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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: Olympic unity and how to respond to losses

Yutaka Nakamura, right, is seen sitting with Naomi Osaka, center, and her coach Wim Fissette on a domestic flight in the U.S. as they head for Europe, in this April 21 photo provided by Nakamura.

Yutaka Nakamura, 48, is a personal trainer to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka. In this edition of his regular series, Nakamura reflects on vaccinations, questions around holding the Olympic Games amid spreading coronavirus infections in Japan, and how to respond to losses. He also introduces another stretch in his "three stimuli before exercise" that he continues to perform, and answers a reader's question about aiming for sporting goals.

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    Naomi and I have both already been vaccinated for COVID-19. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which governs the women's tour, didn't force athletes to take the shots, but it did instruct us it would be much better if we did get vaccinated. At the 2021 Charleston Open in South Carolina, which Naomi didn't compete in, an area for vaccinations also appeared to have been set up for players.

    From an international perspective, the situation in India and Brazil looks very serious, with many people infected, but in the U.S., vaccinations are going ahead. There's even a feeling now that by the end of July, the effects of the vaccinations will mean that societally and economically there will be comprehensive re-openings, and it'll be very close to a fully open country again.

    The other day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a new policy that, in principal, people two or more weeks out from having been fully vaccinated don't need to wear masks. About half of the population now has had at least one shot.

    I, too, was vaccinated at a drive-by venue; in the U.S. there's no problem with you driving yourself to receive a shot. Because it was an intramuscular injection, they administered it in my nondominant left arm, but it left me with a pretty strong, throbbing pain for two or three days. The day after I received the shot, my arm hurt so much I couldn't lift it; I couldn't do any training. I even had a low fever. But it all passed after about two days, and there haven't been any issues since then.

    Being vaccinated means I feel somewhat more secure about traveling overseas, but it doesn't mean you can't get infected, so as a preventative I still wear a mask.

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    I think a lot of athletes are preparing with the intention of appearing at the Olympics, but they may also know in themselves that they are not the ones with the right to decide whether the event goes ahead.

    At a press conference during a tournament in Italy, Naomi said that there's discussion to be had about holding the games, while Kei Nishikori has said they shouldn't go ahead if it means people will die. Because Kei has previously been infected with the coronavirus, I think he really knows the effects of it.

    For athletes, the Olympics is a chance for them to really shine -- so of course they want to compete. But it's also important to consider whether what you're doing is something you can share with fans and the public. I do think that athletes across the world are being honest when they say that they want to have the Olympics amid a unified feeling to go ahead with the games across the world.

    But, we also hear voices from Japan's medical community saying they are in a very hard position. I think it's quite a difficult situation for athletes to proclaim they will definitely be participating in the Olympics.

    Plus, in the tennis world, there are two grand slam tournaments right before the Olympics: the French Open from May 30 to June 13, and Wimbledon from June 28 to July 11. Given there's a sense that the Tokyo Olympics constitutes an extension of the tour, I think it's a bit different in tennis than it is for athletes in other sports who are only aiming for the Olympics.

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    Naomi suffered a series of losses on the clay courts of Spain and Italy this May. This is a competitive world, and Naomi became very quiet after the losses. For us, the period where she reexamines her game is very important. She doesn't show much emotion even when she's lost, and I am mindful not to take a forceful approach with her at those times.

    Naomi won the U.S. Open in September 2020, and the Australian Open in February. I think she got a huge sense of achievement from that. Precisely because of that, there's a difficulty in starting again from that point. There's also the difference between hard and clay courts, but we think of it more simply: Tennis is tennis.

    Looking back on the last year, the effects of the coronavirus meant there really weren't many tournaments. There are ups and downs, and we're learning together from the experiences of winning and losing with a feeling that we're restarting things.

    ***

    This month's "three stimuli before exercise" routine:

    In this edition of the three stimuli before exercise, we're looking at stretches. When loosening up your body, do bear in mind not to stretch your body further than its range of motion.

    What's important is to ensure you feel the right information with your body, and then apply further stimulation to your body. By improving your muscles' response, you bring out your sleeping muscles' and joints' latent potential. As a result, I think it will lead to improved performance and pain relief.

    The hip joints are the ones in the body on which most movement is centralized, and it is also said to be the part of the body with the greatest movement output. To improve that output, you can't neglect exercising the gluteal muscles in the buttocks. This time we're going to stretch this part of the body, and get it active.

    Here are the steps to follow.

    Yutaka Nakamura is seen demonstrating the position in paragraph (1), in this image provided by Nakamura. Keep the hip joints of your foreleg and hindleg, knee joints and ankle joints at a 90-degree angle.

    (1) Keep the hip joints of your foreleg and hindleg, knee joints and ankle joints at a 90-degree angle (around 60 degrees is okay if you feel stiff), as in the accompanying photo. Imagine you're shifting your bodyweight from the right side of your pelvis to your right thigh. Keep your spine in your upper body stretched straight, and make sure you don't hunch your shoulders. To ensure you can hold this, I recommend placing both arms to the sides of your right thigh.

    (2) Without moving your bottom half, lower your upper body down in a bowing-style motion of between 15 and 45 degrees, as in the second photo. You should feel the stretch's effects concentrated on your right buttock.

    (3) Maintain the bowing position, and then slowly try to push the floor with your right knee and ankle. This will up the pressure from your body. You should really feel your strength being applied to your gluteal muscles. Once in this position, count to 10; breath in for five seconds through your nose, then exhale from the mouth slowly for five seconds.

    (4) Relax your right leg, and while keeping your back straight return from the bowing position to an upright one.

    Yutaka Nakamura is seen demonstrating the position in paragraph (2), in this image provided by Nakamura. Without moving the lower half of your body, lean forward about 15 to 45 degrees in a bowing motion.

    (5) With that being one, repeat the exercise three to five times, alternating left to right.

    One thing to watch out for is compensating for differences in your left and right sides. When it comes to movement in tennis, if you're right-handed the serve and forehand action comes from the right side and moves in an arcing motion leftward, creating a large gap with the opposite side.

    I think also that among readers, too, many concentrate their weight more to the left or right, depending on how they distribute their mass via their legs' position or the way they stand in daily life. The slow build up from those habits can go from distortions to becoming joint pain.

    By being aware of your differences between your left and right, you can bear in mind to reduce them while working out. Once you've gotten used to the stretch, I recommend flexible people do two sets, while stiffer individuals take the time and effort to do four.

    ***

    Reader's question: I'm a registered tennis professional. While I do coaching, I also compete in lower division tournaments across the country. What's needed to be able to win a national tournament, become the best in Japan at a veteran's tournament, or get a world ranking? Could you let me know what I should do regarding short-term or long-term scheduling, improving movements or conditioning? (From a man aged 34)

    First what's important is to clarify what your position is; decide clearly what tournaments you want to play at, and what your aims are. What do you have to do to reach your goal? Fix your sights on what that is, and I think what you must do each day will become clear. Regarding the question of whether you need to train your body or not, or improve your skills, I'd say that if you just maintain your current form, you might not hurt yourself, but you may not improve either.

    (Interview by Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department. Nagano is a former professional tennis player who has competed in all four major tournaments.)

    Profile: Yutaka Nakamura is originally from Tokyo and is currently the strength and conditioning coach for Naomi Osaka, the 2020 U.S. Open and 2021 Australian Open champion. Nakamura has led training programs for many professionals including Maria Sharapova, Kei Nishikori, Tommy Haas, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati.

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