Ian McClurg established 1v1 Soccer in 2000 and it quickly established itself as one of Canada’s leading soccer development companies, providing specialist soccer coaching to boys and girls of all abilities, aged from 5-16+. Director of Coaching McClurg is a UEFA “A” licensed certified coach, which is Europe’s top coaching qualification. He also holds US and Canadian B license qualifications and is a former provincial team coach for Ontario. McClurg has extensive coaching contacts throughout North America and Europe and recently served as a Toronto FC Academy staff coach.
Learn more about Ian McClurg and 1v1 Soccer at http://www.1v1soccer.ca/.
RedNation Online: Although soccer is in many ways the quintessential team sport, it is often what individual players do that decides the outcome of a game. The name 1v1 is one that suggests an approach focused on the individual player. What is your philosophy as a youth coach?
Ian McClurg: When I go over to Europe, what I see with their professional academies is that they are trying to develop players. That is the rule for the academy system. I’ve got some friends that work in that European system and when I talk to them, they talk about how they are asked by their bosses about which players they have developed. They are never asked about results they got in academy games. It’s all about what players they can bring through. They really are in the player development business.
I think over here we start trying to build teams and to try and train players within teams. But the reality is that if a player does not have the fundamental skills, they can’t go where they have to go. So I think we really have to focus on making sure the players have the fundamental skills, especially at the younger ages. I think what we do too much over here is focus on the team aspect of things. I think that is a different aspect of coaching and it has a different focus. With a team focus comes team goals, such as trying to win games versus trying to actually improve the players. I have called my academy 1v1 because I think that is a basic element of the game. I see the game as being ten 1v1’s across the field.
RNO: What is the history of 1v1 Soccer FC and how did it come about?
Ian McClurg: Basically, I was working in the provincial program, as a provincial coach, and the last year I was there as a provincial head coach, I started with 120 kids and I was told to pick a squad of between 22 and 24. So I was cutting some great players and the question that came back to me from them was, “How do I improve? What I do?” Basically, at that time there was only the provincial program and your club and nothing in between. So the players would go back to their cluba and the coaching level at the club level in this country, with many coaches being volunteers, is not great. So how could those players get better?
My concept was around the idea that if more players were exposed to quality training across the province, then obviously our elite programs would be much better. Another difficulty back then was that the players in the provincial program could only be within a certain driving distance. We had some players from London, but that was tough for parents in terms of bringing the kids in four times per week. So I thought there was definitely a need for additional training and coaching and for more players to be able to take advantage of it.
RNO: It’s been said that it takes 10,000 hours to develop an elite athlete. How does that variable impact what you are looking for in terms of the young players that you want to work with?
Ian McClurg: I think that is really has to be the player buying into the philosophy. For example, we don’t sign any player until they have come into our program and have had a free trial session. The training is very hard and difficult. For the first 30 minutes we really train at a high tempo from the first minute and it’s one ball, one player. It’s very intense.
We are looking for players who want to learn and get better. So we are essentially looking for players who are self-motivated or who have the ability to be self-motivated. As opposed to a player who comes in and maybe they have been told at a certain age that they are the next Lionel Messi. We find those players tend to shut off a little bit and maybe shut off from new ideas and advice being given to them. So we are really looking for players who want to get better and who want to learn.
RNO: Soccer is a truly a world sport and the competition to succeed at both the club and International levels is considerable. What type of training do young players require to succeed in the modern game?
Ian McClurg: It’s a very good question and I think there are a lot of factors to take into account. I think that they have to be self motivated and I think they have to be spending time by themselves with the ball. I think the technical skills will get them so far, but that they have to have other components as well. They have to understand the game properly and to be able to make smart decisions in games. They have to be very strong mentally, because I think that competitive sport is such that you will have disappointments along the way.
I think that sometimes in Canada that we suffer a little bit from that. Our culture is often to not disappoint people or to not give them harsh truths. And I think that sometimes we don’t react well to those types of advice. But if you look at the top players in the world, they have all had setbacks along the way and they were still the ones to make it. So I really do think mental strength is one of the biggest things.
When you hear stories about Didier Drogba and his success at Chelsea, he jumped on a plane very early on and went to France by himself. I know a player who I used to coach at TFC, he, for example, left Winnipeg at 14 to come to Toronto and now he is with Queens Park Rangers in England. Those kinds of players, with a strong mental strength and belief in themselves, as well as being players who want to work hard and learn, those are the players that I think tend to make it. At the top level, all players are good technically. So I think very few players will make it on technique alone. I think it comes down to the individual strength of the person.
