American coach tells PH track and field athletes: Dream bigger than SEA Games

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American athletics coach Rohsaan Griffin trains with the members of the Philippine team in Hong Kong in mid-July. “They still have enormous potential and room for growth,” Griffin says. Handout

Rohsaan Griffin found a career opening to coach the Philippine track and field team initially shut, but the American athletics veteran wasn’t letting a small thing such as an expiration notification stop him from getting work.

“I looked at the job posting and it was already passed, it was closed. But I’m going ahead and apply anyway,” Griffin said to himself at the time.

If Filipino athletes were to train under Griffin, they needed to share a similar resolve as their coach. And that’s the message Griffin has been trying to get across his team from Day 1 — the determination to never settle.

But as the world championships veteran acknowledges, he couldn’t tell at first how quickly the new athletes under his wing, who had only known a narrower outlook on success, would take to such a philosophy.

“You could tell somebody something, but to get them to really, really understand it are two totally different things,” said Griffin, who came on board in March after being part of the coaching staff of China’s national team.

“Did I think I can do it (the job)? Of course, I thought I could do it. How big of an impact would I have in such a short time? I didn’t know because I didn’t know the level of athletes that I’ll be coaching.”

From the get-go, the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association, the sport’s national-governing body, had described the need to see results as urgent, he recalls. Less than four months into Griffin’s tenure, strides were being made.

The team’s biggest accomplishment under Griffin’s watch was at the Asian championships on July 6 to 9 in Bhubaneswar, India, where the Philippines won a gold medal (Eric Cray, 400-meter hurdles), as well as a silver (Harry Diones, triple jump) and a bronze (EJ Obiena, pole vault), on top of a few national records that were broken. According to the PATAFA, it is the country’s best finish at the competition since 1991.

Griffin, who coaches track events, the long jump and triple jump, said all he has done is to take out “some of the things that don’t mean anything and incorporating the things that (the athletes) were missing and are essential to getting those performance-based results.”

In a recent interview with ABS-CBN News from his team’s Hong Kong training facility, Griffin further shares his thoughts on the recent past, the current state and the promising future of Philippine athletics.

On the keys to the team’s performance in the Asian championships:

I mean there’s nothing in particular that you can attribute it to. It’s just being prepared than they were previously. A lot of these guys were first-timers in a meet of this caliber. So they just showed up and performed, which is a little bit uncharacteristic of people who’ve never been in a situation like this.

On his first impressions of the team:

There really wasn’t a team dynamic. It was everyone doing little small pockets of training on different parts of the track. No one showed up on the same time to do warm-ups or go through drills. No one was sitting down analyzing what each individual was going through or doing wrong and needed correcting. It was just showing up to train and on to the next thing. That was one of the first things that needed to be corrected on top of some of the technical deficiencies and flaws in their training and their running programs.

On what he liked about the team when he first arrived:

I knew all of them had talent to some extent or they wouldn’t be on the national team. But I knew a lot of them had not reached or even scratched the surface of their potential and that can be shown in the fact that, prior to me arriving, only two people had invitations to the Asian championships in the first place. Those people were Marestella (Torres-Sunang, long jump) and EJ (Obiena, pole vault) because they had jumped standards that were worthy of being invited to the championships. Along the way 5 or 6 more people did sort of have outstanding performances and were considered to be able to go to the competition. Those people made the finals and broke national records along the way so it just goes to show that, with a little refinement, a little evaluation, a lot of things worked out in our favor. They still have enormous potential and room for growth. This is just the beginning. This only happened in a short period of time.

On talent differential with other countries:

When you have people competing on the global level at any capacity, there’s not a talent differential. There’s a differential in the way they go about the process in extracting that talent. All I did was took all the fluff out of training. A lot of people do things that are not actually conducive to getting your best results. It’s just there as a filler. So we have to take those things out and get to the basics, get to the grassroots level of what performance is all about. That’s all I’ve done in that case is taking out some of the things that don’t mean anything and incorporating the things that they were missing and are essential to getting those performance-based results.

On which athletes have benefited the most from his coaching:

I can’t say that there’s someone that just stands out who benefited more because, as you can see, the performances across the board have risen, so everyone has benefited. This is not even scratching the surface because nobody else sees what’s going on behind the doors. Regular people have injuries, we have setbacks, those things that a lot of people don’t know.

Going to the championships, we had two athletes who were injured who hadn’t competed before even going to Asia. Harry (Diones, triple jump) was one of them. He jumped the second best jump of his life. And Francis Medina was the other one. He ran the second fastest race of his life coming off an injury and setbacks. Those are the things that go along with the process that a lot of people don’t see and a lot of people wonder why, “This person didn’t do this or this person didn’t perform or this person show up, what happened?” There’s a lot that goes on behind the media pertaining to what’s going on with this team. But when all of a sudden you show up and all the events that you’re entered you get a medal in three of those events, then some people start second-guessing like, “Wow, where did that come from?” It’s always been there. It’s part of the process.

On his expectations of the team:

My expectations are higher than they have or themselves. That’s something that I noticed when I came here. They only want to be the best in the Philippines. They only wanted to be, “Oh, I want to win a SEA Games medal.” Harry Diones is a world-class triple jumper. Janry Ubas is a world-class long jumper. The 4 x 100 has the potential to make the world championship and the Olympic standard. So when we institute the proper processes to get these things in order… There’s 3 big years that are coming up. Next year’s the Asian Games, the next year is the SEA Games and the world championships, and the next year is the Olympics. So we have to keep along this path so that the true potential of these athletes can shine because they have an enormous amount of untapped potential.

You can’t just say, “We’re prepping for the SEA Games, let’s go get these medals” and then go back to how things were. You’ll never grow the sport in the country, you’ll never get the interest level of the sport high in the country, you’ll never get these athletes to buy into being better than just SEA Games medalists or the best in the Philippines. It goes beyond that. Now I think they’re starting to see they have the potential so they’re excited, they’re hungry and that’s the type of momentum you have to keep going in order to grow success in the sport and the country.

On instilling new values on the team:

You have to. You have to look at the long term because in 2019 Manila hosts the SEA Games, so you can’t show up in 2018 and start prepping and think you can build a team that’s just going to dominate the SEA games. At the same time, it’s a world championship year, which is important for the preparation of the following year, which is an Olympic year. So you can’t just keep on with these onesies and these twosies and these lower championships. Next year, there should be 15 people that show up in the Asian Games and there should be about 7 or 8 medals won in the Asian games. We should dominate the SEA Games. That’s the path we should take. Otherwise, money is being wasted, time is being wasted, resources are being wasted, talent is being wasted. If you don’t look at it long term, there’s no reason to be in the sport if you’re just living for the day. Track is a global sport that involves a calendar that happens in 4-year increments. The world championships and the Asian championships happen in 2 years, so in Asia really there’s not a down year in the sport.

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