Growing up around the famed St. James Park in Newcastle, there was little else besides soccer that John Herdman, the head coach of the Canadian women's national team, knew when it came to the world of sports.
There was footie. And then there was, well, downtime between footie.
The Olympics, with its pageantry and spectacle didn't really resonate with Herdman -- or with the rest of England, for that matter -- but come this summer, Herdman and his team will find themselves right in the mix and trying not to marvel too much at the sights of the London Olympics.
"My experiences in New Zealand were a real eye opener," said Herdman, who coached the New Zealand team into the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
"Coming from England, football is the passion and it's all people are interested in. The Olympics never really got a look.
"But when I moved to New Zealand, the Olympics really was the biggest event in Kiwi mentality -- sport and culture -- and when we qualified, it became a major deal."
For Herdman, as much as he learned from the Kiwis about what the Olympics can come to mean -- the emotion, the tradition and the history -- it wasn't until his experiences coaching the Canadian side at the Pan American Games that he really cottoned to the idea of what an accomplishment it is to be an Olympian.
"Pan American Games was my first taste of what seems to be a very similar culture to New Zealand, where the Olympics are a big deal and becoming an Olympian is one of the biggest achievements for any athlete," Herdman said. "I think when you look at it, for our players, it's the biggest achievement of their lives.
"They've told us that. And when they have gotten to stand under that Team Canada flag in the past, a lot of them were star struck by the occasion and not really ready to perform."
Come this summer, the Canadian women will need to find that readiness or they will find themselves on the outside looking in once again. At last summer's Women's World Cup, with expectations at perhaps the highest they've ever been for the program, the team crashed and burned, managing only one goal and not a single point. Apologists will point to the difficult group they were drawn into with powerhouses Germany and France, but the women have gotten no reprieve in this tournament with their first game against reigning World Cup champion Japan.
"The game against Japan is an important one," Herdman said. "I think it's probably a test at the players' mindsets to look at the journey through the group instead of going all guns blazing into the first game.
"There are a few things we'll probably have to hide from that game to keep our sleeves up through the rest of the group, though. And to be realistic as well, this is a reality check.
"We go in to these tournaments thinking that we have every right, because we're Canada, to stand on the top of the podium. But our reality tells us we haven't beaten a team ranked higher than us since 2003."
'Raising our self awareness'
That's not to say Herdman and his team will be shying from the enormity of the event, but rather to take stock of what has happened in the past and learn from it.
"There is something about self awareness, raising our self awareness to know that what we've previously done hasn't been good enough," he said. "And if we keep doing what we've always done, we'll get what we've always got."
Part of that has meant taking his athletes out of the gym and putting them in the classroom. Herdman and his staff have the women reading books on neuro-feedback training and alpha feta states, which teach athletes how to recognize when they're playing in fear and to move themselves out of those states.
Said Herdman: "We've asked them the question, 'How many hours have you spent on the grass?' Thousands. 'How many hours have you spent in the gym?' Thousands.
'How many hours have you spent preparing your brain for these events?' Zero."
Some will call it New Age hippie nonsense. Others, like the Vancouver Canucks, who have used similar methods, call it the next stage of athlete evolution.
"It's about helping them achieve a state that allows them to keep their attention focused on the task and not the seven million other things that can be in your head during those big moments," Herdman said. "A busy mind is one of the biggest barriers, if not the biggest barrier, to successful athletes."
'We were able to put a plan together'
They're good strategies to learn for life and for football. And earlier this year, when the Women's Professional League folded -- a league that over half the women's national team called home -- it put a jolt of fear into the program.
"To find out that more than half your squad were not going to have clubs and they were all looking as the W-League as the potential option, I think when you look at that, the program started to move into a crisis mode and, luckily enough, we were able to put a plan together based on the residencies we've had here in the past and recover pretty quickly," Herdman said.
With a number of the players placed with clubs now and the Olympics just over two months away, they are once again turning to the issue of expectations and their goals for this summer.
"At the risk of sounding corny, it's about the girls being the best they can be and I don't think they were that in 2011," Herdman said. "...If they're at their best in every given game, then I think this team could hit the podium.
"But if we're not the best on any game, this team can get smashed by these top teams and I think we've seen that.
"There is a gap there. The French, the Japanese, the U.S.A. are on a different level at this moment in time.
"And it's going to take one of those monumental team efforts to overhaul one of these teams. And I think it's in there.
"And that what excites me about this group, it's definitely in there. You look around at the soldiers who have been there and done it before, you know something is there -- it's just can we get it out consistently and at the right time."
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