A knee operation from playing netball forced Nicole Shortis to try out other sports, and she cast her love on bowls - the sport that would end up captivating her. What follows is a recent interview with Nicole who is the bowls coordinator at Leopold Sporties.
Even though it was a few years ago at the time, Nicole had been playing A-grade netball five days a week and thus going back to sports was not difficult. But little did she know how big an impact bowls would have on her life.
How old were you when you suddenly thought, ‘Oh, these bowls – this is something that will challenge me?
“I was probably about 32 at the time. I didn’t really like playing netball at a social level, like it was all or nothing. And I couldn’t really afford to have 10 weeks off work again if I had another knee reconstruction. The surgeon told me that the knee he fixed was really good, but the other one didn’t look so crash hot, so he said, ‘You won’t do that one again, but you’ll probably do the other one.’
So I’d watched bowls on the telly and thought, ‘Oh, that looks pretty interesting. And I thought it was probably easier than it is, to be honest. Being a target sport, it’s just the small things that make a big difference. It’s all about the technique. It’s very similar to golf in the way that – if you’re moving your head while you’re moving, and timing is not right, it changes everything.”
But finding the right club for both Nicole’s laid-back attitude and her competitiveness proved to be difficult.
“The first come and try thing was actually at a ladies only club in Wangaratta. I was a good 20 years younger than the youngest and it didn’t go so well because I wanted to have cheap beers at the bar and it wasn’t something that they did at the ladies’ club. It was teacups and saucers and be on your best behaviour, and that just didn’t really suit me.
So I went to the other club in Wangaratta, and that’s when I really found what I was looking for because it was social as well. But competition-wise it didn’t work very well because the women wanted new members but they didn’t want younger new members taking their spots.”
A dedicated club coach in the club in Wangaratta turned things around for Nicole, and taught her how to enjoy the game while still wanting to win.
“I had a massive connection with the coach. He’d lost his wife probably 18-months before and was probably a tad lost himself, and here was me just like, ‘Teach me everything you know. I want to know this.’ It gave him something to do, and it gave me something to do, and it just really worked. I was really competitive, but he just started playing with me in competitions, showing me the fun side of the game; even though the women still weren’t very welcoming, he would just take me to other clubs and we’d play pairs and things.”
Nicole quickly became better than most of the players in the club. “If I went into any sport I’d be the same, you know? ‘How do you do this? How do you improve?’ And so I would practice probably hours more than them a week. So I felt like I caught up fairly quickly in some ways, because of my passion for it.”
But the time in Wangaratta had to come to an end. “I was only at Wang’ for probably about 14, 15 months, and then I actually moved to Melbourne because of my partner's job. So when I moved to Melbourne I wanted to find a club that was really going ahead. I had quite a few choices around Melbourne, and I ended up choosing Glenroy because there were seven state players there at the time in women’s bowls, and I thought I’d rather be, you know, the small fish in a big pond and learn what I can from them.”
How did you improve your bowls skills by being in that club? “
In bowls you tend to start off, like in a team of 4 you start off as a lead, and then you second, third, skip. I went from lead to third in a few weeks. That was because Hursty, who was the skip – and she was also pretty much the head honcho at the club and she was a state player herself – she said I want you to play three to me and I’ll teach you everything I know.”
Nicole quickly noticed the difference between bowls in Wangaratta and bowls in Melbourne.
“In Wangaratta you put your bowl down, you go and sit down; whereas in Glenroy it was put your bowls down, stay on the green, cheer everyone on, you know? Get involved.
Hursty really took me under her wing. She’d play in all the events with me, take me everywhere. And you know, within 2-years of taking the sport up I was in the state side myself.”
Nicole truly felt the encouragement from the other players in Melbourne, even though she did not get anything handed over to her.
“I was playing with some good players. And I was like a new player on the block, but they could see how far I’d come. In hindsight knowing the other clubs that I was considering at the time, that wouldn’t have happened at those clubs. In fact, I nearly joined Strathmore, and this lady who was practising there, she said to me, ‘You’re going to be pretty good at this game. Don’t join here. They’ll keep you leading for a long time.’ She said because the head honchos, they won’t want you to take their spot. Whereas Hursty and that, their attitude was, ‘Here’s my spot, come and get it. When you’re ready you can have it. Well you’re not going to get it easy. And I’m not going to give it to you, but if you want it, you come and get it.’”
So you got into the state team. What happened then? “
So that was about 2008. Getting into the state side was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good in the way that it was a big achievement, but because I did it so early I never really felt like I should be there. I always felt like the weakest part of the team. I always felt like someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘We made a mistake, you shouldn’t be here.’ I learnt a lot about mental toughness through those years, and how it works against you, and how you’ve got to turn it around and make it work for you. I don’t think I got the best out of myself in those early years, for holding myself back in some ways.”
And Nicole is still in the state side today.
“I play with several players in the Vic side that play for Australia, but it’s not going to happen. Like it’s not on the radar or anything like that. The players who play for Australia, they’re younger than the cricket team. They’re young. They’re very, very young. Even the development teams coming through; they’re all, you know, they’re teenagers, early twenties.”
