Athlete interview:

Miyako Tanaka-Oulevey, Japan

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Olympian focuses on mental training for athletes

Olympian focuses on mental training for athletes


Olympic medalist in synchronized swimming, now President at Polygone, Inc.
Miyako Tanaka-Oulevey is a Japanese certified mental training consultant in sport (CMTCS), public speaker, university professor, TV commentator, author and a 1988 Seoul Olympic bronze medalist in synchronized swimming, duet. She is now the President of Polygone, Inc., where she works with athletes, coaches and business executives on performance enhancement.


Olympic medalist in synchronized swimming, now President at Polygone, Inc.
Miyako Tanaka-Oulevey is a Japanese certified mental training consultant in sport (CMTCS), public speaker, university professor, TV commentator, author and a 1988 Seoul Olympic bronze medalist in synchronized swimming, duet. She is now the President of Polygone, Inc., where she works with athletes, coaches and business executives on performance enhancement.

Q

When you were growing up, did you have any idea what you wanted to be?

When you were growing up, did you have any idea what you wanted to be?

 

Well, I don't want to say because it sounds so silly, but I wanted to be a “history-maker” – literally, I wanted to put my name in history. I was educated in Catholic schools (Sacred Heart Girls School), and that often gave me opportunities to be face-to-face with “death.” I was afraid to be out of people’s minds. People remember a history-maker, right?

I kept a secret diary focusing on views of life and death; even when I was a second-year student, I made a song about death and meditated by myself during recess. I secretly had a dream to be a philosopher, which has come true in a sense with my present career.

Well, I don't want to say because it sounds so silly, but I wanted to be a “history-maker” – literally, I wanted to put my name in history. I was educated in Catholic schools (Sacred Heart Girls School), and that often gave me opportunities to be face-to-face with “death.” I was afraid to be out of people’s minds. People remember a history-maker, right?

I kept a secret diary focusing on views of life and death; even when I was a second-year student, I made a song about death and meditated by myself during recess. I secretly had a dream to be a philosopher, which has come true in a sense with my present career.

Q

How did you become involved in synchronized swimming? Did you always dream of going to the Olympics?

How did you become involved in synchronized swimming? Did you always dream of going to the Olympics?

 

I started speed swimming when I was 6 years old and attended national competitions as a competitive swimmer until I was 10 years old. One day, I saw beautiful women practicing synchronized swimming in the same pool, and it appealed to me.

I also loved the famous Japanese all-female musical troupe called the “Takarazuka Revue Company,” so synchronized swimming was attractive as a mixture of swimming and dancing.

I started with a weekly lesson and joined the Tokyo Synchronized Swimming Club, which was the champion team in Japan, when I was 12 years old. I was the youngestswimmer on the team. For me, all practices felt so hard that I really hated that.

Synchronized swimming has been included as an Olympic sport since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 when I was in 12th grade. My first aim was to become number one in Japan and to leave my name on the Japan nationals program as a champion — a history-maker.

It was really hard to perform at the Olympics as a synchronized swimmer because there was no team event at that point, only solo and duet events. I, therefore, decided to aim to perform at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

I started speed swimming when I was 6 years old and attended national competitions as a competitive swimmer until I was 10 years old. One day, I saw beautiful women practicing synchronized swimming in the same pool, and it appealed to me.

I also loved the famous Japanese all-female musical troupe called the “Takarazuka Revue Company,” so synchronized swimming was attractive as a mixture of swimming and dancing.

I started with a weekly lesson and joined the Tokyo Synchronized Swimming Club, which was the champion team in Japan, when I was 12 years old. I was the youngestswimmer on the team. For me, all practices felt so hard that I really hated that.

Synchronized swimming has been included as an Olympic sport since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 when I was in 12th grade. My first aim was to become number one in Japan and to leave my name on the Japan nationals program as a champion — a history-maker.

It was really hard to perform at the Olympics as a synchronized swimmer because there was no team event at that point, only solo and duet events. I, therefore, decided to aim to perform at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Q

Why did you decide to start Nihon University while you were still competing?

Why did you decide to start Nihon University while you were still competing?

 

I’m a perfectionist in a good way and bad way. I also hate to lose. I just want to win all the time, not only in the pool but also in the classroom.

Unfortunately, I was not accepted to attend the internal college (Sacred Heart Girls College) simply because it couldn't recommend a student who would not attend college all of the time due to her training schedule.

That’s why I decided to go to Nihon University, where I believed I would be able to learn subjects helpful for Olympic athletes, such as nutrition or physiology. My parents wanted me to go to Sacred Heart Girls College, but I persuaded them to let me focus on aiming to go to the Olympics in four years.

