About a year ago, I was on the sideline coaching in Okayama City for Kibi Kokusai, a university located in the mountains of Takahashi, Japan, west of Okayama City.
I was approached by an older coach, who also worked within the college football association of Western Japan. He would often help Kibi Kokusai whenever a coach could not make it. I came to call him Reo-san. He was particularly fond of me and would always tell me about former players from America who had visited Japan, I did not recognize most names. Until one day he mentioned one of the greatest to ever play the game of football.
I recently reached out to Reo-san to sit down with him and ask him what he thought about our progress as a program and I wanted to know more stories about one of my favorite football players: Lester Hayes.
Reo-san played with Lester Hayes back in the early 90s. During a tour by many current and former NFL players at the time. They organized games to play the USA vs. Japan, as well as mixed squads, giving some players an opportunity to play with players that they may have seen on television, and even idolized.
“It’s so cool that you played with Lester Hayes, what was he like?” I asked.
Reo-san responded: “Lester Hayes was incredible, we all thought he looked like lightning running around out there. I tried to run a route on him. It didn’t go well for me.”
“But why did they do this, what was the end goal for these games?” I asked.
“We never asked, in fact, we don’t really know. We think it was supposed to help us develop our skills, but there weren’t many practices. Maybe to discover a good football player was their goal,” Reo-san responded.
“Do you think Danketsu does a good job of offering a path to an end goal? Or is the program more similar to the games you mentioned?”
He paused for a bit, mulling the question over. Then he answered; “These types of programs are wonderful, they teach us we’re all alike while giving us new knowledge of a sport that we have a lot of interest in. But, until we can provide that for ourselves, all sports cannot become better.”
I asked him; “What would you suggest to make it better?”
“We need to study it for ourselves. Go to large universities and experience the sports ourselves and bring back the knowledge to our players so we can teach it ourselves. I think you can help with that.”
After this part of our conversation, Reo-san asked me to help him discover an offense and a better understanding of the game at a later date. I agreed, and we continued speaking about his experience playing against and with former NFL players. He definitely appreciated the experience, but he kept reiterating how he wished he was able to learn more.
This conversation proved to be helpful and Reo-san offered a challenge that I had previously given thought to but had not yet considered. His feedback offered a path with a goal and how to achieve it.
During my time in Japan, Kana Okada has been an athlete I’ve had the honor of following on her journey. She is the epitome of the word “coachable,” something I strive to teach with the athletes I work with in Japan.
Kana was so driven in her study of the English language that she ventured to Milwaukee, Wisconsin during 2015 for a study abroad program. During this program, her love of sports was so great that she joined the basketball program at this school, as well as the track and field team. Kana, a seasoned 100m sprinter, has been running as long as she can remember. Following closely in the footsteps of her father, one of Japan’s top sprinters and throwers during his career.
I never ran track, which made the way that Kana and I created our player-coach relationship even more interesting. During her study abroad program she gravitated towards a coach that had incredible knowledge of track and field mechanics and expected the same results from Kana as her American counterparts. Kana’s 100m time was shaved by 1 second. Any athlete can understand the importance that a whole second makes, it can often be the difference between winning and losing.
During this time in America, she grew to value different coaching styles. Prior to Danketsu, Kana was stuck in a rut. In a recent interview, she stated: “Before Danketsu, going to practice was a task. Something I did because I had to, now practice is more fun. We’re not just going outside and running, we’re using the current workouts that the best athletes in universities use.”
Kana approached me and asked me to coach her, not because I ran track, but to get a different perspective on workouts. She is constantly asking me for new updates on workouts and running mechanics from our counterparts in universities in America while appreciating what a new culture can teach her.
During the aforementioned interview, I asked Kana “What drives you?”
She responded; “I want to be the best that I can be. I want to be able to communicate through not only language but sports [too]. I want to work with athletes from all over the world.”
Kana wants to go to America to study and run track. She’s waiting to hear back from several schools. We wish her the best of luck here at Danketsu.
