Structural problem behind dirty tackle scandal

The Yomiuri Shimbun

From left, Hidenori Tomozoe, Ryuji Nakatake and Kaori Yamaguchi

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe recent uproar over an intentionally late, dangerous tackle by a Nihon University American football player has again highlighted that the “structure of obedience” that exists between coaches and athletes can invite misguided behavior that strays far from socially accepted principles. What caused this problem? What should be changed to fix it? The Yomiuri Shimbun asked three experts for their insights.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun June 1, 2018)

Case reflects pathology of Japanese society

This tackle became a major social issue because it illustrated the fact that, behind the actions of the Nihon University player who made the hit, there was a relationship governed by giving orders and obedience, and the play reflected the pathology of the social structure called a football team, rather than just a nasty foul committed by an individual. The “offender” was, in reality, in a weak position and appeared to be a victim of the structure of obedience. I think many people felt this overlapped with unfairness that they have personally experienced in Japanese society, so there was a groundswell of sympathy for the tackler.

An athlete’s future is at the mercy of the team’s head coach and other coaches. As soon as an athlete cannot produce good results or says “no” to the coach, they lose their place on the team. A student on an athletic scholarship who quits their team is essentially quitting the university.

For students whose lives revolve almost entirely around playing a sport, that equates to completely sinking their own career and negating their existence. Saying “no” to an order from a head coach or assistant coach just is not possible. This structure demanding obedience is a common denominator in the recent case of power harassment against a prominent female wrestler, and acts of violence committed against a group of female judoka and in school club activities.

Coaches required to produce results within a certain period also feel heavy stress. This would be even more so when a coach is involved in the management of a university that emphasizes sports as a way to improve the university’s brand. When a team trains hard day in and day out in its own bubble, and priority is given to behavioral principles that seemingly condone anything as long as the team wins, its actions will deviate from the ethics and norms held by society in general.

Most Japanese sports groups are worlds in which oral language is not the main tool of communication. Athletes are told to keep practicing until a certain skill becomes automatic, and players that read between the lines and thoroughly stick to what they’ve been told will win regular spots on the team. It’s just not possible for any misunderstanding to happen with this structure of non-verbal communication.

Coaches often employ the “Let people obey, not understand” principle by not giving athletes a jot of information. Keeping an athlete on edge creates a dependent nature, and they can be bossed around so they don’t become self-reliant. In the case of the Nihon University team, a scapegoat was deliberately created under the guise of “putting pressure” on a player — a typical example of using a negative approach.

The roots of this structure in which obedience is demanded can be seen in Japan’s history. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), military exercises were added to school gymnastics classes. Military drill practice started in line with the order to station army officers at schools during the Taisho era (1912-1926). Many of the stationed army personnel were not officers; they were rank-and-file military members. Violence and bullying were their preferred methods, rather than words, for forcing students to obey orders and physically exert themselves when commanded to do so. It seems this has been carried on in postwar sport clubs and other entities. Sport is a reflection of society. We can say the structure of obedience reflects the pathology of Japanese society.

Sport also is a vital sphere for society and has huge potential. From the time we are born until we die, sports are a part of life as vehicles for self-fulfillment, a reason for living, and to nurture our education as people. I hope the Nihon University case also will be a chance for people to look hard at the current situation in which ethics have been hollowed out and for new sports values to be sent out from Japan.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Wakako Yuki.

— Hidenori Tomozoe / Waseda University professor

Acting president of the Japan Sports Agency’s Council for Sports and chair of the Japanese Society of Sport Education. He has written a number of published works on sports ethics and education. Tomozoe is 61.

Role of coach is to bring out the best in players

The Nihon University case raises many issues — power harassment, the character of the coaches, whether the players could independently think for themselves and then act accordingly. I’m involved in nurturing coaches, and I feel more focus is needed on discussing how coaches should be.

I think a coach’s greatest task is to bring out a player’s ability as much as possible. The English word “educate” originally meant “to bring out” another person’s skill. Coaching methods will not change unless there is a shift from “How much can I make players do what I tell them?” to “How much can I draw out the players’ abilities and unlock their ideas?”

How can we develop a player’s self-initiative? Rather than fixating on personal accomplishments, it’s better for coaches to adopt an approach in which they are constantly thinking and learning.

However, there certainly was a time when experienced coaches issued instructions and the players who followed these orders would win. This was the easy option for the players being instructed and produced good results. Because sports are basically contests to find a winner and a loser, it is hard to completely deny that method of coaching actually generated successful results.

