And she’s making a big difference for her players.

Along with cumulonimbus clouds and chirping cicadas, the Japanese High School Baseball Championship, a.k.a. Koshien Tournament, is a sure sign that summer has arrived in Japan. After a pandemic-caused hiatus in 2020, the national single-elimination contest is back this year, with regional qualifiers going on right now to determine the teams that will compete in the finals in August.

Last Saturday, Toyonaka City high school Mino Jiyu Gakuen took the field in the Osaka Prefecture qualifier, and even before the first pitch, two unique aspects to the team could be seen: a lack of shaved heads among the players, and a woman managing the team.

The Osaka Prefectural High School Baseball Association says that 25-year-old Sachie Yamada is “likely” the first female manager of a high school baseball team in Osaka, apparently having found no previous documented cases. Yamada, originally from Kanagawa Prefecture, a graduate of Tokyo Women’s College of Physical Education, where she played nanshiki yakyu, a sport which uses a hard rubber ball, but adheres to the rules of baseball, not softball. She’s currently in her third year with the Mino Jiyu Gakuen team, having joined the program as an assistant coach in 2019 before being promoted to manager in April of last year.

▼ Introductory video to Miho Jiyu Gakuen

The “Jiyu” part of Mino Jiyu Gakuen means “freedom,” and it’s also an apt description of Yamada’s coaching philosophy. In Japanese baseball, particularly at the high school level, the atmosphere is often strict and stoic, with players expected to adhere to strict, spartan codes of conduct. Yamada, however, doesn’t believe that things have to be done that way. “I want to let my players feel relaxed and free of tension while playing,” says Yamada. “I want to let them play the game the way they want to play it.”

For example, team captain Aota Jinda has noticed that Yamada never tells him and his teammates “Do this” when critiquing their batting, throwing, or fielding form. Instead it’s “How about if you try this?”, and then lets any positive results speak for themselves. Another popular change is that after consulting with the team, Yamada abolished the pre-existing rule that players had to shave their heads, a common aspect of playing high school baseball in Japan. “We didn’t see any meaning behind forcing everyone to do that,” says Yamada.

Because of last year’s cancellation, Saturday’s game was Yamada’s first time to lead Mino Jiyu Gakuen in a Koshien qualifier. Unfortunately, they failed to secure the victory, going down to opponent Otemon Gakuin by a score of 12 to 5. However, good things might be in store for the team’s future. Mino Jiyu Gakuen currently has a relatively low number of third-year students on its baseball roster (Japanese high school lasts three years), but since Yamada became Mino Jiyu Gakuen’s manager, there’s been a marked increase in the number of new players joining the team, with 24 new recruits in her first year and 18 in 2021. Six of the team’s nine starting members are currently second-year students, so next year is when they’ll really start reaching their potential.

And more importantly for those who believe that the real value of youth sports isn’t winning games and bragging rights but becoming a better person, Yamada’s approach to coaching already looks to be having a positive effect on her players. Among other things, she’s asked her players to not call her “Yamada-kantoku” (“Manager Yamada”), which would be the norm in most high school baseball programs, and instead wants to be “Yamada-sensei,” the same as any other school teacher, and, in terms of Japanese social nuances, a much less formal form of address than Yamada-kantoku would be. Seeing how she treats people, Jinda says “It makes me want to make sure I don’t treat people like they’re beneath me,” and that’s a life lesson that’ll serve Mino Jiyu’s players well not just on the baseball field, but wherever they are in life.

Source: Sports Hochi via Hachima Kiko, Nikkan Sports, Sponichi Annex
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