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There are a few unique things about student athletics in Japan. Team activities continue throughout the year, which makes joining one a major commitment. And instead of playing a season of games with the best teams advancing to a playoff, most sports have a few tournaments throughout the year with relatively few competitions in between.

The result of all this is a huge amount of time spent practicing, as opposed to playing games. What’s more, it’s normal for athletes in middle and high school to have mandatory practices not just after class, but before their lessons start in the morning, too.

On the surface, this seems like it should be helpful not only in producing more talented players, but in helping students learn the value of dedication, effort, and proper time management. But this system may be taking things too far, according to legislators in Nagano who are proposing doing away with athletes practicing in the morning.

In junior high school, my mornings usually started the same way each day. My parents would wake me up and tell me it was time to go get ready for school. Then I’d fall asleep again, and they’d have to repeat the process. Understandably tired of having to do this every day, they bought me an alarm clock, and I began to sleep through that instead.

On the other hand, the majority of middle school students in Japan have to be up at the crack of dawn to have enough time to get to school and put in a full practice before first period. A recent study by the Nagano Prefectural Board of Education found that over half of junior high students leave their homes between 6 and 7 a.m. for sports practice, with one in five students leaving before the clock strikes six.

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Last autumn, the board was prompted to look into the role sports play in students’ lives by data showing that only 59 percent of Nagano middle schoolers participate in school sports programs, trailing the nationwide rate of 66 percent.

Their investigation found that over 96 percent of junior high schools in Nagano have morning practices throughout the year. Researchers were troubled by what they see as a link between this prevalence of pre-lesson sports practice and 30 percent of the students surveyed describing themselves as sleep deprived or unable to concentrate in class due to exhaustion. Also disconcerting was the many students who were too busy to eat a proper breakfast each day.

Faced with the quandary of how to boost sports participation rates while at the same time making sure that young athletes suffer no ill effects from them, the board is encouraging schools and coaches to make their programs more moderate and accessible. The board sees doing away with morning practice as being one of the quickest ways to accomplish this.

Nagano’s geography makes the time constraints extracurricular activities place on students a particularly valid concern. The mountainous topography of the rural prefecture means that commuting to and from campus takes longer than in many other parts of Japan. Nagano, like the rest of the nation, does not have dedicated school busses.

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The board announced its position at a meeting held earlier this month, issuing a statement that “In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle rhythm, with proper sleep and nourishment, the system of morning practice should be abolished.” Presenters went on to stress that child athletes need ample rest for their bodies to recover from the rigors of athletic exertion, and that the overall needs of the children are to take precedence over on-field performance or winning games.

A certain amount of resistance to the proposal is expected from coaches and schools, though, as some experts feel that morning practice is not without benefits.

Following a routine of morning exercise will make your body more naturally alert in the short period after you first wake up,” says Hisashi Naito, a professor of exercise physiology at Juntendo University in Tokyo. “However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. If you exercise intensely for a long period too soon after getting up, it can lead to injury, or a lack of the necessary energy to focus in class afterwards. In order to make sure sports programs aren’t overdoing things, it may be time to reexamine the effect such a system is having on students.”

The Nagano Education Board will next poll residents as to their feelings on the matter, and plans to make a decision regarding morning practices in December, possibly giving kids a little extra time inside their warm blankets on the snowy mornings common in the prefecture.

Source: Asashi Shimbun
Top image: Ameblo
Insert images: Hatena, Miki Junior High School