The Best in the World

Last week I finally carved out enough time to sit down and once again watch the brilliant documentary “Dreams of sushi”.  I had watched it and re-watched it nearly 5 years ago and it had a lasting affect on the way I think about things and how I know conduct myself both personally and professionally.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the story of 85 year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar.At the heart of this story is Jiro’s relationship with his eldest son Yoshikazu, the worthy heir to Jiro’s legacy, who is unable to live up to his full potential in his father’s shadow.

The first time I watched Dreams of Sushi I was dumbfounded. At that time I was still reflecting deeply on my four years spent in China with the National Speed Skating team.  The head coach at that time was a remarkable women by the name of LiYan.  Meeting LiYan for the first time was like jumping into a glacier fed river.  Mere hours after arriving in Beijing I met the famous LiYan at a “Western” restaurant called Pizza hut.  The 5 foot tall LiYan looked me up and down like some kind of silk road slave trader, pronounced me too young to be useful (I  had just turned 26) and banished me to the distant northern city of Changchun to earn my strips with a lesser team.  First lesson that she taught me was, “You may be from across the ocean and have blue eyes but you are not entitled to touch my skaters”.  I learned many lessons from that day until my last flight out of country 4 years later.   I felt the similarities between Jiros philosophies and the LiYan’s were striking.  Li Yan was (and is) a brilliant coach of the highest order and I credit her with the vast majority of my good coaching habits.  As time has gone on I have tried to infuse the Jungle culture with LiYan and Jiro’s philosophy and the habits that support them. They are now the six underlining principles that guide our coaching staff.

1) Passion

Jiro who happens to make the best sushi in the world and charges $400 per 20 min offers this advice,

“Once you decide on your occupation

You must immerse yourself in your work.

You have to fall in love with your work.

Never complain about your job.You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

Note that he did not imply ‘do what you love’ – but ‘love what you do’.  The distinction is important.  It implies that enjoying your life is an active process.  It does not mean that if you do not love what you do, you quit and find something else you may love.  He is saying that, like any relationship, success requires work.  It requires sticking to it when times are tough.  It requires realization of the dedication necessary to succeed.

Such dedication is rare in these impatient days.  But true mastery is not available to the impatient. True mastery can’t be found in a Tim Ferriss book.  True mastery takes a lifetime.

2) Repetition


“It’s not every four years, it’s everyday”

To become a master at anything we must become comfortable with the mundane. Practicing skills repeatedly until they are imprinted in the motor cortex of the brain and the athlete is unable to forget them is the key to mastery of any skill.  A multi gold medal winner in speed skating was once asked why she was so superior to her opponents:

“The techniques we use are no big secret. It really comes down to making an effort and repeating the same thing everyday….we do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.  It’s not every four years, it’s everyday”

-Wang Meng, Chinese short track multi gold medal winner

3) Consistency

Several years ago Judge Pat Higgerty walked into the Jungle a tired 56 year old who sported a basketball for a stomach and walked with a limp.  Exactly one year later with veins in his arms and a belly flat as a table top he offered this advice:

“There is much you can’t learn from words.  I have to keep practicing.”

4) Simplicity

Dr. Dave Smith, head physiologist of the National Canadian Sport Centre, stood in front of a packed auditorium at the University of Calgary in 2002. Fresh from 3 gold medal speed skating performances by teams he worked with directly, Smith had this to say about the multi year training program,

“Less is more.”

At the Jungle, athletes that were once awkward, slow or weak are transformed into powerful people both physically and mentally.  You won’t find our athletes doing a million exercises each session. We do a few things very well, then we build.

“…Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

5) Dedication

The Jungle tends to draw young, skinny or fat athletes that aren’t terribly coordinated. This goes for both males and females. John Meenagh fit that description when he walked into the one-car garage that served as “Jungle 1” when he was 15 years old.  Quiet and focused, the soft 220 lbs teenager spent the next 3 years attending the Jungle and going through the process of becoming a complete athlete. Three Jungle facilities later, that once slow and soft boy started playing University football for Queens, weighing in at 275 lbs of bulldozing power.

6) Process

Kaizen is a Japanese term, that roughly translates to improvement, or ‘change for the better’.  ‎It is a term that came to mind while watching a young Chinese girl practice a particularly challenging routine on the balance beam in a crumbling gymnastics centre in Yunnan province, China, in 2008. Everyday I would pass the centre on my way to work in the early morning and she would always be there. Always. In 2012 Deng Linlin won gold at the London Olympic games.

Never stop learning

I remember walking into LiYan’s room in Vancouver late in the night.  We often held meetings long after most people has stopped working for the night.  I remember her so transfixed by her computer monitor that she was startled when I knocked on the open door.  She was watching our best skater, Wang Meng’s 1000 meter race where she had just broke the Olympic record and won gold.  LiYan spoke while watching the video loop on “…if she just makes this one adjustment she will go faster next time…”.

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