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Give high school athletes "rest" and "opportunity"

Chiaki Nakamura
Associate Professor at Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

High school athletes in Japan have less "rest" and "opportunity" to try other sports compared to their counterparts in the United States, and I believe that they should have more "rest" and "opportunities".

When do high school athletes get rest?

Just after the national high school rugby championship known as "Hanazono" finishes, prefectural tournaments for rookies start in the same month (January), followed by the Kanto regional tournament for rookies starting in the middle of February. When a team wins, it proceeds to the "National Invitational Tournament" held in March to vie for the national championship. When a new school term begins in April, the team again competes in the prefectural tournament and then the Kanto regional tournament in hopes of becoming the Kanto champions.

During these five months, high school rugby players have no time for rest. They cannot take even a short break until June. Even after that, however, they have to face many challenges one after another, including regular examinations at their school, the forthcoming summer camp training, and the "Hanazono" prefectural qualifying games and finals. High school rugby players are literally not allowed to get "rest." High school athletes, including those playing other sports, participate in school club activities with a similarly intensive schedule and get no rest at all.

When do high school athletes form a solid foundation?

I do not intend to argue that "they are recommended to enjoy club activities while taking much rest". From the viewpoint of an athletic trainer, whose main task is to prevent injury and ensure safe recovery from injury, high school sports in Japan seem to impose a rigorous schedule on high school students; high school athletes are not given enough time to form a foundation (basic physical strength) for improvement of their performance with a long-term vision, or to fully recover from injury if they are injured. Though their coaches know this situation very well, a year-round game and tournament schedule forces athletes to continue training to win all of the scheduled games.

Every textbook regarding sports performance claims the most important factor for the current peak performance as well as the future improvement of performance is "basic physical strength." These texts also state that athletes should do at least three months of systematic and continual training in order to enhance their physical strength to the next level. Though physical strength includes muscular strength, endurance, instantaneous force, agility, speed, and balance, it takes at least three months to develop such physical strength thoroughly for the forthcoming season. In Japan, however, it is difficult for high school athletes to spend such a long time to form a foundation without being interrupted by games and tournaments because they are busy competing and training all year round. I agree with the opinion described in "High-Performance Sports Conditioning (2001), Human Kinetics" that two peaks (big tournaments) per year are not necessary at the high school level. For example, only the Hanazono championship in winter for rugby and the Koshien tournament in summer (though I do not agree with the tournament held in such a hot environment from the viewpoint of sports medicine) for baseball are enough. Assuming there is one season in a year and the season includes tournaments for the last half of the year, athletes can focus their energy on forming a foundation during at least the remaining half year.

Can high school athletes allow enough time for recovery from injury?

Besides forming a foundation, high school athletes should ensure sufficient time for recovery from injury. Since pre-scheduled games all year round influence the use of athletes in competition, however, injured athletes are sometimes forced to play games without getting enough care for recovery. When I see athletes playing various sports who enter Waseda University (and others as well), I am surprised to find many injuries that are insufficiently treated medically, psychologically, and socially.

If a high school student who is injured participates in training or games without having enough time for recovery, his or her injury becomes chronic. As a result, he or she not only loses the chance of improving his or her performance, but also suffers from lifelong aftereffects. Regarding sports-related injuries, high schools in Japan do not offer sufficient support information on recovery time, safety and protective measures, first aid for an injury, and adequate medical organizations compared to those in the United States.

Do high school athletes have any other opportunity?

I myself was a track-and-field athlete in junior and senior high schools, but I was always thinking "I want to play football, baseball, or basketball." Due to the track-and-field background, I was good at "running, jumping, and throwing," and in fact, showed as much basic athletic performance as my friends playing other sports. Thus at that time, I wondered if there were any other sports that might have suited my performance better, or if I could find an aptitude by trying other sports. Actually, many athletes feel the same way, thinking that they would like to try other sports. Besides discovering aptitude, trying various sports during senior high school days (as well as elementary and junior high school days) brings many benefits from the viewpoint of the development of athletic performance because muscle, movement, speed, sense of balance, and endurance that are not used in a given sport are naturally cultivated by trying other sports. Moreover, playing a range of sports is regarded as an effective way to avoid reaching a plateau of performance and burnout problems athletes experience while playing the same sport for a long period.

