Saturday, 27 March 2010

You gotta have form

Ready for a good old fashioned rant? OK, strap in and let's go...

How many world class Japanese athletes can you name? I'm talking about genuinely world class, ones that would walk into any team (if it's a team sport) or at the top of the tree individually. I can think of two, Kosuke Kitajima the swimmer who won double golds at the last 2 Olympics and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. For a country of 120 million people that doesn't seem a good return to me, so why is that?

Personally I think it all starts in school. I've written before about sadistic baseball coaches who train their teams literally to death every summer, I think that's a big part of it, but I think there are a few other factors as well. One is too much specialisation, this might seem counter-intuitive but bear with me. When I was a kid at school I got to play just about every sport the school could give me, so winter was rugby, football, hockey and cross country; summer was athletics (having a bash at all events) and cricket whilst all through the year we played indoor sports like badminton, squash, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and I'm sure a whole bunch of other stuff as well. It helped that my school was next to a sports centre, but even if it wasn't we'd have still done a lot of this stuff. After school I could have joined a load of teams had I wanted to, I chose rugby but I could have represented the school at football as well if I had wanted - the more the better.

At a Japanese school, once you have decided you are a footballer, for example, that's it, you will play football all the time and it will be the only game you play. You will play it in the winter and the summer. You will not be allowed to play baseball even if you are quite good at it. You are a footballer and football you will play. Why is that? Doesn't it seem a bit rubbish? Rob Andrew, amongst others, was a blue at rugby and cricket for Cambridge - wouldn't happen at Waseda.

The argument, I'm sure, is that this makes you better at the sport you've chosen to specialise in, but that's hokum. The skills you learn in one sport will usually have a beneficial effect in other sports - think of the balance you gain from gymnastics, how useful would that be for our footballer? So I think they're missing a trick here, the more sports you play the better generally at sports you'll become, but that's not how it's done here.

But the real problem, I think, is all the fault of martial arts. Remember the film Karate Kid? Old Mr Miyagi gets Daniel-san to do menial jobs around the place - wax on, wax off etc. At the end Daniel says "you haven't taught me anything!" but then they spar and, lo and behold, cunning Mr Miyagi has been teaching Daniel the 'form' of the moves he needs to know. And that's the problem, in Japan it's all about form, or put it another way, it's about style over substance and especially being able to look correct, follow the form book and not being able to think for yourself. This might be a good approach for karate but it's a disaster area for everything else.

Walk past a school tennis club session and for 20 minutes you will hear the swishing of racquets but if you look at the session you will see a long line of (probably) girls swinging their arms practicing backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand. Stop, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk from the coach. Forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand etc but, and this is the important thing, the only thing they will be hitting is thin air. Isn't the point of tennis to hit a ball? It's the same with baseball, swinging bats or throwing & catching; same for football, swinging your leg; I watched a rugby coaching session a while back for 14-16 year-olds and they weren't allowed to touch a ball for 30 minutes of the one hour session while they were running through back's moves! The point from the coaches is that you have to practice the move, but how can you practice hitting a ball if you don't, actually, hit a ball?

The problem is this creates generations of kids who can swing a bat but can't hit a ball properly - how can you learn the hand-eye coordination needed to hit a ball if you can spend half the time swinging the bat with your eyes closed? Also a generation of kids who are told what to do all the time so can't think for themselves and play what's in front of them. It also walks hand-in-hand with the Japanese trait of squashing individualism and being a member of a team - in the team you don't have to think as the coach tells you what to do, but it means that Japan will never create a 'genius' sportsman or sportswoman, a Chris Hoy, a Michael Jordan, a Kelly Holmes, a Dan Carter, a Lionel Messi, because these players used their brains and natural talent to excel at their sports. If any of these kids grew up in Japan they would have had talent coached out of them by the time they were 14.

