The first question or two to someone in sports when there are no sports to pursue are generally easy, because it’s some form of “What do YOU do these days?” For Loudoun United head coach Ryan Martin, it’s an easy answer: “My girlfriend and I live together so we try to go out for walks, and I live near Rock Creek in D.C., so we’ll walk through there and try to get out and stay away from people, because otherwise you’ll just go insane.”
Martin’s side had just opened the season with a scoreless tie with Philadelphia Union II before USL announced the first of several suspensions of training and play (now extending into May). Since then, the contact he’s had with his squad has been largely remote.
“Obviously (it’s) not an ideal situation for anybody. But I think it’s even harder for young guys that their first love is the game and training and everything like that so you take the soccer ball, soccer field away and it’s hard, but we try to keep them as engaged mentally as possible,” said Martin in an interview with Black and Red United. “We’ve been doing Zoom calls every Monday with a full group, leadership groups on Fridays, and then typically we’ll do a Zoom workout or two throughout the week.”
Martin has also been giving the players some variety in their conversations, adding guest speakers to the mix, “...to just give a different perspective on mindset and mentality, controlling what you can control.” The list of speakers has included former NBA coach George Karl, former MLS announcer Allen Hopkins, and LeBron James’ high school basketball coach (who just so happens to be Loudoun defender Robby Dambrot’s father Keith). Martin added that D.C. United midfielder Russell Canouse will join that list this week, and Leeds United winger Jack Harrison (who Martin recruited during his time at Wake Forest) is set to follow him.
Martin brought up his father Jay, who has over 700 wins as a coach in NCAA soccer and recently spoke to Loudoun’s squad, as another resource. “In college, there’s that period over the summer where you don’t really get to work with the players and all of a sudden they have to come in and be ready to go in about a two-week period. So, what is the ownership for their growth and development, has been something that we’ve discussed quite a bit. We really started hammering home and it’s one of the best things [Jay] was always on the forefront of, was the mental side of the game, controlling what you can control, setting goals, creating development growth plans.”
With in-person training and the challenges of different opponents off the table for the time being, Martin has opted for a focus on forging a strong mentality within his players. “As I watch [the Michael Jordan documentary] The Last Dance and I see Phil Jackson and so much of it comes down to the mind. And it’s such a neglected thing in a lot of sports, so for me personally, it’s been good to really focus on a different aspect of the game. When you have two hours, three hours, four hours a day with the guys, you can’t hit it as much as you want in terms of really identifying different moments, whether it’s moments in a game...or situations for the players.”
It’s not all outside speakers, though, with Loudoun’s staff doing plenty of man-management as well. “Just giving [a] different perspective and kind of let them know that one, they’re not in this by themselves...and then what can they do at this time to better themselves, and that might be spending time with family, it might be reading. We also give them homework just to look at the games and video. It gets more and more challenging as you go through the week, but we’re starting to also see light at the end of the tunnel too. You look abroad and Italy is going back to training mid-May, Germany’s training or playing in early May, Spain and France and potentially in June. And that could all change tomorrow but at least there’s a glimmer of hope for the guys.”
Martin’s 2020 squad is considerably younger than most, being the fourth youngest in the USL, with almost all of the players on their first professional team, and he’s aware of the impact this layoff and the factors around it can be.
“Stewart [Mairs], myself, Dave Kasper all sat down and our emphasis was really trying to have a young, talented group of players and we wanted them primarily under the age of 25. We wanted the majority of the guys younger, and we wanted that to just help grow, develop and give them an opportunity, you know, even the guys who signed late like a Brandon Williamson, are guys that we’ve had on our radar for a long time. So now we feel the culture is very strong, we feel that even though it’s a younger group, the buy-in is incredibly high. Our leadership are a little older, we have a couple guys that just finished college, but they’ve gone through it and they become leaders at that level. Robbie and Shane (Wiedt) know what’s expected out of top programs in college (both went to Akron and Pitt). So when we did our draft, Josh (Fawole) and Simon (Lefebvre) are two guys that we picked out as guys that had could have a potential future. So those were our focuses as we went through the whole process.”
That youth comes with a relative lack of familiarity with just how much getting results matters in the professional ranks. “Something that we’ve always discussed with the young guys is, how do you expedite their growth process in in a professional setting?,” said Martin, who has supplied his players with excerpts from books by Phil Jackson and prominent English rugby coach Clive Woodward. “It comes down to their mindset. They haven’t been through situations that, you know, a ten-year pro has or five-year pro has, whether that’s playing on the road or playing in big games or even just a simple task of wins, losses and draws mattering more to professional level than they do really anywhere else they’ve ever played. In the MLS, people’s jobs are lost if you don’t win games and that has to be part of a professional, so we’ve been really hammering home on the mindset part of the season.”
Per Martin, team leaders Peabo Doue and Michael Gamble have also been active. “A big one that we had a really good discussion [about] two weeks ago was on Kobe Bryant and the ‘Mamba Mentality,’ and that came right from the players. The leadership wanted to talk and kind of show, hey, here’s...somebody young guys might not even really know. But here’s what made him so special, in a different realm. So we’ve had some really good discussions like that, that’s kind of been our big thing.”