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Lifting weights and building character

Learning that physical strength is less muscle, more mental discipline

by Everett Kennedy Brown

When Feng Ming received the official letter inviting him to come to Japan, he was prepared to say no. It was 1999 and China, the undisputed powerhouse in the weightlifting world, was preparing for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As a coach at Nanking Athletic University, Ming was training some of the country’s finest young weightlifting hopefuls, and by leaving them then, he felt he’d not only be betraying his students, but also his country.

But it was the Chinese government that had delivered the invitation — at the behest of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs — and it was nothing if not flattering. Ming had been chosen from among all the weightlifting coaches in China to be one of 33 elite sports exchange advisers for the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. And of all the 33 coaches from 13 countries to participate, he would be the only weightlifting coach. Unsure of what to do, he sought his father’s advice.

Ming’s father, a watch repairer in a small town in Chekiang Province, had always been proud of his son, who from a young age had exhibited unusual talent as an athlete. He was especially proud, however, after Ming, as a student at Nanking Athletic University and a member of the Chinese National Weightlifting Team, returned from the 1994 World Championships in Jakarta with a gold medal and a new world record in the snatch competition for the 62-kg class. His advice to Ming: “In life, big opportunities don’t come often. When such a chance comes your way, you should accept it as a gift of destiny.”

And so Ming did — to the benefit of Isahaya Agricultural High School in Nagasaki Prefecture. Ming ended up staying there two years until last August, introducing Chinese coaching techniques to bring subtle, but significant changes to the school’s weightlifting program.

Weightlifting is not all about muscles, according to Ming, and developing the right form comes from being focused and practicing lots.

“When I first arrived, there was a lot more preening in front of the mirrors,” Ming said, in his last weeks at the school. “The emphasis was too much on building muscles and showing off. I’ve been showing the boys that a lot of weightlifting is about mental attitude and proper form.

“You see him,” Ming added, pointing to a skinny 15-year-old. “He can lift more than many of the bigger boys, because he’s got the form. It all comes from the belly: the seat of spirit.”

Ming also opened his charges’ eyes to the benefits of traditional medicine.

“This is a Chinese medical technique for rejuvenation,” Ming said, pointing to a half-clad student lying face down with about a dozen transparent glass suction cups fixed firmly to his back. “At first, the boys were suspicious of the cups. But then, they were surprised at how fresh they felt afterward.”

Trust was a big issue for Ming, with language being one of his biggest hurdles, especially in his first half-year. “I studied Japanese many hours a day,” he said. “I found that by writing Chinese characters, however, I was able to get my ideas across. It became a kind of game between the students and me, and that helped to build trust.”

It all seems to have paid off. Last August, two of his students placed in the top three at the annual Japanese national Interhai competition.

“If you’re measuring Ming’s success here in terms of the medals his students won, remember that Ming was here for just two years and that winning or losing varies, depending on the talent of the students,” commented Souji Yoshida, the Japanese coach at Isahaya. “But Ming really opened their eyes to the potential of international exchange.”

In fact, the school has recently started an annual program to send students to training camps in Nanking, where Ming has resumed coaching.

“Ming’s two years with us were about laying the foundation,” said Yoshida. “This is the beginning of a new tradition for us.”