CanWNT coach Bev Priestman: ‘If I ask my players to be brave, I have to be brave myself’

Canadian women’s national team head coach Bev Priestman spoke to the media on Thursday afternoon, following Canada’s historic gold medal win at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Less than a week after the most important win Canadian soccer has ever experienced, Priestman spoke about a range of topics, including the tournament that just ended, the little moments that made Canada’s run so special, and looking ahead to what has the potential to be a very bright future, among other things.

Priestman “overwhelmed” with support from Canadians

Just six days after the victory in the gold medal match against Sweden, Priestman said that she still can’t quite believe that Canada won the gold medal, and that the support from Canadians has been incredible upon the team’s return home.

“It hasn’t actually sunk in yet, the more I’ve been back in Canada the more real it’s felt,” she said. “People stopping you on the streets, paying for your meals when you go out for a meal, just crazy things. You know that this team is absolutely loved by the Canadian public — I’ve felt that massively, it just hasn’t really sunk in, in terms what we achieved.

“Even just calling us Olympic champions, that hasn’t sunk in either. I just feel really privileged, happy, overwhelmed with the support that we’ve had.”

Cross-country celebration tour in the works

It has been revealed in the days since the gold medal match that there will be celebrations across the country to celebrate Canada’s achievement, and while what that looks like remains to be seen, Priestman is certain of one thing: they will be special occasions.

“We’re [making] plans to do that in the coming months,” she said. “We’ve felt the support of the media, the country, and to be able to connect with our country and play in front of them is going to really, really special.”

The matches will also be homecomings for the national team, who haven’t played in Canada for well over two years.

The last time they took the pitch on home soil was a 3-0 win over Mexico at BMO Field in May 2019, a sendoff ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a match scheduled against Australia at BC Place in April 2020 was cancelled, and they are yet to play at home in 2021.

Trust and belief in one another crucial to Canada’s success

There was the theme going into this tournament that Canada wanted to “change the colour of the medal,” and take that next step as a team and as a program that they had never done before: winning Olympic gold.

“We had back-to-back bronze, but if you keep reading over the last chapter, you won’t write the next chapter,” Priestman said. “Hunger, desire, fresh faces, the depth in the group and the trust in the depth in the group.

“I knew coming into this tournament that I wanted to be the best coach at this tournament at utilizing depth and using the five subs, which was unique to this particular tournament. There was many different factors, but I think actions speak louder than words in the belief and the trust.”

It was clear that the team had belief in each other at Tokyo 2020, and Priestman said that the penalty shootout win over Brazil was when she knew Canada had what it took to stand atop the podium.

“I think when we got through that Brazil game, I knew then — ‘Right, okay, we’re going all the way’,” she said. “I think the players probably felt that and knew that, but there’s been various moments in my short tenure — the US game the first time (at the SheBelieves Cup), the England game.”

“There’s moments where you stand on the sideline, and players feel it on the pitch, where you go ‘Yeah, we can absolutely do this’.”

Priestman not afraid to make big decisions

Bev Priestman made some big decisions in this tournament that had a big impact on how her team played. Swapping out Shelina Zadorsky for Vanessa Gilles at centre-back for the three knockout round matches was one, but the halftime substitutions in the final were also big calls — taking Quinn and Janine Beckie out of the game for Julia Grosso and Adriana Leon.

“If I ask my players to be brave, I have to be brave myself,” she said. “Of course the Shelina decision was really difficult. We had some great chats and I’ve got to say that Shelina has been one of the most consistent players for me in my tenure. That was a big call, and we had a heart-to-heart about that, and I know Shelina is determined more than ever to put that right.”

“And then the halftime subs (in the final) — I just felt in that game and in that first half that we just needed a momentum change. I thought particularly a Julia Grosso had been fantastic, this was her tournament to show up. All credit to Julia, she believes she didn’t play a minute — I made her fight for it, and push and push and push.”

Priestman said she had to trust her gut instincts when making big decisions, and in the end the choices she made worked out just fine.

World Cup the next goal for Canada

While Olympic gold is obviously a fantastic achievement, Canada believe that they can build off it, and strive for even greater things in the future. As Kadeisha Buchanan said earlier in the week, they have their sights set on the next major tournament already — the 2023 World Cup.

“There’s that old saying, ‘There’s no hunger in paradise’, but what I definitely want to ensure is that this gold medal wasn’t just a one-off and we all rode away into the sunset,” Priestman said. “For me, it’ll be about us getting into that arena more often. Fresh on my mind is the World Cup and how this team probably has done very well at Olympic Games historically, but not necessarily at World Cups and examining why.

“We need to get ourselves in a similar position come 2023, and know that we might have to build, and that some players might depart the program that have been integral, but it’s definitely about how we sustain that. We can’t just rest on that gold medal… we’ve got to push the players more than ever now.”

That last line may worry some Canadian fans — with the legendary Christine Sinclair among several national team veterans who may be approaching the twilight of their national team careers — but Priestman mentioned that she’s trying to persude everyone to stick around, and that she thinks they have more to offer still.

“I said to the group, ‘If we have the time of our life we’ll do well'”

Priestman said that she wanted the players to enjoy the journey while they went about their business — first with the training camp in the United States, then the pre-tournament camp in Japan, and then throughout the tournament itself.

“I said to the group, ‘if we have the time of our life we’ll do well’,” she recalled. “It’s a big motto of mine that if you do what you love and love what you do, things will happen.”

Things to keep morale up are important in high-pressure environments like the one they were in, and Priestman suggested that Canada had no problem at all with that. There are several moments that really stood out to Priestman over the course of the tournament.

“You’d think that I’d be saying winning gold, but one of [the best moments] was when I watched the players with immense pride sing the national anthem on the top of the podium — and it did help that the US were in a lower podium position than Canada,” Priestman said with a smile. “I know what that means to Canadians.

“For me, it’s all the little moments — the highs, the lows. Little things like we had Mario Kart competitions, staff were involved in that  — I was terrible — but all those little things you get to see. I saw Ashley Lawrence pour her heart out on her 100th cap, and on that 100th cap we beat the US and changed the colour of the medal.

“Melissa Tancredi, who was on staff — I got her up and asked her to speak about what it meant to change the colour of the medal and beat the US, and you can only imagine the emotions that I felt for someone like a Melissa Tancredi.

“Just looking at Christine [Sinclair] in the penalty shootout when she wasn’t on the pitch in that final. Her and Desiree Scott… Just seeing those players and what it meant to them, and then seeing the young kids with no fear just step up and not rely on Christine Sinclair to go and do something special.

“It was just a whole heap of emotions, not the pinnacle, actually all the little things in between that made us have the time of our lives for the last 40 days.”

Priestman delivered the gold, but acknowledges those who came before her

While it was Priestman in the end who got Canada over the line, she also took the time to acknowledge those who laid the foundation for Canada to get to this point.

“I’m just so happy to be sat here, I feel privileged and really lucky to be honest, to be the person that put a gold medal around Christine Sinclair’s neck and help the country go on the top of the podium.

“There’s a whole load of players, John Herdman, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, a whole load of people that came before me… I’m the one who got to experience that moment.”