RNO: It is a stereotype that Canadian players are often strong defensively while often lacking creative offensive skills. That is a very simplistic statement but it is not a stretch to state that at the International level, Canada’s greatest successes have come from teams that were well organized and very strong defensively. How can we better develop players with dynamic offensive skills?
Ian McClurg: I think we have to put our players in tighter spaces early on when they are younger and have them try to solve those problems in terms of less time and less space. We tend to train in big areas over here. We obviously play full 11v11 games and there is a lot of space, so you can have a bad first touch and still retain possession of the ball.
I think the key thing is training kids very early on in small, tight congested spaces. The game is random and things happen in a game, so they have to have the tools to be able to cope with that and to be able to make smart decisions. To be honest, when we train I try to add as much chaos into the training as possible. I have multiple balls for each session and have players dribbling through each other and through grids. I think players have to be able to process a lot of information in order to be able to play the game at the highest levels. I think we have to teach those tools early on. I think that is part of it.
There is also the fact that I think people miss about creative players – you have to be very brave to take somebody on. It’s a hard thing to do to take that responsibility upon yourself. We tend to think of strong players being strong tacklers, but it really does take a brave player to say, “Give me the ball and let me create something.” I think that mentality is something to do with it as well.
And, unfortunately, in our culture we tend to look upon people who dribble the ball and beat people as hogs of the ball. And young players get that information from parents on the sidelines early on. So I actually think we don’t encourage skillful players. I see us actually making it more difficult for players to be skillful.
RNO: You recently visited your partner club, Wolves FC, in England and had a chance to really immerse yourself in their academy operations. What are the main things that you took away from experience that you want to bring back to your initiatives here in Canada?
Ian McClurg: I think it is looking after the total player. Back in 2003, I had a partnership with Crewe Alexandra football club, who are a small club in England, but who are very renowned for player development. And when I was in England back in 2003, I did the same thing that I recently did with Wolves, looking at their full academy structure, which is very much built around football and making sure that players were taken care of on the field.
When I went back to Wolves this time I noticed that they were looking at the entire player as a person and their family as well. And really making sure that they are getting what they need in terms of support structures. Wolves are bringing the kids out of school one day per week and they are spending all Wednesday at the academy. They have a full-time person taking care of their educational welfare as an example. That person will make sure that they are doing well in school and that they are on top of their school work. They will also get them tutors if they have to. The club will in fact pick up players who don’t have a way to get to training and will drive them to training. That helps the families out in that area as well.
They also have a whole team of people looking after them when they are at the club, in terms of their gym work and their physical work. They also have two full-time people doing video analysis. I heard about an example of a young boy that was lacking a bit of confidence, so he went to the video guy and said, “Give me a DVD of my best goals.” The whole entire player is getting catered to.
They also understand that only a small percentage of the boys will actually make it, so the older kids even get coaching courses as a possible career for them if it doesn’t work out for them as a player. I think that looking after the entire player is the biggest difference that I see.
RNO: 1v1 has a very close relationship with Wolves. Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship and how it might benefit your players down the road?
Ian McClurg: It gives the players a direct pathway to Wolves. Basically, they bring their academy staff over to us once a year and they evaluate our players. It gives our players a chance to get quality training from these top guys and it also gives them some feedback in terms of where they rank in terms of how they compare to the players in England.
After that, if they are good enough, Wolves will invite them to go over there for a week’s training. So again, it gives them a taste of what it is like to be an academy football player in England.
From a coaching development point of view, all of our coaches receive benefits from working with these guys. And we also have the opportunity to travel to England any time we want to study at their academy. Those are enormous benefits. They have actually given us their player development plan for their academy teams, so we have that information as well.
Last week I was reviewing the Long Term Development Program with someone and we were sort of chatting about the fact that the philosophy is great, but where is the meat and potatoes in terms of the material that we need to train players. Having chatted about it, I took out the Wolves manual and said, “Here is what we are working off currently.” It’s amazing – we are lacking that in this country in terms of giving coaches the tools they need to develop players properly.
RNO: A lot of times you talk to people in other countries and they don’t really see Canada as a soccer nation. What is the feedback that you have received from the coaching staff at Wolves with respect to the talent and professionalism of your young Canadian players?
Ian McClurg: We had sixteen players chosen by Wolves, so they went to seven camps last summer. There was one camp in Canada, which was our camp, and six others in the United States. And they chose 35 players from all those camps and half of those players were our players. So the feedback was very good. They chose three or four players in our program who they felt would have been signed to their academy teams if they had been living in England right now. So that is the level that some of these boys are at. The difficulty with that is that they don’t live there and they really can’t sign them until they are sixteen. They can go back and forth on school vacations, but obviously the cost of that is difficult. Overall, the feedback was very good.
