“Culture,” toxic or otherwise, is invoked almost daily in sports. Like a collective mood, it is easily identified but much more difficult to manage, let alone improve. Rhian Wilkinson, the new coach of the Portland Thorns, has accomplished both those things.  

She inherited a club that had recently endured a blistering abuse scandal. Turning that culture around is an ongoing success story, and it’s by no means the only problematic situation Wilkinson has confronted in her long career.

In a wide-ranging chat about her soccer experiences in England, Wales, Norway, the U.S., and here in Canada (as a player on the groundbreaking national teams of 2012 and 2016), Wilkinson shares the lessons learned from grassroots to elite teams.

Player’s Own Voice podcast host Anastasia Bucsis leads Wilkinson back to England, where the younger player had to deal with boys who never passed the ball to their obviously gifted teammate. The talk moves through her national team years, when some coaching advice brought on uncomfortably necessary introspection. And jumps ahead to where Wilkinson coaches now, at the epicentre of the North American women’s game.

Are the Thorns the picture of a healthy team culture? General manager Karina LeBlanc’s toddler is a regular visitor in the locker room. And there are more teammate’s babies on the way. A distraction in the clubhouse? Au contraire. The team is the defending league champion, and it’s exactly for those little ones that Wilkinson is laying down a winning culture today.  

Looking closely at the unprecedented international successes for the Canadian men and women’s teams, Wilkinson traces a direct line of winning ways and leadership back a decade to her teammates and then coach John Herdman. She names names and describes how individuals from the class of 2012 have gone on to change soccer culture (there’s that word again, and she does not use it casually) for the better, wherever they landed. 

It’s the last podcast of a double season — two Olympics in six months will do that! — Anastasia Bucsis is recharging her audio recording gear and we’ll be back later in the summer.

Like the CBC Sports’ Player’s Own Voice essay series, POV podcast lets athletes speak to Canadians about issues from a personal perspective. 

A transcript is available for our hard of hearing audience. To listen to Rhian Wilkinson, any guests from earlier episodes, and more Canadian athletes from the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, head to CBC Listen — or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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