Nagano legislators propose banning morning practice for middle school athletes

By Casey Baseel

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.

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.

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

Their investigation found that over 96% 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% 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 buses.

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: Asahi Shimbun

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Not to mention travelling to school before it gets light in winter months can be quite risky. My school brass band starts practice at 7am, which means some kids are up and out at 5:30. They should put a stop to after-school practices that go on too late, as well.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Absolutely. Should be nationwide! The whole club activity system is antiquated and needs a major overhaul. Kids can play only one sport for the three years and often out of season. For me though the biggest bugbear is that each school has only one team. Kids of lesser ability in popular clubs rarely get any game time. Surely sports should be about participation. And don't get me started on the silly culture of senpai kouhai disciplining...

10 ( +14 / -4 )

This should be nationwide, agreed. If for no other reason that children (and adults) need proper sleep. Study after study supports this.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

@banz10 Yes, I agree that children are missing a lot by only having the opportunity to participate in one sport (or two if they are drafted into ekiden).

But a really good thing about junior high sports in Japan is that there are no cuts. and all of the children can get exercise and have a chance to improve their skills.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

@proxy... There may not be any cuts but there are too many kids who spend their first year or two just dutifully fetching things for their seniors and supporting from the sidelines. Then when they get their chance in the senior year they face being humiliated and often demoralised when they don't make the team. Why isn't there provision for B and C teams to cater for these kids? Sport is about fun and participation, not ceaseless militaristic training and being bullied by seniors, coaches and sometimes pushy parents.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

not ceaseless militaristic training and being bullied by seniors, coaches and sometimes pushy parents.

actually it's all about that, getting ready for society folks (団体社会). Why should school be any different than most companies and public service?  

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

The internal clock of teenagers is not the same as young children or adults. Leaving home at 6:00 would be like leaving home at 4:00 or earlier for an adult. Unfortunately most people (coaches, teachers, parents) who are responsible for telling the students when to come to school aren't aware of that scientific fact. Good on the Nagano legislators for paying attention to how the students are feeling and taking it seriously.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Excellent comments above. The elevation of practice over play means that children get a warped view of sport and actually the tactics that help win games.

Few Japanese understand that play in English translates as asobi and are often a little confused by this, as if the noble art of throwing a ball is somehow not something children would get involved in.

Actual competitive games, even within school, appear to be frowned upon.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

From my own years of experience, the morning class sleepers were consistently zonked because of early morning sports practice. I know when I go workout, the next thing I need is sleep. Even 15-minutes helps. It's the body's way of recovering from muscle stress. Completely over the top demands for sports in HS and U, I think. Plus kids miss class due to sports activities and meetings and practice. What are they thinking? That they will be hired later because of their sports, or their actual educational abilities?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Access to facilities determines practice schedules in many US schools. HS gets the gym, field, or track after school. MS gets them before school, weekends, or after HS is finished. I remember well walking to wrestling practice at 5:30 AM in snow in 7th grade. Now I teach and coach and direct school plays: nothing productive happens at 9 PM--even if it's the only time available.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

A wise thought but it all seems to me to founded on so many of the wrong reasons...which of course explains why we have this situation in the first place.

Comments above are more relevant, such as the points about sleep and recovery from strenuous exercise.

There is also the simple fact that people are not at their best in the morning, physically or mentally. The best time for sports is in the early afternoon.

But, the Japanese way seems to be designed to make all life drudgery. Baseball is a game anywhere else it exists. In Japan it has been reduced to a chore, like all the other club activities.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Mr. Naito is cowardly in his inability to choose sides.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think ControlFreak has the best point. All these club activities seem so boring to everyone involved. All of my students talk about it like it's a duty, not something that they want to do.

From the students I talk to, it seems that only about 1% of the time spent on club activities is actually spent on competition. The rest of the 99% involves useless, repetitive practices, standing on the train with your huge gym bag for hours going to the out-of-the-way practice or competition area, and doing awkward social events that are just excuses for the miserable older students to bully the younger ones.

When there's no end attached to the means, you've missed the whole purpose. Let kids do something they enjoy and let them enjoy it. Don't turn it into a group exercise in the futility of life.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

In other countries sports are done outside of school. This system of before and after school practice is antiquated and totally unecessary. How do they expect kids to learn anything when they are surviving on 4-6 hours sleep every night? They are zombies in school! Perhaps this is the reason a passing grade is set at 30% to compensate for the sleepless zombies. I wholeheartedly disagree with just about every part of the Japanese education system. It doesn't produce an over all educated generation. It produces a minority if emotionally insecure robots and a majority of drones following the leader.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Also wanted to point out, like Control Freak said, that they're doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They're trying to increase the participation in sports. Why? What problem will that solve other than more kids in sports? Is there an obesity epidemic? No? What gain is there to more kids in sports? To me, the biggest problem facing Japanese society is the bullying and crippling mental health problems. To me, that should be focused on more by legislators than whether or not more kids are mindlessly practicing for NOTHING.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Do anything for the Monday - Friday athletics, but stop requiring teachers to attend athletic events on Saturday and Sunday. Teachers need to be with their children. School is not a day-care for children.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Uhm, school sports programs have much less to do with creating athletes.

And much more to so with keeping teens busy. And out of trouble.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Uhm, school sports programs have much less to do with creating athletes.

And much more to so with keeping teens busy. And out of trouble.

This is really the point of it all, isn't it? And when I compare my teenage years to a Japanese youth, I understand why parents and society as a whole would favor keeping the kids busy. That being said, I wasn't all that bad, and I think I learned a lot about making good decisions and had plenty of time to develop my interpersonal skills, had a part-time job that gave me some valuable experience as well. We can't be scared to let kids grow up, but if they are really worried about kids having idle time, they could actually enforce laws on buying cigarettes, alcohol and not let kids use love hotels.

Having kids physically exhausted, and then expecting them to memorize tons and tons of information is harming the kids more than helping. I can tell in my English lessons that the tired kids in Junior high and above are not retaining 80% of what we study.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Most japanese more sleep. I would say in morning, voluntary school wide light morning stretch. Or some snack club where some pay, some bring few slice of fruit to share or something.

0 ( +0 / -0 )


Yep. A little trouble is good for the young...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We live in Nagano. My kids woke up very early to practice before the classes and after school until dark. I worried the way back home by bike. And the school expect them to get good score on the exam. It was hard on the parents too. We needed to give them ride to playground on Sat and Sun. I think it was too much.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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