Herdman rebuilding Canada's identity | Soccer | CBC Sports

Herdman rebuilding Canada's identity

Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2012 | 02:58 PM

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Since taking over Canadian head coaching duties in September, John Herdman has been helping to rebuild the team's identity. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters) Since taking over Canadian head coaching duties in September, John Herdman has been helping to rebuild the team's identity. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

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John Herdman, head coach of the Canadian women's national soccer team, casts a stark contrast to his predecessor. Herdman spoke with CBCSports.ca one-on-one from Vancouver and an intriguing profile of the coach - who spends as much time thinking about the psychology of his players, as he does about the tactics on the field - emerged.

John Herdman, head coach of the Canadian women's national soccer team, casts a stark contrast to his predecessor. 

Where Carolina Morace was bold and brash, Herdman is calm and reserved. As Morace made herself the centre of all attention, Herdman makes himself out to be just another member of the team. And where Morace put the fear of God in her players, Herdman is trying to set them free.

It can all sound a bit new agey, but as the former New Zealand manager spoke to CBCSports.ca one-on-one from Vancouver, the profile of a coach, who is spending as much time thinking about the psychology of his players, as he is about the tactics on the field, emerged.

 "If you look at what happened at the World Cup in Germany [where Canada failed to win a game], this team had some major assets and a major opportunity. You can't say it was down to lack of experience or lack of organization or tactical knowledge. It was certainly down to other factors that fall into that mental domain," Herdman said.

Erasing the 'fear of failure'

It was something he said he knew right from the get go when he took over the team last year. And so he got them all together to hash out what had happened and see where they were at.

"I'd say there was a real culture of fear - fear of failure. And it came out in some of those discussions. Some of them felt quite frightened to take risks on the ball," he said. "So, part of what we've tried to develop here is for our players to get out there and play free. They're not scared. They're given responsibilities within a tactical framework and we trust them to live out those responsibilities."

And helping to build up that trust has been Ceri Evans - a Rhodes scholar from Oxford University and a forensic psychiatrist who will join the team in Vancouver next week as the tournament moves into the elimination rounds.

"He has developed a mental framework for us that is all about dealing with pressure," Herdman said.

"This is tied into everything we do in the environment. From the technical staff developing strategies and tactics, to the coaches delivering sessions that will be relevant to players. It is all designed to be simple information that will hold up when players are fatigued, or chasing the game or trying to hold on to a game.

"He's helping the players understand where pressure comes from and more practical ways of dealing with it."

Finding the next Canadian star

The team isn't alone in feeling the pressures of performing at home. Herdman is feeling a pressure of his own, but it's not the one that's right in front of him.

"What we need to address now is where the next Christine Sinclair is coming from. I'm talking about a pathway that really leads players into the upper echelons of world football and the professional game," he said. "The national team has kind of always operated in a silo. And the way I see things is that unless the investment in the raw materials is taken care of, then you're never going to fill that silo - money just gets put into a broken product."

Since he's taken over, he says he thought a lot about that and about identity. After the World Cup, the players told him that they felt they'd lost theirs. They wanted to get connected again to that image Canada had always been known for: a strong, psychically dominating team.

"They wanted to bring that back. So it was about trying to marry that beauty [of possession] and the beast. So, the team has been driving some changes internally on tactics and through that, the image they want to project when they play. I think, for me, I'm just part of the team that puts it together out on the grass." 

He might be part of a team but he's still out here on his own. Herdman's family will join him here in March. Although his wife is a little bit apprehensive about 'all the bears, she's seen wandering into Vancouver.' He chuckled at her fear over a recent news report.

And his son is already a bit of an accomplished footballer in New Zealand. "A big fish in a small pond," as Herdman calls him.

Something, he's hoping, Canada will open his son's eyes to.

Much in the same way Herdman is trying to open his player's eyes now. The biggest obstacle for the Canadian women's national team at this tournament won't be on the pitch - it will be in their heads.

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