Every day, Yuki Nagasato wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and heads to the neighborhood coffee shop. It’s her favorite place, she says, not too big, not too small — just right to pass a couple of hours reading and writing down her thoughts. Almost a year has passed since she moved to Chicago, so by now most of the staff know her name and order. And, since the morning she arrived with a camera crew from NHK’s “Gutto! Sports” program in tow, they also have an idea of her caliber.
Nagasato hails from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, a Tokyo bedroom community that couldn’t be further in size and feel from the nation’s capital — let alone America’s Windy City. Mountains and rivers surround the neighborhood where she grew up and where her parents still live; she shared her elementary school with just 70 students — “So small!” she says.
When quite young, Nagasato gravitated toward piano and the soroban (Japanese abacus), which she took to quickly. On the abacus, especially, she says, “I was fast!” But by junior high, these pursuits — and playtime as she knew it — were over. She had given her life over to sports.
“In junior high, we had to write our dreams for what we wanted to be after high school or college,” she recalls. “I wrote, ‘I want to be a professional soccer player in the U.S.'” At the time, Homare Sawa — then Japan’s most celebrated women’s footballer — had just left Japan for Colorado to join the Denver Diamonds. “She was,” Nagasato says simply, “my favorite.”
Today Nagasato is in her second season with the Chicago Red Stars, following several years as a pro in Germany and England and a 2004-16 career with Japan’s national team, winning a World Cup championship and an Olympic silver medal.
The dream behind these achievements — and, as women can only play professionally overseas, the reason Nagasato left Japan — in fact originated with her father. “He wanted to be a professional player of any sport,” she explains, but ended up running a small air-conditioning business. So, he pushed his three children to never do anything — not even play — without purpose. And with him there was no arguing.
He was, she says, a stickler about the usual things, “saying good morning or the appropriate greeting. When I came home, my shoes always had to be just so.” And, like a lot of dads, he exhorted his kids to appreciate their mother.
But he was beyond strict, Nagasato says with a laugh: “If I didn’t do what he asked, he’d be screaming.”
She drew the soccer card at age 13. Before then, she recalls playing solely for enjoyment. “But my father said, ‘If you want to play soccer, you must achieve the top,'” she recalls. As her brother and sister were already on teams, she was hoping to take a different path. But his directive, she suspects, was inspired by logistics: If she joined up too, they could all make the long commute to practice together.
Regardless, his tactics worked. All three siblings would go on to reach the sport’s professional level. For several years, Nagasato and her sister Asano played side by side on the national team.
Despite finding success at home, Nagasato knew it was time to leave Japan after her team lost to Germany to place fourth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She’d noted then how the Germans were so different in terms of physicality and speed. “I thought,” she recalls, “if I stay in Japan, I won’t improve.” So she sent out cold calls with play reels to a few German teams. Soon, she was welcomed to FFC Turbine Potsdam, where she stayed for 3½ years.
“Leaving Japan was easy,” she says, “because I wanted to go.” But with no translator and no Japanese teammates, Nagasato had to learn a new way of team building before the intensive German language courses she was taking paid off.
“It was so tough at first because I was often blamed for mistakes and I couldn’t say anything,” she says. Determined to work past this frustration, she simply smiled a lot and focused on reading her teammates’ body language, analyzing their individual styles and developing her own intuitive reasoning.
“I just watched their attitudes, behaviors, eyes and faces, and guessed at what they were doing,” she explains. “In my third and fourth seasons, I was the team’s top scorer. Because I had collected so much information from my teammates over the previous three years, I totally understood what they would play, where or when.”
By then, of course, Nagasato was comfortable in German — and still speaks the language regularly with Chicago Fire’s German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger — but she had also learned the value of deeply informed play. She realized that she “didn’t actually need any language. Every year, I just tried to get smarter and wiser,” she explains. “And could make decisions more quickly and effectively.”
Ever since, developing her soccer IQ has been a subject of intense focus. “I have my own philosophy,” she says. “I like to think a lot, read a lot, and analyze my behavior, attitude and actions and the choices of other people. Before, I was just trying to be fast and strong, but when I moved abroad I noticed some big differences and had to find and cultivate my own strengths.”
Lately, for example, her studies have been centered on the human anatomy, the nervous system, and genetics: “Because the pelvises of Europeans incline forward, they are natural power forwards, with explosive speed and strength,” she says. Japanese, however, have different musculature, and so have developed other movement styles, she explains, citing how this manifests in traditional martial arts such as judo and aikido, which value efficiency over propulsive force and in which inner calm is key.
“For us to be more effective and maximize our strength, we have to activate the nervous system and decrease any unneeded movement.”
On top of her already rigorous flexibility, mobility and strength training, Nagasato’s studies, and applications of her learning, are incredibly demanding. After games, she says, she’s so mentally exhausted she has trouble sleeping and needs up to two days to recover. As she knows unchecked stress levels could harm her game, she works to be “flexible and adaptive” and won’t allow ordinary inconveniences to bother her. Even missing family or friends would be a drain of precious resources. “I love my life. And I don’t want to feel any loneliness. I don’t want to put energy into that,” she says.
Luckily, the U.S. soccer season allows Nagasato five months of free time to visit home, travel widely and refresh each year. “Last off-season, I did so many things I’d never experienced before: wakeboarding, aikido, visiting soccer schools and doing speeches for kids,” she says. “I also need more experience outside of soccer to plan my next career.”
Thankfully, her father, pleased with his family’s achievements, has relaxed enough to let her plan her future on her own. “Sometimes when I meet him,” she says. “I tell him, ‘You were too strict with us.’ And, ‘That broke my heart.'”
It was only after moving to Chicago, she says, that she realized she could just enjoy life and do only what she wanted to do, when she wanted.
Of course, for now, all she really wants to do is be her best on the soccer field, and taking the pressure off herself is conversely one way to achieve that goal. As for her dad, she says, “he totally agreed.”
Name: Yuki Nagasato
Profession: Soccer player
Hometown: Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture
Key moments in career:
2004 — Makes debut with the Japan national team
2010 — Moves to Potsdam and wins UEFA Champions League with FFC Turbine Potsdam
2011 — Wins FIFA World Cup championship with Japan’s national team
2016 — Fails to qualify for 2016 Olympic Games in Rio
2017 — Moves to Chicago from Frankfurt
Likes most about life overseas: “Working with teammates”
Misses about Japan: “Seeing family sometimes”