Looking Into Soccer’s Future
Jay Martin’s two best sports growing up were lacrosse and basketball — and in fact, he played professional basketball in Germany.
Somehow, though, he wound up as the winningest active men’s soccer coach in Division III at Ohio Wesleyan University (Delaware, Ohio), and the editor of the National Soccer Coaches’ Association’s (NSCA) Soccer Journal.“I was getting my doctorate at Ohio Wesleyan when the soccer and lacrosse coaching jobs opened up,” he says, “and eight years later, when I was promoted, or demoted, to athletic director, I had to give one up.” He chose soccer, in part because when he was in Germany, he watched Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, and became immersed in the thriving European soccer culture.
That put Martin on track for 19 years as athletic director and 31 years as the Battling Bishops’ soccer coach — but that doesn’t mean he’s just a cheerleader for the game the rest of the world calls futbol.
“We have a ton of problems,” says Martin about American soccer. “Our club system is awful. Our youth development is awful. Our soccer culture is awful.”
Need To Improve Youth Coaching
These are not sentiments you expect to hear from a TV commentator for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, or a one-time president of the NSCA — but Martin has seen too much to remain starry-eyed.
“The good thing is that the number of clubs means a lot of kids play soccer,” says Martin, but the club scene also has its downside. “I have nothing against making money, but the majority of club people are driven by economic concerns.” That translates into year-round play, even for 9-year-olds, and too often results in a focus on playing games rather than developing skill.
In addition, the proliferation of clubs has created a generation of players who, in Martin’s words, want to show well but don’t necessarily want to compete. In a controversial article for Soccer Journal, Martin wrote, “When players are not playing in their club, they simply change clubs. There is no thought about competing for a spot on the team, fighting for a spot, getting better to find a spot…we simply change clubs. The message to the players is that striving to get better is not important; it is simply how you play and how you look.”
But Martin doesn’t mean to imply that such problems only exist in soccer. “I don’t think that youth coaching in this country is very good, across the board,” he says. “I’ve been looking at this thing called coaching for 30 years, and coaching is not Xs and Os — that’s way down the list. Coaching is creating an environment in which kids get better; and it has to be fun, or kids will leave the sport.”
So as an athletic director, Martin knew what he wanted when he hired a coach of any sport. “I want people who understand the practice and process of coaching,” he says. “And it’s not about the coach — it’s about the environment. The environment has to encourage the player to want to get better.”
And over the years, Martin has come to believe that any successful team’s environment must be positive, motivating and challenging. “Winning is very important,” he says, “but teaching the players the process of winning is crucial.”
Mental Preparation & Emotional Toughness
And that process includes players who understand that their improvement is dependent on their efforts. “When I recruit,” says Martin, “I tell the player the responsibility to get better is on the player.” Martin wants the environment of his program to encourage athletes to try to improve, but the bottom line is that the coach can’t do the work for the player — it’s up to each individual to use the tools he’s given to get better.
Still, Martin knows that college players are very close to finished products. “At the college level, you can’t really change the technical level of the players,” he says. “Earlier in my career, I thought I could change technical ability and attitude, but now we primarily talk about two things: mental preparation and emotional toughness.”
By mental preparation, Martin means being aware of what a team and its players can control (and not control), and by emotional toughness, he means how teams handle adversity during a game or a season.
High school coaches, though, can have an impact on the technical skills of players, Martin believes, primarily as a “function of the age of the athletes.
“The difference between a high school team and a club team is that only five or six players on a high school team want to go on to the college level,” says Martin, and that changes the way a coach must approach the program. However, a positive, motivating and challenging environment produces the best results, and that kind of environment helps attract those elite players who might be contemplating skipping the high school team entirely to focus on club soccer.
Competing At The Highest Levels
Still, despite the growth of club soccer, and the increasing exposure of the sport on television, Martin sees the need for some fundamental changes. “The best male athletes in the U.S. are not playing soccer,” he says, “and we have to find a way to change that. If you look at the athleticism of the German and Spanish national teams, we’re not even close.”
But, as the Confederations Cup win in June over Spain shows, the Americans are capable of competing at a high level — but Martin isn’t sure that taking the next step, into the class of Italy, Germany and Brazil, is going to be an easy one. “We’re doing about as well as we can right now,” he says.
One reason for the level of success so far has been the MLS. “The MLS has a tremendous impact on the sport,” says Martin. “The depth and quality of players have improved a lot,” and he notices that in his recruiting. When he first started at Ohio Wesleyan, soccer was very much a regional sport. “I would rather get a third-team all-state player from New Jersey than a first-teamer from Ohio,” he says of his early days, “but now almost all my players are from Ohio.”
But even though Martin is a men’s coach, he gives full credit to the women’s game. “The single most important thing for the growth of soccer was the women’s team,” he says. “It was a breakthrough.”
And he also acknowledges that elite female athletes are much more likely to choose soccer than elite male athletes. A friend of his, Anson Dorrance, who is the women’s coach at North Carolina, decided to give up coaching men early in his career and focus on the women. “Anson saw that earlier than anyone else,” says Martin of the deeper pool of female soccer talent, and he expects the American women to continue to be right at the top of the world rankings for just that reason.
The men’s game can improve, though, and Martin believes one important step is to get more people to become fans of the game. When youth soccer first bloomed in the United States back in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a belief that all those youngsters playing the game would become fans of the game when they got older — but for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened.
“We have to translate the joy of playing soccer into people who enjoy watching the game,” he says and even the large crowds at the Columbus Crew games don’t satisfy him. “If you watch games in Germany and Holland (where Martin got his first exposure to soccer culture),” he says, “people watch the game for 45 minutes, take a break at halftime, and then watch the second half for 45 minutes. Here, people don’t watch the game — it’s more a social event.”
Of course, Martin is happy that the fans are coming at all, but in his view, for American soccer to take the next big step on the world stage, fundamental aspects of U.S. soccer culture, such as how fans approach the sport, need to change.
So even though soccer’s come a long way since Martin put on a whistle at Ohio Wesleyan in 1977, coaches can’t just sit back and think the job is done because of all the youngsters playing in house leagues around the country. The sport needs better players and better fans — and more coaches like Jay Martin.
In 2008, Jay Martin, head coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, passed legendary Division III coaches Jerry Yeagley of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Ron Butcher of Keene State (Keene, N.H.) to become the active D-III coach with the most wins (548). In 31 years, Martin has a 548-109-45 record for the Battling Bishops, and won an NCAA title in 1998. He also has two second-place finishes and seven trips to the Final Four — not to mention 18 consecutive tournament
appearances (1978-95), 20 conference titles and 13 NCAA Mideast Region Coach of the Year awards.
Martin also was president of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and served a six-year term on the NCAA Division III selection committee, including four years as committee chair. He has been a color analyst for the Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew for nine seasons and in addition, he’s been editor of NSCAA’s Soccer Journal since 2003, serving as only the third editor in the publication’s 59-year history.