view the island with a move in mind.  I have played rugby with a friend from Jersey who had returned here and after meeting them for dinner and hearing all about the island, we decided it was the right move for us.  The only difficult thing about the decision was telling our parents that we were taking the grandchildren miles away.

My idea of unwinding involves being active. I can no longer play impact sports but am now a competitive cyclist. It is not very often that I get time to be on my own but time on the bike is definitely what keeps me balanced and in the right mindset for both work and being present for the family.

You are passionate about making a difference to people’s lives by getting them active. Could you give us your top three tips for getting people started on a more active lifestyle?

1.  Being active for health does not mean you need to be working out hard and sweaty.  Walking at a moderate pace is sufficient to start small, building up a little bit extra each week, and before you know it, you will be achieving your hundred and 150 minutes a week for adults or 60 minutes per day for children.

2.  Try and find time for sport and physical activity as part of your everyday.  Active travel is a great way to achieve this because your commute to work or school is used as your physical activity, leaving the rest of your time for the hectic life we all seem to lead.

3.  Exercise with someone and make it a social activity.  Research shows you are much more likely to succeed in maintaining your exercise goals if you do it with someone else or with a group.  We all have those days where we feel we just can’t fit in exercise, but if we know we are going to be letting someone down, we are much more likely to get ourselves out the door. 

How are you finding the sports facilities and sporting talent in Jersey?

Our sports facilities require significant investment if we can support our sports teams and individuals to be active.  There has been little investment for a very long time and the facilities, and I am delighted that the Government of Jersey has now recognised this and has developed the Inspiring Active Places Strategy, which aims to invest significant capital in sports facilities over the next ten years.  I’m very much enjoying Project Directing the development of new facilities and being able to develop modern inspiring indoor spaces that will support islanders of all ages to play sports and be active.

As CEO of Jersey Sport and a busy mother of three children, how do you unwind at the end of a long week?

You may not be surprised that my idea of unwinding involves being active!  I can no longer play impact sports but am now a competitive cyclist taking part regularly in the Jersey Cycle Associations race calendar.  Therefore, I spend significant time on the bike training and do some of my best thinking when on the bike.  It is not very often that I get time to be on my own with my thoughts, and time on the bike is definitely what keeps me balanced and in the right mindset for both work and being present for the family. 

We also have two dogs, and I love doing family walks with them; this is when the kids will open up and chat about how things are going.  It’s a great time to check in with them, find out how their day has gone, and make sure that they know we are there to support them with any trial and tribulation they may face, no matter how big or small.