Monday 13 September 2021, 09:00

Priestman: My focus has moved from Olympics to the World Cup

  • Bev Priestman led Canada to gold at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament

  • She has quickly refocused on the FIFA Women’s World Cup

  • Priestman also discussed Christine Sinclair’s future and the evolution of her team

If Bev Priestman had chosen to speak from a sun lounger - drink in hand, gold medal draped round her neck - no-one could have disputed she had earned that right.

The Canada coach is not merely an Olympic champion, after all. She is someone who defied all expectations by leading her team to their first global gold, and pulled it off as the youngest coach – by some distance - in the competition.

More impressively still, Priestman did all that after just nine months in the job – time enough, according to her captain, to inspire a radical transformation. “Bev changed the attitude of this team,” said Christine Sinclair, who enthused about her English coach as a motivator and tactician. “She instilled a sense of belief, of confidence, of bravery, we hadn’t seen before.”

In other words, if anyone deserved the breathing space to bask in her achievements, relax contentedly and raise a glass to herself, it was Priestman. Yet it will surprise no-one who knows the 35-year-old to find that she was not at the pool, but in her office - tracksuit on, pen in hand - planning diligently to maintain and accelerate Canada’s remarkable rise.

That was the focus of our conversation as Priestman reflected on key moments in the journey to Olympic gold and her priorities in plotting a course towards 2023.

Head Coach of Team Canada Bev Priestman celebrates with her team following her teams victory to win the gold medal. Now that the dust has settled on Tokyo 2020 and that gold medal-winning night in Yokohama, how do you reflect on it all? Bev Priestman: I think I’ve realised it’s even bigger than I thought it was at the time. On the night, it was hard to take in. But since we’ve got back here, seeing the reaction and the impact it’s had, the enormity of it has sunk in a bit more. Having said that, it wasn’t long before my mind started moving on to the next thing. I can’t help myself. So after the first couple of days, it’s all been about the World Cup and making sure we’re ready for that. I want to make sure that Tokyo wasn’t just a one-off moment. As a team, we haven’t been amazing at World Cups, yet we do well at Olympics. The big question I’ve been asking myself is, ‘Why?’ It’s all about that for me right now: what I need to put the focus on to get things right for 2023.

You’ve been involved in World Cups with both Canada and England. What would you see as the key difference between that tournament and the Olympics that might help explain the different outcomes? The big thing that jumps out for me is the amount of time you have between games. At the Olympics, it’s a very tight turnaround with very little time to think. That brings its own challenges but we mastered those very well. You have longer between games at the World Cup, so for me the periodisation in between – plus more teams and extra rounds to go through – is the main difference to contend with. It makes me wonder: is there maybe too much time to think? So there are questions for me about how I keep things simple, like they were at the Olympics.

From those two World Cups you’ve been to as an assistant, I imagine there must also have been things you saw that worked well and perhaps others where you thought, ‘I would change that next time given the chance’? In tournaments, whether it’s Olympics or World Cups, details make all the difference. If I think about that semi-final we had with England against the US, the margins were so small. One thing is that, as a coach, you always want to put more in. And maybe with four or five days between games we were guilty at times of adding and adding and adding. Sometimes the brave thing to do is to give the players an extra day off because freshness is so important at tournaments. I learned that from the last World Cup especially and tried to implement it at the Olympics. Hopefully we can bring those lessons to Australia and New Zealand too.

The Olympics, as you mention, is relentless. And yet I know you and your players, in contrast to some other teams, mentioned how much fun you’d been having all the way through. Given how tight the restrictions were in Japan, how did you manage to have such a good time together off the pitch? You always hear teams speak about how tight they are as a group but, with this team, I really felt it. I can’t actually think of a moment where it felt like Groundhog Day and got on top of us. We were well prepared, we enjoyed being together and I think that showed on the pitch. I knew that going into a Covid reality, where you couldn’t leave the hotel, we had the opportunity to make it a unique experience even with those challenges. We put a lot of focus on that, and not just for the players. What I’ve learned about myself during my career is that I need to enjoy what I’m doing and have a lightness in the atmosphere around me. It can’t all be go, go, go. I think the players feel the same. As coaches we can be guilty of being overly intense and from the moment I came into this job I wanted to bring a light-heartedness. It’s important to have hunger in the group, and everything we did in training had an outcome and an element of competition, because I want to bring that out. But with competitions, forfeits and so on, it brings a camaraderie to the group and gives everyone freedom to be themselves and thrive.

Canada players and coach Bev Priestman celebrate victory USA v Canada, international football, Women s semi-final, Tokyo Olympic Games

Were there any big moments, on or off the pitch, when you thought, ‘Yeah, we’re on the right track to do something special here’? Two jump out on the pitch. The first one is actually my first game in charge of Canada, when we played the US in the SheBelieves Cup. We were missing five or six key players due to Covid restrictions and injuries and they beat us with a goal in the 79th minute. But I remember standing at the side thinking, ‘Wow, we can do this’. We’d already talked about changing the colour of the medal but in that moment, with their backs against the wall, I saw those players reach and find another level. The second is the Brazil game in Japan. That was actually my highest moment of the tournament; you would think it would be winning gold, I know, but I don’t think it had fully sunk in yet that night. When we beat Brazil, I just felt convinced in myself that we were going all the way. It took us into another game against the US, so full circle from that first game in charge, and driving into the stadium for that US match I just felt, ‘We’re going to win this’. Off the pitch, the moments that stand out are all the little things. We had a Mario Kart competition organised by the players, and seeing the fun they were having in the likes of that was just fantastic. It’s those little things that make the difference.

