My message to the players has been unwavering in the buildup to this Women's World Cup.
Our goal is to get to the final, and if you ask me if that's achievable, if that's realistic, it has to be. Some things are in your control, and some things are out of your control, but we believe, as the host country, that we can control just enough to put us into the final. As I've told the players repeatedly, we're never going to get this time back again, so we've got no choice.
I really want this Women's World Cup to be about Christine Sinclair, our captain and top scorer. The whole fairy tale that the final will be played in her hometown, it's the True North for me. It's what gets me out of bed in the mornings.
I think Christine would be almost embarrassed if that was even mentioned among the players, though. Secretly, people are feeling that, but they'd never say it, not in our environment. Christine would be embarrassed when you consider that you'd just be doing this for her; she'd be disappointed. It's just the way she is.
The weight of history is not on our side, however. We don't hide it from the players, but when we put them up to this challenge, we made it very clear that Canada has only beaten a Tier 1 team at a top tournament twice. First against China at the 2003 World Cup and again three years ago against France in the Olympic bronze-medal game.
To get on the podium at the London Olympics, we had to do something that had rarely been done before, and now we've got to do it again. On top of that, this isn't the Olympics, where there are only 12 teams taking part. This is a 24-country, best-on-best tournament, and to get to the final you're probably going to have to beat four Tier 1 teams, so the past would suggest we haven't got much of a chance.
Since securing bronze at the Olympics, though, I feel we've got a new history and that there's a different mindset for this group of players. And that's where their strength really shines through.
When I looked at this group of players back in 2012, I predicted how all the top teams would look by 2015 and whether Canada would be able to compete with them. Teams such as France and Germany, the European champions, to say nothing of our chief rival and reigning Olympic champions, the United States, can all field world-class lineups. Can we compete with those squads player for player? Unfortunately not; they're more talented than us across the board.
What we had to do instead was consider the X factors. If we did what other teams do, operating within the FIFA-mandated international windows, having our players playing in professional leagues and bringing them all together for a camp three weeks before the tournament started, we had no chance to win the World Cup.
What I needed was to get my team together for as long a period as possible, so after determining that the other contenders had, on average, 100 days together a year, we decided we needed to double that. We introduced the concept of a residency program, where the players were pulled out of their professional leagues for a seven-month periodization program leading into the tournament. It's a unique situation and I don't think you'll ever see it again.
Every training session was planned out three years ago, so every single day is building toward this tournament. We've employed what we term our Four Corner Approach, which is broken down into the following components: physical; technical and tactical; mental; and social and emotional.
We know if our players neglect any one of those corners, they're leaving their performance up to chance. We spent the first three months in the gym, setting the foundation for the gruelling journey that lies ahead. But we also paid attention to the mental side of it, helping our players build a resilient brain through work in a mind room, working with bio-neural feedback machines and on visualization strategies, as well as daily work with a psychologist.
We're hoping to build physical and mental resiliency to withstand multiple extra times, controversial refereeing decisions and penalty shootouts, if necessary. We've worked hard to educate the players about mental recovery and life balance during the tournament.
I've learned that myself over time. When I first coached at a World Cup back in 2007, I tried to micromanage every minute of the players' time – that's just the way my personality is.
But as I've gotten older and wiser, I recognized that players have got to enjoy the tournament, just enjoy being there. A good example is before the Olympic semi-final three years ago, Christine Sinclair talked about going to the venue, Manchester United's famed Old Trafford stadium, as a soccer fan and just walking around enjoying the experience of being part of the Olympics in an amazing place filled with history and tradition. She wanted to embrace it, enjoy it and not be scared of it.
We've also created an off-field leadership group with players such as Karina LeBlanc and Robyn Gayle, who are tasked with driving team events that foster deep connection among the players. They help keep the place light, bright and clear, which is important.
If you're not careful, you end up with people resenting the shirt, which is the last thing you want. It should be fun to represent your country. But once you start to embrace this huge, unbelievable opportunity that these women have to make an impact on their country, you don't see the negative side.
John Herdman is head coach of the Canadian women's national soccer team. This is the third of a five-part series on Canada's preparations as host country of the Women's World Cup.