So are young people are now interested in bowls? “
Oh, it’s huge for young people. Absolutely huge. It’s probably like the third largest sport in Australia. That’s because it’s so inclusive, because you know, you can play this at any level. It’s just one of those sports that people of any age can continue to play.”
So now you’re working part-time in Leopold. So how did you get to here?
“It was pretty much because of the fast-track that I had into achieving and through that wonderful mentor that I had in Hursty; and funnily enough I took her spot in the state side, which she was happy about. Her attitude towards developing somebody else, and giving to somebody else. I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ My first opportunity came when I started working for Bowls Vic, just volunteering and stuff; doing school groups and disability groups.
One day I was sitting in a meeting and I wasn’t even listening to be honest, I was actually faded out there for a while. The next minute they started clapping and congratulating me, and I thought, ‘What for?
Then I found out that I’d actually been given the job as the Victorian State Coach for Disabilities. So that was my first coaching job, and I loved that. I felt like I turned the team around from being a group that competed to a group that became more professional. I did that for 4 years. I only gave that up last year. And one of the guys that I got into the squad, he went and played in the Commonwealth Games.
The thing that I achieved the most in that was getting Bowls Victoria and Bowls Australia to recognize disabilities, because at the time it was funded by Disability Sport Victoria, and it’s now fully funded by Bowls Vic.”
Missing the family and some all too frequent traffic jams sent Nicole to Leopold Sportsmans Club – Leopold Sporties
“You know, I grew up on Apollo Bay, so my family’s down there; and I just thought, ‘You know what, I’m sick of living in Melbourne. I was catching a train and a train to work. It was only 10 Ks away, but it would take me anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour to get to work, depending on everything. Even if I rode my bike, I was in pretty much a traffic jam. And you’d say hello to someone, they’d just look at you like, ‘What are you doing?’ You know? ‘Why are you talking to me?’ And I just said, ‘I just want to get back to Geelong area.
Here I’m bowls coordinator coach. It’s kind of two separate roles. Bowls coordinating is more organizing your club events, everything to do with bowls; but also outside community groups, school groups, disability groups, grants. All those sort of things that help to grow the club, like council connections and networking.
Whereas the coaching side of it is purely developing those skills and stuff. My role is probably to make the club more appealing to people - like the sport itself, bowls – and to actually then get people wanting to take up the sport, become members here, and then retain those members.”
And Nicole has done quite a few coaching qualifications.
“I’m an assessor and presenter, so I was putting people through club coaching courses as well; I’ve been doing that for quite a few years through Bowls Vic. At Leopold we have 6 teams on a Saturday and 4 teams on a Tuesday. So all our teams are mixed, and pretty much from Divi. 2 down to Divi. 11 on a Saturday. And we have been in like Divi. 1, there’s Premier League, Divi. 1 and Divi. 2, right down.
We were in the Firsts, we’ve come back down to the Seconds, so… But we’ve actually got some pretty good recruits this year.
We have our own junior squad, which is a massive part of our club; and we get a lot of comments around the place about our junior squad.
A good thing happened recently, where I’d heard a rumor that Bushy down here at Eastern Park, someone had said to him, ‘Why don’t you go after Brad Pavey?’, who’s one of our kids that’s come through the juniors. And he said, ‘No I won’t, because Nicole’s brought him through the juniors, and I won’t touch her junior program. I respect that. And it’s a pretty big issue because we won’t pay players, and you’ve got clubs that will pay players; so a lot of clubs’ players will move different clubs because of the price on their head.
I started a scholarship program, and management are still finalizing it. It’s open for not just juniors; you might play for a disability team for Victoria. It’s like a 2-year sponsorship basically. It’s going to help them out without being a payment as such, but it’s saying the club’s recognizing what you’re doing and we’re going to look after you in this.
Probably a more respectful way than saying, ‘Here’s 500 bucks because, you know, you’re playing well.’”
In Geelong they asked Nicole to take over the training of the Giants, which is an under 18’s team. “It’s like developing players from all clubs. I said I would if I had the opportunity to change it a bit to what it had been previously. So I asked for it to be an under 25s squad, because there’s quite a few people at different clubs that you see that are, you know, not playing in things that will actually get them ahead if that’s where they want to go. Let’s set these goals, now how do we get you to be noticed and get you further along.’
So we had quite a few players enter the Australian Indoor Qualifying last weekend at Sebas’, and I think we had about 8 representatives from just he people that we know in the Geelong region who last year didn’t enter it.”
And how is the future looking, Nicole?
“I would like to see that the club just keeps benefiting from the role; because I feel like it’s got to a point where it is getting better every year, and that you almost create the environment that people want to stay in. When I first started here, like the first year is almost just like fitting in and, you know, not making too many dramatic changes.
Now, going into this season is almost more of a ‘let’s do this now’. I feel like we’ve really got goals that we can set now, that it’s taken up to now to start to achieve because we do have the players behind us now. Some are here to just have fun and some are here to, you know, go a bit further; and I feel like I’ve got more of a mix now of the ones who are competitive in the same lot, and the ones who are more social in the same lot. So it’s more of a better blend. It is looking good.”