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Star Instructor Discusses His Tips and Trick for Drawing Out a Child’s Potential (Part I)

Over the past 35 years, Shinji Negi, a former member of the Japan national wheelchair basketball team, has visited approximately 3,600 schools (elementary/junior high/high schools, special education schools, etc.) to give talks and conduct workshops on parasports, fora total of 800,000 students. Wildly popular with children, he becomes a hit everywhere he goes, and his numerous experiences with them, as well as his own life history, have taught him a lot about how to discover and draw out a child’s hidden potential. Here, we talked to him about the tips and tricks that parents can implement for the children who will have to inherit the future—from their parents, and from adults as a whole.

“That’s So Cool!” and the Change of Heart the Children Inspired

Negi serves as an instructor for the parasport workshop program, Asuchalle School; he was one of the starting members for this educational program, which since its inception in 2016 has seen the participation of over 140,000 elementary/junior high/high school students, etc. (Photo from May 2018)

Negi was forced to begin using a wheelchair after he was involved in a traffic accident as a third-year in high school. For a while, it seemed his life was plunged into darkness—that is, however, until he was invited to go watch a wheelchair basketball game. Amazed at the players’ skills, stunned at the things you could do on a wheelchair, and struck by human beings and their sheer potential, he decided to start playing wheelchair basketball. It was something that occurred a while later, however, that spurred him to start speaking to children about his own experiences.

――Nowadays, you visit schools throughout Japan as an instructor. But what motivated you to start doing these talks in the first place?

Shinji Negi (hereafter “Negi”): After the accident, I talked to a teacher I had in junior high about the struggles and issues I was facing in terms of being in a wheelchair. And they told me, “If you want to solve all that, you’re going to have to change society. And if that’s what you want to do, you’ll want to communicate that to the children who’ll be our future.” That’s what got me to start doing these talks. At the time, though, it was all about just communicating my struggles and difficulties to people that didn’t know anything about people with impairment. I talked about how for people like me, the city was full of barriers, with very few people willing to help us out.

――You mostly discussed what it’s like to be a person with impairment, and the struggles that come with it. But your current talks are about human potential, as seen through the lens of parasports. What prompted this change?

Negi: There was this one time I went to a talk at an elementary school in my sports wheelchair. Sports wheelchairs are sleek, functional, and easy to maneuver—completely different from the kind of wheelchairs you see at hospitals. So when I made a quick lap around the gymnasium in that wheelchair, the kids were absolutely amazed.
“Wow!” and “That’s so cool!” and all that. I can be sort of a show-off [laughs], so I thought I’d make a shot, and tried to shoot a basketball through the hoop. But that was right around when I’d started wheelchair basketball, and I was nervous, so I just couldn’t make the shot. I was on my eleventh throw when it finally went in, and the whole gymnasium erupted in cheers. The kids got even more excited, just yelling “Wow!” “You’re so cool!” There were some who even said, “I want to be like you!” And the kids’ reaction here just left this deep, deep impression on me.

What I mean is that, when my talks were about the struggles that come with having an impairment, I thought of myself and others like me as people to feel sorry for, people that needed to be supported, and I think society in general saw me that way too. But that moment I made my eleventh throw, I turned into an object of admiration for these kids. Being recognized like that by these kids reinspired my sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy, which had really been in tatters since the day I started using a wheelchair.

Driving Growth Through Praise, as Taught by a Famous American Coach

Self-esteem and self-efficacy—feelings that the children’s cheering had reinspired in Negi—are in fact considered important elements in coaching as well.

Negi visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the U.S. for a tune-up of his skills, right before heading to the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games as the captain of the Japan national men’s wheelchair basketball team. There, he said, he met someone that has had a great impact on his life.

Players gathered around the coach during training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign *Photo provided by Negi

Negi: The university is known for its wheelchair basketball team, and their coach, Mike Frogley, is also known for being an amazing coach. I actually trained under him while at the school, and I remember he would just praise the players all the time. For example, he’d yell “Excellent!” even when I missed a shot. I was surprised—I’d missed the shot, after all. But he’d say, “Amazing, you really listened to what I said earlier about shooting with your non-dominant hand!” I’m left-handed, so of course it’s easier for me to shoot the ball with my left hand. But if there’s a player on my left side, they might block the ball. So he’d told me that in moments like that, I should observe what’s going on around me, and if need be, shoot with my right hand. I wasn’t used to it, of course, so I kept missing. But the coach didn’t care that I was missing the shots—he just kept praising me, saying I was “amazing” for trying this new thing I’d just learned.

――He cared more about the fact that you’d tried something new than your actual performance?

Negi: Exactly. At the same time, though, he also would give me advice, like, “Now just remember the follow-through, keep your eyes on the hoop, and make sure you’re in proper form right as you make the shot. You do that, you’re good!” So first, he’d praise what I’d done, then he would point out the parts I needed to work on, and then when I was able to do that, he’d praise me more. And the praise kept coming. If I missed the next shot, he’d yell, “Excellent!” It was the same with the other players, in other situations. No matter how badly we messed up, the coach would just keep saying, “Excellent!”

――How did it feel to be praised when you messed up?

Negi: A lot of times in Japan, I’d been yelled at when I messed up like that. So honestly, at first, it was kind of a struggle to adjust to it. I mean, at the time, I was on the Japan national team for Sydney 2000, and I began to wonder—as a joke, of course—whether he was looking to overinflate my ego so Japan would lose in the Paralympic Games [laughs]. That’s how much he’d praise you. I remember thinking to myself, “Why is he giving me all this praise?” But it’s funny, when you keep getting praised like that, it starts to feel good. When I finally made that shot, the coach said, “You’re amazing, you did it,” and I remember going over to him for a high-five, blushing the whole time. It was like a shower of praise. I wasn’t used to so much praise, so I was embarrassed, but I realized that these players were pushing themselves to their limits and trying new things because they wanted this shower of praise.

――So would you say praising someone, even when they’ve messed up, is one way to draw out their potential?

Negi: Yes. The idea of “acknowledgment,” which nowadays is considered common sense in the world of coaching, was something that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was already practicing even back then. In practicing acknowledgment, you first acknowledge the person’s existence, then recognize the changes, growth, and development they experience, and relay this recognition to the person through words. People feel good when they’re acknowledged for something, and praise is the highest level of acknowledgment you can provide someone.

*This article will continue in “Star Instructor Discusses the One Way We Can Change Society and Achieve Our Potentials (Part II).” In Part II, Negi discusses how his lifework of being friends with everybody he meets, will help lead to a society where everybody can have a chance to shine.

text by Kaori Hamanaka(Parasapo Lab)
photo by Takeshi Sasaki

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