From a distance, Michael Heller and Andy Lohman can barely be picked out of the row of bodies firing shots at a blond teenager in a blue goalkeeper jersey before the start of practice — and for the two roommates and longtime friends, that’s how they want it to be.
“I think the kids enjoy that we’re closer to them in age than we are to their parents,” Lohman says. “They can relate a lot more.”
Heller and Lohman, two JMU students, take time out of their busy schedules
each week to serve as volunteer soccer coaches for the Shenandoah Valley United recreation league. They’ve been doing it since their sophomore years, which marks the first time they were allowed to have their cars at school.
Their team, the Goalaxy, is a combination of three girls and nine boys from local high schools that practice and play at Smithland Fields near Skyline Middle School. They’re currently in the midst of a decent season with one win, two ties and a loss.
Each practice begins with everyone — both players and coaches — taking shots on a goal that is 2 feet shorter and 8 feet narrower than a regulation-sized goal. After leading calf, hamstring and quad stretches, the two coaches lay out orange cones in a rectangular grid to mark the playing area for a possession drill. After sweaty, yellow pennies are applied to half the team’s members, a game of amoeba ball breaks out as the group travels in a pack.
“Spread out,” Lohman says as he instructs one boy into taking off his penny to even the skill level of the two teams. “You’re getting too bunched up. Look at all this green grass over here.”
Lohman, a senior from Northern Virginia who’s an avid Arsenal fan out of the English Premier League, played soccer for most of his childhood. He says that having his dad and his friends’ fathers as soccer coaches when he was young wasn’t the most fruitful experience, because the men didn’t have playing experience of their own.
“I hope to give kids the experience I didn’t get to have when I was growing up,” he says. “The best practices are the ones where we get better and have fun at the same time.”
Kyle Brown, a 14-year-old freshman at Harrisonburg High School, says that he’s enjoyed having younger and more energetic coaches this season.
“It’s good because they can understand us better,” Brown says. “It’s also fun because they can still participate in practice rather than just be sideline coaches like most older coaches.”
Heller says teaching high schoolers is more ideal than leading a younger bunch because of the kids’ abilities to process and retain information to implement in practices and games.
“They’re first figuring out how to truly play soccer and start to really learn the basic concepts of movement and technical skill,” Heller says. “When a player actually listens to what you say and applies it, it’s a pretty rewarding feeling.”
Heller calls for a water break after the possession game, and by the time the team re-takes the field, more water has been squeezed out of water bottles onto the ground than has ended up in the players’ mouths.
The coaches then decide to practice a throw-in drill due to being called for illegal throws in their previous game.
Lohman aptly demonstrates the proper technique as the team lines up behind him to follow suit. Some of them still can’t get it right.
Heller says that the frustrating part is repeating himself a thousand times. With a few parents watching practice from the sidelines, Heller says he has to be professional at all times.
“Our kids feed off our emotions,” Heller says. “Even when we’re losing, we have to stay positive to make sure the kids keep their heads up and play hard.”
“They help me see to just have a good time,” Brown says. “They work with you on your mistakes so that you can be the best player you can be.”
While neither Heller nor Lohman see coaching as a career, they see it as a great opportunity to be involved in the community while simultaneously helping mold the younger generation’s attitudes toward the sport they love.
“I love the game of soccer,” Lohman says. “It’s brought me so much joy. I want them to fall in love with the game that I did.”
As practice winds to a close and parents pick up their kids, Heller and Lohman sit on the ground and unlace their cleats.
Because when they signed up to be involved in coaching youth soccer, they really meant it.