“We need to break down the fixed notions that exist in the sports world. For example, the idea that athletes won’t develop without strict coaching.” Kensuke Nakaniwa coach of Rinka Watanabe

Posted on 2023-08-24 • No comments yet


Translation of the article and interview with Kensuke Nakaniwa, Japanese former single skater, coach of Rinka Watanabe, Ami Nakai, Yuna Aoki and Shin Jia.

source: jbpress.ismedia.jp dd. 17th May 2023 by Takaomi Matsubara

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Rinka WATANABE (@rinkaaaa_0719)

In the 2022-2023 season, two standout athletes emerged: Senior skater Rinka Watanabe and Junior skater Ami Nakai. Watanabe made her debut in the Grand Prix Series, gaining victories and earning a spot in the Grand Prix Final. She also competed in her first World Championships. Similarly, Nakai made her debut in the Junior Grand Prix Series, securing wins like Watanabe and advancing to the Junior Grand Prix Final. She also won a bronze medal in the Junior World Championships.

What these two athletes have in common is that they are both coached by the same coach on the same team — Kensuke Nakaniwa of MF Figure Skating Academy. He is currently 41 years old.

Watanabe has often mentioned Nakaniwa, with a particularly memorable instance being at the World Championships. After her performance, Watanabe touched upon how Nakaniwa had tears in his eyes and said, “You can’t cry over things like this. You’ll come back to this place next year.”

“(Before my performance), Coach’s expression was very serious, so I patted his back and said, ‘Don’t be too serious,’ and we both laughed.”

This interaction revealed a unique coach-athlete relationship in the sports world, one that’s characterized by an absence of strict hierarchy or mentorship dynamics. It offered a glimpse into the genuine nature of their coaching relationship.

What is the coaching philosophy behind Kensuke Nakaniwa, the coach who supported these two athletes’ progress? Let’s first trace his journey.

Based in Fukuoka, Kensuke Nakaniwa, known for his appearances on the podium at the Japanese Nationals and international competitions like the Four Continents Championships, as well as being recognized as a quad jumper, retired after the 2010-2011 season. He embarked on the path of coaching.

“About 4 or 5 years before retiring, I had a vague thought about becoming a coach. Since I had only been involved in skating, I wondered what I could do within the realm of skating. Also, I enjoy games, not player-controlled games, but simulation games. I was interested in things like nurturing, more than being a player. It matched well with my inclination, so becoming a coach was a natural fit.”

Continuing from his time as an athlete, when he began coaching at the “Fukuoka Papio Club,” Nakaniwa pledged to “repay three things” as a coach.

“There are things I want to repay”. First, it’s to my mentors. I met Miwa Ishihara-sensei when I was in elementary school and never changed my main coach until retirement. This is quite unusual. First and foremost, I wanted to give back to Ishihara-sensei, who guided me. And then, since there was the environment of Fukuoka, where I grew up, I wanted to elevate and strengthen Fukuoka’s figure skating community. The third is to give back to the world of figure skating.

When I started as a coach, I had to rethink my approach to coaching. Initially, I tried to motivate the athletes, sometimes pushing them and at times being strict. There was a period when I taught rigorously. However, the athletes’ results didn’t improve. In the end, I can’t be naturally strict with people. If the results weren’t improving, then I thought maybe there wasn’t a need to be so strict.”

Simultaneously, I realized I lacked knowledge. Unlike becoming a school teacher where there’s formal education in teaching, becoming a coach didn’t provide that structure. Recognizing the importance of having information, knowledge, and experience in teaching, I attended seminars on coaching skills unrelated to figure skating for about a year. I wanted to improve my skills as a coach. I focused on this between my second and third years, and during this time, I was recommended for a project to train coaches in Fukuoka Prefecture. I spent around three years learning.

Initially, there were eight sports associations and eight individuals involved. This was a significant experience. Until then, I had only lived through figure skating, only seen myself in a limited space. But through this project, I got to know people from various sports, and they were from different age groups. It might sound a bit strange, but I felt like I was stepping into the real world.

While learning and interacting with people in various settings, there was something I felt. I realized that we need to break down the fixed notions that exist in the sports world, the so-called ‘common sense’ beliefs. For example, the idea that athletes won’t develop without strict coaching.”

Even with strict coaching, the athletes weren’t improving. It was also related to his personality. These factors combined and overlapped, shaping the direction he took as a coach.