Nihon University gave me the best environment to focus on synchronized swimming. All we can do is think about our own priorities in our lives, make the best choice we can and focus on obtaining the most from the environment we are in. For me, this was not only a degree but also a great GPA and graduation thesis, which helped me when applying to graduate school in the US.

I’m a perfectionist in a good way and bad way. I also hate to lose. I just want to win all the time, not only in the pool but also in the classroom.

Unfortunately, I was not accepted to attend the internal college (Sacred Heart Girls College) simply because it couldn't recommend a student who would not attend college all of the time due to her training schedule.

That’s why I decided to go to Nihon University, where I believed I would be able to learn subjects helpful for Olympic athletes, such as nutrition or physiology. My parents wanted me to go to Sacred Heart Girls College, but I persuaded them to let me focus on aiming to go to the Olympics in four years.

Nihon University gave me the best environment to focus on synchronized swimming. All we can do is think about our own priorities in our lives, make the best choice we can and focus on obtaining the most from the environment we are in. For me, this was not only a degree but also a great GPA and graduation thesis, which helped me when applying to graduate school in the US.

Q

Can you tell us about your transition to life after you retired from swimming? What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

Can you tell us about your transition to life after you retired from swimming? What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

 

I struggled after getting a medal at the Seoul Olympics because that was my biggest dream. I was assigned as an assistant coach of the Japan national team, which was satisfying, but I felt depressed when I thought about whether this was what I really wanted to do.

The Japan Olympic Committee gave me a great opportunity to learn coaching in the US for two years. After that, I stayed in the US and finished my Master’s degree in Sports Management with a specialization in Sport Psychology.

I also took other online graduate program courses in the US and learned cognitive behavioral therapy in sports and athletic retirement. I met my husband in the US, and he helped me change the way I looked at things, which placed too much value on how other people saw me. Cognitive behavioral science became the basis of my career.

I struggled after getting a medal at the Seoul Olympics because that was my biggest dream. I was assigned as an assistant coach of the Japan national team, which was satisfying, but I felt depressed when I thought about whether this was what I really wanted to do.

The Japan Olympic Committee gave me a great opportunity to learn coaching in the US for two years. After that, I stayed in the US and finished my Master’s degree in Sports Management with a specialization in Sport Psychology.

I also took other online graduate program courses in the US and learned cognitive behavioral therapy in sports and athletic retirement. I met my husband in the US, and he helped me change the way I looked at things, which placed too much value on how other people saw me. Cognitive behavioral science became the basis of my career.

Q

Why did you decide to go back to school to study sport psychology in addition to performance enhancement and athletic retirement?

Why did you decide to go back to school to study sport psychology in addition to performance enhancement and athletic retirement?

 

I returned to Japan after graduation; I was married and had a child. Then I was back to the US for my husband’s MBA program. I left a Japan national team coaching position and just focused on household duties and childcare. There was an emptiness in my life.

My husband suggested that I carve out time for myself. I found a person of authority in the area of clinical sport psychology at a school near our apartment. I decided to take his courses as an auditing student.

I returned to Japan after graduation; I was married and had a child. Then I was back to the US for my husband’s MBA program. I left a Japan national team coaching position and just focused on household duties and childcare. There was an emptiness in my life.

My husband suggested that I carve out time for myself. I found a person of authority in the area of clinical sport psychology at a school near our apartment. I decided to take his courses as an auditing student.

Q

What was it like building your own company, Polygone? How do you think being an elite athlete helped the way you think as a businesswoman and an entrepreneur? Did it give you an advantage?

What was it like building your own company, Polygone? How do you think being an elite athlete helped the way you think as a businesswoman and an entrepreneur? Did it give you an advantage?

 

When I returned to Japan in 2001, I wanted to engage in teaching, taking advantage of my Master’s degree and the courses I took in the US.

I hadn’t thought about starting my own business because my first child was only two years old. Also, there were no offers from any colleges for me to teach sport psychology, partially because of my lack of experience. In Japan, sports associations still did not have any basis for understanding athletes’ career transitions.

That was why I started my own business related to mental training techniques and career transitions for athletes in 2002. In 2004, I also launched a free career transition workshop for athletes. In addition, I started the second career program for J League (Japanese professional football league) and the program for the Japan Olympic Committee.

The second question is really interesting, and to explain why I need to explain something about Japanese culture. I think there are two contrary notions for top athletes, and both are over-generalizations.

