Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Want to be great at baseball? Learn aikido!

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to talk with the guys on our local radio sports show, Chasing Foul Balls, on K-106. Kel and I talked about aikido and judo and our programs we are doing here in Magnolia. Hopefully I'll be able to get a MP3 of the segment and I'll post it here (if I can figure out how).
Right at the end of the segment, one of the guys asked Kel, "Yeah, but does aikido help you throw a baseball better?" This was a gentle jibe at Kel for his performance throwing out the first pitch last season at a local college game. I perked up because it reminded me of a great story about Japan's most famous baseball player training with the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. I didn't have time on the air t otell the story, so here it is, excerpted from the May-June 1992 Psychology Today Magazine...

Bambino San
Sadaharu Oh benefits from martial arts
As much as any transformative practice that commands a significant following today, certain martial arts facilitate a many-sided integral dvelopment of human nature. At their best they simultaneously promote moral sensitivity, athletic abilities, and a degree of unitive awareness. Some, such as aikido, are superior to modern sports in their reliance upon spiritual principles, and superior to quiet meditation in their cultivation of stillness in action. The transformative power of martial arts can be seen in the influence of aikido on the great Japanese baseball player Sadaharu Oh.

Oh hit 868 career home runs, to surpass Hank Aaron's American record, and won 15 professional home-run titles in Japan during a 22-year career. He also helped the Tokyo Giants win many national championships, including nine in a row from 1965 through 1973. But he might not have achieved his great success without special training with Hiroshi Arakawa, a baseball instructor. Oh has told his story simply and eloquently.

Though he had been a high-school star as a left-handed pitcher, Oh was assigned to first base as a professional because he was a powerful hitter. But during his first three years with the Tokyo Giants, he did not fulfill his great promise and often drank to excess. The Giants' manager hired Arakawa to work with Oh in 1962. Arakawa extracted a promise from Oh that he would stop drinking and smoking, and during their first months of training introduced him to Morehei Uyeshiba, who offered them insights from aikido. Uyeshiba taught Oh about ma, the "psychic time and space" in which a contest occurs, and other aikido principles. But these first lessons did not have an effect. Not until Arakawa made Oh adopt an unusual one-legged batting stance in his hitting. This change in style helped focus Oh's aikido training. The athlete wrote:
"I had reached a point where aikido had become absolutely necessary to what I did.

One of the first things a student of aikido learns is to become conscious of his 'one point.' This is an energy or spirit-center in the body located about two fingers below the navel. While many martial arts make use of this center, it is essential in aikido, [which] requires tremendous balance and agility, neither of which are possible unless you are perfectly centered. So much of our early work was getting me to pose simply with the one point in mind. I would get up on my one foot and cock my bat, all the while remaining conscious of this energy center in my lower abdomen. I discovered that if I located my energy in this part of my body I was better balanced than if I located it elsewhere. If I located my energy in my chest, for example, I found that I was too emotional. I also learned that energy located in the upper part of the body tends to make one top-heavy. Balance and a steady mind are thus associated with the one point."
Besides centering, Oh learned other things through aikido, among them awareness of ki and the power of waiting.
"As long as I had [a] hitch in my swing, I could not begin to think of using ki in my battling. But posing on one foot, ki did not seem so far-fetched--if I could learn to steady myself.
Earlier in the season, when we had simply been trying to overcome my hitching habit, Arakawasan had had yet another discussion with Ueshiba Sensei about the problem.

'Look,' he said, the ball comes flying in whether you like it or not, doesn't it? Then all you can do is wait for it come to you. To wait, this is the traditional Japanese style. Wait. Teach him to wait.'

During the 1962 season, Arakawa incorporated concentration, ki, centering, balance, and waiting into Oh's baseball technique, so that he would achieve the "Body of a Rock" described by Musashi, the legendary Japanese swordsman.
"The image entered my mind as simply as a bird alighting on a branch. The global of perfecting what was in my body seemed entirely natural."
Sometimes Oh practiced in front of a mirror, visualizing the many kinds of pitches he would face. To strengthen Oh's form Arakawa had him imagine that his body was a gymnast's bar that could bear immense pressure without breaking. Oh practiced his stance with this image in mind until his blisters callused over. But his form was still imperfect. With his teacher's help, he realized that his upper body and bat position also needed to be reorganized. Only after months of practice could he balance his entire body so that his power was fully concentrated.
"Our training enabled me to hit thirty-eight home runs, twenty-eight of them coming after July 1. I raised my battling average to .272 and my RBI total to eighty-five, both career highs. Most important, I won the home-run and RBI titles for the Central League that year. [But] I received no particular praise from the Master of the Arakawa School. I accepted that. I knew he had his reasons.
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