Danketsu has officially gotten off to a great start. After participating with these athletes for the last year and finally being able to actively help them, under the Danketsu Project, I feel more welcomed amongst the communities. Teams are learning more every day, this virtual exchange is certainly turning out to be everything I hoped it would.
Over the last two weeks, I traveled back to America to begin an important part of Danketsu. Solidifying connections. I traveled to Garrison Forest where I connected with Kim Marlor, the tennis coach for Garrison Forest High School, located in Owings Mills, Maryland. Kim Marlor and her tennis team will be connecting with the Notre Dame Seishin tennis team located in Kurashiki, Japan. Garrison Forest has a strong tradition of utilizing sports to help students develop a strong sense of integrity, self-esteem, cooperation, sportsmanship, responsibility, loyalty and a sense of contribution to a group effort through athletics. This sentiment was shared when I sat down and spoke with Kim Marlor. She is an incredible coach, and person who believes that sports have the ability to develop the building blocks of good global citizens.
I also traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to study under Head Coach John Troxell and his staff. At Franklin and Marshall, I was equipped with plays, drills, advice and an incredible donation of jerseys. All of this information, as well as the jerseys, will be used to develop the Kibi International University football team into a local beacon of football information and a source for younger players within rural Okayama to learn from. The Franklin and Marshall Diplomats have been playing football in Lancaster for 129 years, and are currently poised to begin their 12th season under Coach John Troxell. The staff at Franklin and Marshall are known for pushing their players, creating student-athletes with strong self-discipline, and a bond that lasts even after graduation. Explaining the program’s motto: “Not four years, but a lifetime.”
Thank you to Garrison Forrest Athletics and Kim Marlor, as well as Franklin and Marshall College Athletics, Coach Troxell, and his staff.
There are four main goals of Danketsu. But first, I want to generally speak about this project’s base and where I hope for it to go.
Here in Kurashiki, I have gravitated towards sports teams, whether it’s at Notre Dame Seishin, Kibi Kokusai or even the greater football community. I’ve been extremely lucky to be welcomed.
Danketsu started off as a dream, something I didn’t think I would be able to begin until after graduate school. My dream was to create an international community for student athletes to exchange not only workouts, tips, and film, but to exchange cultural difference while exposing each other to a different way of life. Below you will find goals of Danketsu, how they will be carried out and the importance of a program like this.
List of Goals:
- Create a cultural exchange for student athletes
- Connect schools and universities with the common goal of developing productive global citizens.
- Pique the international interests of students athletes, in both America and Japan.
- Document a sport in Japan that doesn’t often get attention (American Football).
- Students will be paired with a partner in America or Japan, who participates in the same sport.
- Students will be tasked with getting to know their counterpart, using simple questions to get to know each other. However, questions will be provided if students get stuck.
- Coaches and team managers will be encouraged to provide game film, workouts, drills, or anything utilized to develop athletes.
- The creation of a 10-15 minute video to document football and sports in Japan, and the work that goes into various sports.
The mission of Danketsu, as stated on the “About” page, is to provide a virtual in-depth cultural exchange through sports while connecting institutions with the common goal of growing global citizens.
The world is getting smaller, we now have the ability to communicate with our neighbors in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even 50 years ago. I believe that we should take advantage of this and reach out to our neighbors, to learn about a different culture.
But why through sports?
My love of sports is deep, to read reasons why check out my first blog post here. It explains why sports matter, and the power they have to change lives. But why choose sports as a medium for cultural exchange? The answer is simple, every four years the world comes together to celebrate the Olympics (which will be in Japan in 2020), we see world records being broken, and sportsmanship that wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Sports are something that we can all bond over and get to know each other through. For more check out my “Why Sports” post!
