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Saturday, July 11, 2009
Brit muscles way to BayStar success
Karate insights, cultural savvy, good deal of diplomacy keep ball players in top shape
By KRIS KOSAKA
Special to The Japan Times
Young boys, bright-eyed and clutching miniature gloves, gather in ballparks and dream of their own futures as part of a professional team.
It is not unusual that John Turney shared this fantasy, growing up in Yokohama, attending games with his mother as a child. But how this British national, who uses skills he gained across three continents, made his dream a reality is unusual.
Since 1998, Turney, 37, has been the Yokohama BayStars' strength and conditioning coach. The seeds to his success were planted in England. Turney's father, Alan, naturally had his own dreams as a boy. Studying judo in London, where he grew up, Alan became fascinated with all things Japanese. His love of the language, literature and budo would eventually take him as an adult to Tokyo.
Fluent in five languages, he found a job as a linguistics and literature professor at Seisen Woman's College, and met his wife-to-be, Masumi. John is the second of their two children.
Turney credits his successful path to the BayStars to his father's love of judo and his mother's love of baseball. Although John was educated entirely in English, mostly at Yokohama International School, his father encouraged martial arts for both him and his older sister, Erika.
Turney studied karate for 10 years in the Japanese community near his home. He also played tennis, but his mother's favorite sport was baseball. "As a kid, we always watched baseball on TV and went to games at the stadium in Yokohama," Turney says.
While in high school helping his tennis coach at a children's summer camp in England, he began to consider a career in coaching. "I thought, maybe I can find something like this in baseball, not skill-related, but more conditioning-related."
His choice of baseball took him to yet another country, as Turney realized the U.S. could offer more specialized training in baseball.
Although he started his undergraduate program on the U.S. East Coast, he transferred after one year to the University of Puget Sound in Washington state and stayed on the West Coast to complete his masters in exercise science.
"Every year, I wanted to come back to Japan, during Christmas break and summer." The West Coast was a little closer to home.
Turney's experience with a number of cultures, as a student at an international school, as a foreigner in the traditional Japanese community of karate, in America with a bicultural perspective, all helped when he faced his biggest challenge — entering the world of Japanese baseball as an outsider.
Turney needed both language ability and cultural finesse. Luckily, he had both. "Karate taught me the Japanese qualities of reigi, politeness, respectfulness. They taught you traditional Japanese beliefs, and that overlaps with the baseball culture and the society, so it was easy for me to accept things and to blend in."
Studying karate for 10 years also helped maintain his Japanese skills while enrolled at an international school and immersed in English. His language and cultural skills gave him the opportunity, and the BayStars organization gave him time.
Adjusting to the baseball world required almost three years. Although Turney's big chance grew out of a two-month internship with the organization while still in university, he was not familiar with the routines of professional ball. "They didn't throw me into the deep end until my fourth year.
"At first, I was not a coach; I worked in Yokosuka with the Shonan SeaRex," which is the BayStars farm team. "I needed to learn how things were done, the practice routines, the actual reality of what's going behind the scenes, so I would be able to smoothly enter the world as a watcher."
Turney watched and learned the technical side of his job as well. "Graduate school laid the foundation, but I quickly realized my American perspective did not really work all the time with Japanese athletes. I learned a lot on the job, watching the other coaches, considering the Japanese physique, the way the players here react to training."
Neither did Turney forget what he had learned from karate, such as "the stretching and physical workings." He used every resource to create the best possible programs.
Observing remains a key element of his success. "I'm constantly looking at players, trying to figure out how best to help. Even while a player is just walking out onto the field — maybe he's a little slouched or his chin is sticking out — I know his hips have dropped out, his lower back is a little tight, his quads must be tight. So I call him over, stretch him, reset his body."
Turney was called up to ichi-gun of the BayStars at the start of his fourth year with the club and has remained with the top team ever since. Throughout his years with the organization, he has worked with five different head coaches. Each year he works from a one-year contract, as is common in the profession.
Turney keeps focused by concentrating on his objectives. "My responsibility is for the 28 players on the top team from when they get called up, to make sure they are prepared for the game, health-wise and condition-wise.
"I think about running programs for their general fitness, I strengthen them, taking them through individualized weight programs and make sure their overall condition is up to par for their best performance."
Turney admits it is an enormous job, with a lot of pressure and responsibility to help the team win. He may work with as many as 50 different players per year, as the team shuffles players back and forth between the farm team and the top team.
Currently, he works with another strength and conditioning coach in the top team, along with four trainers responsible for injuries. Turney also collaborates with the other BayStar coaches to ensure everyone works together to help the athletes achieve top performance.
"Coaches are ex-players, and they have a lot of pride in what they have been doing and what they've gone through with conditioning experiences as well. They sometimes each have different views.
"I have to be able to communicate well with each coach, work together, sometimes sticking to the traditional way of doing things while still implementing other conditioning ideas."
Turney's job therefore involves a good deal of diplomacy and requires a thorough understanding of rank. "In the baseball world, it is all about age, and if you are one year younger than a certain person, you are below him."
With his observer's skills, none of these differences proved too much of a challenge, but Turney admits there are frustrations on the job: "No matter how well you do your job, and you are satisfied with what happens, you create a program, a player does it, and you see their progress, it can happen that the player doesn't perform well on the field or the team does not win.
"It's not like you put so much in and you get so much back — it's a mental challenge. You just have to believe. Even if you lose today, and it's tough to lose . . . the players are stronger, and you have to believe it will all come together some day."
With his experience, Turney is understandably proud of how Japanese baseball has performed recently on the world stage. "I would like to see even more openness in Japanese baseball.
"The level is very high now, the baseball world here so unique, it is a good opportunity for everyone to learn.
"The level is high enough to allow an even more open attitude and to let more foreign players in to give more of an international feel to Japanese baseball."
Turney himself is comfortable as a British national permanent resident in Japan. "I wouldn't say I have my father's qualities with multiple languages," Turney laughs, but he is obviously at ease navigating in a Japanese world with a multicultural perspective.
In the competitive world of sports, Turney acknowledges that his career with the BayStars can not last forever. "In the professional world, on average, you are out in four or five years.
"This is my dream job, and since I achieved my dream at such a young age, sometimes it is hard to think about what I will do next. I try not to worry about next year, just think about this year and the players.
"It's all about helping the players to be better, so if they continue to do so, it's great."
One thing that interests Turney is helping those bright-eyed kids in the stands. "When I was in university, one of my courses was with 'adapted school education', basically working with physically challenged children in physical education."
Turney was assigned a specific child, and adapted physical education programs to fit the child's special needs. "It really touched me, these kids trying so hard and really enjoying sports despite their limitations."
Turney organized season tickets for physically challenged children while he was still with the farm team and hopes to become involved with handicapped children in the future.
Even if this is a disappointing season for BayStar fans, the men behind the team, like coach John Turney, are working hard to give children in the stands something to cheer about.
Turney knows what it feels like to have a dream and watch from the bleachers. When the BayStars pitched him an opportunity, he managed to meet it with success.