Asashoryu showed that age hasn’t dimmed his legendary fire with an expletive-laced Twitter rant on Sept. 15.
The former yokozuna, clearly annoyed by Asanoyama’s 0-3 start to the ongoing tournament, let rip at the newly minted ozeki with a series of abusive tweets that called the younger man’s sumo stupid and embarrassing, and dismissed any claims of him being under pressure.
Although the vulgar insults were unnecessary, as well as unbecoming of someone who once occupied a position in sumo synonymous with dignity, Asashoryu’s rage does have some justification.
For the Takasago beya alum it has to hurt seeing the brightest hope in his former stable collapse in such dramatic fashion at the start of what was being widely touted as a push for yokozuna promotion by the end of 2020.
Plus, when you are a 25-time Emperor’s Cup champion who utterly dominated the sport, it can’t be easy to wrap your head around the notion that — for most mortals — sumo is extremely difficult.
Asashoryu, not Asanoyama, is the outlier in this world.
It’s far more common for rikishi to struggle as they approach the summit of the sport than it is for them to steamroll the opposition the way the Mongolian did at his peak.
For every great yokozuna there are numerous solid ozeki who won a few titles but never managed to achieve the consistency required for promotion to grand champion.
In many of those cases, a mental cause — rather than physical — was behind the wrestler faltering near the peak.
Heart, technique and physique are the oft-cited three pillars to sumo success. But while being big and technically adept are of course important, heart and mind — particularly as they relate to the initial clash — are paramount.
The tachiai, when two rikishi explode out of their stance and crash together, is a moment unlike any other in sport.
Sumo has no rounds. There are no halftimes, quarter breaks or timeouts. Bouts end quickly with the vast majority decided in mere seconds.
One of the unique points about Japan’s national sport is that there are virtually no tactical adjustments that can be made from the moment a contest gets underway to when it finishes.
Try analyzing how an opponent is coming in at the faceoff — and how best to counter that move — and you’ll be outside the ring before you can even finish the thought.
The tachiai might seem like a kind of rock-paper-scissors played at 160 kg, but a better comparison would be one-minute speed chess, which requires instant responses to well-known openings, and where unorthodox moves bring a swift end to proceedings.
But even speed chess is played in a time frame that would be classed as extremely long in sumo.
A degree in neuroscience isn’t needed to realize that the human brain cannot consciously process information fast enough to handle to what’s happening in a sumo bout in real time.
Responses need to be automated. That’s a major reason why training is based on endless repetition of the same movements. Rikishi train their bodies to move without thinking during bouts, so that the correct moves and counter-moves flow naturally.
To succeed at sumo essentially involves mastering the concept of “no-mind."
Known in Japanese as mushin, no-mind is similar to what in Western sports is called being “in the zone."
However, it can be very hard to clear your mind over four minutes of standing on an elevated ring in front of 10,000 cheering fans, walking back and forth to the corner, throwing salt and performing rituals while face to face with the man you are about to fight.
Following the exact same pattern before every bout is of course a good way to try and find that mental state, and that's why you see wrestlers repeating their pre-fight actions day after day in precise fashion.
Yokozuna Akebono would take three large breaths, hold the last one, roll his eyes up into his head and close his eyelids.
One of his trainers taught him the technique, claiming it changed brain frequencies — altering the number of alpha cycles per second — and would give cat-like reaction speed.
That the technique was clearly pseudoscientific nonsense didn’t matter. How a rikishi achieves mushin isn’t important as long as they can get to that state of mind and stay there for the duration of a bout.
Yokozuna Takanohana famously mounted the dohyō day after day with a kind of serene expressionlessness, while Asashoryu’s methodology was more akin to the riastrad of Irish mythology — building up to a kind of berserker-like state that helped him tear through opponents.
Asanoyama, for all his talent and success so far, doesn’t appear to have mastered the mental side of sumo. It’s all well and good to talk about winning championships and becoming yokozuna before a tournament gets underway, but you'll be in trouble if you can’t put those thoughts to one side when the action starts.
Trying not to lose and overthinking things are bad mindsets for any athlete, but in sumo they are fatal.
If Asanoyama is to follow the path laid down by his sharp-tongued predecessor, then he needs to get to a mental space where rather than thinking about how to deal with opponents during bouts, he understands he doesn’t have to.
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