Athletics: Cunha happy with positive attitudes of sprinters

Athletics: Cunha happy with positive attitudes of sprinters
The new Singapore Athletics Association head coach (sprints/ hurdles), Luis Cunha.

SINGAPORE - Luis Cunha was appointed last month on a two-year contract as the Singapore Athletic Association's (SAA) new head coach for sprints and hurdles.

The 50-year-old Portuguese is a certified International Association of Athletics Federations course director and has been given short-term and long-term goals by the SAA.

His immediate task is to "polish up" local athletes for June's South-east Asia (SEA) Games on home soil, while he is also expected to try and take the level of local coaching higher in the long run.

Last week, The New Paper caught up with Cunha, who competed in the 1988 (100m), 1992 (4x100m) and 1996 (100m) Olympics, and had been Portugal's national team coach from 2003 to 2014.

1. Are you settling well into your new job?

I'm still getting to know everything. Normally, in coaching, you have a group and every now and then, two or three new individuals join, so it's easy.

Here, my main difficulty is everything and everyone I'm working with is new - the coaches, the athletes.

2. The SAA has called you a "polisher" ahead of the SEA Games. Are our track athletes making progress for the biennial event?

Right now, I cannot give a prediction about how fast my athletes can run or whether they can win at the SEA Games. Some of them have trained with me for only a week.

First, I have to find out what the athletes used to do when they trained, and I'm still learning every day. Then, little by little, I try to give some advice.

Every athlete has a different goal, so I have to come up with programmes that are specific to each of them.

3. What is your assessment of the local sprinters you've worked with?

One of the things that has surprised me is their acceptance to feedback.

If I ask them to do something differently - small details in one or two approaches - they can make the change easily.

In my experience, this is not always the case.

We are talking about athletes who have done the same things for many years and it's difficult to change their approach.

But the athletes here have a positive attitude.

4. You mentioned in an earlier interview the need for a professional approach off the track as well. With a trip to Sydney coming up in March, will it be a good chance for you to keep an eye on them 24 hours a day?

I'm not sure about 24 hours a day - I don't sleep with them! But, of course, they're going to have rules to follow.

And if they want to perform well, they have to understand the difference between "I have to do something" and "I want to do something". They're almost similar phrases, but they're different.

The athletes must realise it's not just about coming to training and working hard.

That's why I gave the example of Cristiano Ronaldo when I met the media the first time.

He's one of the world's best and it's not only because of what he does in training, but what he does outside of it too.

5. We understand that your methods include using a high-speed camera to record training footage, so you can point out the finer details of your sprinters' movements, like how the "Mythbusters" test some of their experiments.

Yes, it's one of the things I like to use and it's something athletes also like to see.

Sometimes they think they are doing something but, after seeing the footage, they realise they are doing it differently than they think.

For me, it's important for the athletes to know why they have to do what they do. They have to understand the technical side of the race.

They must do all the exercises always with this thought: "I want to run faster."

6. What has been the biggest challenge for you here?

The main thing that bothers me is the lightning warning system at the stadiums. It has affected us a little bit. Because you plan for something and, when it rains and there's lightning, it's difficult to have a Plan B.

I arrive at the track, beautiful day, blue sky, then - boom - the warning comes on and we cannot use the track. It's the only thing.

7. You've taken over coaching national athletes like women's 100m and 400m hurdles record-holder Dipna Lim-Prasad as their long-time coach Viatchelsav Vassiliev's contract with the Singapore Sports School was not renewed. What do you make of the arrangement?

For me, it's not really comfortable because if you were to give the athletes a choice I think they would prefer to train with Slava.

A lot of them trained at a very important age with this coach, so they learnt a lot, not only as athletes but also as a person.

For athletes, it's not an easy change. The runner and the coach don't want the relationship to stop, but it happens sometimes for whatever reasons.

In team sports, a change of coach is completely normal but, in individual sports, not so.

8. Lastly, TNP understands you went to university with a "special" Portuguese coach.

Yes, I was in the same university as Jose Mourinho and we did the same course (sports science at the Technical University of Lisbon). But he's older than me, so he was a senior and I only saw him walking around school.

As the new guy, I knew who was the boss.

The Cunhas are a family of sprinters

By his own admission, new national sprints coach Luis Cunha has not had too many opportunities for sightseeing in Singapore.

"I have no free time... I know the way from my home to the office to the track and back," he chuckled, when The New Paper caught up with him last week.

Now that wife Graziela is in Singapore, however, the 50-year-old says he might be able to make time to see some of Singapore's more famous attractions.

The Portuguese was appointed head coach for sprints and hurdles by the Singapore Athletic Association (SAA) last month, and says he is settling into life here.

But he admits he is still getting used to a few things.

For example, even though his apartment in Kallang is "15 minutes away" from the Singapore Sports Hub, where the SAA's office is based, he says he has learnt the hard way to take the train to work.

"It's too hot for me," the three-time Olympian sheepishly said.

"I tried walking but, by the time I got to office, I'm drenched.

"So, it's just a 15-minute walk, but I have to take a shower."

Cunha has two sons - 20-year-old Filipe and 18-year-old Manuel - who are both in university and are also sprinters.

While Manuel runs in the 400m event for Portugal's junior team, Filipe has taken time off from the sport to focus on his degree in IT.

Perhaps it is only normal for Cunha's two boys to be quick on the bitumen - after all, their mother was also a national sprinter for Portugal.

In the SAA's press conference to announce his appointment on Nov 28 last year, Cunha admitted that a move to South-east Asia was a move "out of my comfort zone", having spent the previous 11 years as coach of the Portuguese team.

But he insists he is game for the challenge of adapting to life here, even if the food takes some getting used to.

SAA general manager Yazeen Buhari burst out laughing when he recounted Cunha's first meal in Singapore.

"I brought him to my house and we ate Indian food... I think he drank a whole gallon of water," said Yazeen.

Said Cunha: "In Portugal, spicy food and alcohol are the two most common things, but I don't like food that is hot and I don't drink!

"Anyway, for now, when I eat I will go with somebody who knows local food, because in Singapore you have a lot of different types.

"I like to eat food I'm familiar with and, at the moment, my favourite dish is chicken rice.

This article was first published on Jan 12, 2015.
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