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John Herdman: The Brain Behind the Brawn of Canada’s World Cup Dream

John Herdman: The Brain Behind the Brawn of Canada’s World Cup Dream

As the Head Coach of the Canadian Women’s Soccer Team, John Herdman took a group once called a “struggling squad” to one that captured the hearts and minds of Canadians when they won the bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Under his leadership, the team also took a gold medal at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Mexico―the first Pan Am gold in Canadian soccer history. In his riveting talks, Herdman–who was a nominee for 2012 FIFA Coach of the Year–stresses the importance of developing a high performance culture, learning to overcome adversity with grace, and the role of leaders to inspire trust, confidence, and success, whether it’s on the field, in the workplace, or in the home. With the FIFA World Cup now underway (and a 1-0 win for Canada over China on Saturday), The Globe and Mail looked at Coach Herdman and the secrets to not only his own success, but that of his team, as well:

John Herdman paces back and forth, speaking without notes. He is addressing an audience of several hundred medical-school educators – the coach of Canada’s national women’s soccer team lecturing on leadership, and on the brain.

A leader, he declares, is not one who instructs, “Do this, do that.” A leader paints a picture of how a mountain can be scaled. The way to spark action is to harness and unleash the brain: to override the logical frontal cortex and tap into the limbic system, where emotions reside. “The logic system was put there to keep us safe,” Herdman says. “Do abnormal people operate in the realms of safety?” he asks, abnormal being a good thing, at least where achieving success is concerned. He smiles. “No! They put themselves at risk.”

It’s a Tuesday morning in late April, at a conference in a Vancouver hotel ballroom. One day earlier, Herdman had officially announced Canada’s 23-player roster for the Women’s World Cup. The tournament starts Saturday and turns a spotlight on the team and coach who captured the imagination of Canadians during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London – a cachet he carries into a sideline as a motivational speaker.

Canada is the No. 8-ranked country in women’s soccer. To repeat the bronze-medal showing of London would take the best possible performance.

The team lacks players in their prime. The star, Christine Sinclair, turns 32 a week after the tournament begins; several key players are teenagers. Herdman has to conjure something. His job, he told the doctors, “is to fuel passion in people, so they see a bigger vision of themselves. The conversations I’m having with Christine Sinclair are not about winning a trophy at this point in her life. It’s about what legacy she leaves for her country. That fuels something different in her.”

Herdman is a livewire Englishman, turning 40 this summer. Hired in 2011, after the women’s team finished dead last at that year’s World Cup in Germany, he led a revival of which its peak so far was the Olympic bronze. He has spent the three years since then trying to field a contender at the World Cup and continue building women’s soccer.

How the brain works is a central pillar of Herdman’s coaching. The interest is rooted in the hardscrabble English town where he grew up. The local steelworks had been shuttered when he was a boy and drugs and alcohol, unemployment and crime, were rampant. Herdman’s father found work in the offshore oil fields but struggled with mental illness – manic depression bordering on schizophrenia. He had a temper and there were spikes of intense manias.

It was a visceral experience of how the brain can go wrong but, to Herdman, it was more. “How the mind can really sabotage people,” Herdman says in an interview, “but also how the mind is misunderstood. If you don’t understand the brain, you can’t understand coaching. It starts and stops with this” – he points to his head – “and you have to understand how it works.”

Herdman has used that understanding to help reanimate the mood of the national team. “He gives people the freedom to be themselves,” says Tom Sermanni, a 60-year-old Scot who has coached the women’s teams in the United States and Australia and is currently an assistant for Canada.

Trevor Linden, president of the Vancouver Canucks, who brought Herdman in last fall to speak with his team’s coaches, calls it the “human side” of the job. “Xs and Os aside, tactics aside, how do you connect with people?”

Sinclair, after 15 years on the national team, 223 games and 153 goals, is definitive: “He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”

‘My granddad’s genes’

John Herdman was born July 19, 1975, the second child of Margaret and Norman Herdman. Consett, his hometown in northeast England, near Newcastle, had for a century been a major steel-making centre. A pall of red dust – iron oxide – hung over the place.

Margaret was the only daughter of John Martin, a one-time professional boxer and union leader at the steelworks. The operation was shuttered in 1980 and threw about 4,000 people, including John’s grandfather and father, out of work. John was 5. Among his earliest memories are of his grandfather leading protests against the Margaret Thatcher government: “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!”

The young Herdman family lived in public housing. Norman had worked as an electrician at the steelworks and eventually caught on with Shell, which took him away for long stretches. John’s granddad was a towering presence. “As I got older,” Herdman says, “you recognize he was a hard man. He stood up for people. Catholic man. Church every Sunday. Liked the drink. Proper man’s man. Massive respect for him. No one messed with him.”

