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The dark side of the Koshien dream

Player development suffers due to dearth of coaching education and a win-at-all-costs mentality

by Makoto Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Imagine the Boston Red Sox abandoning Fenway Park for over two straight weeks mid-season to make way for high schoolers. That’s what happens every August here in Japan, as the Hanshin Tigers, the nation’s second most-popular professional team, pack their bags and go on the road, giving up their home-field advantage — and their field — for high school baseball. This year, the familiar opening siren will sound to mark the start of the 96th national tournament on Saturday.

Each summer, Koshien fever spreads across the nation as professional scouts from the U.S. and Japan watch the tournament alongside legions of fans. Attendance peaks at over 40,000 for the final game. Televised live on several stations with an estimated 6 million viewers, Koshien creates national heroes, attracting a media frenzy unique in high school sports. From Hideki Matsui’s infamous five at-bats, five intentional walks in the 1992 tournament and Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 17-inning battle in the 1998 quarterfinal to Yuki Saito’s trademark handkerchief in Waseda Jitsugyo’s win over Masahiro Tanaka’s Komadai Tomakomai in a final that lasted two days in 2006, baseball fans and non-fans alike thrill to the stories of the Koshien summer. Japan comes together like one community to watch the games.

How to explain Koshien’s massive popularity? In short, these boys of summer represent the best qualities found in Japanese sports: a self-disciplined work ethic, teamwork, resilience — qualities valued not only in sports but in life. Players who carry home Koshien’s sacred dirt, a memento for any athlete who makes it to the field, are valued in Japan by future employers and idealized by viewers.

Like thousands of past and future young baseball players in Japan, I too dreamed of making it to Koshien, but there are shadows within this dream that I only came to realize as an adult. It is up to the adults that surround these boys now to create a more balanced environment in which all of them can thrive.

One of the main problems with youth baseball in Japan is the lack of coaching education or set rules designed to foster athletes’ all-round development. Neither the education ministry nor the Japan High School Baseball Federation require baseball coaches to actually study coaching itself.

Many Western countries have a sports governing body whose focus is on players’ overall development. Canada, for example, has its distinctive coach education system based around the National Coaching Certificate Program (NCCP). Coaches from the youth to professional level learn long-term athlete development (LTAD) through NCCP programs on their way to attaining certification. LTAD is a framework that emphasizes optimal periods of training, competition and recovery to match each stage of athletic development.

In Japan, youth- or university-level baseball coaches do not have to be certified. Connections, outstanding backgrounds as players and alumni status carry considerable weight when it comes to appointing coaches, not sports science credentials. It is up to the individual coach whether to keep up with the latest research or to interact with other coaches, sports scientists and educators for the sake of their own professional development.

Especially in high school baseball, intuition and “feeling” are often valued over research. High school baseball has its own governing body outside of the umbrella high school sports governing body. Baseball (hardball) also does not belong to the Japan Sport Association (JASA), which offers training to coaches in 50 sports and a high-performance certification program in 29 of these, including in swimming, softball and gymnastics.

Within this uncertified system of coaching, there are also no set rules to ensure baseball players’ long-term development. Saito, the former ace pitcher for Waseda Jitsugyo High School who became known as the “handkerchief prince” at the 2006 Koshien, threw a staggering 948 pitches over 68 innings in the two-week tournament. Tomohiro Anraku of Saibi High School pitched 772 in the 2013 Spring Invitational. Without any pitch count rules, such massive figures are common.

There are, of course, some coaches at the Koshien level who care more about their players’ futures than winning, although the knock-out format effectively makes each game a must-win. Yu Darvish, now with the Texas Rangers, pitched 505, and Tanaka of the New York Yankees threw 658 pitches at Koshien. Even though those numbers are still high, they are much lower than they would have been if their coaches had only used their ace pitchers. This kind of rotation benefits everyone, from the No. 2 pitchers, who gain valuable experience, to the entire team, who cannot expect to rely solely on their ace pitcher to win.

