Substance Over Style: How Baby Steps Explores the Importance of Mental Fortitude

At face value, Baby Steps appears to stray heavily from the archetypal sports anime cultivated with modern releases such as Haikyuu!! and Kuroko no Basuke dominating the forefront of the genre. With comparatively lackluster production value artistically and musically, paired with unimaginative choreography within the matches itself, Baby Steps certainly lacks the immediate flair that grasps and maintains the viewer’s attention. And while it remains a single factor of consideration when evaluating the inherent quality of any show, the visual depiction of the sport in question is critical to the subsequent popularity (or lack thereof) of notable sports anime because of their natural capacity to reproduce the tension and stakes that arise within the essence of competition with great efficacy.

If the numerical measures (i.e. member count) available on popular websites such as MyAnimeList and Reddit were to reflect even the most general outcomes of prioritizing the spectacle and exhilaration of sport, the striking benefits of such an approach might become immediately more attractive to a general audience in comparison to Baby Steps’ humility in aesthetics.

Yet the significance of Baby Steps within community discourse would be an inaccurate testament to the consequence that it carries as a major digression from the standards cultivated by sports anime defined by “heart-pumping excitement”. Rather than focusing on the physicality of tennis, Baby Steps painstakingly documents the contribution of mental fortitude on athletic and personal improvement through the perspective of the intelligent, driven Eiichiro Maruo, while maintaining a firm sense of realism to promote the genuine appeal of tennis.

Think Hard, Play Hard

In reference to an article published in the November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on the viability of the underdog narrative within the marketing sphere, there exist two essential qualities that compose a strong foundation for its potential success: “a disadvantaged position…and a passion and determination to triumph against the odds”.

Within the context of Baby Steps, Eiichiro fully encapsulates the essence of both conditions with no natural caveat or extraordinary gift to give him the semblance of a fighting chance. As a matter of fact, he officially becomes fully invested in tennis with the intentions to become a professional within his first year of high school, a time characterized by intensive academic workload in preparation for college examinations. Under most circumstances, an individual might hold one of two perceptions about his endeavor into the sport: one of doubtful skepticism and one of realistic optimism. The former is most clearly demonstrated through Eiichiro’s mother, who implicitly dismisses Eiichiro’s indirect attempt to inquire about the prospects of becoming a professional tennis player under the guise that such a feat would be overwhelmingly challenging. Her assumptions hold significant truth, given that it remains extremely rare for professional athletes to begin their sports career in later years given the presence of coaching and training for the youngest talent, paired with the cost-benefit consideration of sacrificing education for athletics. With such prospects deviating away from the traditional path that the great majority of Japanese high school students pursues, the willingness to acknowledge change may require a comforting sentiment of reassurance, which Eiichiro obtains through a compromise by promising to drop tennis unless he secures a victory at the All-Japan Junior Tennis Tournament. Underscoring the severity of these prospects with roughly twenty episodes of steady build-up preceding this declaration, the gravity of his decision marks Eiichiro’s newfound understanding of the ramifications needed to chase after his dream in that it will prompt weeks of intense training and resilience to hit the benchmark. As noted prior, he certainly lacks the physical capacity at the time to compete with the best, but his ability to translate his studious tendencies to the sport of tennis proves to be an invaluable asset to his improvement.

Even other highly skilled tennis players in Baby Steps featured prominently throughout both seasons demonstrate a degree of cynicism in regards to personal improvement and fortitude. Southern Tennis Club’s Takuma Egawa clearly holds this attitude throughout most of the series, fueled in part due to the frustration he accumulates from failing to top a selection of his greatest rivals. To briefly summarize the sentiment with his own words: “Some things are never meant to be, no matter how hard you struggle.” Standing ideologically in conflict with the persistent and meticulous Eiichiro, he holds a lasting grudge towards any significant endeavor that Eiichiro strides for, perhaps as a result of his own insecurity with his current predicament. It is therefore fitting that Eiichiro and Takuma find themselves competing against each other in various capacities. Not only do these matches provide a fantastic reference point to measure Eiichiro’s improvements at certain milestones, but subtly emphasize the nuances and fruits of the disparate mindsets that each hold. A great demonstration of this occurs during the fourth episode within the first season, in which a conflict results in a serving competition that tasks Eiichiro with returning at least one serve in order to avoid a punch to the face. Takuma largely relies on the exact same serving type for the first forty-nine serves and switches it up on the last show, indicating a lack of motivation to acknowledge his opponent. Meanwhile, Eiichiro largely struggles (and ultimately fails) to return his serves, but slowly manages to accommodate Takuma’s serve in gradual increments through his consistent note-taking, establishing his philosophy towards self-betterment and foreshadowing the long-term training required in order to climb above the ranks.