As a boy, John poured his abundant energy into soccer, dancing, swimming and fighting. “I was fighting all the time as a youngin’,” Herdman says. “I had a bit of my granddad’s genes.”

Ted Young, a retired teacher, remembers a charismatic boy, brimming with confidence, at St. Patrick’s Primary School. “John wasn’t inclined to conform to the norms of the classroom environment,” Young says.

Herdman’s younger brother, Martin, was born when John was turning eight, as the family moved to their own house. Not long after, his father’s illness emerged. There would be a call from the local priest: His dad was in the church, preaching. The manager of the supermarket would phone: His dad was in the store, talking to a can of beans.

“It’s rough, hey?” Herdman says. “Because people don’t understand it. People are getting a much better understanding now, but you talk 25 years ago, people just go: ‘This guy’s nuts.’”

John became a father to Martin, which John today cites as the foundation of his life in teaching and coaching. “I remember,” Martin says, “being stuck to him like glue.”

When John was at the end of secondary school, his parents divorced. His mother drank. Herdman flunked his final exams and considered the military. He was short – he is 5 foot 6 – with long hair. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” Herdman says of Consett. The military interview was brief. “Son,” the recruiting officer said, “I know what I’m looking for. And it’s not you.”

Herdman ended up at a local college, where an instructor pushed the idea of becoming a teacher. He had already been coaching a boys’ soccer team. His mind snapped into focus. He went to university, studying sports science and teaching, and was a top student. He started an evening program that taught Brazilian-style soccer skills, full of play and music. He got a job teaching back at St. Patrick’s, hired by Young, who recalls Herdman’s “almost manic” energy and meticulous planning.

Herdman was soon lecturing at a university and coaching at the youth academy of Sunderland, an English Premier League team. But because he hadn’t played the game at an elite level, he knew there was little future in England’s conservative world of coaching. The lack of support and recognition from his family was further incentive. “Even to now,” he says, “I always think I’m still trying to prove to my mom I’m worth it. It drives you, drives you, drives you.”

The instinct to get out had not abated. So when, in 2001, a job came up in Invercargill near the southernmost tip of New Zealand, Herdman and his soon-to-be-wife Clare went to visit. It was cold and poured rain. “You know what?” Clare said, undaunted. “Let’s do it.”

His first jobs in New Zealand weren’t glamorous, developing the game in a remote region. He drove tens of thousands of kilometres. “He’d come from a very controlled Premiership club environment, where he was a very small cog in a big machine,” says Jeff Walker, the volunteer administrator who had hired Herdman. Walker remembers seeing the light on in Herdman’s office at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. “Tireless,” he says.

New Zealand Football hired Herdman in late 2004 and within two years he was coach of the long-woeful women’s national team. He also began to draft, at his kitchen table in Auckland, what he called the Whole of Football plan – a system that reimagined the teaching and building of the game from when kids are young to the elite level. He sold government and disparate regions on it, and Whole of Football became New Zealand’s template. (Australia recently installed a plan with the same name.) On the field, Herdman coached New Zealand’s women’s team to the World Cup in 2007 and 2011, as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics “Kiwis very much like to do their own thing,” says Grant McKavanagh, who ran New Zealand Football for several years. “To have an Englishman tell us how to do it, it’s quite a big kudos to John.”

‘Treating your brain like a muscle’

In Canada, Herdman’s predecessor as coach was Carolina Morace, an Italian who had been a star striker in her playing days and who’d quit Canada after the World Cup failure in Germany. Players had once been devoted to her and the team had played well, until it really counted.

“The World Cup was an episode that could happen in football,” says Morace, who today runs a soccer academy in Perth, Australia. But the team was not resilient. “The impact of the big event was too much.”

Arriving in Canada in 2011, Herdman brought his own distinctive ways. He wanted everything tallied. Canada was an early adopter of Prozone, a camera system that tracks players on field. Fitness was monitored by the wearable GPS system Catapult. Some players, Herdman says, were not fully committed. There was pizza and extra glasses of wine and not enough sleep.

Many of his tools have wooly-sounding names. A principal one is the “brain gym,” consisting of a number of machines and computer screens. The main goal is to stoke alpha and theta brain waves, those present in deep relaxation, meditation and light sleep. It is about remaining calm under pressure.

In one visual exercise, a player has her eyes open, with electrodes stuck to her head. She watches a spaceship on a screen. The craft’s speed varies depending on whether the player is calm. Stress causes the ship to get jammed on the side of the screen, or gyrate in circles. Better control over breathing is an important asset. Results are measured.