Yet overuse extends to the position players as well, and there are still many coaches who use their players until they break because of the intense pressure to win. There are no rules in place to prevent this from happening, only the (usually uncertified) coach’s judgment.

This win-at-all-costs mentality starts early in Japan because of the knockout format that prevails in tournaments that lead to junior and youth nationals. The work ethic so admired in Koshien athletes sometimes comes from firm discipline, but it can also be traced to the single-minded pursuit of winning.

But what is more important at the elementary school level, development or winning? For the Western parent, the answer might seem obvious, but in Japan, a must-win culture spreads out to the lower levels. Although there are limits on the number of pitches for little league at the elementary level and senior little league and boys’ league at the junior high level, in many cases, coaches prepare players to win at all cost.

Another consideration in training young athletes is that chronological age does not necessarily match physical age. Under the Japanese must-win system, early developers tend to get put under too much pressure and often their talents are overvalued — and sometimes they suffer injuries due to overexertion. Late developers, on the other hand, are often pushed to the corner of the field because they are not good enough yet to play in a game — which means they receive zero preparation for game situations.

According to Rocky Vitale, the director of the Diamond for Excellence Baseball Academy at Lambrick Park Secondary School in Victoria, British Columbia, “It is important that A-level players become A-plus in order to get professional teams’ attention, but it is also important B-level players become A-level, and C-level players become B, and D-levels become C.”

Of course, there are some teams that have a similar philosophy to Vitale’s in Japan. The exceptional junior baseball programs in Sapporo have done wonders for my children’s self-esteem, and I am very thankful to their knowledgeable coaches. Yet with the de-emphasis on coaching education for players’ development and the overall structure of knockout tournaments starting from elementary level, many teams play only a fraction of their roster. With high school rosters of sometimes 100 players, only around 30 players get to practice until the top 20 is announced — and only 18 players can be on the official roster for Koshien. Only the top 20 practice until the tournament ends.

What will the other 80 players do? Shag balls. Some high school players from the powerhouse teams have not played even one game, while the top 20 play nearly 100 games during their year-long season. Late developers should get to practice and need some game exposure, since they may become good enough to start in the near future if only given the chance. One of the most admired sportsmen of all time, Michael Jordan, was a famous late bloomer.

Winning today’s game is not as important as ensuring coaches are sufficiently educated and that firm rules are in place to ensure every athlete develops to the best of their ability. Enforcing pitch counts and required days of rest at the high school level, and seven-inning games instead of nine-inning games, should be part of this strategy. There are many ways baseball in Japan can learn from the global sporting community about how to bolster youth development — without sacrificing the best of the country’s high-quality traditions.

I will watch Koshien faithfully this year, as always, and I will cheer for the boys and admire the many good things a Koshien athlete represents. But I cannot help but wonder how long it will take for Japan to catch up with trailblazing countries in terms of coaching education and building a firmer framework to help athletes’ development. Winning today really isn’t everything.

Makoto Kosaka has coached baseball at the university, high school and youth levels in Canada and Japan. He graduated from Tokai University and received his master’s in Coaching Studies and his NCCP Baseball certification in British Columbia. He still regrets never earning the chance to bring home Koshien dirt while a high school player in Japan. Check out his blog for this summer’s tournament at koshiencorner.wordpress.com. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion, usually on Thursdays. Comments: community@japantimes,co.jp

  • Max Erimo

    Very good article. Having grown up in a country that values sport and is a strong sporting nation, it amuses and at the same time horrifies me that Japan has a win at all costs attitude.
    We were always taught by parents, professional coaches and amateur coaches, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” That’s SPORTSMANSHIP. We were also taught that to cry when you lose was very rude, especially in front of the winning team. This is because you are failing to aknowledge that they are better than you. That’s BAD SPORTSMANSHIP.
    Living in a small town the local elementary baseball team is a win at all costs team. The parents pick on the students who are late bloomers or are playing the game because they like it. It is a breeding ground for bullying.
    The team cries like babies when they lose, and work around like royalty when they win.
    Give me SPORTSMANSHIP any time.