There are times when I forget that there’s an elephant in the room – Baby Steps is only going to be 25 episodes long. It’s easy to forget, because so far the anime has done next to nothing to remind us of that fact. As a manga reader if I didn’t know otherwise I’d assume we were looking at a full-length adaptation, because Pierrot isn’t cutting any corners (well, apart from the visuals) or skipping sections – they’ve been faithful to the point of reverence so far, and the series is basically half over. It really is better this way – a rushed Baby Steps simply wouldn’t work, for reasons that I think are becoming obvious to new viewers by now. Better to fully adapt 20% of the manga than rush through all of it – though I’d guess we’re looking at a massive time skip when we get to the end.
Baby Steps is a funny sort of sports series in that the real action occurs at least as much – if not more – in the interludes between the “action”. The matches are important and almost always riveting, but they function mainly as the natural outflow of what happens in-between. This is another example of the way Baby Steps as a series very much reflects Maruo as a main character – each of them are at their best in those observational and analytical chapters, Ei-chan in the process of getting better by learning about himself and the series in the act of showing us that process.
The first challenge for Ei-chan at this point in the story is to learn how to process a huge victory like the one he’s just achieved. Psychologically this is a major issue, because knowing how to build on a win is no easy thing – a young athlete can easily spin off in a bad direction at such times. Maruo is downright apologetic after the match, sheepish in his handshake with Miyagawa (who’s a superb sport about it, for the record) and practically apologetic to Miura-kouchi and his friends. Miura’s message is simple – good players make their own luck. Ei-Chan’s rapid improvement was what prompted Miyagawa to be too cautious, and his relentless on-court demeanor was what forced Miyagawa to try and be too precise on the final point.
This is a simple but surprisingly difficult concept – accepting that it’s OK to feel good about a win, but not feeling so good that you relax. Fortunately Ei-chan has two days until his fourth-round match – not a lot of time, but an eternity for someone with his belligerence and work ethic. Rather than let E-chan run in place for its own sake Miura sets him up for something that might actually show fast results – image training. That means meeting up with Mike, the American coach and sports psychologist who helps out STC when he’s in Japan.
As with Miura, Mike can immediately see that Maruo is a coach’s dream – a lump of clay any coach would love to have a chance to mold. Mike is a bit of a gaijin caricature (more so in the anime than the manga for sure) but he’s no fool – there’s a method to his madness, and Maruo quickly catches on to it. The core of Mike’s training is very much at the heart of Baby Steps thematically – knowing yourself is everything. Part of this is a bit (more than a bit) embarrassing – showing Maruo that 16 year-olds have to be aware of the impact their hormones can have on their concentration. It’s funny, but it’s no small matter and a legitimate factor youth coaches have to account for. Mike also teaches Maruo that his memory is stronger than he realizes – when he takes himself back to a moment in the past, he can remember details he didn’t even consciously acknowledge at the time.
The upshot here is to find a positive image to bring to mind at key moments in a match – and it can’t just be a picture, but a fully-realistic video playing in the head. And it must be done with a 20-second clock ticking between points, and with a body growing increasingly tired. When Mike sees Ei-chan’s notebooks his eyes practically bug out of his head – a kid with this kind of memory and analytical focus even before training is a gold mine for a coach like him. We also get another brief reminder of the difference in temperament between Ei-chan and Nat-chan – she doesn’t get as much out of Mike’s coaching for the simple reason that she’s a naturally instinctive and reactive person that trusts herself. Much of what Mike is trying to teach him she already does, without needing any guidance.
This ep may be a good acid test for viewers of Baby Steps, because the truth is the series has a lot of passages like this – the mangaka is clearly fascinated with the psychological side of tennis (as am I, happily). The “snowflake” aspect of the sport – how no two players are alike, and the game tends to draw highly quirky and individualistic players – is a key theme too, and reflected most strongly in Ei-chan’s STC teammates and his opponents. After riding the wave of confidence he’s gained beating Miyagawa and the advice he got from Mike to a 6-2 win over the 16th-seeded Terashima-kun, he goes on to face the next breakout character in the series – Iwase Hiroshimizu (Asanuma Shintarou). I’m tempted to say more than I should here, because it was really in the showdown between Ei-chan and Iwase that I fully realized just how much I adored the Baby Steps manga – it shows off the brilliance of the concept and execution magnificently. But I’ll wait until next week to talk about why that is.