“Treating your brain like a muscle,” says Diana Matheson, a 31-year-old team veteran who studied economics at Princeton University and scored the winning goal against France for bronze at the 2012 Olympics. The science married with sports psychology – less ethereal, more tangible – is something “a lot of people responded to,” she says.

At the London Olympics, Canada was successful counterattacking, scoring on few shots. It’s not a strategy for lasting success. Herdman has worked to ingrain different styles of play, inspired by top European clubs, all of it rooted in exerting control. The brain gym can undo what players haphazardly learned as kids. Parents stand on the sidelines of suburban fields and, when the ball comes to their child, yell, “Kick it!” The brain gym, Herdman says, is about becoming “less impulsive. And that’s massive for soccer. Because a lot of mistakes are impulsive.”

And it starts with the coach. An early turning point came in March, 2012, after a tournament in Cyprus. Canada had placed second behind France. There was a team meeting dubbed the confessional box. In Cyprus, in Canada’s second game, the team had been ahead 1-0 against Italy when Rhian Wilkinson made a mistake that led to an Italian goal. On the sidelines Herdman swore – under his breath, he thought.

“Look,” Wilkinson told Herdman in the confessional box. “You’ve got to stop doing that. Because it’s not good for me. Because I did hear it.”

Herdman briefly protested – “It’s an emotional reaction” – but promised to do better in the coming Olympics. “That was a main moment,” he says. “Where the players felt they took responsibility.”

At the Olympics, Canada faced potential ouster in its third and final game of the group stage. The actual stage, for Herdman, could not have been bigger: He was back home, St. James’ Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club, his boyhood favourite. Sixteen minutes into the match, Canada was down 2-0 to Sweden.

“I remember being really calm and enjoying the adversity,” he says. Melissa Tancredi scored before halftime and again near the end of the match, a 2-2 draw that assured Canada would advance. Herdman had shaped his mind “to go towards these situations with more grace.”

‘I feel more at home’

Herdman’s decade-long plan for women’s soccer in Canada is summed up in four words: “More Sinclairs, more often.”

The bronze medal became an essential calling card. Herdman had to retool an aging team for the World Cup, as well as build new foundations. In November, 2012, he made a presentation to Own The Podium, which was sold on Herdman’s direction and has increased funding 40 per cent from the years ahead of the London Games.

Extra cash has been essential to fund the national team and also elite teenagers, the latter in the Excel program, which started last year. The idea is to align everything with the national team. The goal is the same: to teach the next generation to control the ball. “Under real pressure,” Excel boss Beverly Priestman says, “they can cope.”

Herdman has extended his influence. Last fall, he helped develop an Own The Podium event north of Toronto for high-performance directors of summer and winter Olympic sports. Herdman spoke, sometimes bluntly, though he leavens strong messages with self-deprecating humour. He likes to joke: “Englishmen have been prone to lead people to their deaths.” But his candour, his wife Clare says, is not mean. “You can ask him anything and he’ll tell you straight. Not in a nasty way. He’s honest.”

In early May, Herdman is set to depart for final sessions of team training, first in Los Angeles, then Mexico. He sits on aluminum bleachers in the Vancouver suburbs, wearing aviator shades, while his 10-year-old son Jay Joshua practises with his Surrey United team on one side of the field. On the other, a team of girls goes through their paces.

“Look at this,” he says. In England or New Zealand, “you would never see this.” Same field, same uniforms. “It’s almost like there’s a real equality here.”

Herdman feels a patriotism in Canada he hasn’t elsewhere. On the morning the team roster was announced, he gave a brief speech for the TV event. He spoke about how his squad would inspire Canadian girls and a country. (His own daughter, Lilly-may, is 4.) At the conclusion, Herdman quietly sang along with the Canadian anthem. He has used the words – “see thee rise,” “true north” and “glorious and free” – as motivational phrases.

In 2013, the head-coaching job of England’s women’s national team came open. After Herdman’s Olympic success and a nomination for FIFA women’s coach of the year, returning to England seemed an obvious move. But his brother Martin recalls: “You could see he didn’t fancy it. There was unfinished business in Canada.”

Herdman remembers the peppering questions from friends and family: You’re coming home, right?

“I was like, well… .” He takes a deep breath. “I love this country. After the bronze-medal experience, I feel more at home here than I’ve ever felt anywhere. I love my football back in Newcastle – it’s the one thing I miss – but this feels like home. It’s the respect that you’ve earned with the public here that makes you feel like you’re really part of the culture here. You realize you’re somebody who can have a really positive influence.”

Dave Ebner/The Globe and Mail/June, 2015