That said, other members of the Southern Tennis Club provides an escape route for Eiichiro to surround himself amongst others with the same passion for tennis, and foster a greater sense of self-worth fueled by personal drive rather than obligation. The grand variety of personalities that appear have essential, distinct connections to Eiichiro’s development as a tennis player. Perhaps the greatest influence in Eiichiro’s transition into the athletic world lies with Natsu Takasaki, whose sole motivation to pursue a professional sports career is the enjoyment she experiences from playing tennis. Her pure intentions certainly teeter on the line of expectation and reality, but nevertheless provide a “focus” that she can preserve with every minute of training, every minute of competition. This heavily contrasts with Eiichiro’s initial lack of direction within his own life, aimlessly dedicating himself to his academics without full consideration of his future. Natsu’s influence directly sparks the fire that Eiichiro needs to adjust his outlook on life for the greater good, with that vigor translating to Eiichiro’s accelerated improvement.

Eiichiro also gains exposure to multiple coaches that hold distinct yet effective approaches to training upcoming tennis players. To briefly highlight two that are arguably most critical in Eiichiro’s development, Yusaku Miura and Ryuhei Aoi place greater emphasis on the physicality and psychology of their trainees respectively, and indirectly work hand-in-hand to cultivate talent despite the outward contrast of their demeanors.

However, virtually every coach places great emphasis on maintaining strong mental fortitude under conditions of training or competition. The most consistent model instilled by the majority of Eiichiro’s mentors remains the “square analogy”, in which the court is split into equal imaginary sections to assist with ball placement. He gradually expands upon this basis in order to increase his precision to the extent of splitting the court into one-hundred imaginary squares. On the surface, this might appear to be a red flag in the way of the realism that Baby Steps has maintained, as even the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport have not achieved complete mastery in that regard. Fortunately, neither Eiichiro nor his acquaintances expect him to achieve perfection with this strategy because it serves better as a framework by which to strive towards the direction of perfection.

As someone who has participated in a handful of competitive sports, including tennis, the fundamental philosophy underlying the strategies and processes employed by the coaches and players within Baby Steps resonate greatly with the experiences that I have accumulated over time, especially in regards to the difference that sustaining mental toughness can make on and off the tennis court. Even outside the context of athletics, most people have likely heard some variation of the idea that achieving success requires dedication, hard work, and a willingness to learn from failure.

And it lies here where Baby Steps takes the greatest advantage of its own narrative circumstances to demonstrate this concept with great breadth and nuance. Simply put, Baby Steps can achieve the depth it sets out to display because it draws greater attention to tennis as an individual sport rather than one centered around a team. Very rarely does the series delve into the complexities and strategies that accompany doubles play in tennis, likely in efforts to not obscure its attempts to champion the pivotal role that the individual upholds in their own accomplishment. This holds especially true in the realm of singles tennis play, where each and every action one takes on the tennis courts and their resulting consequences nearly always tie back to the player. Give or take injuries or the occasional weather nuisance, tennis proves to be amongst the most mentally demanding sports because the player is largely responsible for outcome of every match played, with nobody to blame but oneself

In this regard, Eiichiro’s meticulous note-taking readily underscores tennis as a sport founded upon strategy. Within dozens of his notebooks, Eiichiro jots down shot probabilities and player styles across other relevant details as a means of creating “profiles” of his opponents in order to determine optimal means of overcoming them, and to learn from his own personal mistakes with the hopes of further refining his own play. It is through such means that Eiichiro has a great capacity to “study” tennis fundamentals and strategies with much greater precision. It proves to assist him whenever he rematches opponents and comes up against new challenges, with remarkable improvement serving as the fruits of his efforts.

Conclusion

Amongst the principles that Baby Steps instills within its core narrative, it cannot be understated that it all ties back into one simple message that might sound familiar to viewers: “Believe in yourself.” For two full seasons, the fittingly titled opening song sets the tone for Eiichiro’s journey to become a professional tennis player, for Eiichiro to develop further confidence in his abilities and strive towards his goal with unwavering persistence. Yet it extenuates something important that some of us may have lost sight of in the face of reality: one’s passion and investment can itself contribute to fulfillment and purpose within life. Believing in yourself does not have to restrict itself to maintaining confidence in the face of adversity, and instead can exist as a means to discover our callings. It can be staggering what any given person is capable of achieving by committing their mind to any given task.

Perhaps that is what Baby Steps hopes to communicate through Eiichiro’s downright inspiring story from academic scholar to upcoming tennis professional. Even without a definitive conclusion for viewers of the anime to experience after fifty episodes, the series establishes a fantastic groundwork through its relatable up-and-coming narrative, successfully capturing the true essence of tennis as not one of spectacle but substance.

*Originally an essay I posted on Reddit. 

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