It's such a shame as Japan has the wealth and resources to create athletes that should compete with the best on a regular basis. Their football team should, by any measure, be right up there, but they are functional and utilitarian at best - the best player they produced, Hidetoshi Nakata, was generally regarded as a maverick, difficult to mange and didn't get on with other players on the team. At least the managers had the good sense to pick him - just before the recent winter olympics in Vancouver a Japanese snowboarder and gold medal prospect Kazuhiro Kokubo arrived at Narita Airport in his official olympic blazer but with his shirt hanging out and his tie undone. The shock, the horror - he's a snow boarder, what do you expect? But officials from the Japan Olympic Committee (quite possibly the biggest bunch of old farts in the sporting universe, and as you can imagine, that's up against some pretty stiff opposition) wanted to ban the guy from the games - a gold medal prospect banned for not tucking his shirt in! You couldn't make it up. It took a quick bit of negotiation from some agent or other with the guy and a bit of top level mollification toward the JOC and finally the kid was allowed to go (once he tucked in his shirt, one trusts). Eventually he came 5th in his event and I wouldn't be surprised if his mental equilibrium was shot by the crap he had to go through before getting on the plane.

Last there is this. Do you know that characteristic is most prized by Japanese parents in their children? Courage? No. Intelligence? A distant second. Apparently the most prized characteristic parents want in their kids is, according to a recent poll, shyness. Apparently it is considered cute. Oh for fuck's sakes, cute! It might be OK for a 4 year old (though I would have serious reservations about even this) but you want to cripple your child for the rest of his or her life by making them socially inept, scared and unable to think clearly when conversing with another person? This of course has a far more wide ranging impact than just making decent sportsmen and women in Japan (for example the abnormally high suicide rate in Japan), but that was how this rant started so that's how we'll end. Can you think of a shy elite athlete? I can think of plenty who value their privacy but shyness? Elite athletes tend to have big personalities to go with their enormous egos which drive them on to win. Ichiro, who we mentioned above, has a pretty sorted ego, as did Nakata, that's what made them better then the rest of the baseballers and footballers of their generations, it's why their Japanese teammates didn't like them and why they ended up playing overseas. Let's hope a few more of them and their ilk come along and manage to slip through the fingers of their junior high school coaches and they find someone decent to nurture and develop their talent, not beat it out of them...

Saturday, 20 March 2010

At last

So today, 3 months to the day after my ill-fated 10k, I was finally able to go for a run with enough confidence that my thigh/groin would be able to take it.

And I'm glad to say that the leg took it well and, this evening, I am able to move with no problems. Phew!

I must say I was a little worried, who wouldn't be, but I took it nice and easy and didn't go very far. I jogged at a gentle half-pace to the running track up the river (passing the preparations for tomorrow's Arakawa Marathon, which I will join next year rather than Tokyo as it starts about 500m from our apartment), did a lap of the running track at half-pace and then jogged back home, stopping to stretch at various points along the way.

Probably about 3k in total but I didn't time myself as that wasn't really the point. We'll see how it feels tomorrow, but if tonight is anything to go by I should be OK. Now I can get back into it again - I have really missed running - but it will be slow, steady and short for a while longer yet.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


So last weekend I went skiing.
"I?" I hear you ask, not "we" as in with the family?
No, this was an 'I', along with 3 teachers from the school and 19 kids in the 'school ski club'. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it was not, in fact it was a jolly good weekend jaunt, there are several reasons for this.

Firstly it was the ski club, which means it wasn't an unruly mob of kids but a bunch who had done this twice before this year so were used to the whole caper, this meant that they were not quite into the silly bugger mode as might be expected. Secondly I didn't have to pay for anything as it was a school trip and I was 'staff' so shinkansen tickets, accommodation, lift passes (and the odd enormous gin and tonic after the kids had gone to bed) were all covered by the school and parents of kids on the trip. Also the kids knew how to ski very well, so we didn't have to worry too much about them hurting themselves by accidentally falling off something inappropriate, like a mountain (however it did mean we had to worry about them attempting to break the sound barrier whilst racing their mates). And last but not least we stayed in a great place called Canyons, which is essentially a cheap & cheerful outward bound centre, the sort of place that for some reason generally does not exist in Japan so is run by a bunch of crazy New Zealanders.

