Before the soccer practice began, the kids buzzed around Anthony Armstrong with no direction or purpose, other than to make as much noise as possible and not occupy the same plot of grass for more than a half-second.
“The hardest thing is to keep them all corralled. I wish I had a lasso sometimes,” said Armstrong, the Washington Redskins wide receiver who is several weeks into his tenure as a rookie youth soccer coach.
He finally rounded up the group of 7- and 8-year-olds and explained that this practice was a training day with a special instructor who was going to teach some new drills and basic soccer skills. It also would be a good learning opportunity for Armstrong.
Most years, he’d spend spring working out at the Redskins’ facility and likely attending minicamps and organized team activities with coaches and teammates. But because of the NFL lockout, Armstrong has found himself with some extra time on his hands.
“I don’t have anything to do,” said Armstrong, the Redskins’ top returning wide receiver under contract for next season.
Earlier this spring, his girlfriend, Rachel Clark, tried signing up her son, Kaden, for Loudoun Soccer, but was too late. All the spots and coaches had been taken. It turned out that several other parents were also late. That’s when Armstrong jumped in, volunteering to coach a team.
“We already had moved on. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be playing soccer this spring,” said Vanessa Gardner, whose son, Ryan, plays for Armstrong.
And that’s how the Ninjas were born.
Until his trial-by-fire coaching stint, Armstrong’s soccer experience consisted of a year playing the sport when he was 9 or 10 and fiddling around, years later, with the FIFA video game for PlayStation. Loudoun Soccer officials gave him some reading material to prepare him for his coaching duties, but Armstrong was out of town and didn’t get a chance to study it before the Ninjas’ first meeting.
“So I showed up to practice and looked at other coaches. ‘Okay, we’re gonna do what they’re doing. Dribble the ball and shoot it. . . . I was biting everybody else’s style,” Armstrong said. “Some of the kids were actually telling me, ‘Hey, let’s play Sharks and Minnows.’ ‘Okay, cool, we’ll play Sharks and Minnows or Red Light, Green Light.’ ”
At the recent practice in Ashburn, an instructor led the kids through drills disguised as games before the players began scrimmaging against each other.
“Spread out! Look alive! There you go. Way to kick it out, Evan. Got clear,” Armstrong advised from the sidelines. Then, to no one in particular, he noted, “I’m learning the terms. I guess that’s a term.”
Loudoun County is the largest soccer club in Virginia with more than 7,500 players and 600 coaches this spring, according to Alan Foy, the club’s executive director. Particularly at the lower age levels, it’s not uncommon for soccer coaches to have relatively little experience in the sport.
“Anthony was off to a good head-start because as humble as he may be, the kids instantly respected him,” Foy said. “He’s a pro athlete and that gets their attention.”
But the players aren’t necessarily in awe of their celebrity coach. They chat nonstop with Armstrong and hang off him as if he is a piece of gym equipment. Their parents seem more excited — at least those who figured out right away that Armstrong the soccer coach was also Armstrong the NFL player. Angela Martin, a medical biller with twin sons on the Ninjas, said that when she first saw Armstrong, “I just thought he was another parent.
“He doesn’t act like an NFL player at all. He’s very fun and just a laid-back guy,” Martin said.
The Ninjas’ league features four-on-four games with no goalkeeper. There’s no complex strategy here; Armstrong is focusing on teaching basic skills.
“I don’t know how many set plays there are. I don’t think there’s too many of them,” he said. “We don’t run plays. We just see ball, kick ball, put ball in the goal.”
While similarities to football might be minimal, there are some universals to coaching. At practice, when one of his players went down, writhed on the ground and clutched his leg, Armstrong jogged over.
“You all right? What happened?”
The boy was slow to his feet and looked as though he was about to take his first steps at age 8.
“He keeps on tripping me,” he squeaked.
“Ah, I’m sorry,” Armstrong said. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it.”
A little more encouragement and the boy was soon bouncing around like a pinball, forgetting he was ready for an ambulance seconds earlier.
“He’s very sweet, very kind to the boys,” said Gardner. “My son had never scored a goal before. Anthony told me . . . ‘I’m going to make sure he gets a goal before the season is out.’ ”
Armstrong is spending this lockout period working out most mornings at Mase Training, a sports performance and fitness center founded by former linebacker Eddie Mason. There’s still a competitive void, though, an itch he scratches with the Ninjas, who have a 1-1-2 record.
During the recent practice, Armstrong rolled a ball from goal, sending it directly to the foot of an eager 8-year-old who fired it right back at the coach.“I’m not letting you score that,” said Armstrong, as he instinctively blocked it with his knee. “That’s too easy.”
“I’m not trying to take it easy on a kid just because he’s 8 years old. I want to win just as much as anybody else,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re 6, 8, 28, I don’t care.”
As practice closed, he again struggled to get the Ninjas to stand still.
“Come here, pay attention, pay attention,” he pleaded. “If you all listen, I’ll let you all go. Good job today, all right. Everybody got beat up a little bit, so let’s take care of ourselves. . . . HUSH!
“We got to break it down. Come on. Put your hand in. Okay, Ninjas on three. One . . . two . . . three . . .
“NINJAS!” they screamed in unison.