Here in Japan, when parents “invest” in a sport for their kid, many are likely to go all out or to follow through with a great deal of dedication.

Most kids I know who are in swimming clubs, swim three to four times or even five times a week.
Then there’s soccer, baseball and a whole lot of other sports to choose from especially from middle school onwards.

In our case, when my kids first joined an afterschool badminton club roughly a year ago, we thought nothing of it, merely to get some exercise and just for fun. To our surprise, the once a week badminton activity, turned into twice a week activities. Then we found there was a
“core” group that trained three to four times (and a few who trained five times) a week. During the two mainstream practice days, kids would train approximately from 9 am till 10.30 am with hard athletics training, complete with all the attendant equipment and all, before they even began on their badminton technique drills. Every “long weekend” (consecutive three day), you can be sure extra all-day practices would be scheduled, extra coaching or spent in friendly meets with other groups in the region. There are gashuku programs as well when the group goes away to the mountain resort somewhere for again dedicated training sessions…roughly one per term.

There are frequent emails from the head coach, with video clips of Olympics and other
championship meets analyzing key moves and such that we are to watch with our kids. There is a head coach (hired for a small fee), but two other ex-pro parent coaches most days actively coaching, and at least two other excellent mother supporting coaches. Only two of the training days are official, the rest of the practices are “unofficial” but regular (so there is flexibility in incorporating less dedicated members), and the group is entirely “volunteer” and formed by parents. We don’t pay sports club fees, only 2,000 yen per kid plus insurance, which anybody knows, is a steal, if you knew what most parents pay for sports clubs coaches.

All this dedication from coaches, parents, and all for a “volunteer” afterschool club run by parents. 

Doesn’t seem in any way inferior to professional sports clubs where parents pay high fees for professional coaches. At every meet, a few of our kids bring home trophies and medals, my son got his first medal at a Kawasaki city wide meet two weeks ago, despite training for less
than a year (a month of which was spent in a cast with broken wrist) … he
“caught fire” as the J expression goes by being with other kids who were
totally “into” it all.

I have heard from friends how absolutely demanding most competitive sports coaches are. There is great conflict once juku classes begin, inevitably both juku teachers and sports coaches demand that the student must make a choice, all or nothing choices.

I must add that the Japanese “hansei” practice does do a lot to build spirit and dedication at least with our kids. The kids write up their “personal goals” (usually areas of improvement hoped for) periodically on calligraphy paper which is pasted up during the sessions on the walls. We parents are expected to know all the professed goals, and not just those of our own kids, but of everybody elses, and to help them attain them.

There is team-coaching, group coaching, mentoring, mental and psychological support here on a level that I have personally never seen anywhere else in my entire life time.

The sempai-kohai system is at work here too, but in not a very threatening form as I had expected. The older kids are expected to be very mentoring and nurturing towards the younger kids, the younger ones respectful and to learn from the older ones. Last year’s sixth
grader-pack of girls were an especially nurturing and caring bunch towards the
younger students, so on a whole the student camaraderie is rather warm,
strongest at peer level. Over the past months, a few of the ex-6th graders have returned occasionally to play with our kids and to give (rather sombre and impressive) lectures at the end of practice, every word hung upon eagerly to by the younger ones.

The drain on parents can be considerable. And not just with the ferrying of kids to and fro the practice halls and local or regional meets. While kids handle all the prep, equipment setup and gym cleanup (yes, there are no janitors in Japanese schools), we parents are roped in during athletics training, practices and get into the act of doing the training drills with the kids, shuttlework and practicing footdrills, racket play technique, with them as well. We also have to learn how to referee and to do the scoreboards. Then there’s all the obento lunches to prepare for all day sessions. The driving for car pools for regional meets and workshops.

But the hardwork pays. After only a year of practice, even the kids who started from scratch are far better at badminton than us parents, embarrassingly yet rewardingly so. We have a few yochien and first graders who smash so fast, none of the adults can return their smashes. I certainly can’t see where the shuttle goes half the time. Young energetic boys, particularly make remarkable progress in a short time.

We have rotational duties, to open up the gym and during the practice, the “on-duty” parent (usually a pair at a time) also records in full detail every drill, footwork pattern performed, and takes care of sick kids or incidents during practice. Cooperation and pitching in is so important because clearly some parents do so much more and those who know so much more pick up the slack from those of us who don’t (such as those with babies or toddlers) … so building and maintaining goodwill among parents is important.

The reputation that Japanese have for calling meetings for just about everything and doing everything by consensus is true and yet there is more to it than it seems. There are not only the famous hansei (review what went wrong and thereby resolve to improve) meetings, but meetings for parents and coaches as well to discuss directions and decisions. The last meeting went on for 5 hours just to decide the “direction” for the group (I know most of you are rolling your eyes as I did). The issue was raised by the coach who wanted to change the goal of the group into “Everyone plays to win” instead of the current everyone plays for fun and for the love of the sport, and to thrash out issues on how to distribute the responsibilities and duties. In classic Japanese top-down decision-making, although everyone is conscientiously consulted until there is a definite “consensus” of sorts, this inevitably means that those members who disagree with the direction, will leave the group. In a passive coup of sorts to force a decision, one sub-coach mentioned that without continued full support and dedication of parents, he would drop out and leave the group all together. Nobody wanted to lose this very valuable and key coach (actually husband-and-wife team) though a sub-coach, so we had no choice but to agree to the ultimatum.

This sort of move or coup commonly happens in the Japanese context, so groups are constantly splitting up and setting up on their own again when members do not agree with the mainstream decision or viewpoint.  The split is usually amicable, and in time, with changes in leadership groups sometimes will merge again.

All very serious … and an elementary school volunteer sports club can seem a lot like a sport cult, don’t you think! So our goal had become “to win” even no money at stake.

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This piece was written in response to a member T.’s question about how sports impacted on schooling or homeschooling.

Also, I am in agreement with J.’s expressed view Japanese parents spend far more money and time on sports for their kids, and that to carry on with this kind of dedication in sports in JHS is difficult once we change gears academically in middle school. Maintaining practices in sports at the same level would cut into time to study for entrance exams and tests. Juku (afterschool cramschool) teachers will tell you to forget about your sports because your kids need to focus on their studies…and turning in homework.

Conflict in schedules inevitably happen. My son has had already to miss several violin lessons on account of his numerous meets and workshops. I have had to put my foot down and cut down his badminton practices to twice a week, but it cost my son the chance to be invited to the “inner core team” that was being formed for middle school already.