“I think people who let their emotions guide their coaching don’t do it because they dislike children, but because they feel they don’t have any other options. Generalizing is not good, and there were many great coaches, but there were often situations where people would cross the line or create a certain atmosphere. Coaches who grew up in that era and became coaches might not have learned methods beyond what they experienced themselves. It was a time when I realized that if I keep learning, I don’t have to rely solely on my own experiences.”

If it’s fun, if it’s bright, and if the children are satisfied, they will take initiative themselves. They will find value in the sport of figure skating.”

Focusing on that, Kensuke Nakaniwa achieved results as a coach. At that time, a turning point came.

After retiring from active competition, Kensuke Nakaniwa began his coaching career at the same place he had spent his athlete days, the ‘Papio Figure Club.’ As he coached, he gradually established his coaching direction.

Guiding the athletes to achieve results in competitions, Nakaniwa felt a sense of accomplishment in achieving two out of the three goals he had initially set — repaying his mentor and giving back to Fukuoka.

“The remaining question was how to give back to the world of figure skating.”

At that time, a certain contact came up. It was from ‘Patiné Leisure,’ responsible for setting up, operating, and managing the ice rinks. This occurred in March 2020.

“They contacted me, and they came to Fukuoka for a conversation.”

The content of the conversation was unexpected.

“They said, ‘We have created this opportunity, so you can become the head coach and freely build your own team.’ It was an unexpected proposition.”

‘This opportunity’ refers to a new ice rink that was planned to be established in Funabashi City, Chiba Prefecture. Later on, it opened as the ‘Mitsui Fudosan Ice Park.’ Kensuke Nakaniwa had no knowledge of this development, and while he was aware of Patiné Leisure’s existence, he had never been deeply involved. Therefore, the fact that he was chosen for this position felt mysterious to him.

“As I heard from various people involved, it seemed that my name came up the most.”

This was a time when the world was shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Japan was also under a state of emergency. This period coincided with the loss of training environments.

However, arriving at a conclusion wasn’t easy. He consulted with his mentor and coach, Miwa Ishihara.

“‘It’s such a grateful opportunity, so you should accept it,’ is what I felt. The fact that I am where I am is thanks to Coach Ishihara. Her encouragement played a significant role in pushing me forward,” Nakaniwa recalls.

With gratitude towards Patiné Leisure for entrusting him with this significant responsibility, Nakaniwa decided to accept the offer.

However, there was a concern. At that time, the Papio Ice Arena, where the club was based, was under consideration for closure. Fortunately, it is still operational now, but there was a real threat of closure, as it had temporarily closed at the end of June 2021.

Under such circumstances, a move could raise suspicions. Even though he had no intention of abandoning the Papio Club, there was the fear that voices might emerge questioning whether he was leaving Papio behind.

Those fears proved to be unfounded.

“Of course, many people were saddened. However, there was almost no critical feedback, and that was truly appreciated,” Nakaniwa explains.

Becoming the Head Coach of MF Academy, Nakaniwa rekindled his commitment to one of her remaining three promises: “giving back to the world of figure skating.” Upon his appointment, he pondered over his guiding principles.

“First and foremost it’s independence. To put it differently, autonomy. It’s about taking the initiative, choosing the path to become better on your own. Also, having imagination. To add a bit more, it’s about having imagination about the near future. This means imagining that if you take certain actions now, you can anticipate how things will be in the near future. It involves making choices about how you should be based on that imagination. It also includes having imagination about other people. Imagining how your words and actions will be perceived by your fellow practice mates, parents, and the people around you. All of these aspects are crucial when it comes to imagination, and they are very important to me.

At the same time, another aspect I emphasized is giving your best effort. This also includes not fearing failure.”

“I do have a somewhat perfectionist side, but the ultimate conclusion of being a perfectionist is not taking action. It’s possible to get caught up in various anxieties, saying that you need to prepare for many things, and before you know it, a month could pass by. Instead of that, it’s about starting from a place where you acknowledge that there’s no guarantee of things going perfectly from the start and that it’s okay to fail. After all, no one could have imagined the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to the mindset of being okay with failure, but not just casually saying ‘it’s fine because I’ll fail,’ it’s about giving your best effort whenever possible. And as a result, any mistakes that may come from that effort are not a problem.

In figure skating, ultimately, even if you fall on the opening jump, if you nail the rest and achieve the highest score, you win. It’s a sport where even if the short program doesn’t go well, you can make up for it in the free skate. There are cases where athletes are too afraid of failure, and if they miss the first jump, they crumble and fall apart. In that sense, I believe that pursuing perfection too much and fearing failure are not beneficial.”