It's weird but ski places in Japan are extremely po-faced and serious, a place to go to ski, have a bath and sleep, missing out that important 'get shitfaced in the evening' bit after the bath. I don't know why this is, but trying to find an open izakaya, let alone a bar or karaoke place, after about 7pm at a Japanese ski resort is next to impossible. Well it was until Aussies realised this and started opening bars especially in Hokkaido, but not in Gunma, where we were, but luckily the Canyons place we stayed at had a most convivial bar that required propping up on a Saturday night.

However before we got there we had a day of skiing to get through. As I said this was the ski club so no beginners here, but they were there to improve so had lessons. The kids were split into groups and taken off with an instructor and as a responsible adult I went with one of them. Now it has been a while since I last ski-ed, I think it was with Steve on his last trip with the high school he worked at, maybe 4 or 5 years ago, so I knew it would take me a while to get back into the swing of it. So we went up the first lift and then a second, then the instructor stopped, had a quick explain of what he wanted us to do. 

Quite straight forward so off we went - the first slope was quite shallow and we all cruised along. Next bit, stop, explain again, off down a steeper bit and zoom, off they all went and quite an alarming pace. Of course I was last to go as I had to make sure I was following up if anyone fell over or got lost, and as the rest were quicker than me by the time I caught up with the group the instructor was saying "everyone got that? Right, let's go...". And off they went. This carried on for about 45 minutes until, coming down on a reasonably long run into the main starting area, the last of the kids who I was following disappeared over the lip of a hill and by the time I'd got there had completely disappeared...uh oh. To be fair there were a lot of people down there milling about waiting for lifts, but I lost them totally. Ah, slightly embarrassing, outrun by a bunch of kids.

Oh well, luckily I found another of our groups and tagged along with them, figuring we'd probably meet again at some point and the kids were with an instructor so probably weren't in too much danger. And meet up again we did about 30 minutes later - cue much bullshitting on my part about how I had to find Mr L to discuss something... no, I don't think any of them believed me either...

After that I had to speed up, but of course the more confident I became so did the kids, so they were always far out in front of me, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that it wasn't a race. No, that came in the afternoon and on Sunday. We set up a slalom course and Saturday afternoon was practice for the big race on Sunday. Naturally the steepest bit of slope was found to set up the course and whilst skiing a steep slalom course is tricky (believe me), setting one up is even harder as you have to stop, drill into the snow and screw in poles with a big corkscrew type thing. Anyway that done the kids all set about the course, some better,some worse, but none quite so bad as yours truly. I figured I had to have a go, but soon realised that a slalom course is extremely down. This may sound obvious, but when you ski you tend to go across slopes more than down, until you get better and are confident about more downness than acrossness. I only fell over twice, but one was a real headfirst-into-the-snow wipeout - must have looked good from above, judging by the mirth.

So then on Sunday (after a Saturday night ski and aforementioned g&t) the kids spent all day racing down an even longer slalom course to see who could record the overall best three times of the day. More wipeouts from the kids this time, but then again they were really going for it and it was very icy in the morning. In the end we had various champions but the biggest winners were that we didn't have any injuries and managed to get all the kids back to Tokyo in one piece and with all their gear. 

I was knackered by the end of it, but will definitely be back next season.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

I think we're getting there

Slowly but surely - at least I've got the photo in the header box centred, re-sizing is an issue so we may have to stick with what we've got. Even got proper titles for the posts now!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

A new beginning

So, the old comments really have gone this time, they have been obliterated by the new template, which for some reason doesn't like old things.

The new look is because I found out that new blogger templates have loads of stuff on that you can play around with really easily - the old template, from about 2003, was all html based so any changes you wanted to make you had to code yourself, or rather, I had to code myself. But this new stuff is all drag-and-drop and edit in real time - super I say! Shame about the photo in the title not really being the same size as the box, but I'll figure out how to resize it sometime.

Anyway; off with the horns, on with the show...