Yoshito Hori speaks about leadership lessons with enthusiasm in a suit and tie

Three of my sons, currently in the first, third and fifth grades at elementary school, took part in the team event at last year’s Boys and Girls Go Championships. Despite winning the Tokyo heat, they unfortunately fell at the final hurdle in the national tournament and finished in fourth place. (Refer to column:”Striving to Overcome Adversity, Part 1-5″)

It was a tough experience for the three of them and also for me as a parent. After getting knocked out of the semifinal with a score of 0-3, they went on to lose the third place playoff and finished in fourth place overall. As only the top three teams receive medals, they ended up going home empty handed. To make matters worse, their final opposition in the third place playoff was a team that they had previously thrashed in the preliminary stages at the Tokyo heat. The experience nonetheless left my three sons with one burning desire; “next year the championship trophy will be ours!”

However, after much soul searching, the eldest of the three brothers later decided to sit the junior high school entrance exams rather than pursue his goal of becoming a professional go player. As a result, he stopped his special go training and started a new routine involving studying at a “juku,”or cram school, three times a week. He decided to limit his go sessions to just one a week in the meantime. As most other kids his age start going to cram school in the fourth grade, he is at least a year behind. He will have to work his way from the back of the field to catch up.

Whether it’s playing go or studying at cram school though, at the end of the day they are still regular elementary school kids. Unless they are really into something, they have trouble motivating themselves. It’s not easy to motivate them, by any means. I once heard Kisei champion Keigo Yamashita give a speech at a go tournament. Something he said made a lasting impression; “the best way to improve your skills as a go player is to have a formidable rival.”

Fortunately, formidable rivals are in no short supply amongst first and third grade elementary school kids. At the tournament in August last year, my second and third eldest sons, who were then playing at third grade (“dan”) and first grade levels respectively, were up against opponents the same age who were ranked at fourth and even fifth grade. All it takes is a few whispered words however – “go on, you can beat this kid” -and their fighting spirit bubbles to the surface. It is then just a case of finding opportunities to put that drive to good use.

Unlike other games, like Mahjong or backgammon for instance, luck doesn’t really enter into the equation when you’re playing go. If you lose, it’s because you’re not good enough. The only way to get better is to keep working at it. The same can be said of my former passion, swimming. In team sports like soccer or rugby, there are times when you lose even if you have played your very best. It works both ways though; your team might win some matches even if you personally have played poorly. Swimming, on the other hand, is an individual event. Swim poorly and you lose, swim well and you could win. The more you put into it, the more you get out. It is the same with go. There is no one else to blame if you lose, and no excuses. If you don’t put enough work in, you will lose. It’s as simple as that.

My sons attend go classes in Shinjuku three times a week, on Wednesdays and both Saturdays and Sundays at the weekend. I don’t want to force them into becoming professional go players though, so I try not to immerse them totally in the game. Wherever possible, I try to ensure that my children develop the right balance of mental, technical and physical abilities, so that they will be able to excel as individuals on an international level when they grow up. There are three compulsory out-of-school activities in the Hori household -swimming, go and English. Each of our children also takes part in one additional activity of their own choosing.

My three eldest sons all chose tennis as their additional activity. My fourth eldest meanwhile has opted to learn the piano. On Fridays, my sons go to tennis lessons, followed by English classes and then swimming practice. We go skiing as a family on the weekends during winter whenever we get the chance.

It may sound like a lot on paper, but I have always tried to dedicate as much of my own time as possible to educating my children. I can’t help feeling that, as a parent, I won’t be able to play such a large role in their education once they begin studying for entrance exams and start junior high school. When I was a kid, I took up swimming at the start of junior high school and well and truly lost myself in the sport. I had such a strong will to win that I used to go to swimming practice every day. I used to cry if I lost and punch the air when I won. My dream was to compete in the Olympics. I kept on swimming day in day out, keeping a diary of my progress. Looking back, from junior high school through to the start of senior high school, I used to think that I could learn more from swimming than I could at home.

If possible, I want my children to have that same experience of pushing themselves to the limit through sporting activity from junior high school onwards. That is why I reckon that the ideal time to teach children outside school is up until they reach the fifth grade at elementary school. It is the perfect opportunity to equip them with the basic mental, technical and physical abilities they need and help them develop into fully rounded individuals. Looking at it from a different perspective, I know that if I miss out on this time in their lives, I won’t have that many opportunities to spend quality time with my children further down the line. That is why I go with them to every go tournament.

