The Swimming Legend Who Trained Three Gold Medalists Reveals the Conditions of a World-Class Swimmer | FRIDAY DIGITAL

The Swimming Legend Who Trained Three Gold Medalists Reveals the Conditions of a World-Class Swimmer

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Coach Hakumasa Hirai is pictured with Yui Ohashi (right), who won gold medals in the women’s 200m and 400m individual medley at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021 (Photo: Kyodo News)

The 99th Japan Swimming Championships, in which swimmers vie for the title of number one swimmer in Japan, began on April 4 at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. Taking on the challenge of this important event, which also serves as a selection event for the World Swimming Championships to be held in Fukuoka Prefecture this July, is Hakumasa Hirai, a leading figure in the world of competitive swimming in Japan. Having trained three gold medalists, Kosuke Kitajima, Kousuke Hagino, and Yui Ohashi, as well as many other great swimmers, Mr. Hirai has always sought to win in the world as a coach. He has now published a book entitled ” Reasons to Win. –The process of victory as revealed by the famous coach who trained three gold medalists” (Baseball Magazine, Inc. ), ” he talks about what it takes to become the world’s No. 1 swimmer and the difference between a winner and a non-winner.

Shohei Otani’s inner strength in the WBC

I was watching the WBC live on TV when I heard a commercial saying, “Japan needs the world’s No. 1 athlete now.” I thought to myself, “That’s right!”

The man with the power in his voice is Hakumasa Hirai, a swimming legend who has achieved many brilliant results at the Olympics and world championships. He says that watching the World Baseball Classic (WBC) this spring, which had the whole of Japan in a frenzy, gave him a lot of inspiration. He was particularly impressed by Shohei Ohtani, who was unfazed by the big stage and showed his ability in a spectacular performance.

He said, “I think the reason why Ohtani was able to perform so well was because he was in the severe environment of Major League Baseball on a daily basis and even won the MVP award. It is because you are competing on the highest stage on a daily basis that you can enjoy playing on that stage. I think that there is a certain level that only those who have made it that far can understand.”

In his book, “The Reason Why We Win,” published at the end of March, Mr. Hirai states, “Sports is a game against the opponent, but if you pursue it to the end, it becomes a battle against yourself. published at the end of March, Hirai said as much. In the way Ohtani played in the WBC this year, I felt his inner strength to win the battle against himself,” he said.

I am sure he is not going to let his dream remain a dream, and he will spare no effort to achieve it. I was impressed by his last pitch to Mike Trout: “He throws a ball like this here? I was impressed. Of course you compete with your opponents, but I felt that Otani was competing with himself more than anyone else.

Kosuke Kitajima (left) and head coach Hakumasa Hirai laugh loudly during a practice session for Japan’s national team in 2012 (Photo: Kyodo News)

Great success is achieved through a series of small successes.

Hirai, who has competed in numerous international competitions and served as head coach of the Japanese national team and chairman of the swimming committee of the Japan Swimming Federation, is another man who has been pursuing Japan’s success in the world. Having experienced many triumphs and defeats, Hirai describes the condition for winning at the world championships as “not being afraid of change.

“A gold medal is a great success, but great success is achieved by repeating small successes. In the process, there will always be areas that need to be changed in order to make progress. However, once you reach a point of perfection and the results are achieved, you become afraid to change. That’s where having the courage to change is important.”

The perfect form, so to speak, is a state in which the various elements have been balanced. If you try to raise the level of perfection, it is inevitable that the balance of the whole will be temporarily disrupted.

For example, if you try to increase the power of the technique, the technique will be disturbed. If the output changes, the technique to control it also changes, so it is natural for it to be disrupted. Often, athletes say, ‘I feel discomfort when I do weight training, so I want to stop.’ It is natural for them to feel discomfort, and if they stop there, their growth will also stop.

Not being afraid of change is also an important element for instructors. Sports are played by people with opponents. No matter how carefully you plan, things rarely go as planned. Mr. Hirai himself has experienced such situations on various occasions.

