Players Must Figure It Out Themselves: Failure Can Be A Step Towards Success
While there is not evidence of players failing at Atlanta United’s prestigious Academy, Annan’s philosophy towards developing professional players and letting youth soccer players learn from their mistakes is a breath of fresh air.
The Role of a Coach Series
Tony Annan joined Atlanta United as the Academy Director in December 2016 and in the last four years has made an impression on the entire player development world. With more than 20-years’ experience coaching in the Atlanta market, Annan is the founder of the Georgia United DA program. Also as a former scout with U.S. Soccer Federation, he knows what it takes to make a player successful.
In America’s pressure cauldron of player development, players are often afraid of making a mistake or worse, of failing. Going for excellence, Annan’s approach is encouraging and optimistic while highly demanding. And, it works.
I tend to stay out the way …
One of the differences with Annan is his understanding of sports psychology and nutrition sciences which strengthens his holistic approach to player development.
In the 2018/19 season, both Atlanta United U18/19 and U16/17 ranked top of the Southeast East Division. At the GA Winter Cup, the U17s and U19s each went head-to-head with MLS Academy teams, dominating and going unbeaten over the tournament.
Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra’s goal for the Academy has always been for it to contribute to the advancement of youth soccer, locally, regionally as well as nationally and Annan is accomplishing this.
SoccerToday Interview with Tony Annan, Academy Director for Atlanta United on The Role of a Coach
Diane Scavuzzo: I’d love to get your philosophy on player development. The Atlanta United Academy is absolutely one of the very best. At what age do you think winning becomes more important than development?
Tony Annan: Good question. I would say, once players come into the U17 year I think winning becomes more part of it, but it’s not above development.
I think winning becomes important to their development as players age, to make them a competitive player for the next level.
I would never put winning in front of development while a player is still in the developmental years, but obviously, the first sign winning becomes more important than development is when you’re a professional soccer player.
That is when where winning is what it’s about.
Diane Scavuzzo: Every sport has winners and losers. Do you think American players know how to fail and recover?
Tony Annan: Whatever you do in life right, whatever aspect of life you work in, whatever your job is, I think failure is part of building success, right?
So you’ve got to fail to know how to succeed.
I think allowing players to fail and not correcting every mistake — I tend to stay out the way, letting them work it out a little bit — this helps with their development even from a cognitive standpoint, not just a physical standpoint.
As a coach, it’s important to get out the way sometimes and let the players understand what happens before someone tells them. But this is a balance. You can’t keep letting players fail without any feedback or instant guidance.
It’s setting things up to allow players to figure it out, to succeed or fail —that is what is important.
Diane Scavuzzo: You’re running the MLS DA for one of the most successful expansion teams ever in the MLS. Atlanta United has shown the world that a newcomer commands excellence and produces amazing results. What do you feel are your challenges in developing young professionals for the first team?
Tony Annan: Expectations.
Diane Scavuzzo: Yours or theirs?
Tony Annan: I think with success comes great expectations right? The fact is that we have produced some really good young players very quickly.
We’ve set the bar pretty high for ourselves and that is a good place to be. The development of players includes how he or she performs in a game — a player’s resolve, technique, decision making, and IQ are all tested in games to the Nth degree rather than in training.
So the games program is a challenge. You must get the games program right to enable you to continue your players’ development process.
Most cultures will tell you that the most challenging thing is to get challenging games, where your players will succeed or fail.
And, if they succeed every week, it’s not good for them.
It’s not good to succeed every week and be unchallenged. So that’s one of our challenges is to really make sure that these kids do have a chance to be challenged on a weekly basis.
We feel like we challenge them in training. We feel like we do a good job of putting obstacles in their way and giving them a pathway for success in training, but the games programs is a very challenging piece. Players should play older age groups and continually challenge the players.
That’s why it is important to seek out tournaments and international travel
Our number one objective is to produce individuals for our professional team and make each individual in our program as good as they can be.
Diane Scavuzzo: If your job is to develop pros in the first team, how do you deal with college recruitment?
Tony Annan: It’s really important that we don’t forget about education, and we don’t forget about the college game. The reality is out of our 120 kids that are in our development academy, three or four may be offered a professional MLS contract, as a homegrown.
The number increases when you include USL contracts but that leaves more than 11 players who have to go to college, get an education and try to go professionally through that route or just get a job. They need education.
We cannot forget about the college game and we don’t want to.
We still hold high standards of education because smarter players off the field are smarter players on the field.
We have a holistic approach and we have a really good relationship with a lot of great schools and we encourage our kids to play college soccer if they’re not quite right for what we’re trying to do. So, college is a big part of our program and it will be forever.
Diane Scavuzzo: If Stanford called you, you would pass the message on to the player, even if he was one of your top prospects?
Tony Annan: Gunn is a good friend of mine and of course I would.
But I tend out the way of a player’s choice — I don’t want to be the guy who said “Well, you should go there,” and then they don’t like it. We even fully fund a college camp. We take care of the coaches. It’s not a moneymaker for us and we have had more than 25 Division I top programs attending. And, we invited all the local clubs, so that it’s not just MLS kids.
We always try to give back to our soccer community and we are proud of our players.
2019 Academy Goal of the Year Nominees 🔥 pic.twitter.com/LXFh8JaVcv— ATLUTD Academy (@AcademyATLUTD) December 31, 2019