Conversation with Dr Satoru Tanigawa

I was at the warm up track at the World Championships in Moscow, 2013,  and feeling quasi-smug because David Oliver was looking good in his rounds of the 110 hurdles. Hopefully we had finally beaten the injury and anemia bug that had plagued him since 2011. That meant the podium was definitely in sight again at last and I was intensely focused on thinking about what I could do to make it happen. So when I was approached in between races by a Japanese man with a broad smile and slight swagger,….and camera,  I was ready for some sort of photo  encounter that I really was not in the mood for. He was very brisk and seem to understand the circumstances and stated that he would like to speak with me later. Relieved, I very quickly  replied in the affirmative. David had hit hurdle #8 in the semi-final round and the Russian beat him, and I was about to tell him all about it when he let me know he was aware of the mistake and assured me he would fix it in the final,…. and win. So the only left for me to do was to sit down and wait.  Later at 8:30pm in the call room he looked up at the clock and said to himself that in a half hour he was going to be a world champion. A little after 9:00pm he won by the largest margin ever in that event at the World Championships and everything that had passed previously was forgotten in the flush of victory.

This summer, 2014,I got an e-mail from John Millar inquiring if I would be amenable to having the national coach for the hurdles of Japan come and monitor our training for the 2013-2014 year.  John had coached him in the early 2000s, and in addition, he had also coached an Olympic gold medalist in the hurdles, so I was very receptive to anyone he would refer. Turns out it was the same coach who had approached me in Moscow, Dr Satoru Tanigawa. Dr Sato, as we now refer to him, moved his wife and 5 year old daughter to Orlando in September and has an arrangement with the University of Central Florida’s Human Performance Lab assisting with some research there and joins us for practice 2-3 times a week. One day a week or so ago we were walking from the track to our cars in the parking lot discussing college coaching and I related to him that at one point in my career I had been the head coach at Stanford University. He asked me:

How may athletes did you have on your team ?

We started the year out with close to 100, but by the spring we would be down to about 75-80

No, I mean, how many sprinters did you have ?

Not very many. No more than 2-3 .

So few ? He asked incredulously.

Yeah, so I became a distance coach very quickly.

Why was that ?

Because I liked the job and wanted to keep it.

No,…I mean why so few sprinters ?

Stanford is a very highly regarded university in terms of the academic requirements you must meet to get admitted.

How does that matter ?

Let me see if I can explain this in quick simple terms. The psychological profile of an athlete in track and field, determines to a great extent, in what events their best chances  of success happen to be. Sprinters and ballistic people have what we call an “instant gratification” or “instant reward” psychological profile. That means they require and do best in events that require short-lived bursts of activity. They also need and require instant feedback . Distance runners have a psychological profile that we call “delayed gratification” syndrome. That means they can intensely prepare for a period time and can await the reward later. This kind of profile is more akin to the kind of study activity required for people who do well academically because our system asks you to work hard and enjoy the results and rewards of your labor at some point in the future. This goes contrary to the basic mindset of what it takes mentally to be a sprinter or ballistic person. In exchange for intense effort, they require rewards and tangible results immediately, or very shortly after the effort. This is in opposition to what the ideal mindset is for getting good grades in the American scholastic system that favors people with “delayed reward” psyches. Therefore at Stanford we had more people in the distances because their psychological profile best fit the profile needed to excel in the things that certain colleges think are most important to get accepted. Like everything else, there are glaring exceptions. We had a sprinter at Stanford who won the NCAA indoor( 60 meters ) and outdoor( 100 meters ) sprint titles and made the U.S. Olympic team, and got a medal  in the 4 x 100 relay. She also graduated in four years as a pre-med student and was accepted into medical school. Pre-med at Stanford was one of the most competitive majors in the liberal arts division, so there are exceptions,….but rare.  So what I am saying is a certain profile may help in certain events or even help with dealing with the American academic system , but it does not mean that people in one event are more intelligent, or less intelligent, than people in other events. What I am trying to express is that mental outlook and psychological profile go a long way to determining what kind of success or outcome a person might have.

That is very interesting.

Dr Sato, it is all psycho-somatic.

What is psycho-somatic ?

It means that human performance, in any field, is based on a strategic combination of mind and body.

Really ?

Yeah, I was getting after Dr  Ralph Mann recently about that. He is our best biomechanist and has been doing sprint and hurdle analysis for more than 30 years now. He himself was an Olympian at 400 meter hurdles. I told him that I thought his analysis was flawed and basically took place in something of a vacuum,…. unless it involved the mental element of mechanical activity. For example, it is very informative to describe the mechanical movements of the body of athletes through time and space, but unless you were able  to determine what mental elements and aspects  go into what the athletes are doing,….and what mental changes are involved for the athletes to change,.. then it is like spitting into the wind.

Change you explain that ?

Ok. You are a hurdle coach.

Of course.

Ok let us take the 7 step approach to the fist hurdle,… versus the 8 step approach.

Ok. Lets do that.

In 2008 Robles won the Olympics using 7 steps,… #1 in the world. David Oliver used 7 steps in 2010, won every race and was #1. Jason Richardson went to 7 steps in 2011 and won the World Championships. Aries Merritt changed to 7 steps in 2012 and won the Olympic gold, set a world record,…#1 in the world. Despite the success these hurdlers have had, we still have hurdlers who refuse to make the change. So despite the fact that there is a clear physical advantage to taking fewer steps, we still have athletes who mentally can not, and will not, master the challenge of going from 8 to 7. So pointing out benefits of certain  mechanics, without the mental adjustment, are informative perhaps, but in terms of productivity are nil.

That is psycho-somatics ?

That is psycho-somatics. The mind must precede the body. What the mind sees and accepts, the body will attempt accomodate. What the mind rejects, the body will balk at.

It seems to me you are saying that the mind is first, and perhaps superior to the body. Is that correct ?


So coaching starts with the mind for you ?

Yes, either the mind of the coach who helps the athlete mentally adjust,……or, as all too often the case, we depend on the athletes to just “naturally” have the psyche needed to accomplish the physical task.

I will think about this.

Ok. Think about it.

We got into our respective cars and drove out of the parking lot.

To be continued !


Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

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