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Coach Rhian Wilkinson

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Wilkinson helping shape the future of Canadian women’s soccer
Meaghen Johnson tsn.ca November 13 2018

One of this country’s all-time great defenders is now helping to shape the future of Canadian women’s soccer.
 
Rhian Wilkinson, a former fullback on Canada’s women’s soccer team, has taken the mantle as head coach of the Under-17 national team. The squad is set to take part in the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay, starting this week.
 
Playing out of Group D, Canada begins its tournament on Wednesday against Colombia (live at 4:45 p.m. ET on TSN2) before facing South Korea on Nov. 17 and Spain on Nov. 21. The top two teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals.
 
“My expectation for this team is that we deliver the best version of ourselves,” Wilkinson told TSN. “I understand that that sounds cryptic, but at this age it really is about us. It’s about the work we’ve done, coming together and being able to perform at the highest level.  
 
“Results are part of that. I don’t want to shy away from that. We want to do well. But if they’re able to perform and learn to handle pressure and to step up and play on the biggest stage, we’ve checked a big box on the bigger journey to the Senior national team.”
 
Wilkinson, 36, retired from the national team in February 2017 after a 14-year career, finishing with 181 caps – third-most all-time. She says the transition from player to coach has not been easy.
 
“When you retire, it’s mentally awful. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has had a completely smooth transition,” she said. “You lose the game that you love, that you’ve put so much into. It’s your job, it’s your passion. It’s such a privileged position that you have. It’s the camaraderie, the friendships, the locker room that you miss the most. One day you’re right in it, the next day you’re gone. The team moves on because they have to move on without you, and you’re replaced by some incredible talent coming through the system. It’s been very, very hard to say, ‘Well, that part of my life is done, and now I’m a coach.’”
 
Wilkinson’s storied career includes back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics, and appearances in four Women’s World Cups. But despite a wealth of experience, she doesn’t want her time as a player to cloud her coaching style.
 
“I try my best not to make it a habit to refer to my career,” she said. “In February it will be two years since I retired, and they’re under 17, so they probably can’t even really remember me playing. I don’t want to be that coach [who says], ‘When I was a player.’ I’m trying to learn at the beginning of my career that if I earn their trust, just in my competencies as a coach, then the added experience as a player is just an extra benefit and not something that I’m relying heavily on.”
 
“I think she’s got more a view from a player perspective,” said team captain Jordyn Huitema. “She’s been raised in the environment and she’s grown through the system. Being a past player, I think she sees a lot of ideas the players have and she’s adjusted to that. I think she has a real vision from the player’s mindset as well as the coach’s.”
 
Wilkinson took the reins for the Under-17 team after working as an assistant under Bev Priestman earlier this year during the CONCACAF qualifiers. A few months later, Priestman left Canada Soccer to become an assistant coach with the English women’s national team. Wilkinson said she has adapted many of her current coaching strategies from her time working under Priestman.
 
“We follow a lot of the same philosophies at this point. [She] definitely helped to form my philosophy as a coach and how I want to coach,” Wilkinson said. “It differs, but I would say as I progress on my coaching journey my philosophies will become more cemented and take on a more dramatic change of direction.”
 
Wilkinson’s coaching journey began while she was still a player for the national team. While nursing an injury, she went to Wales to obtain her UEFA B license, paying for the expenses herself. But she never envisioned herself as a coach.
 
“It really didn’t interest me,” she said. “But I thought, if I’ve got this time away from the game, it can’t hurt to get my coaching badges.”
 
In 2014, John Herdman, former national team head coach and director of the Women’s EXCEL Program, appointed Wilkinson as an assistant coach for the Canadian side at the Under-20 Women’s World Cup.  
 
“It was a toe in the water, and then slowly started to be, ‘Whoa, actually, I’m really enjoying this,’” Wilkinson said. “I always wanted to be a teacher, a professor, and coaching is just teaching in a different form. That’s what I love about it.”
 
This year, Wilkinson has coached Canada’s squad at the Under-15 CONCACAF Girls’ Championship, where the team finished fifth and won three of its four matches. She also worked as an assistant under Kenneth Heiner-Møller for the Senior national team, and is currently working on obtaining her UEFA A license through the Football Association of Wales.
 
Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, both former greats with France, are also earning their licenses through the FAW.  
 
Wilkinson had several different coaches over her playing career with the national team.  From Norwegian Even Pellerud, to Italy’s Carolina Morace, to Englishman Herdman, all had different styles and approaches. But for Wilkinson, her coaching influences began long before her journey with the national team.
 
“From the age of five onward, I can name every coach I’ve ever had,” she laughed.  
 
“I learned so much from all of them. I think definitely when you work with different types of coaches you start to figure out what you like, and maybe it differs, maybe it doesn’t.  Every single one of them has helped me develop into the coach I am at this point.”
 
Last month, Wilkinson had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural FIFA Mentorship Programme, which was established to assist up-and-coming female coaches and pair them with experienced mentors. Wilkinson was partnered with Hope Powell, the former head coach of England’s women’s team and current manager of Brighton & Hove Albion in the Women’s Super League in England.
 
“I was hoping to get her. I think she’s a strong woman who has been a pioneer for the program,” Wilkinson said. “She’s very well-spoken, but also firm on her soccer philosophies and beliefs – and they differ from mine, which is even better because I had to really understand who I want to be as a coach in order to communicate properly with her.”

After the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, Wilkinson will be joining Vancouver Whitecaps FC as the new head coach of the Girls’ Elite REX program. Wilkinson has no long-term plans beyond that, but is focused on living in the moment and absorbing as much as possible.

“I say yes to as much as I can.  I know I’m right at the beginning of my journey,” she said. “I’m in my mid-30s.  Some coaches have been coaching since they were in their teens and early 20s. Yes, I have the playing experience, but I am well aware that I am newer to the whole coaching part. So I have my mentors, and if they have advice, I listen. If there’s a FIFA mentorship program, I say yes. If there’s a coaching license, I say yes, because I’m taking it all in and learning to be the best possible version of the coach I want to be.”

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