One is positive, in which an athlete is considered “a medalist” and “great,” while the other is negative, in which, for instance, “a synchronized swimmer only knows about synchronized swimming” or “an athlete does not know anything about business.” This is one difference between Western culture and Japanese culture.

In Japan, many people feel that athletes are great, and in feeling this way, they mean no harm. But many people do not think about what is actually really great about athletes; they do not see athletes’ personalities and just acclaim their business title, “athletes.”

Wherever I am abroad, in Europe or in the US, I don’t have this kind of situation. For instance, it would be bad manners to acclaim athletes only because they are gold medalists. All gold medalists are not necessarily great only due to their titles.

I didn't like it when people would say, “Wow! You are a medalist! You must be great!” If someone says this, it means he or she might be looking at me only as a successful athlete, i.e., “You are an ex-swimmer so you can teach swimming but cannot do other businesses.”

When I returned to Japan in 2001, I wanted to engage in teaching, taking advantage of my Master’s degree and the courses I took in the US.

I hadn’t thought about starting my own business because my first child was only two years old. Also, there were no offers from any colleges for me to teach sport psychology, partially because of my lack of experience. In Japan, sports associations still did not have any basis for understanding athletes’ career transitions.

That was why I started my own business related to mental training techniques and career transitions for athletes in 2002. In 2004, I also launched a free career transition workshop for athletes. In addition, I started the second career program for J League (Japanese professional football league) and the program for the Japan Olympic Committee.

The second question is really interesting, and to explain why I need to explain something about Japanese culture. I think there are two contrary notions for top athletes, and both are over-generalizations.

One is positive, in which an athlete is considered “a medalist” and “great,” while the other is negative, in which, for instance, “a synchronized swimmer only knows about synchronized swimming” or “an athlete does not know anything about business.” This is one difference between Western culture and Japanese culture.

In Japan, many people feel that athletes are great, and in feeling this way, they mean no harm. But many people do not think about what is actually really great about athletes; they do not see athletes’ personalities and just acclaim their business title, “athletes.”

Wherever I am abroad, in Europe or in the US, I don’t have this kind of situation. For instance, it would be bad manners to acclaim athletes only because they are gold medalists. All gold medalists are not necessarily great only due to their titles.

I didn't like it when people would say, “Wow! You are a medalist! You must be great!” If someone says this, it means he or she might be looking at me only as a successful athlete, i.e., “You are an ex-swimmer so you can teach swimming but cannot do other businesses.”

Q

You have achieved great success in your life after sport. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to female athletes who are approaching retirement?

You have achieved great success in your life after sport. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to female athletes who are approaching retirement?

 

Conformism, which groups people into one cookie-cutter category, is, I believe, based on the culture in Japan. If someone goes beyond his or her category’s standards, people call him or her “selfish.”

In the US, I learned it is okay to make my own choices in my life. All of us, including athletes, should make our own choices and take responsibility for them. Coaches in Japan tend to shape their athletes to their own liking by giving them too much support and backup.

In addition, many athletes don't know how to start their new career after their retirement. Even though they have the mentality of “challenge,” they don’t know how to challenge. I would suggest to talk and connect to people outside of their own sport.

Conformism, which groups people into one cookie-cutter category, is, I believe, based on the culture in Japan. If someone goes beyond his or her category’s standards, people call him or her “selfish.”

In the US, I learned it is okay to make my own choices in my life. All of us, including athletes, should make our own choices and take responsibility for them. Coaches in Japan tend to shape their athletes to their own liking by giving them too much support and backup.

In addition, many athletes don't know how to start their new career after their retirement. Even though they have the mentality of “challenge,” they don’t know how to challenge. I would suggest to talk and connect to people outside of their own sport.

Q

How valuable do you think the Women Athletes Business Network is? Do you think it would have helped you during your transition to life after sport?

How valuable do you think the Women Athletes Business Network is? Do you think it would have helped you during your transition to life after sport?

 

It’s fascinating to get opinions from women in different countries with different cultures and different sports. They can stimulate each other and achieve their self-awareness. Most athletes do not have mentors other than their training coaches, so it is important to have opportunities to obtain others’ thoughts.

It’s fascinating to get opinions from women in different countries with different cultures and different sports. They can stimulate each other and achieve their self-awareness. Most athletes do not have mentors other than their training coaches, so it is important to have opportunities to obtain others’ thoughts.


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The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.

Os pontos de vista de terceiros apresentados nesta publicação não representam necessariamente os pontos de vista da organização EY global ou de suas firmas-membro. Além disso, devem ser considerados no contexto da época em que foram apresentados.

Miyako Tanaka-Oulevey, Japan

Miyako Tanaka-Oulevey, Japan

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