Japanese athlete with Phd degree aims to reach top performance in sports and research
Among the athletes who have qualified for, or are aiming to qualify for, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, there are those who are simultaneously building a completely different career. TOBE Naoto, a Japanese track and field athlete who holds the Japanese record of 2.35m in the men’s high jump, is one such athlete.
Tobe earned a Ph.D. at the University of Tsukuba Graduate School in the spring of 2019 while competing as a high jumper in the world’s top competitions. Employed by Japan Airlines as an athlete, he still finds time to continue his research on high jumping.
Let’s take a look at how he doubles as a track and field athlete and a researcher.
Academic papers opened his eyes to a new world
While staying at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tobe, like many other athletes, was unable to do his normal training and could only do muscle strength training at home and jogging in the local neighbourhood. Unable to do any specialised training as a high jumper, he used his time to read academic papers.
“Until the spring of 2019, I had been writing my doctoral dissertation, reading all kinds of papers to keep me updated. But after completing my degree, I hadn’t been able to acquire as much knowledge as before, so during the stay-at-home period, I used my spare time to read academic papers,” he said.
Eventually, Tobe decided to deepen his understanding of the sport of high jumping by researching the subject at graduate school. Having won his first Japan National Championships title in 2011 in his second year of university, he became renowned as a top Japanese high jumper. This led him to find more ways to be able to attain a higher level of performance.
“For a long time, I had been thinking about how I can jump higher. I had been reading coaches’ manuals and monthly athletics magazines to gather information, but I knew that wasn’t enough [information there]. Then, in my third year at university, I joined a seminar group to write my graduation thesis, where I had the opportunity to read academic papers. This experience was an eye-opener for me. I thought I might be able to get answers to all my unsolved problems and mysteries if I advanced to graduate school, so I decided to do so.”
At graduate school, he majored in coaching studies, spending two years to complete a master’s course and three years for a doctoral degree. Coaching studies is a relatively new academic field that investigates sports training and coaching. Although the principles of how sports change the human body had already been covered in previous studies, there was still a lot to be uncovered about the specific methods of effective training.
Tobe’s speciality in coaching studies was to find out how the principles of the high jump could be used to enhance athletes’ performances.
“The main part of my research was sports biomechanics (a field of sports science that studies the human body movement in sports from the perspective of mechanics). By attaching markers on a high jumper’s body, I recorded the body movement with an infrared camera, gathered data by using a motion capture system, and analysed the data." he said.
"I performed in-depth analyses of how the body moved in the running start and the take-off phases by using sports biomechanics methodology, although to analyse the motion in the air, a different new technology was needed.”
Tobe’s doctoral dissertation theme was Studies on the High Jump from the Perspective of Coaching. The Japan Society of Coaching Studies granted him a Research Award in 2019, partly in recognition of his research.
The importance of evidence-based training
Tobe strongly believes that “sports training should be carried out based on evidence,” as advocated by ZUSHI Koji, a former coach of the athletics club at the University of Tsukuba who specialised in coaching studies.
He was Tobe's mentor until his passing in June 2016. Zushi had advocated for evidence-based training - to analyse the body movements in sports and use the findings to make training much more effective. This teaching by Zushi has been the foundation of Tobe’s athletic endeavours to this date.
“Following Mr. Zushi’s instructions, I have always tried to conduct training based on certain grounds and evidence. My training regimen is based 100% on research. I can understand the technical aspects of the high jump because I conduct the research myself. Compared with other athletes, I’m able to assess my own movement more from a researcher’s viewpoint. I also try to be able to theoretically explain the motions of my body during high jumps.”
Since Tobe marked a Japanese record of 2.35m in February 2019, he moved back his take-off point by 30cm, further away from the bar. This was because, to raise the apex of his jumps, he not only needed to jump higher, but also had to broaden the entire parabolic trajectory of his jump. He also tried new kinds of training to improve his take-off.
“In a take-off, the planted foot is on the ground for a very short period of time—only about 0.15 second. The force placed on the foot at this moment is about one tonne, which means that the jumper needs to exert the same amount of power as standing with a weight of 1,000kg over 0.15 second," Tobe explained.
"Because jumpers need to exert a large amount of power in the shortest possible time, I practise jumping within a limited time frame, for example, jumping up immediately after jumping off from a high place and performing quick jumps repeatedly.:
His high jumps are based on evidence which includes his own research results and findings. It goes without saying, however, that apart from what he learned in graduate school about the science of the high jump, he also has an abundance of experience accumulated over years as an athlete. Athlete TOBE Naoto is shaped by a combination of both elements.
High jumping in two areas
It is not easy to juggle athletics and research. There were times when he would start go to the university from eight o’clock in the morning, train a few hours in the afternoon, and continue with his research until nine at night.
“When I got tired of looking at the computer screen, I could [do my training] to re-energise myself. While the fatigue from training could be resolved by sitting down to do some research so [in other words] athletics served as a breather in my research life, and research served as a breather in my life as an athlete,” he explains with a smile.
While time management had been difficult for Tobe, being a graduate student broadened his horizon.
“Doing a research is like a whole project that involves seeking instructions from an academic advisor and asking 50 to 60 people, including students of other laboratories, to cooperate. I’ve learned how to get the cooperation of many people to execute a task according to plan. Moreover, I even studied philosophy as a starting point for research. By tracing the history of philosophy, I learned how change my way of thinking and knowledge, so I was able to develop my ability to think.”
Having juggled both athletics and research has resulted in Tobe becoming the world’s top jumper.
His target for the Tokyo 2020 Games is to break his own Japanese record by jumping 2.40m and to win a gold medal. And after he missed the last Games partly due to an injury, he continues to be passionate about giving his all to next year’s Olympic Games.
In the remaining year, Tobe will be pursuing the ultimate high jump to reach a height that no Japanese athlete has ever reached before.