Multisport culture failing to take root in Japan

Do we have anyone like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders in Japan? Or the environment to potentially produce athletes like them?
The answer would be simply “no,” or “most unlikely,” wouldn’t it?
In recent years, the value of playing multiple sports has been a topic among some open-minded sports people in this country.
But it gets very difficult to name particular examples in Japan, while there’s no trouble doing so in the United States.
There has already been a bunch of research and studies on this topic in the U.S. and Europe. Findings state that participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor skills and athletic development, longer playing careers, less chance of injuries, and more creativity and leadership.
Even in the U.S., the number of athletes who have played in two different major sports leagues, such as Jackson and Sanders, both of whom played in the NFL and Major League Baseball for several seasons in the 1980s and ’90s, has declined. But there are numerous individuals doing it at high school and college levels.
These days, NFL player Jimmy Graham is one such example — having played four years of basketball and one year of football (University of Miami, Florida) before he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2010. The three-time Pro Bowl tight end, who joined the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, has no doubt that the skills and abilities that he developed through basketball have helped him become a successful player on the gridiron.
“I really think as far as playing the two sports, they are both intertwined and they really strengthened the other,” Graham said during the 2014 Pro Bowl, when he was still with the Saints, in Hawaii.
“Basketball enables me, down here in the red zone, to be able to jump over people. I’m so used to being in the air and going up and getting rebounds. That translated into the red zone pretty much the first day.”
Graham, a 201-cm player, also played tennis and baseball as well as basketball and football in high school.
MLB outfielder Dexter Fowler excelled in basketball in high school and had offers from Harvard University and Dartmouth College, but ended up choosing to pursue a pro career in baseball. While with the Houston Astros last fall during the NPB-MLB All-Star Series in Japan, he said that gave him a “big edge.”
“It lets your athletic ability take care of itself,” said Fowler, who’s now with the Chicago Cubs. “Sometimes you just focus on baseball, you get a little burned out. But being able to go in basketball and baseball, it definitely helped.”
In Japan, some top-level athletes appreciate the impact that practicing two or more sports can have on elevating their skill sets.
Like Graham, Japan national football team wide receiver Naoki Maeda takes advantage of his basketball experience. The 173-cm athlete, who was a basketball player before he switched to football at Ritsumeikan University, weighs 90-plus kg. That’s a lot more than usual for his height and position. But Maeda’s past experiences in basketball have helped him maintain his agility.
“There are body movements that American football players don’t know, and I’m capitalizing on those in football,” said Maeda, who played for a strong Kyoto Prefectural Toba High School basketball team. “As for the moves to run past a defender, basketball players are better at it than football players. In terms of overtaking someone in the shortest route possible, I think basketball players are better.”
Maeda, who models himself on Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., was a point guard for the Toba High basketball team and he said that gave him a broader vision on the football field, too.
“As a point guard, you have to have the vision to see the entire court, and I was training on that part,” said Maeda, who suits up for the X League’s Lixil Deers. “And now in football, it helps me make better judgments like when I catch a pass and see who’s where so I can move to the next move quickly.”
Takashi Kurihara, Maeda’s fellow wideout on the national team, which will play in the IFAF World Championships in Canton, Ohio, from July 8-19, is another athlete who believes in the advantages of cross training. The 27-year-old has participated in some track practices with Japan’s national team-level runners, while he has also taking part in training camps for the Japan national rugby sevens team since last year. He feels those experiences have helped to further develop his football skills.
Kurihara said one of the many differences between football and rugby sevens is the outfits. While he puts on pads and helmets in football, he’s got to take the field without that armor in rugby sevens.
“Because you play (rugby sevens) with your own body, the feeling is completely different,” said Kurihara, who drew some attention at this spring’s NFL Veteran Combine in Arizona. “In football, it’s not as scary (taking hits). You get tackled (with no pads and helmet in rugby sevens), and your sense of fear gets lessened because you are protected in football. Those little things definitely give me an advantage.”
Hiroshi Yamada, a sports biomechanics professor at Tokai University, believes people become better at controlling their own bodies by practicing different sports in general, because they improve their cerebral and neural functions, not just their muscles, bones and tendons.
Citing Scammon’s growth curves, a conceptual diagram that was introduced by Richard Everingham Scammon, a University of Minnesota anatomy professor, in the 1920s, Yamada said that sending the appropriate brain impulse to your body at a younger age would work to make you a better athlete.
Scammon’s growth curves suggest that the neural curve, which characterizes the growth of the brain, nervous system and associated structures, experiences rapid growth early in a human being’s life. The curve indicates that the neural tissue attains 90 percent growth by the age of 6 and 96 percent by the age of 10.
“By sending the appropriate brain impulse to your body during the period, you earn the ability to control your body — how you do things, better mobility, which is in another word, skills,” Yamada said.
But that does not mean that athletes would benefit from any combination of multiple sports. Yamada believes they would get better results by playing two or more different sports in which you use similar muscles and nerves, such as cycling and speed skating, as some Japanese Olympians have done in the past.
Sports commentator and former track star Dai Tamesue elaborated on what Yamada said. The former two-time 400-meter hurdle bronze medalist at the world championships stated that an athlete’s skill development is achieved by combining what their body has accumulated from the past, and it becomes more difficult to do so once he or she gets older.
“It’s a lot harder to master riding a bicycle after you reach 30 years old, but you don’t have such problems when you are 5 or 6. It’s kind of like that,” Tamesue said. “I think that, depending on how much of a sense of controlling your body you have, the potential of your peak performance will differ when you get older.”
But even if one hopes to play more than two sports, Japan’s rigid sports environment could prevent athletes from doing so, because, unlike in the U.S. and other nations, Japan’s sports calendar in schools is not divided into seasons. Student-athletes here just play and practice whatever they play all year, so there’s almost no chance to enjoy something else simultaneously.
Kaishi Kokusai High School is one of the few schools in Japan that welcome student-athletes to play more than two sports.
Jun Ueki, the admission manager of the school in Tainai, Niigata Prefecture, said that roughly 130 of its 160 students are involved in athletics and some of them work on multiple sports.
Ueki, who originally brought the idea to the school, added that the main two-sport combination is football and rugby, while there are also some students who play football and basketball. He said that there’s an Australian student-athlete who came to Kaishi Kokusai to play rugby, but now plays football, too.
Ueki revealed that there has been criticism from outside the school, but student-athletes and coaches have managed to handle these new challenges, and it has also had a good academic impact for the student-athletes as they have learned how to manage their time between athletics and academics.
“Because we have a low birth rate in society today, I think that it will become more difficult to play team sports sooner or later,” said Ueki, who also serves as the head of the school’s football team. “And then we are going to eventually have season systems for sports and have more multisport athletes.”
Ueki said that Kaishi Kokusai was scheduled to field a baseball team in two years’ time, but it wouldn’t put too much emphasis on making the annual Koshien national championships, which is the ultimate goal for high school baseball players in Japan.
He said, for example, the team would potentially have a pitch count, and would prepare three ace-level pitchers instead of one and have them pitch three innings each in a game to avoid injuries, especially to their elbows.
“Maybe only those who agree with the ideas will join us,” Ueki said. “But we are aiming to play high school baseball from a little bit of a different point of view.”
Tamesue thinks that the conservative one-sport environment in Japan can change, although that would be a daunting task because Japanese sports associations and federations don’t want to let their respective athletes commit to another sport.
“It’ll depend on how much they understand that,” Tamesue said. “It’s hard to imagine they will, but otherwise it won’t change.”