Kensuke Nakaniwa: "My approach involves accepting skaters for who they are"

January 18, 2024
By Siyi Chen
Photo © Kasumi Nabikawa, Siyi Chen

Born and trained in Fukuoka, Kensuke Nakaniwa earned three medals in his 12 consecutive appearances at the Japanese Nationals, gaining recognition for his proficiency in quadruple jumps. After venturing into international competitions, including the Four Continents Championships, he decided to retire at the conclusion of the 2010/11 season. Transitioning to coaching, he initially worked as a coach at his hometown rink in Fukuoka for several years.

In 2020, Nakaniwa received a significant opportunity that marked a pivotal moment in his coaching career – the offer to become the head coach at the Mitsui Fudosan Ice Park (MF Academy) in Chiba. The Academy, established in the spring of 2021, has already achieved impressive results in just two years. Currently, Nakaniwa coaches a group of talented students under MF Academy, including Rinka Watanabe, Yuna Aoki, Ami Nakai, Rio Nakata, Yo Takagi, Tsudoi Sudo, and more. In the previous season, Rinka secured 10th place at the World Championships, and Ami proudly won a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships. This season, both Ami and Rio have qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Finals, and Tsudoi earned a bronze medal in the Japanese Junior Nationals (with Rio placing 2nd). Rio and Yo are set to participate in the Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024, held between 19 January and 1 February in the Republic of Korea. We had the opportunity to speak with Nakaniwa before the Cup of China exhibition, where his student Rinka earned a well-deserved silver medal. (The interview was also reviewed before the Grand Prix Final and some answers were adjusted.)

This is your fourth Cup of China. What are your impressions of this competition from your time as a skater and now, as a coach?

Participating in the Cup of China as a senior skater left a lasting impression on me. During the senior Grand Prix series, where achieving top positions was challenging, the Cup of China stood out as an event where I could perform well. During the competition in Nanjing in 2006, I finished 5th, which was my best result for the Grand Prix events. Additionally, I had the opportunity to perform in the exhibition for the first time, which was a very positive experience. Returning to China after a long time as a coach, I approach the competition with a relaxed and positive mindset, thanks to the favorable image I have.

Congratulations on Rinka's success here! She mentioned facing challenges before Skate Canada but rebounded successfully. Could you share more about that?

Rinka had an outstanding season last year, perhaps the best in her skating career. However, it was also the most challenging season, especially considering the pressure of participating in her first World championships, held in her home country. Amidst this, the accumulated pressure and exhaustion were significant. Despite the fatigue, she remained busy with invitations to ice shows and numerous events.
The preparation for the upcoming season was tough, given the short time available. From April to August, her schedule was hectic, with the "One Piece on Ice" running until September, leaving limited time for focused training on competitive elements. As the competition dates approached, these factors took a toll on her mental well-being, and the Skate Canada event didn't go as smoothly as she hoped. However, after Canada, she immersed herself in training, and the results of her preparations started to show here.

Rinka, one of your earliest students at MF Academy since 2021, has shown impressive results. Similarly, Yuna Aoki and Maria Egawa achieved success swiftly after joining your coaching. What are the secrets behind that?

As these athletes’ transition into adulthood and join us after becoming university students, they already possess a sense of self. Rinka, Yuna, and Maria each have distinct personalities. My approach involves accepting them for who they are, focusing on areas that need improvement or refinement for success and victory.
Understanding their personalities takes precedence over teaching technical skills. Each athlete has a unique type or characteristic, and it's crucial to get to know them. Since they already have a sense of self, changing that becomes challenging. Thus, I allow them a certain degree of freedom. For any inquiries or requests they might have, I provide wholehearted support. The key is to adapt coaching to the individuals rather than imposing my methods on them. As they are adults, when they express a desire to try something, I respond by making the necessary adjustments, which I believe is the knack in coaching. Some might call it the secret.

Yuna is set to make her senior GP debut at NHK Trophy.

Yuna is an incredibly talented skater with truly remarkable expressive abilities. Despite facing challenges in seasons where things didn't go as planned, she made progress last season and has been presented with a fantastic opportunity. I would love for her to showcase her expressive skills to the audience all over the world.

I went to the Tokyo Regionals this season and Maria performed really well.

She is a skater I want to take to the world stage in future. Last year, she wanted to achieve something at Japanese Nationals (unfortunately she finished 22nd - ed.). This season, I want to make the Nationals as a process [but not a goal] and say, "There's more behind the Nationals." We would like to approach it with prior preparation.

You have talented junior skaters as well. As a coach, how do you balance pushing younger skaters to their limits while ensuring they enjoy the sport? What are the common approaches and differences between coaching juniors and seniors?

Balancing the push for excellence and keeping a love for the sport is key in coaching both junior and senior skaters. Autonomy is highly valued in our team. I prioritize providing logical explanations, convincing the skaters, and allowing them to engage independently.
Instilling the idea that they skate because they want to is something I cultivate from juniors to seniors. It's about encouraging them to understand the purpose behind their actions and execute initiatives willingly. Open communication is crucial to tailor training plans according to the skater's goals, concerns, and preferences.
The difference lies in the degree of freedom. Junior skaters have a smaller degree of freedom, and they tend to engage in less independent thinking. I provide more detailed guidance to juniors and encourage them to think for themselves. Senior skaters, on the other hand, are expected to discover things on their own, instead of being told what to do. If a senior skater says, "I want to skate like this," I might suggest, "Maybe this method would work well," but with a bit less direct input. I am happy to see them giving instructions to younger skaters as well.I will make corrections if they say something wrong, but it’s important to get outputs from them as well.
It's about instilling in them the desire to skate not because someone tells them to or forces them but because they genuinely want to, aiming to win in competitions and participate in significant events. It's about nurturing that intrinsic motivation, from the junior level.

There are skaters who love difficult jumps like the triple Axel or have a preference for steps and skating, but balanced performance gets more points. How do you approach this?

In figure skating, the act of skating is the primary focus, while jumps, spins, dance, and expression are all essential. Each skater's unique personality is reflected in their talents. Some skaters excel at transforming their skating into jumps, while others are adept at incorporating it into steps. The initial approach is to help skaters extend their strengths, but considering sports rules, focusing only on strengths may not yield high scores. Therefore, I emphasize using their skating as a foundation. The key is leveraging a skater's strengths to enhance and build confidence in other areas, creating a well-rounded and competitive skater.
If a skater struggles with jumps, we might say, "Your skating is excellent, so imagine applying that skating quality to steps or turns. Transforming the techniques you use in steps into jumps will make you even better." It's about building confidence in their jumps based on their existing strengths. The reverse is also true. For skaters who focus mainly on jumps, we might say, "Since you can perform such impressive jumps, let's find a way to incorporate that technical skill into your step sequences."

Jia Shin has trained with you earlier this season.

Jia trained with me during the Junior Grand Prix series, but due to issues not related to skating, she is currently back to Korea. I will keep cheering for her.

And what about Ami Nakai?

Recently, Ami has been dealing with her lower back pain, and we view her complete recovery as the top priority.

I hope Ami recovers soon, and all your students achieve their best results. Please take care of yourself amidst the busy schedule. Thank you for your time.

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