As winter faded into spring earlier this year, the preliminary stages of the Tokyo heats in June were fast approaching. Much to my delight, my second eldest son had already been fortunate enough, due partly to his luck in the draw, to secure a place in the individual tournament at the Tokyo trials the previous month. The only downside was that this made it harder to pick the team order.

Whenever we play to determine the team captain at home, my eldest son nearly always wins. Whereas my second eldest son never used to win however, these days he is more than capable of doing so. In much the same way, whereas my third eldest son used to lose to my second eldest most of the time when deciding who should be vice captain, he has now reached the stage where he sometimes beats his older brother.

After mulling it over at great length, we settled on the same team order as last year on the basis that my eldest son is still the best player, despite only going to go classes once a week. Once again, my eldest son would be the captain, my second eldest the vice captain and my third eldest the third player.

When the day of the tournament came, their first game was against a private elementary school. Everything went according to plan and they won 3-0. Their second game was against an elementary school from Chiyoda ward. Despite a slip-up from my second eldest son, they managed to win 2-1. Their third game was against an elementary school from Taito ward, a team made up entirely of other students from the same go class in Shinjuku. Fortunately however, Team Hori won 3-0 and managed to secure their place in the national championship. Going for a clean sweep, their fourth game was against an elementary school team from Minato ward, the captain and vice captain of which were once again students from the same go class in Shinjuku. With a final 2-1 victory, the team finished as clear winners of the preliminary stage of the competition.

Although I got a real feeling that my sons had improved as go players, the mistakes that they made during big games meant that there was still room for improvement. I was concerned that my eldest son was out of practice and not quite competition-ready. Even so, he is entering the most crucial stage of his junior high school entrance exam preparations, so he can’t afford to ease up on his studies. Having talked it over with my eldest son, we decided that he would go back to two go sessions a week.

This year’s Boys and Girls Go Championships rolled round on Sunday August 2 and Monday August 3. The first day was set aside for the preliminary league stage. Proceedings got underway as soon as the tournament had been officially opened by Cho U, Meijin, Honinbo, Judan, Oza, Tengen, and Gosei champion and chief judge.

The first game was against a team from Ehime prefecture, followed by a second game against a team representing Gifu prefecture. Both games ended in resounding 3-0 victories. Their third game was against a team from Shimane prefecture, who had already beaten a strong Sapporo team. Although my eldest son unfortunately lost by 2.5 points in his game as captain, the team still managed to win 2-1 and make it through from the preliminary league stage. Although it is called a league, eight teams go through, so it’s effectively like a knock-out tournament; if you lose one match, you’re out.

After the tournament, I took the three of them, along with my two youngest sons, to a pool at a nearby elementary school so that I could spend some time with them and help them unwind after such a tense and nervous day. This year’s masters swimming tournaments was over, so I don’t need to take swimming quite so seriously. As my sons also needed to conserve their energy for the final rounds of the tournament the next day, we dispensed with the usual training routine and just had fun playing around in the pool.

For once, the pool became a simple play area. In the same way that groups of puppies like brushing up against one another because they enjoy the contact with other puppies, the pool was full of children aged from three to 12, just playing happily together in the water. My second and third eldest sons were having some sort of battle in the water. My eldest son meanwhile was looking after my youngest son, who hasn’t learnt to swim yet, whilst my second youngest, aged six, clambered over my back.

We only spent around 40 minutes swimming (or rather playing) to make sure that my sons didn’t get too tired. We then got out of the pool, got changed and headed home. Back at home, I quickly ran through the day’s preliminary stages with my sons and then sat down with them at the go board. As I am only a first grade player, I’m not good enough to beat any of my sons these days. Nonetheless, I tried my best to provide some additional practice after our recap session (in spite of the clear difference in my ability to read the game and understand tactics). I am usually on the receiving end of humiliating comments like “Dad, you’re making it too easy!” There’s little I can do about it though; I’m just not up to their standard.

The one thing that I am good for however is preventing arguments. When my sons play together, it almost always ends up with them throwing their stones at one another. No matter how talented they are as go players and how mentally strong they are, at the end of the day they are still brothers. The last thing that they want to do is lose to one another, so they hate admitting defeat.

As a good luck omen for the next day, dinner that evening was “tonkatsu” pork cutlets all round. We polished off the lot between the seven of us and prepared ourselves for the final rounds of the tournament the following day. There were just eight teams left: three local teams from Tokyo and one from neighboring Kanagawa prefecture, plus teams from Nagano, Ishikawa, Niigata and Osaka prefectures. With the first game the next day, against a rival team from Ishikawa prefecture, in mind, we went to bed early in preparation for the day’s events.

August 3, 2009
Yoshito Hori
At home early in the morning before the final rounds of the tournament

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