First up was baseball, which is renowned for attracting pushy parents who complain if they don’t think their child is being coached to the best of his ability, and with that in mind, K-sensei has been swotting up. もし高校野球のマネージャーがドラッカーの「マネジメント」を読んだら (If A High School Baseball Manager Read Drucker’s ‘Management’) is a recent best-selling book by Natsumi Iwasaki that describes – as you might expect from its rather dry title – what happens when a high school baseball coach decides to base her training regime on the management theories of Peter Drucker. The book has subsequently been made into a film, while Drucker’s original books – which not entirely coincidentally are published by the same company – have been selling pretty healthily too, and as well as If A High School etc., K-sensei has also read a kind of Drucker-For-Dummies-With-Manga tie-in.
K-sensei’s co-coach is N-sensei, although neither of them was anywhere to be seen when I arrived at 7.15 on Friday morning. They had been drinking until the early hours at a staff party the previous night (Mrs M wouldn’t loosen the purse strings enough to allow me to go), and K-sensei arrived at 7.30, although while he had remembered to bring a digital breathalyser with him, he had forgotten to bring the door keys to the main building. So we sat around and waited for N-sensei, who finally turned up with his own set of keys about fifteen minutes later.
By now the club members had already jogged a couple of laps of the school grounds, and while K-sensei typed up a training schedule in the staff room, I put on my PE kit and went outside to join them for some stretching. For this the team stood in a circle around their captain, who shouted, ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi!’ to their ‘Go, roku, shichi, hachi!’ as we did each exercise.
Already dressed in white uniforms and blue baseball caps, the students then changed into their spikes, which looked like old-fashioned, ankle-high, black leather football boots, with some kind of additional toe guard attached to the left shoe of each pair. As with old-style football boots, the spikes themselves were metallic, and looked as if they could cause some pretty serious damage if the wearer were to mis-time a slide into home base (surely professionals have progressed to something a little more hi-tech, I thought, possibly in moulded plastic?).
Our first practice drill involved stealing bases, with three players at a time either backtracking if the pitcher spotted their run, or carrying on to the next base if he threw a pitch as normal. After a couple of laps of the diamond taking one base at a time, everyone gathered around N-sensei, removed their caps and bowed with an ‘onégaishimass!’ (The literal meaning of お願いします is ‘I politely ask a favour’, but it can be used to mean ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘nice to meet you’ or any number of other things, and when uttered by baseball players, karate students and the like, comes out as more of a grunted ‘oss!’)
‘Why are your uniforms still clean?’ demanded N-sensei (with the ground still damp after last week’s typhoon, I had deliberately avoided sliding for fear of messing up my new tracksuit bottoms). ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to get their uniform dirty can quit now. You can wash it in the washing machine, can’t you? Look, this is what you should be doing.’ He dived to the ground face first and stood up with mud marks on his t-shirt and trousers.
‘Were you in the correct position?’ N-sensei continued, with no response from the students. ‘No. Should you be resting your hands on your knees like this?’
This time, one or two of them muttered a reluctant ‘no’.
‘No. If you do you can’t react quickly enough. You crouch down and use your hands to balance. Keep your weight on your right foot so you’re ready to start running, and go up on the balls of your feet like this. Two more laps, and do it properly this time.’
The very first student to step up to first base immediately rested his hands on his knees, and this wasn’t the only time during the morning that I thought to myself, Drucker or no Drucker, K-sensei will have his work cut out knocking this lot into shape. The team was eliminated from a recent inter-school tournament in the first round, and while most of the first-choice players have now quit the club to concentrate on studying for their high school entrance exams, it’s not a result that reflects particularly well on the first and second years they have left behind.
The student with his hands on his knees, incidentally, is quite an interesting character. Outwardly, he looks and acts like the school bully and / or the one most likely to end up in some kind of juvenile correctional facility, but despite apparently not paying any attention at all in class – at least when I’m teaching him, that is – his English is better than almost anyone else in the year. The macho posturing is, so I’m told, the result of living in a mother-less household – I assume his parents divorced and she moved out – where he isn’t given breakfast and makes do with cup ramen for dinner, but for the recent second year work experience week, he was allotted two days at the local police station, so there is some hope that he’ll stay on the right side of the law when he gets older.
One of the more studious second years is K-kun (kun / 君 is a suffix for addressing boys or male inferiors at work), who helped me with the next couple of drills, one of which was a gambit whereby the batsman takes the pace off the ball with the bat so that it drops at his feet. In doing this he will almost certainly sacrifice his chances of making it to first base, but since the opposition will be pre-occupied with a ball that has landed just too far from the catcher to enable a quick pick-up-and-throw, one of his team-mates should get the chance to steal a base at the same time.
‘If you block it this way,’ said K-kun, gesturing towards first base, ‘the guy coming in from third can make it home, but if you block it the other way, he’s going to get run out. Hold the bat like this. Keep your right hand soft and don’t twist it around – lift it up and down by bending your knees instead.’
