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Ian McClurg - The soccer whisperer

a philosophical, practical approach to the 'beautiful game

by jeff mahoney, hamilton spectator, august 25, 2014

Ian McClurg grew up in the peaceful countryside outside Belfast, but at a certain age had to come to the city for school. This was during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

"My first day, a bomb went off about two miles away and the floors of the classroom shook," Ian remembers.

He was terrified.

The most frightening thing about such experiences was that, over time, they ceased to be frightening. Ian got used to them.

Then there was soccer, and he thrived at it.

Somehow, maybe as a result of the dynamics of all that, Ian developed a kind of "larger view" attitude about life. There is, for instance, an almost philosophical cast to the work he does as one of Canada's most innovative nurturers of soccer talent.

His family came to Canada when he was 17, after Queen Elizabeth's cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten was killed by the Irish Republican Army in 1979, and Ian was already a formidable player. He'd learned on the street, neighbourhood play, working on fundamental skills.

By age 14, he was already playing on adult men's teams (he favours intergenerational play as a route to skill-building)."My dad played some semi-pro in England," he says, "but didn't pressure me. I was self-taught."

OK, philosophy. What is the why of soccer? The cause behind a kicked ball? In Aristotle's terms, the "motive" cause would be the propulsive force transmitted along the muscles of the leg, but the "final" cause, the ultimate object of kicking it, would be ... what? The inside of the net? Goal scored? Game won?

The real goal, if you ask Ian, is a skill well-developed, a human being made more whole, more accomplished and confident.

When I talk with him in his home, after reading his book (yes, he has written a book outlining a system of thoughts on soccer and coaching), I'm taken right "through" the game, out the other side.

He refers to the chaos of soccer (the continuous, unpredictable flow, in contrast to the set plays in football, baseball, basketball, even hockey); the importance of improvisation; the primacy of skill-building, mastering the ball itself.

"You see kids, when they master the ball, they enjoy it so much more," says Ian.

He dislikes the obsession with results that still dominates conventional North American coaching — winning matches, climbing league standings, as opposed to overall development of the player and his/her skills.

It's a narrow model, the North American one — instant gratification, quick hits and fixes, over-competitiveness, facile quantifiable metrics that don't draw a true picture.

"The dropout rate in all sports here is 70 per cent by age 14," says Ian, who spent several years as staff coach for Toronto FC Academy.

Europe's different. They have welfare officers attached to teams in some clubs there to help with challenges beyond the field.

Ian, who started 1v1 Soccer FC in Ancaster 14 years ago, incorporates many European ideas, but the 1v1 approach is uniquely his own.

It's holistic, involving diet, cross-training, character-building, patience, humility, problem-solving, intelligence and, above all, rigorous work on fundamentals, a broad range of technical skills for the individual, as opposed to over-specialization for results-oriented utility on a team.

Ian's approach is making deep inroads, despite resistance from powers-that-be. Academy teams like his are now eligible for provincial soccer association competition, whereas previously they weren't.

"In 2000, Germany started having skills coaches working with clubs throughout the country," says Ian.

It paid off at this year's World Cup.

His book, Play the 1v1 Way, edited by Paul Challen, is a compelling read with an eclectic scope: part philosophy, part practical tips, engagingly written. (Purchase Book Here)

Ian's now taking his passion to another level, beginning a master's degree in soccer talent development through Real Madrid Graduate School (yes, in Europe they have graduate degrees in soccer).

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