I hope that a system will be established at junior and senior high schools and even universities in which athletes are given many opportunities to try other sports.

How is the situation in the United States?
(1) Season system

Regarding high school sports in the United States, the most noticeable system is the seasonal system.

Sports at high schools by season

Fall season Winter season Spring season
Aug - Nov Nov - Feb Feb - May
American football
Baseball, Softball,
Track-and-field, Tennis
Football, and Golf

As shown in the table above, the annual high school sports programs in the United States are divided into three seasons, in each of which only predetermined sports are available. Even if a student loves basketball and wants to play basketball all year round, for example, he or she cannot play basketball once its season ends. In the spring season, such a student plays baseball, builds up basic physical strength, or devotes him or herself to study. Each season mainly consists of a medical check before participation, about three weeks of training, and games held on the weekend (Friday evening to night).

Since the training period is fixed, there is little difference in the training periods among schools. That is, coaches are responsible for getting the maximum effect from activities within a limited time period.

(2) League games and championship tournaments

At the high school level, the top position is the state champion determined by the tournament at the end of each season, for which every school competes. Each state is divided into several zones, each of which is further divided into League 1 to League 5. The division into leagues depends on the number of enrolled students (that is, schools with a large number of enrolled students are more likely to have good athletes). At each school, athletes are divided into the first team, second team, and rookie team according to their physical development and performance. Each of the first, second, and rookie teams participates in a different league within which the same number of games is provided. In the United States, every student is given equally an opportunity to play games unlike Japan, where only players in the first team can play official games while those in the second or lower level team cannot even touch balls and do not have a single experience in playing official games during their high school days.

Almost the same amount of time is allocated for training, which is always attended by coaches. There is no training without any coach. Competitions within a zone are based on league games, while a tournament system is employed only for games conducted after a regional champion based on the results of league games prior to the state championship. The main system used in Japan is the tournament system. This means a team that always loses the first-round game in the region can experience only three or four official games in a year. How do athletes feel when they end the year after about 300 days of training and only three official games?

(3) Support system

Besides the season system, league games, and limited tournament games, coaches always attend club activities in the United States. As I mentioned above, observation by coaches is necessary for both improvement of performance and ensuring safety. Additionally, high schools employ special athletic trainers. In Hawaii, employment of trainers is stipulated in the state law. Some high schools even employ more than one trainer or strength & conditioning coach to achieve safe, effective, and long-term development of physical strength and re-conditioning (rehabilitation).

Though the current situation around high school club activities seems to be improving in various points compared to my high school days, it is still far behind the United States. I eagerly hope that Japanese high school athletes are given "rest" and "opportunity."

Chiaki Nakamura
Associate Professor at Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University


The author was born on October 23, 1957, and graduated from the Department of Health Science, Faculty of Physical Education, Juntendo University. He belonged to the rugby club in the university. He went on to the graduate school of Juntendo University to study kinesiology and completed the physical education course. After serving as an assistant at the Department of Health Science (sport sciences laboratory) at Juntendo University, he entered the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, at Arizona State University in 1988 and graduated from the program. While studying abroad, he got an education as athletic trainer at Sports Medicine of Intercollegiate Athletic Department there. In 1991, he was qualified as an official athletic trainer of the National Athletic Trainers' Association. After coming back to Japan, he attended high school, university, and amateur rugby teams as athletic trainer while being engaged in the education of athletic trainers. In 1996, he funded TRY WORKS Co., Ltd. to provide services associated with athletic trainers. In 1998, he started giving athletic trainer education as a part time lecturer at the School of Human Sciences at Waseda University. He was appointed as a visiting lecturer in 2003, when the School of Sport Sciences was established, and then was promoted to associate professor in the Faculty of Sport Sciences in 2006. His specialty is sports medicine (athletic trainer). His recent works include "Conditioning stretch" (co-author, SEITOSHA Co, Ltd., 2008), "Kinetic anatomy" (translation supervisor, IDO-NO NIPPONSHA, Inc., 2008), and "Functional training shown by photos" (translation supervisor, TAISHUKAN Publishing Co., Ltd. 2007).