The soccer club members were practicing at the other end of the playing field, and as we rotated positions in our group of three, Y-sensei – who vies with the table tennis teacher M-sensei for being the most intimidating in the school – started yelling at them.
‘Our last baseball coach,’ said K-kun, ‘was really scary. You see the kindergarten behind the school?’
‘Yes’ – it was probably 150 metres from where we were standing.
‘Once, when he was angry, he threw a ball all the way into the playground.’
Somehow I couldn’t imagine K-sensei or N-sensei getting angry, but then again, perhaps they were toning things down a little today because I was there. When I looked over a couple of minutes later, the entire soccer club was down on its knees doing ten minutes of kusa-tori (草取り/ weeding – turf is very hard to maintain in the heat of a Japanese summer, so most school playing fields have a surface of compacted, dusty soil).
Away from the twenty-five or so students with whom I was practicing, one kid was on his own at the side of the field, apparently repairing the large net that stops balls from hitting passing cars or from flying into nearby fields, which may or may not have been a similar punishment to the soccer players’ kusa-tori. At the opposite end of the playing field, two more students were pushing car tyres back and forth along the ground.
‘Have they done something wrong?’ I asked K-sensei.
‘No,’ he said. ‘They’re pitchers. Pitchers are special. They use different parts of their bodies when they play, so we give them special exercises.’
Nearby, another two students were throwing a ball back and forth at impressively high speed.
‘Are they pitchers too?’
‘They must be second years, right?’
‘No, no,’ said K-sensei. ‘They’re first years.’
A group of professional baseball players came to Mrs M’s hometown for a training camp a few months ago, and seeing them pitch at close quarters was quite something. You could hear the ball make a kind of fizzing sound as it flew through the air, and even though they were standing just a foot or two away from the spectators, their pitches never strayed from a narrow area around the catcher’s gloves. K-sensei told me that professional pitchers can move the ball at 150kmh or more, and while these twelve year olds weren’t quite at that level yet, the ball still made a satisfyingly loud slap as it hit the gloves of whichever one was acting as catcher.
There is a solitary girl in the baseball club, who seemed to be holding her own pretty well. In fact, she was probably the most foul-mouthed person there, and spent a fair proportion of the practice session telling her team-mates they were idiots, or to stop taking the piss.
‘She’s a pitcher as well, isn’t she?’ I seemed to recall her telling me this during an English lesson recently.
‘She was a pitcher,’ said K-sensei.
‘But not any more?’
‘No, not any more.’
Each practice routine had a name, and while many of these were clearly derived from English, I couldn’t work out what most of them meant, and when things began to get more complicated – one of the drills involved the batsman appearing to fake one of the drop shots we were practicing earlier, only to adjust his grip and give the ball a proper hit – I stayed on the periphery and fed stray balls back to the pitcher. (One of the most interesting things about the session as a whole was that there was no match at the end of it: a major reason why the standard of football in Britain has dropped so low is because there is too much emphasis on playing matches at too young an age, and not enough on perfecting basic skills.)
A third teacher – H-sensei – joined us for a final half-hour of long-range catching practice, preceded by his paunch and shuffling over from the staff room with a too-small baseball cap balanced precariously on his head. ‘Did you learn baseball when you were younger?’ I asked him later. ‘No, I was in the judo club!’ he said, and while H-sensei didn’t look entirely at home, he did prove the point that, à la Babe Ruth, you don’t necessarily have to be slim or quick on your feet to be good at baseball, as he could thwack the ball high and long. Standing at the far end of the playing field, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t completely hopeless myself, although if your previous experience of catching practice happened on a cricket pitch, suddenly finding yourself wearing a huge baseball glove gives you a distinct mental advantage.
I caught probably five or six balls at various different angles and heights, and was just beginning to enjoy myself when K-sensei called an end to proceedings. There followed ten minutes of kusa-tori – teachers and students together, in this case – and raking the ruts out of the pitch, before we were called in for one final conflab. K-sensei told everyone they would be coming to school at 6.30am on Monday (they would also be coming in for practice on Saturday and Sunday), to catch a bus to the third stage of the tournament from which they had been eliminated a few weeks before.
‘Watch the teams practice,’ he said. ‘You’ll see that they look relaxed. They’re not killing themselves before a game because they already know what they can do. Look at them play. Today you guys were…well, you were hopeless. What do they do differently? What should you be doing better?’
I said a brief thank you to everyone for allowing me to take part, and returned to the staff room to eat my packed lunch, more than five hours after the practice session had begun. No wonder children in Japan are so well behaved, I thought, and no wonder there’s so little crime here. With pretty much everyone under the age of twenty spending this much time playing sport every week, all of that bottled-up teenage testosterone just vanishes. Five days later my body still hasn’t quite recovered from the exertion, but if only I had been given the chance to spend this much time playing football when I was younger, I might have become a half-decent player instead of an occasional five-a-sider, and I might not have spent the best part of my teenage years watching TV or staring out of the window waiting for something to happen.