YAMADA Eri: Time at home was valuable in order to analyse my rivals - and myself

Yamada Eri # 11 celebrates Japan's 3-1 win against the United States during the women's gold medal softball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Yamada Eri # 11 celebrates Japan's 3-1 win against the United States during the women's gold medal softball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

"When the Olympic flame arrived in Japan in March, I was suddenly struck with a sense of reality and the pressure of having to produce results, which also made me a little nervous."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is requiring all of us to curtail our normal activities, there are many athletes who are continuing with their daily training routines ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games next year - many of whom share their thoughts via social media.

Among such athletes is YAMADA Eri, who won Japan’s first gold medal in softball at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 and is now the captain of the national team aiming for another gold at Tokyo 2020.

Yamada spoke to Tokyo 2020 about her latest updates, the ideas she wants to communicate through social media and her aspirations for the Olympic Games next year.

Treasuring relationships with people through social media

Due to the need to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Japan Women’s Softball League matches in the first half season were cancelled and its member teams were asked to refrain from practicing as a team when the state of emergency was declared. So, until the declaration was lifted on 26 May, we had been training individually at home.

Being unable to practice and play matches in April and May was unprecedented for us, but, with our long-standing experience, we were confident that we would not lose our touch. In fact, having resumed our usual practice, we don’t feel we’ve missed out on anything.

I started using social media because I felt the urge to contribute to the growth of softball into a major sport – a sport that everyone is familiar with. I hope to forge bonds with all kinds of people through social media and treasure our relationships. Given that what we used to take for granted is no longer the norm, I felt a strong desire to help people live with a positive frame of mind.

Using social media, I’m sending out my own words in the hope of giving a little inspiration and encouragement for people to summon the energy to move forward.

Keeping a positive mindset despite the postponement of the Games and having waited 12 years for the return of softball as an Olympic sport

The Tokyo 2020 Games has been postponed by a year, but I am very much aware of the Olympics every day. I can feel the high expectation of the public.

Softball will not be included in the Paris 2024 Games, but to reinstate the sport to the Los Angeles 2028 Games, we believe it is crucial for Japan to clinch the gold medal. Thus, I always have the Olympics on my mind.

Last season, I was caught up in overthinking about the Olympics. I changed my batting style to defy analyses by our rival teams overseas, which ended up having a negative effect on my individual performance. Having never experienced poor results before, I felt a little scared about having to compete in the Olympic Games in that condition. When the Olympic flame arrived in Japan in March, I was suddenly struck with a sense of reality and the pressure of having to produce results, which also made me a little nervous.

However, now I feel confident that I am on the right track, so I will be able to take advantage of the extra year of build-up time.

Valuable time facing my rivals and myself

During the state of emergency, I worked on muscle conditioning and did a lot of image training in preparation for next year’s Olympic Games.

Leveraging my past experience, I also analysed our Olympic rivals, trying to predict their sequence of pitching and types of pitch, as well as discern their batting techniques by imagining where they will hit the ball depending on the type of pitch. I was able to analyse our competitors, not by watching video footage, but by sorting out my own memory.

I could not have done this if I had been practicing on the field all the time.

Thanks to spending time at home, I was able to squarely face myself and analyse our rivals in an effort to reinforce ourselves for the Olympic Games. I also learned how important it is to pursue tangible results and follow through with decisions to the end.

Staying at home was thus beneficial for self-scrutiny, which has served as my springboard toward the Olympics.

Eri Yamada (c) and Rei Nishiyama #3 (r) of Japan celebrate a 2-run hit by teammate Megu Hirose against Australia in the bronze medal final of the women's softball competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Eri Yamada (c) and Rei Nishiyama #3 (r) of Japan celebrate a 2-run hit by teammate Megu Hirose against Australia in the bronze medal final of the women's softball competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
(Photo by Clive Rose / Getty Images)

It wasn’t so much about whether I wanted to continue playing or not,

but more about wanting to open up a future for the very young softball players

and to give back to our supporters by delivering results.

Striving toward our third Olympic Games

In retrospect, the 12 years since Beijing 2008 has flown by in the blink of an eye.

To be honest, I did have moments when I considered quitting softball after Beijing 2008, but even though softball was excluded from the Olympic programme, there were still many children out there who continued playing the sport.

I also knew that all kinds of people were kindly extending their support in the operation of the League. So, it wasn’t so much about whether I wanted to continue playing or not, but more about wanting to open up a future for the very young softball players and to give back to our supporters by delivering results. It was this aspiration that gave me the energy to remain active as a player to this day.

Moreover, I hope that we can draw attention to softball by putting in some great performances and getting the sport back into the Olympic programme, thereby enabling many younger players to achieve their dreams and goals in the Olympic Games.

Eri Yamada #11 (bottom C) celebrates with her teammates after their 3-1 win against the United States in the women's gold medal softball match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Eri Yamada #11 (bottom C) celebrates with her teammates after their 3-1 win against the United States in the women's gold medal softball match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images)

Conveying gratitude and opening up the future by winning gold

For me, Tokyo 2020 will serve as a milestone to decide whether to continue playing softball or head in a different direction. I certainly hope to gain a gold medal at the high-profile event, not for my honour or prestige, but to express my gratitude to everyone and everything that has allowed me to stick to being a softball player all these years.

My hope is to empower people through our games, inspire them to take on new challenges, and give them courage, which, in turn, will give a lot of meaning to my softball life.

We will make the most of our extra preparation time by spending each precious day rigorously exploring ways to win the gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games.