In the Nihon University incident, the player who made the late tackle also has to take responsibility for committing an action he essentially did not want to do. It is not just him; the same goes for other players, too. However, I wonder if players that had often tasted success by following the coach’s instructions would have the strength to say they did not like what was happening. I also wonder if the environment around the team would have allowed them to say that.

There is something I want all coaches, not just the ones at Nihon University, to reconsider. Do coaches, who oversee the team from a wide point of view, stand alongside players on their team and exchange opinions? The ideal relationship is one in which a coach brings the best out of the players, and the players bring the best out of the coach. For a coach to learn how to improve their own ability, sometimes they have to experience some uncomfortable moments.

When people are told the truth, it can cause a stir. But it is important that coaches earnestly take in the opinions of players and diligently apply themselves to their craft. Reforming the mind-set of sport coaches is what is needed more than anything. Just how aware are coaches that they do not just teach players, but they also learn for their own growth? People described as good coaches around the world are said to make good educators and teachers.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Masakazu Shimizu.

— Ryuji Nakatake / Managing Director at Sports Coaching Japan

As head coach of the Waseda University Rugby Football Club, Nakatake led the team to the national university championship two years in a row. He is currently coaching director at the Japan Rugby Football Union. Nakatake is 45.

Nihon University scandal just tip of the iceberg

Watching the uproar over the illegal tackle made me feel that there is a point missing. Observers criticized this tackle scandal, saying it was outrageous and should never have happened. What unnerved me was that nobody commented under a context that this could happen anywhere, which made it seem like someone else’s problem.

What Masato Uchida, the former head coach of the Nihon University team, did was just the tip of the iceberg. A similar thing might be happening right now in any team in Japan. For example, one player might be singled out as a target. This is group bullying, and creating one individual to bully forms a structure in which the other players become frightened and won’t disobey any instructions from superiors. A structure in which obedience is demanded can be found anywhere, from university sports clubs to companies. This is not something that people can view with indifference.

A sports coach is king of the castle, and it is hard for third parties to see what is going on inside the coaching regime. Even if they intend to play fair, they are in a tough, edgy world of competition where might rules and you have to outflank your opponent. Jigoro Kano, the father of judo, touted a principle of “seiryoku zenyo, jita kyoei” [Making good use of one’s energy; mutual respect for co-prosperity]. If a person with power does not learn how to make good use of their power, it could end badly.

There are deep-rooted reasons why this structure has not changed despite the alarm bells rung by a string of high-profile cases, including incidents in women’s judo and wrestling.

In 1964, Japanese athletes spectacularly won 16 gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, despite limited training facilities and sports systems. This feat made people believe it is the perseverance and grit that lead to athletes’ success. Successful experiences during the period that lifted Japan toward high economic growth have been ingrained as a memory of that generation: If you try hard, you’ll get there. You get out what you put in.

If you deny these maxims, you’re also denying how Japanese people have lived their lives, so it won’t easily change. To break free from this way of thinking, people of a certain age and older have to stop butting in and be prepared to leave decisions up to younger generations who grew up with the “Captain Tsubasa” manga and anime, rather than “Kyojin no Hoshi” (Star of the Giants) generation.

The players of the Nihon University issued a joint statement. I sensed that they had not been able to speak up even if they thought something was out of line, and they couldn’t disobey the coach. It reminded me of the 15 female judoka who could not voice their concerns about a coach’s corporal punishment until they did it as a group.

When I asked these women about what happened, they all said they thought what they endured was inappropriate but they could not change it or speak up. After athletes finish their competitive careers, many remain permanently involved in their sport. I couldn’t tell these athletes it would be OK to publicly release their names and make those complaints. That’s the reality of the sporting world.

Only a few Japanese athletes, such as speed skater Nao Kodaira, have the maturity to become a role model and ability to convey their opinion on social issues. Then again, that is because the sporting world and coaches are not nurturing athletes to mature as people. Why do we spend money on athletes? Isn’t it to develop athletes who can inspire people and give something back to society — and not just to help them win a medal? I think this is the true meaning of learning from the Nihon University incident and taking another look at the existing structure of sports.

— This interview was also conducted by Yuki.

— Kaori Yamaguchi / University of Tsukuba professor

A gold medalist in the women’s 52-kilogram division at the 1984 World Judo Championships and currently an executive board member of the Japan Olympic Committee. Yamaguchi is 53.Speech

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