Norimasa Hirai’s secret to success: hard work

My April 2006 feature on future Japan swimming national team head coach Norimasa Hirai appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

JAPANESE COACH SHOWS HARD WORK PAYS OFF

By Ed Odeven

Magic Johnson proved that great players don’t always make great coaches. Countless others have done the same on sandlots in the Midwest, football fields in central Florida and far-flung locales around the globe.

Norimasa Hirai, on the other hand, has shown a person can become an exceptional coach by putting their mind to it.

Hirai, Tokyo Swimming Center’s head coach who is a yearly visitor to NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, went to the same pool in his homeland as a boy. He later attended Waseda University and competed on the university’s swim club.

One of Hirai’s unheralded teammates, who was two years his junior, made the 1984 Japanese Olympic Team. And it was during this time that Hirai realized he would never achieve notoriety as an athlete.

“When my junior went to the Olympics, I was very surprised and I said, ‘I want to do that, but I’m not good enough at swimming,'” Hirai recalled during an interview last week at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center.

“But I think I can be a great coach and go to the Olympics that way.”

That he has. Hirai attended the 2000 Sydney Summer Games and the 2004 Athens Summer Games, guiding Kosuke Kitajima to world records, world championship victories and Olympic gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter men’s breaststroke races in Athens.

Hirai’s maturation as a coach can be tied to the mid-1980s.

“Soon after that (the 1984 Summer Games) there was a Japanese swimmer that got busted for smoking marijuana and I was very shocked and surprised,” Hirai said through interpreter Lee Bliss, an NAU student. “And I realized not only could I be a great teacher of swimming, but I could be a great teacher of being a good, rich human being and help swimmers to not only grow athletically but to grow mentally as human beings.”

For 20 years now, Hirai has followed this approach.

And, oh, he works long hours, too.

A typical work day lasts from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday is a day off, “but I’m still with the swimmers,” he said.

STRONG WORK ETHIC

After the second of two workouts at NAU on a recent evening, Kitajima and Sakiko Nakamura, 15, a rising talent in the women’s 200 and 400 individual medley, described what it’s like to train under Hirai.

“The most important thing is he has made me work harder, but the reason I will do it is because I know that he cares about me,” Nakamura said. “He’s a good person and he’s not mean. He’s just trying to help me.

“If someone’s not getting a technique or something, he’ll stop and say, ‘Do it this way,'”

Contrast that with this extreme approach:

Robert Whiting noted in his now-classic book on Japanese baseball, “You Gotta Have Wa,” that manager Tatsuro Hiroko once ran a 59-day offseason training camp (no days off) that consisted of nine hours of daily drills. Pitchers were subjected to 430 pitches a day — every day — and had swimming and akido drills, too. Hitters didn’t have it easy, either. They took 600 swings a day.

Indeed, Hirai, who has earned the venerable title of sensei (teacher or master) from his peers, can still oversee demanding practices, but that’s not his most visible trademark.

This is:

“He has the best heart of any coach and he’s the most personable of any coach,” Kitajima said without hesitation.

THE BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS

Some 4,500 swimmers call Tokyo Swimming Center their home pool. Of that large group, Hirai and his assistants work closely with 300 of them.

Each autumn, they select the best of the best for elite training. This is a group of 60, ranging in age from 10 to mid-20s, which Hirai coaches from October until the end of December.

In January, 15 of the 60 make the cut for more intense training. Then, in March, eight of the 15 earn the right to travel to NAU for a monthlong high-altitude training camp.

“Our model is to take swimmers at 10 years old and totally invest in them,” Hirai said. “We don’t scout older swimmers into the program. We are not going to go looking for the hottest 15-year-old later.”

Instead, Hirai and his staff pay attention to the younger swimmers at TSC and monitor their development as they grow up.

“I knew Kosuke when he was 6 years old,” Hirai said proudly, adding that he first met Nakamura when she was a baby.

“If we know the swimmers when they are very young, we can watch them how they handle the pressure.”

How is this measured?

Each swimmer has an equal chance to become part of the top group.

“We start out by giving all the young swimmers … full attention, an equal chance,” Hirai said. “Then we wait to see which students with the same chance and the same coaching will naturally become better.”

“(That way) we know we are choosing people who are naturally better, not people who are (just) getting more attention than others.”

Kitajima, 23, rose to the top under this system — Hirai and his staff determined he was ready to come to Flagstaff when he was 15. He has nothing but praise for his longtime mentor.

“(Hirai) studies videos and he has incredible software on his computer where he’ll put video of different swimmers together,” Kitajima said. “And he watches them frame by frame, millisecond by millisecond, and looks at dives and strokes and just studies physics and knows how to swim best.”

You can’t argue with that.

 

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