JOHNSON… normally you find success comes with a group,
not as an individual and it is the group dynamics that make
this job easy for me and will help make them successful.
77-y-o American coach handpicks athletes, relies on group dynamics
BY PAUL A REID
Jamaican Observer writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
THREE top Jamaican athletes, including national record holder Dwight Thomas are part of one of the most exclusive training groups in professional track and field.
The group that is run by 77-year-old American track coach Brooks Johnson has less than 10 athletes whose specialities range from the sprints, sprint hurdles to the 400m and long jump and are based at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida.
Given his wealth of knowledge on the sport of track and field, a training group run by Johnson should have dozens of athletes, but that's not what Johnson wants. During an interview he gave to four international journalists in Orlando, Florida last month, he said not every athlete who wants to could just turn up at his sessions and added tongue-in-cheek "no one can walk in, we are very prejudiced here".
In addition to Thomas, who has held the national record in the 110m hurdles since 2009, there is female sprint hurdler Delloreen Ennis, as well as quarter-miler Novlene Williams-Mills.
American sprint hurdler David Oliver, who was undefeated in 15 outdoor races last season on the way to setting a new American record 12.89 seconds, the third fastest ever, is the biggest name in the camp that includes American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who is returning from a four-year drug suspension, sprint hurdler Joel Brown, one-time sprint phenom Xavier Carter, 2005 IAAF World Championships gold medallist Tianna Madison and Tiffany Ross-Williams.
Working with such high quality athletes is not that difficult Johnson said, as the athletes under his watch have already achieved success, and he says his job is easy.
"It is actually quite easy because a lot of the problems have already been resolved; these people were outstanding with Olympic credentials before they ever came here, so they know their way to the podium," he said. "Our job is to retrace the steps back to the podium, so it is quite easy."
Given that the athletes are hand- picked, Johnson, who was a college head coach between 1979 and 1996, says they are especially chosen for their qualities as teammates and how they act in a group environment.
"The people we chose to bring into the group are people who are hand-picked based on personalities, so we have personalities that are very compatible, so they basically inspire each other to go to the next level."
The advantage, he said, is that the athletes can push each other every day "further than a coach can push them".
Thomas was the first of the Jamaicans to end up with Johnson and was followed by Williams-Mills in 2009 after his former coach died, while Ennis is in her first season with Johnson.
Williams-Mills told the Observer she was drawn to Johnson after seeing how he interacts with his athletes while on the circuit, while Ennis, who has always trained by herself, said she is enjoying being part of the group.
Ennis said after contact was made with Johnson on her behalf, she travelled to Florida for a familiarisation trip before making the move late last year.
Johnson doesn't always get everything he wants, however, as he told the group he had invited Canadian sprint hurdler Perdita Felicien to join his group but after visiting, she declined to stay.
"Basic character," Johnson says is what it takes to be a part of his group, "not just competitive character, but the ability to share, a person who is like this while closing his fist, can't help us, a person who sees the big picture helps us."
As an example of the team dynamics in the group Oliver gets help with his start from Gatlin, and Johnson says, "no one has the total picture. Everyone has one or two exceptional things, so the job is to learn what are the exceptional things from your teammates and get that, but no one has the total picture."
Johnson, who has had an athlete in every Olympic Games since 1968, says "normally you find success comes with a group, not as an individual and it is the group dynamics that make this job easy for me and will help make them successful."
Thomas, he said, did well last season and will get better as he goes up against the world's best hurdler on a daily basis. "Everyday he comes here he knows where he is on the world scene because he has the number one guy with him, but it also helps David that Dwight is one of the few people that can compete against David."
What motivates him to be coaching well past his 50th anniversary in the sport? "I like kicking (butt)," he says, eliciting a laugh from the group. "I like to win, my whole life has been competitive," and he says he will continue "until they throw dirt in my face".