Jessie Fleming #17 of Team Canada celebrates after scoring

How important psychologically was beating the US, given their status in the game and their historical dominance over Canada? And how significant can it be for the team going forward in other regional and global competitions? It’s massive. Going into the game, I’d made a point of staying away from the whole Canada-US rivalry story. My big message was that if we kept looking over the last chapter of the story, we’ll never write a new one. I told them that it had to be about this team now, not what happened in another tournaments or over X number of years. I think it helped that we had a new crop of players in there who maybe didn’t have the same scars. That was a key ingredient for sure. And if you’re asking me if it will fill our players with belief for the next time they face the US, absolutely it will. But what I was really keen to emphasise at the time was that that game could not be our final. We’d been focused on changing the colour of the medal and, by winning that game, we were guaranteed to do that. My worry was that we’d go into the final just happy to have realised our vision and to have beaten the US. It was important that we didn’t let that game define our Olympics.

You mention the new crop of youngsters who shone in Japan. How much pleasure did it give you, having been their coach at youth level in your previous stint with Canada, to see them blossom in the way they did? It felt like coming full circle. During that first spell I had in Canada, Jessie Fleming was my captain at the U-17 World Cup in Costa Rica and I can still remember her scoring a free-kick in our opening game against Germany. Seeing her step up in huge moments, putting four penalties away for us, I saw in her the bravery that I ask of the whole group. There’s a whole raft of them. Julia Grosso, again, was a big part of those youth teams, and when I put her on in the final I said to her, ‘You’re going to be the kid who goes on and gets this team a gold medal’.

At the other end of the age spectrum, you have some hugely influential veterans – your captain included – who’ll currently be considering whether to go out on a high. Are you ready for some tough conversations with those players, and how do you see them going? I’ve chosen just to give those players some space for now. You heard Christine after the final: she was keen not to decide anything in a high moment or a low moment. And I just felt it was important to let them breathe, get back to normal life and not rush them into any big decisions. I always knew when I got the job that there would likely be a period of transition after the Olympics. A lot of what I did before going to Japan was open up the player roster to see not only what was out there for us in terms of the Olympic squad, but going forward to the World Cup and beyond. Don’t get me wrong: if we lose these players now, with the quality and number of caps they have, we’re losing experience that you just can’t buy. If I can persuade them to stay on for a little bit longer, I’ll absolutely do that. But I think we need to be prepared either way and it did feel like, even during the Olympics, that there was a handing over of the torch in some respects. You look at Christine giving the penalty [against USA] to Jessie, for example. We know that we have a group of players ready, with gold medals round their neck, to take this team forward.

It must be so gratifying that, as you manage that transition, you have these star veterans like Christine who can see beyond their personal status and don’t, for example, go in a huff when they’re taken off in a final. Absolutely. They’re all unbelievable humans and Christine in particular is incredibly humble. You would never know from speaking to her, or working with her, that she’s the world’s all-time leading goalscorer. She won her 300th cap in our opening match at the Olympics and didn’t want a word spoken about it because she didn’t want a distraction for the team. That kind of attitude isn’t always the norm in players, and what she and the others bring to the team on a human level is amazing. It really stood out again in Japan.

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Christine praised the work you’ve done both tactically and in instilling belief in the team since taking charge. Was one element particularly important to you? I can’t say it’s more one than the other but I was conscious coming in that we’d gone eight games without winning against top-ten ranked teams, conceded a lot of goals and scored very few. The stats were quite daunting in that respect but what I saw after coming in, especially in that first US game, was that belief was the key jigsaw piece missing from the puzzle. Once you have that belief and bravery, the shackles are off and you feel you can go toe-to-toe with anyone. We worked on tactics too – I don’t think you can get a gold medal without being tactically very well prepared – but I put a lot of emphasis on bravery, mindset and behaviours. I wanted to make Canada a horrible team to play against, to have teams fearing our forward line getting in behind them, to be really aggressive and positive in everything we did. It was all about being consistent in that message, identifying what we were and what we needed to do to get on that podium.

You’ve talked already about 2023. What are the priorities between now and then to make sure Canada are on the podium once again? I need to get some more faces in the squad for a start. I think we’ll be missing a few key jigsaw pieces in our squad and, either way, we have to evolve. I came in with a nine-month sprint to the Olympics, but there is time now to evolve and develop the team. It’s important we have some variety so that we’re never predictable and, as I said, I really want to drill down into why Canada hasn’t fulfilled its potential at the World Cup and what it is we’ve struggled with. That’s a big project for me to get my teeth into.