When we look at the words spoken by top athletes and the journey they have endured, we find many hints that may help us all lead better lives. That is because through the process of overcoming numerous challenges to reach their goal, elite athletes confront the path that lies ahead and contemplate every option in order to make the best choice.
MUROFUSHI Koji is a gold medallist in the men’s hammer throw. He became the first athlete from Japan to win at the event (during the Olympic Games Athens 2004), and went on to win a bronze medal at London 2012 at the age of 37. Koji currently serves as the Sports Director of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Tokyo 2020), while also helping to develop younger athletes in his role as professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University.
Koji is a legend in Japan’s athletics world, and his words are also full of hints that could help us live through these difficult times brought on by the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak that we’re all facing today.
Find a challenge unrelated to your own sport
Koji has a very impressive resume. He is an Olympic gold medallist, won a World Championship title and achieved 20 consecutive victories in the Japan Athletics Championships. His best record of 84.86m from 2003 still stands as the fourth longest hammer throw in the all-time world rankings.
Koji successfully competed among top internationals because of his natural talent as well as making ceaseless efforts to improve his training under the guidance of his coach and father Shigenobu. Koji is also an academic researcher (with a PhD in Biomechanics) that has enabled him to self-assess his own human-movements.
Koji was about to turn 38 when he won bronze at London 2012, and in the previous year captured gold at the World Championships. He continued to actively compete until he was 41.
Hammer throw involves throwing a 7.26kg (for men) metal ball attached to a wire and grip as far as possible by spinning three or four times before releasing the ball. A ball that is thrown 80m in distance travels at a speed of over 29m/sec, and the force on the wire reaches more than 350kg. Hammer throw not only requires strength, but also agility and instantaneous force. It is natural for physical abilities to decline with age, so it is not easy to accomplish what Koji did at his age.
So how did he do it? Koji spoke to Tokyo 2020 about a pivotal moment that became a turning point in his career.
“After participating at the Olympic Games [in Athens and Beijing], I took the following year off to rest in 2005 and 2009. I only took part in the Japan Athletics Championships. I did have some anxiety about not competing, but around the age of 30, the effects of long years of continuous hammer throwing began to take a toll on my body, and I needed to take a long break. But it didn’t mean that I didn’t do anything. I felt that it was important to experience something other than hammer throwing, to recover from the repetitive physical and mental strain following many years of throwing."
“The challenges that I took have helped me discover and develop new training methods. The hiatus proved to be very meaningful in terms of taking my career to the next step.”
2004 Getty Images
Doing things in the right order is the key to improvement
Koji took up various athletic activities that use different muscles from the hammer throw, including road cycling, long-distance running and swimming. In addition, Koji openly welcomed new skills and approaches to perfect the motion of throwing, such as studying net casting and learning to throw ninja tools like makibishi (caltrops) and shuriken (throwing stars).
“Everything was a discovery. The basics exist in all things. For example, even in swimming, establishing a good body position and posture is the key to improve swimming. You can improve faster if you understand the basics. It seems obvious, but everything has an order that should be followed in order to make an improvement. If you get into an odd habit at the beginning, it is quite difficult to go from minus to zero. I was reminded how important it is to train properly.”
Gain a wider perspective to get rid of stereotypes
It is noble to master one single discipline. However, if you get too fixated on a single subject, sometimes you end up becoming too narrow-minded. Koji’s life revolves around hammer throw, but he has developed other perspectives to fortify that axis of life.
“Even at work, you spend so much time doing something and it becomes routine that you start to think narrow-mindedly, ‘This is how it should be done’. You will never get a creative idea in that state of mind. You become fixated with the idea, ‘It must be done this way or I will never become better’, that any new idea becomes lost and forgotten. I learned this because I’ve been competing for a long period of time. When things aren’t moving forward or they’re stalled, it’s important to try something out of the ordinary or replace your routine with something totally different. In my case I took a one-year hiatus, but I figured that if I diverted my energy to something other than hammer throw during that time, it would benefit me when I returned to competing. So I took on many different challenges.”
Tokyo 2020 / Shugo TAKEMI
Analyse yourself objectively to overcome your weaknesses
At the same time as he was competing, Koji attended Chukyo University Graduate School and received his doctorate in 2007. He conducted academic research in sports biomechanics, and this allowed him to look at his own sport and skills objectively.
“At that time, there were very few active athletes who attended graduate school. It was too difficult to concentrate on your sport, and you’d have to cut down your training time for research and studies. But you never know when your career as an athlete is going to end, so I decided to look beyond what’s right in front of me and chose to pursue both. An athlete uses the body so you have good days and you have bad days. When I was having a bad day, I would work on my research and try to think what I could do to achieve a better outcome. Eventually my condition would get better, and I would train again. Having an objective view means that you sometimes have to look at your negative side. But if you want to change, you have to overcome your weaknesses. It’s important to analyse yourself thoroughly, so my research at grad school was extremely helpful.”
Increase your options for the future
Koji also insists that how you use your time becomes very important. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, companies are promoting remote work and this trend is expected to change our lifestyle and the way we work. How should we use our time effectively?
“I always tell young athletes, ‘Don’t think sport is all you need to do’. Nobody knows what will happen ten years from now. The world can unexpectedly change upside down like it has recently, or maybe your situation will change. Ten years from now, it’s better to have three options to choose from instead of having only one. It takes time to maximise your potential – one or two years is not enough time. Even when you are in your twenties, you often don’t know which path to take. In that kind of a situation, it’s better to have more options. So don’t throw away the chances you get. Take on a lot of challenges.”
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It’s important to get creative under the given environment and time restraints
Koji acquired his doctorate in graduate school and opened-up a chance to become a university professor. He increased his options by trying something new that could be useful after he retires from competitive action. Koji says it’s “important to get creative under the given environment and time restrictions.
“When your time is limited, you try to be efficient and think of the most effective way to get things done. Having a lot of time on your hands is not necessarily good. The same goes for your environment. In my case, if I didn’t have access to desirable training devices, I would go to a home improvement store and buy parts to build my own homemade original device. You won’t improve just by training and competing in existing environment. It’s fun to be creative in the process, and that is how you really grow and improve. You won’t gain anything by complaining about your environment or how your time is limited. You need to think what you should do under those circumstances.”
If you put your mind to it and work hard, you will find the way
As Sports Director of Tokyo 2020, Koji is working hard on the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which were postponed for one year.
The postponement of the Games is unprecedented, and no-one has ever experienced such a challenge. Facing the challenge falls within the spirit of “One Intention” itto ichinen (focus yourself into every throw), which is his guiding principle.
“I think it is important to put your spirit into each task and make the best effort. You will move forward and find the way. It was my objective when I was actively competing, and I still live by this guiding principal. The Olympic and Paralympic Games have never been postponed, but I am sure we can give hope to many people if we can deliver a successful Games. And I hope I can contribute to that in any way I can.”
The words of an athlete who has reached the top have a powerful effect. Although our lives and situations may differ, the words spoken out of experience resonate deeply.
Tokyo 2020 / Shugo TAKEMI