Christine Sinclair will get to your tweets and e-mails eventually. Promise. But during these 2012 Olympics, she has restricted herself to the odd call home to say she’s doing fine. “I’m okay, doing well, that’s about it,” the captain of the Canadian women’s Olympic team said on Wednesday, shrugging.
Sinclair and her teammates prepared for their bronze-medal match Thursday at an idyllic setting, on an immaculate pitch in a quiet corner of the University of Warwick. Near rows of residences set in and around rolling hills, dozens of rabbits hopped about. The only clouds were the few in the sky on a windy, warm day.
The International Association Football Federation (FIFA) had delayed any disciplinary action until after the match with France, deciding it needed more investigating time before suspending Sinclair or fining the Canadian Soccer Association for comments after a 4-3 semi-final loss to the United States. Christina Pedersen, the Norwegian referee who was at the centre of the controversy, was not assigned to either the bronze- or gold-medal match.
The setting was fitting, because this is a collection of players that has taken a huge step toward the 2015 World Cup, which will be held just about everywhere in Canada except Toronto. There, folks will be enjoying the Pan American Games. Medal or not, there was a palpable sense that the Canadian women had moved beyond the disastrous 2011 World Cup. That’s important, because at some point there will be a transition and it’s a lot easier on any team with happy, satisfied veterans.
This is a different group. The players have, as head coach John Herdman said, “buried their ghosts.” More than that, the presence of a man named Ceri Evans – a Rhodes Scholar, forensic psychiatrist and former New Zealand international who played professionally in England and also worked with the redoubtable All-Blacks rugby team – has them thinking better. Literally.
Herdman has a seemingly endless bag of tricks. He talks about a “grow room,” and talks about “connectivity” and “leadership groups.” Evans is part of the plan. Herdman met him in New Zealand, when the two were working on a coaching course. “He doesn’t believe in sports psychology,” Herdman said. “He looks at brain functioning and the biology of the brain.”
Herdman and Evans identified a group of six leaders (Herdman won’t reveal who they are) whom the two believe can handle the most pressure. Wilson works with them on what Herdman calls “brain training,” teaching them techniques for problem solving and coping. Wilson works with neuro-feedback, which Herdman said often involves the players with sensors hooked up to their heads.
“He has them wired up,” Herdman said. “Some players are working on breathing techniques, others on the different hemispheres of the brain to help stimulate efficiency. Some of them are spending a couple hours of the day.”
It sounds a little odd to outsiders, but that’s okay. As goalkeeper Erin McLeod said, one of this team’s problems is that it spent too much time in the past worrying about outsiders.
“Ceri’s been a great addition to the team,” Melissa Tancredi said. “I’ve never really dealt with the mental side of the sport, because it’s never done anything for my game. Ceri’s the first man to touch me and change my thinking. We’ve had sports psychologists, and no discredit to them. But Ceri brings something very special to the team.”
Wilson demurred when asked for interviews, preferring to let Herdman talk, which Herdman was only too glad to do.
Herdman is concerned about the future of the women’s game in Canada – he’d like another Sinclair soon – but in the meantime he’s taken pride in developing a team at ease with itself and maybe a little more understanding of its past.
“Under [former coach] Even Pellerud, they were a big, red machine, a team that people feared playing,” said Herdman, who coached New Zealand’s women’s team before coming to Canada. “[Successor] Carolina [Morace] turned them into more of what I would call a surgical team. I’ve got them pressing teams a little more in different parts of the field. So, there’s a DNA there.”
Editor's note: Ceri Evans, not Ceri Wilson, is Canada's team psychologist. A previous version of this story contained the error. This version has been corrected.