And when I went over myself, I felt that the age groups from U9 to U12 were at a comparable technical level. I certainly saw a bit of a difference at the U12 to U14 levels, where I think their players in England just understand the game better with things like off the ball runs and communication on the field. So I think a bit of a gap develops at that point. And after that, U14 and above, that’s when you see a big gap in terms of the physical side of things. The games are so competitive over there, so you sort of see another gap developing at the U14 and U15 levels.
I think the players from Canada that have done well overseas have often been the ones who have left early, like Owen Hargreaves and Junior Hoillet. They have been over in that system from a young age. So I think that we are fine up to U12 and then we kind of see the gap widen a bit for the players over here, so it becomes more difficult.
RNO: The profile of Women’s soccer has never been higher than it is right now due to the recent success of the Canadian Women’s National Team. What programs do you have available for young female soccer players and how do they differ, if at all, from your programs for young male players?
Ian McClurg: It’s interesting because I was a provincial coach for female players previously. And when we first started up 1v1 we had a lot of female players in our program. And that has kind of tailed off a little bit, I guess because I was involved with Toronto FC as well. Now our programs are predominantly male. We are trying to get our female programs built up a bit and our challenge has been that we currently play in an academy league, which is against other academy teams. And they currently do not have any female leagues, so it is hard for us to attract players to our program when there is nowhere for them to play. That is a big challenge that SAAC is currently looking at. We have about twenty female players that are currently training with us and they are kind of mixed with the training we are doing with the boys. Some of these players are excellent and our goal is to keep building up our program, as well as working with SAAC to get a new league going. I think the time is right for that now. We can’t just address the male game. We have to look at the female game as well.
In terms of training, I think you have to work with females a little bit differently in terms of how you coach them and interact with them and in terms of making sure that their confidence stays high. I often make an analogy that with boys they always assume they are doing something right and girls always assume they are doing something wrong, as female players very often come up to me during sessions and ask if they are doing okay. I have always found that female players are great to coach because they want to learn and get better. We have boys like that as well, but I think female players definitely want to get better and are very motivated.
RNO: You’ve mentioned your previous work as a TFC Academy Coach. How was that experience and how did it contribute to your development as a coach?
Ian McClurg: I juggled both TFC and 1v1 for about a year and it just ended up being too difficult to do both at the same time. I think that it was good for me to go in and do the work there. It was good for me to see what the level was in terms of what they are requiring of players. And we actually have eight players who have trained with the TFC Academy over the last year and a half. It has certainly helped me to do my job better at 1v1 with respect to understanding what is required with MLS.
It was just too hard to juggle both positions. My position with 1v1 is full-time. We have five teams running, one hundred players training in classes per week and it is very busy. The connection to TFC is now an informal one, to be honest. I think it is important that we have our connection with Wolves and that we have sent players down to TFC. And we will continue to make sure that our players are aware of the different pathways.
RNO: You have an interesting background, including a strong business background, and excellent qualifications as a coach. What have been the most important things you have learned both inside and outside the soccer world that have enabled you to be successful developing young players?
Ian McClurg: I think the biggest thing is that you have to put your time in. The best thing that I have ever done is that I have coached at all levels. I’ve coached three year olds, four year olds and five year olds. I’ve coached the female side and I have coached the male side. I’ve coached at TFC and at the University of Guelph. I think it is important to get as much experience as possible and to really get the experience on the field. I had a very good mentor myself in Stuart Neely at the OSA and I remember early during my development time with him he said to me, “All you are missing is experience.” The biggest advice I would give is to get on the field, work with players, figure them out, try things and be creative. I think that is important.
The biggest thing I have learned myself over the last couple of years has been through putting together my own drills and session plans. I rarely look at coaching books anymore. I just try to figure out what the individual players have to work on and then I try to design my own stuff. That’s something that is new for me and I have actually just started writing a book on what I have learned along the way with that.
RNO: You have a UEFA A licence. How important is it for kids to be learning from coaches with established licences?
Ian McClurg: I think it is very important. I think if you look at places like Germany as an example. They have 55,000 licensed UEFA A or B coaches. So if you are a young player in Germany, then the chances are good that you are going to hit one of those coaches at some point along the way. Over here in Canada – I did a presentation on this a few months ago – right now we are actually passing about 20-30 A or B coaches per year. So it will take a long time to make up the gap to 55,000 licensed coaches.
We have a long way to go with respect to coaching education. Right now there are a lot of initiatives – OPDL (Ontario Player Development League) for example – where teams will have to have at least a B or a pre-B coach. My concern there is that it is good to have standards, but the difficulty is also in making sure these people are qualified, as opposed to just saying that they have to have a license, so let’s give them a license. We are all constantly developing as coaches and I learn every day myself.