At the Athens Olympics in 2004, when I competed with Kosuke Kitajima, the world record was broken by Brendan Hansen of the United States five weeks before the games. My original plan was to make some light adjustments at the end and head into the Games, but that was not enough to catch up, so we decided to strengthen until the very last minute. ‘Kosuke, are you okay with that?’ I asked him, ‘If you say so, let’s do it. If he says so, I feel responsible for him, and I am determined to do it.

Hirai, who has trained three Olympic gold medalists, Kosuke Kitajima, Kosuke Hagino, and Yui Ohashi, laughs, “Each of them was a completely different type.

He laughs, “Each of them was a completely different type of athlete. At that time, we were supported by many people as “Team Kitajima,” and he was outstanding in his ability to carry everything that had been created by gathering the strength of various people and to give 100% performance in the race. Hagino is a genius for hard work, and he is able to do hard training that others would never be able to do, without any trouble. When it comes to perseverance and self-discipline, Kitajima had a great self-discipline to beat himself above all else, and Hagino had an extraordinary perseverance.”

What about Ohashi, who won two individual medley titles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

Ohashi, who won two individual medley titles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is one of the best female swimmers ever. She has so much potential that her talent has not yet fully blossomed. However, she is very sensitive, and at Tokyo 2020, she almost had a mental breakdown just before the event due to a sense of anxiety. But she said, “I’ll try my best one more time,” and so I abandoned my old way of thinking and devoted myself to doing whatever I could to help Ohashi get better. Then, little by little, things started to improve.

Kitajima is the most daring, able to take on challenges that are uncertain, and Hagino is the most cautious. All three of them are really different types, and if the order had been reversed, I am sure I would have fallen behind with the first one (laughs).

Kosuke Hagino talks with coach Hakumasa Hirai (left) after finishing first in the men’s 400m individual medley at an invitational sanctioned swimming record meet in November 2015 (Photo: Kyodo News)

What separates the winners from the losers

In my long career as a coach, I have seen many athletes with outstanding talent who have not been able to achieve the results they had hoped for. So, what is the difference between the winners and the losers?

In the end, I think it comes down to fear of change. They don’t want to break the shape they once established, so they stop growing. Players who say, “This was fine back then,” are convinced that their own way of doing things is successful, so they take it as if they are being criticized, even when those around them are telling them that they can do better. Small differences in such areas can make a big difference in the end.

Ohtani, mentioned at the beginning of this article, also commented at a press conference after the end of last season, “If I do the same thing as the previous year, will I get the same numbers? In fact, I think they will go down. It is precisely because he is competing day in and day out in a tough environment where he cannot survive without change that he has been able to progress to such a high level of performance.

In the epilogue of Reasons to Win. In the epilogue of the book, Mr. Hirai says, “Being the best in the world is not the same as competing in the world.” When we asked him what he really meant by that, he replied, “I’m not aiming for gold medals or world records.”

When I asked him what he meant by that, he replied, “Aiming for a gold medal or a world record means challenging yourself to do something that no one has ever done before. On the other hand, if you just want to compete in the world, you can do it surprisingly well even if you are just imitating someone else. Competing in the world and winning there are completely different, from the approach to the determination required.

Unlike physical strength, mental energy fluctuates greatly, and without a clear and grand goal or objective, it becomes weak. Because we have a grand goal of becoming the best in the world, we have a lot of energy to face that goal. When I kept on going with the belief that I would be the best in the world, I really became the best in the world. I think the best thing about winning the gold medal was that I realized that.

Looking ahead to the World Swimming Championships in July and the Paris Olympics next year, Hirai is enthusiastic, saying, “I want to challenge myself to do more new things. We look forward to seeing what challenges he will continue to take on in the future.”

Mr. Hirai coaching athletes at Toyo University (Courtesy of Baseball Magazine)
  • Interview and text Mitsunobu Naoe

    Born in Kumamoto City in 1975. After graduating from Kumamoto Prefectural High School, he went on to graduate from the School of Commerce at Waseda University. He started playing rugby at Kumamoto High School and competed in the Flower Garden in his junior year. He is currently working as a freelance reporter mainly for Rugby Magazine. Author of "Waseda Rugby: Struggle for Evolution" (Kodansha)

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