Bev Priestman was a 10-year-old growing up in Consett, England, when the seeds of her lifelong love affair with soccer were sown. But like so many young girls of her generation, it was the male players at the time who unrolled the blank canvas of her imagination upon which she could paint her own soccer dreams.
“I would say more like Euro  and things like France 98, all those sorts of moments,” she says now of watching her home country compete on the international stage.
“I don’t think it was a Women’s World Cup and that’s probably the difference now between a young girl growing up versus 10 years ago.”
It’s a change that Ms. Priestman, 37, and her Canadian women’s team aim to reinforce as they look to inspire the country once again by adding the World Cup to the Olympic gold they won in Tokyo two years ago.
Entering a tournament in which Canada has traditionally had high hopes but has underperformed – making the semi-finals just once, in 2003 – the team’s head coach is confident, despite some setbacks. In announcing her squad last week, she had to concede defeat in injured midfielder Desiree Scott’s attempts to be fit for her fourth World Cup, to go alongside the existing injuries to other key contributors Janine Beckie and Jade Rose. And results have not been great of late, with just one win in the team’s past six, stretching to last November.
But having shown her tournament savvy at the Olympics, a blueprint that leaned heavily on world-class goalkeeping and defending buttressed by timely goal scoring, Ms. Priestman is looking to push on.
“I’d like to think the players are feeling the same way in the sense of freshness, bravery, all of the things that got me success,” she says. “I’m not saying I’ve stood still because we’ve definitely tweaked things tactically and all the rest of it, but from a philosophy standpoint, I would stand by my same philosophy.”
That philosophy is part of a mindset that has taken her far beyond her home in the northeast of England, where she learned to play as the only girl on her primary school team. After signing up for a Brazilian futsal school over the road from her house at 12 – run by a university lecturer and part-time coach named John Herdman – her life changed forever.
Her friendship with Mr. Herdman – now the Canadian men’s team head coach – allowed her to see a life in soccer even for those for whom playing talent wasn’t enough to fuel professional dreams. After helping out at the futsal school, she abandoned her ambition to become a school teacher, instead pursuing her true passion with a bachelor’s degree in science and soccer at Liverpool John Moores University, and started working for Everton Ladies under head coach Mo Marley.
When Mr. Herdman left England to take over the New Zealand women’s program, he took Ms. Priestman with him, and after five years with the Football Ferns, the two left for British Columbia, where they were entrusted with the Canadian women’s program, Mr. Herdman as head coach and Ms. Priestman as his assistant.
“I wouldn’t have known at the time how much of an impact he would have on my future career, you could say, following him around the world and working under him,” Ms. Priestman says now. “And it paved the way in that sense.”
While Mr. Herdman left the Canadian women to become the Canadian men’s head coach in 2018, Ms. Priestman returned to her home country to work under former Manchester United defender Phil Neville, who was in charge of the England Lionesses. The pair helped England reach the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup, where the team ultimately finished fourth.
Ms. Priestman adds that what she learned from Mr. Neville has proved invaluable, in part because she is so intense during a tournament.
“Phil gave me a completely different perspective in the sense of he’s played the game at the highest level and he always had a player’s lens in everything that he did,” she says. “And I think he’s brought the balance.”
When Mr. Neville announced he was leaving as England coach in April, 2020, Ms. Priestman found herself in limbo, calling it “one of the lowest points of my career.” But she took that time to self-reflect, asking herself questions about her values, what’s important to her, and the kind of environment she wanted to create as a head coach.
That introspection would prove timely and important, as she ended up returning to Canada later that year to take over the women’s program. Getting that time away from the Canadian women’s program after Mr. Herdman left was vital, she says.
“You could argue, I could be seen as sort of like John’s understudy,” Ms. Priestman says. “I think the best thing I did was to go to England, pave my own path, get that experience, getting to the semi-finals against the United States, et cetera, to come in and be my own coach and I felt that was important.”
Going into this World Cup, Ms. Priestman’s approach has resonated with her current players, particularly following the rigours of Tokyo, where the players were living, training and playing in a pandemic bubble throughout.
“I think the thing that she’s evolved with is … just the ability to let the team unplug, some downtime,” captain Christine Sinclair says. “Some days where we have nothing as a team and you can go enjoy yourself.
“It’s the thing we’ve learned in the past about World Cups, is they’re a long tournament, and as [Ms. Priestman] says, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And we have to save some of our energy for the end of the tournament.”
Adding to that balance and perspective is the family environment that Ms. Priestman has created with her wife Emma Humphries, 37, and their five-year-old son, Jack. Both will be in Australia for this World Cup after being forced to miss out on the Olympics because of the pandemic.
“What I love about having a little boy and this is maybe where I’ve evolved is, whether you win, whether you lose, you come home, he still wants to go on the trampoline or play soccer or whatever,” she says. “And you’ve got to get over it and it brings a bit of perspective that the world isn’t over.”
But a move toward balance doesn’t mean throwing meticulousness out of the window, far from it. Ms. Priestman likes to plan for all eventualities, and lucked out somewhat when Canada was drawn against both the host Australia and Nigeria in the World Cup draw, two teams that Canada played twice each last year in friendlies, winning three and drawing one.
“I’m not saying that she knew that we were going to draw Nigeria and Australia, but it’s great that she planned that out, so now we’re facing them,” defender Kadeisha Buchanan says. “I think she’s just very detailed in the way she plans.”
And that planning has extended away from the pitch, too, where Ms. Priestman has invested significant resources to ensuring that wherever she might be in the world, she always has a taste of home at her fingertips.
“Whenever there’s an English chocolate section, I’m invading it,” she says. “I definitely love my English chocolate. Even here on the Gold Coast, I’ve found a little bit of a stash and I’ve gotten some for the technical team.”