I have always been tentative to express my love of athletics. Especially my love of football, given its consistent problems regarding race, domestic violence, and general sexism throughout America’s National Football League. I often keep my passion to myself, worried about being perceived as a part of the issue. I’ve certainly seen these darker sides of the sport, but throughout my life, I’ve been a part of more positive situations through sports than the negative ones I so often see. Growing up and playing teams within Baltimore county and city, I have seen football offer a way out of negative situations for student athletes. I have even seen it provide a way to break stereotypes in a big way.
Instead of being a complicit bystander to the issues that plague sports, it is my personal goal to shine the spotlight on the positives that sports can offer. Specifically, how it can break through barriers such as race, religion, and culture to unite us through a common love; sports. A manifestation of this unification will be hosted right here in Japan during the 2020 Olympics. Every four years the world comes together and tunes into the Olympics, usually cheering for their country, but ultimately these countries come together. The hard work and passion of the athletes often leads to camaraderie. We see this with little things every Olympics cycle. For example when Usain Bolt stopped speaking during his interview as to respect the United States National Anthem, little things like this lead to athletes everywhere respecting different cultures.
I remember my little brother running into the living room of my parent’s home from his Randallstown Panther’s practice one day, exclaiming that he had a female teammate. He was ecstatic, and it both shocked and amazed me. My brother and I played on the same team but within different age groups, so word about an amazing player in the 7-9 age group had spread quickly, even reaching my own teammates. She not only dominated but did it humbly. Eventually, within our league, it became normal to see other girls playing on different teams. This one athlete had the ability to carve her own version of success using sports. This would prove to change my perspective going forward with sports and the impact one can have.
As I fast forward to college, I remember being faced with a particularly difficult situation in my Junior year. I was forced to take financial leave. Within this moment the many statistics that my parents and siblings had fought against were about to mean nothing. The dropout rate for African-American high school students was only about 13 percent, but that number skyrockets at the level of higher education. It would have been very easy to fall into this and never return to class at Franklin and Marshall, adding to the number of black students who never get to graduate. However with the help of my parents and working myself, I eventually re-enrolled and graduated on time, with a completed research project to boot.
When I look back on that time, nothing motivated me more than football. It’s not that I had any particular aspiration of playing professionally, but when things were hardest, it motivated me to get up, go workout, study Japanese, stay fresh on what parts of Psychology I was interested in, go fill out numerous job applications and keep moving towards completing the goal of re-enrollment. It forced me to find a better outlet than me wallowing in self-pity. I just used it to work harder. If it wasn’t for football, I don’t know if I would have graduated.
When I returned to college the following semester, I was inspired to change my major. I wanted to incorporate all facets of my experience into a working model for research as well as my future. I combined Psychology, Japanese and International Studies to create my major, which I named “Culture and Cognition.” With this Culture and Cognition major, I set out to study the manifestations of culture within sports. I wanted to establish if culture affects how any given basketball player plays the game. For example, does a subject from a collectivist culture (a culture in which the group is more important than the individual) pass the ball more often than a subject from an individualistic culture (a culture in which the individual outweighs the group). I was awarded a grant during the spring of my senior year to take this project head on. I ventured to Milwaukee for a week, where I worked face-to-face with athletes, coaches, and officials from the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association.
To this day, I’m driven to use sports as a positive form of development for student-athletes. Sports can teach inclusion. Sports can teach hard work. In my case, sports inspired me, the child of Liberian immigrants, to forge my own path to success, and mold my own academic experience using sports as a medium, avoiding ominous dropout statistics along the way.
So, why sports?
Sports have always been a beacon of light, always offered hope to me and countless others when attempting to find a way out of a bad situation. Sports also acts as an outlet, sometimes for something as simple as staying in shape and working out. However, sometimes it becomes a part of a student-athletes identity, affecting every aspect of their life. Just as sports have changed my life, I want to be able to help students from around the world understand that playing sports has the power to allow them to reach their potentials, not just athletically but also academically and socially. Danketsu is a manifestation of this to me, a program to help students develop something they care about while developing the building blocks of good global citizens.