Establishing his coaching approach in Fukuoka, Kensuke Nakaniwa embarked on his journey as the Head Coach of the MF Academy, delving deeper into his coaching direction, marking the start of his days at the Academy.

Joining him were skaters like Rinka Watanabe and Ami Nakai.

In the 2022-2023 season, among the athletes coached by Kensuke Nakaniwa, there were two in particular who demonstrated remarkable progress: Ami Nakai and Rinka Watanabe.

Nakai made her debut in the Junior Grand Prix series, winning in her second event and advancing to the Junior Grand Prix Final. She also secured a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships. She garnered attention by successfully executing two triple axels in the Free Skate at the Japanese Nationals, placing fourth.

Watanabe participated in her first Grand Prix series and clinched victory in her debut at Skate Canada. She advanced to the Grand Prix Final and also made her first appearance at the World Championships.

Nakaniwa has been coaching both of them since the 2021-2022 season.

“Ami Nakai’s strength lies in her competitiveness. This applies not only to her attitude towards others but also towards herself. She doesn’t want to lose to the goals she sets or to the desire to improve. Another aspect is her ability to diligently focus on the task at hand. She’s an athlete who can consistently give her best effort for that day’s goal.”

That’s why he says, ‘I’m not surprised by last season’s results,’ and he continues:

“In the first year, it was an addition of our efforts, but in the second year, a foundation of trust developed, and that addition turned into multiplication. If the multiplier remains at 1, the result won’t grow significantly, but she, being who she is, amplified the multiplier, and I also worked to enhance it. I believe that’s what happened in the second year.”

He also considers the challenges ahead.

“From here on, she’s entering a phase of growth. I’ve had seasons where I grew 20 centimeters in height, and for women, their bodies also change. Everyone faces a certain ‘wall’ at some point, and I anticipate that. I’m starting to prepare for how to approach this phase and what kind of efforts to make.”

Speaking about Watanabe, he says:

“She has the same strengths as Nakai, pushing herself in practice and, fundamentally, being cheerful. She’s still young at 20, but she’s a good older teammate.”

He then touches upon the World Championships. Referring to when Watanabe finished her free skate with tears and mentioned the words to him while he teared up, he says, ‘If you cry over something like this, it won’t do. You’ll be back in this place next year.’ He also shared about his expression before her performance being a bit stern, and how she playfully slapped him on the back, addressing those tears.”

“The World Championships, in a sense, is the pinnacle event of the figure skating world, an event that I, during my competitive years, almost reached but never quite got to. Both Watanabe and I were making our first appearance, starting in a situation where we didn’t really know anything, going through a challenging preparation period, facing difficulties. And then we participated in the World Championships hosted in Japan. It’s not often you get to compete in a championship held in your own country. There was a sense of gratitude because I’m here because she worked hard, and there was also frustration that I let her down with the mistakes in the Short Program during the competition. There were various emotions. Those emotions were in those tears.”

The story that Watanabe shared didn’t seem to convey a vertical relationship, like ‘superior-subordinate’ or ‘mentor-mentee’; it felt as if it was devoid of such dynamics. Central to this, Nakaniwa also makes reference.

“Between a coach and a skater, while there are roles, I don’t think it’s fundamentally a hierarchical relationship. If we were to describe the connection, I believe ‘relationship of trust’ would be the most fitting term.”

Even in those words, Nakaniwa’s stance as a coach was clearly apparent.

After a season of growth, both Nakai and Watanabe will continue evolving in the future. Additionally, Nakai will eventually transition to the senior level.

“I think it’s invaluable to have world-class athletes like Mai Mihara and Kaori Sakamoto on the same team. Running the course alone is quite challenging, and being in an environment with high-level skaters is very precious.”

Not limited to just these two, Nakaniwa believes in fostering mutual growth within the team, considering it as a source of improvement.

As two seasons have passed since becoming the Head Coach, Nakaniwa is also moving forward into a new season.

Once again, he is asked about his aspirations.

“My greatest aspiration for the future is to change the world of sports through the sport of figure skating. While achieving results and aiming for victory are important, the overarching goal is to transform sports as a whole. By focusing on winning and adhering to the principles of sports integrity, I want to bring about a shift in the way sports are coached. This not only protects children but also advances the field of sports. Ultimately, this effort will serve as a way of giving back to figure skating. To receive everyone’s support, coaching must be conducted with integrity, and my goal is for figure skating to become a beloved sport for all. I believe that this is my greatest way of giving back, and I am committed to continuing these efforts.”


Related topics: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *