In March, I started watching Baby Steps, the story of a high school student who abruptly decides to take up tennis. This weekend, I bought my first tennis racket.
I have never played tennis in my life. I didn’t even know how to hold the racket. But I have watched a lot of sports anime, so that should count for something, right?
Of course not. I could barely hit the ball. I spent more than three hours practicing tennis this weekend, and all I have to show for it is a nasty blister on my thumb. Even so, I’ll be back at it tomorrow. I owe Baby Steps for that.
I think that sometimes, in the interest of entertainment, sports anime sometimes gives us the wrong message about sports. Onoda is a nerd who’s never considered road racing—until he becomes a major challenger in Yowamushi Pedal. On Haikyuu, Kageyama is a volleyball genius. The boys of Kuroko’s Basketball each were born with innate supernatural abilities. I’ve now watched 110 episodes of the Prince of Tennis, and Ryoma has lost just once—and very recently at that. For me this says, if you’re not immediately good at something, you probably just weren’t meant to do it. It’s a comfortable mindset, and one that kept me dreading gym class for my entire school career. I only engage in my one physical activity, running, because even I can move one foot in front of the other without worrying about being bad at it.
Baby Steps is unique among sports anime because it doesn’t star a prodigy. Ei-chan has never played tennis before high school, and it shows. He loses all the time! At one point in the first season, he lost in the very first round of an important tournament, going against the standard narrative for sports anime. Ei-chan doesn’t get better overnight, either. We get tired and stressed and frustrated right along with him. Usually, the protagonist doesn’t have to practice so hard and for so long to get results. But in real life, that’s exactly what athletes have to do in order to get to the top—even if they were born with physical advantages.
One of the things I like best about sports anime is watching people who are really good at what they do show off their skills. But until Baby Steps, there wasn’t a sports anime that truly conveyed how they got to that point. I’m awful at tennis, but all I can think about is how fun it is, and how much I want to keep trying to improve.
I always figured that by the time I was pushing thirty, I’d spend my time doing things I was actually good at. Instead, here I am, stumbling through Japanese and now tennis (coincidentally both hobbies I took up thanks to anime). Baby Steps contains the not-so-subtle message “believe in yourself,” repeated every opening sequence. I guess it’s rubbing off.
On Twitter and Instagram, I am noting my forays into athleticism with the hashtag #irlsportsanime. If you’re also an anime fan with fitness goals, it’d be awesome if you used it, too.