One thing that I think is a little bit unfortunate is that there is a little bit of a lack of respect for the coaching profession. To be very honest, I was a little bit disappointed with TFC recently when they hired a coach without any professional qualifications. I think MLS should have certain standards in place with respect to head coaches having to have a certain level of coaching qualifications. MLS must be the only professional league in the world that doesn’t have one. In reality, Ryan Nelsen cannot coach in our SAAC Academy league, but he can coach TFC as a Head Coach. And that’s not meant as a slight to him personally, I just think the system is wrong there. TFC have also brought a lot of ex-players into their academy and I think those players themselves need time to learn to be coaches. I think it is a different mentality, so I think they have to have the tools in place for that. So I think the coaching profession in Ontario has taken a bit of a battering because of that.
RNO: You work with players as young as 3 years old up to age 16 and over. How does your training program change as a child ages?
Ian McClurg: It is all very much centered on the ball. To be very honest at the youngest levels, you need people with the right background. My wife has an Early Childhood Education background, so she is better suited to those players than I am. I think I have learned over the last couple of years that it is more important to put people in spots where they have strengths as coaches. So we are developing our own coaches in house and we are trying to place them in each group that they are better with.
Obviously, at the younger ages it is just about getting them active, getting them touches on the ball and making it fun and enjoyable for them. As they get older, the emphasis for us is on the individual ball work for sure. But as they get older we start to give them more responsibility with respect to thinking for themselves. A good example is a U12 team that I have. Instead of giving them an evaluation this year, I actually sent out a blank one and asked them to fill it in for me. I then met with them and their parents and went over it. I wanted them to take more ownership. So as they get older as players and as people, you want them to take more ownership. That can be things like making decisions on the field, making sure that the equipment is put away, ensuring that you are wearing the correct kit for the session or making sure that you have packed your own bag. I think as they get older we want to see them be more responsible not just as players, but as people as well.
RNO: In your opinion, at what age is it possible to identify whether or not a young player has the required attributes to develop into an elite player?
Ian McClurg: You spot potential between nine and twelve in terms of technique. But I think in terms of being able to say that a player will become an elite player, I think they have to go through puberty first. I think we make decisions on players way too early. I think it is important that we look at players when they are a little bit older (13-15) and that we are making sure that we give them the correct information and opportunities. There are players out there that are missed by professional clubs throughout the world who are very good players and who just develop a bit later. Looking at the Premiership, Ricky Lambert is 31 and is playing his first season for Southhampton in the EPL. Grant Holt is another player who made his way through the ranks and was obviously missed at a young age. I think it is important that we acknowledge that and are aware of it.
RNO: Looking at the big picture of player development in Canada, Tony Fonseca was recently named Technical Director for the Canadian Soccer Association and one of his stated goals is to get all of the parties involved in youth development in our country better integrated and working together towards a unified goal of producing more top tier players. What do we need to do better as a country with respect to long term player development?
Ian McClurg: I think it is a good first step in terms of the philosophical point of view. I think one thing we have to do is get smart people – great coaches who have worked out there for years – in a room and put together the session plans that will go along with that philosophy. If we are working with five year olds, what types of activities are we giving them? If we are working with eight year olds, what type of activities are we giving them? I think that is the part that is missing. We have the shell, but I think must have the technical information put together. And then let’s get working on the same page and let’s share ideas with each other.
One thing that I really like is going over to Europe because I think the coach fraternity over there really shares ideas and they help each other out even though they are competitors from different clubs and so forth. I have also been to the United States for coaching conferences and I think it is the same there. In Canada we can be very insular and we want to have our own little territory and I think that has really hurt the game. We do have positive developments happening now.
For example, we have the SAAC academies now invited into the OSA as non-club members. Those are very positive steps and we have to build upon them.
I think we have to get coaches together more often. We have to have more ongoing education together as a group. I think what Tony has said is a very positive development for us all. I think we also need to get the meat and potatoes down on a paper so we can start moving forward even quicker.
I think we also have to look at things like training a little differently. The FA in England have appointed individual skills coaches based on the German model. Those kinds of things should be done here as well. For example, in Germany they have these development centres where any kid can drop in and get additional help with their skills.
I’m very positive about soccer in this country. The last couple of years there has been a lot of positive change and I think it is a matter of keeping that positive momentum going. We should be working together for sure. Everyone at every level has to be helping out towards getting Canada to where it has to be. The emphasis has to be on the player and we have to make sure we are giving our players what they need.