05 November 2008

Suhartono: Taking pencak silat overseas

Indonesia suffered a setback when pencak silat champion Diyan Kristianto was injured while fighting Brunei Darussalam's Amirul Ahati during the recent Bali Asian Beach Games. Ironically, the man who brought the Bruneian competitor to the point where he could vanquish a master of Indonesia`s home grown sport is himself Indonesian.

Suhartono, a former Indonesian pencak silat champion himself, began his journey to international prominence in 1995, when Vietnam asked the Indonesian Pencak Silat Federation (IPSI) to help them find a coach for their pencak silat team. Suhartono, who at the time was helping Jakarta's team prepare for the 1996 National Games as head coach, said he initially refused the offer.

"I asked them to look for another coach, because I was preparing the team for the national games. I said I would only go if they didn't find anyone else. It turned out they couldn't, so I had to go, because I had promised," Suhartono said.

The father of two took coaching the Vietnamese athletes very seriously. "The Vietnamese are a spirited people. They took learning silat maneuvers seriously. Their country's dedication to the sport helps silat's development," he said.

Suhartono helped Vietnam reach the top of international competition. Vietnam first demonstrated their new-found abilities at the 1999 Southeast Asian Games in Bandar Seri Begawan, where they earned three gold medals, three silver and two bronze.

Indonesia, however, dominated the games with five gold medals. At the 2001 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, the Vietnamese got revenge, defeating Indonesia. Suhartono's athletes brought home seven gold medals, three silver and two bronze. Indonesia won five golds, followed by Malaysia with three.

The achievement was repeated when Vietnam hosted the 2003 SEA Games. The hosts swept the games with seven golds, while Indonesia only brought home five. In 1999 Suhartono's success in coaching the Vietnamese athletes bought him the prestigious honorable star medallion class III, an award bestowed on him by Vietnam's then president Tran Duc Luong.

Suhartono also received the Huan Chuong VI Su Nghiep The Duc The Thao award from Vietnam's National Olympics Committee. After his success in coaching Vietnam's silat team, the Philippines' government asked him to train its athletes - he accepted the challenge.

When coaching the Philippines team, Suhartono had an uncomfortable experience, caught between his team members and Philippines' intelligence agents. Three months before the 2005 SEA Games, at the French Open, the Philippines team won six gold medals and became the general champion, but six out of the 10 athletes refused to return to their home country.

Suhartono had to ask for help from the president of the International Pencak Silat Association (Persilat), Edi Nalapraya, to stop his interrogation. Suhartono persevered, and prepared the four remaining team members for the 2005 SEA Games; they won one gold and two silver medals.

But, his former team, Vietnam emerged as general champion, with seven gold medals. Indonesia followed with five gold medals. After handling the Filipino athletes, Suhartono returned to Vietnam for a year to train the country's junior athletes before being asked by Thailand's Olympics Committee to train their team.

Seven months of training with Suhartono led the Thais to victory in the 2007 SEA Games with four gold, one silver and five bronze medals. Indonesia won five gold medals, while Vietnam won three. In April 2007, Brunei's Olympics committee asked the master to handle their athletes until 2010.

Suhartono said he might stay in Brunei for the next five years. "It's a process. Within the first two years of my time in Vietnam for example, we could only win two gold medals in a world championship," Suhartono said. In all his time coaching overseas teams, he faced a dilemma, knowing that he was sharing the knowledge and skill of his home land with its rivals. But, standing on a base of professionalism, his strong will to develop the sport kept him focused.

"Many questions were raised concerning my nationalism, but I have to say that my goal is to develop silat around the world, so that Indonesian's traditional sport can be known everywhere.

"My calling is to prove my professionalism. It's not a question of nationalism. I will be ready at any time if Indonesia needs me," said the man, who returned to Indonesia to train the Bali team for the July National Games.

Suhartono says the key to his coaching success is research. "A coach is not merely responsible for coaching but should become a researcher too. He should be up to date on the various techniques and know what to expect from a rival team," he said.

"Through this method a coach can combine techniques or even develop new ones," said Suhartono. Suhartono is currently preparing a book on the development of pencak silat techniques throughout history, as well as a video on the fighting techniques.

The man, who began learning pencak silat when he was just 10 years-old, said he explored other martial arts, such as boxing and karate, to combine their techniques with traditional Melayu martial art techniques. To explore pencak silat techniques further he had to learn how to use computer visualization programs.

Before leaving for Vietnam, Suhartono modeled for an illustrated book on fighting techniques, prepared by IPSI's research and development division, in collaboration with the ministry of education. However, the book was never published.

"After the head of IPSI's research and development division died, nobody paid the project any attention and I was already abroad. What I taught abroad is actually the content of the book," said Suhartono.

English may also be one of the 51-year-old coach's keys to success. Before forging his path as a professional pencak silat coach, Suhartono worked as a salesman of nuclear laboratory equipment, which gave him the opportunity to learn English. "One of my advantages as a coach is my language skills, many coaches have problems communicating with foreign athletes," he said.

Suhartono said that the many perguruan (schools of pencak silat), each with its own stances, hampers the sport's development. With more than 800 perguruans, he said it would be hard to combine techniques and tricks - especially if each perguruan was unwilling to cooperate.

"The problem with Indonesia is we have many systems but no willingness to sit together and evaluate the techniques and tricks or come up with new techniques to win fights". He also cited the bad relationship between IPSI's leaders as an impediment to pencak silats development in the country.

"There is an unharmonious relationship among the leaders. Everybody should be at peace with each other to make good decisions for the development of pencak silat".

He urged them to come up with up to date techniques and work hard on research and development in order to win.

"A coach is not only a physical trainer but a technical and tricks trainer. Someone may be big and have great power, but without the right techniques and tricks he will lose easily".

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