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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: Study in the US to become world-class

Trainer Yutaka Nakamura, right, gives a demonstration at a training seminar for tennis instructors in the city of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, on Nov. 11, 2015. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

Yutaka Nakamura, 49, is a personal trainer to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka. In this edition, Nakamura responds to a question from a 15-year-old girl who wants to become a trainer in the United States. His response expands from his experience studying in the U.S. to mental health, a topic which has garnered much attention recently.

    Reader's question: In the future, I would like to work at IMG Academy (an athlete training school) in America and eventually become a personal trainer like yourself. However, I play tennis just for fun and basketball for club activities, and I am not particularly good at sports. What kind of career do you think I need to pursue?

    Answer: I started playing tennis when I was in junior high school and went to study in the U.S. after graduating from high school. When I was about 15 years old, I had a strong desire to work in a tennis-related profession, so my situation is similar to that of the person who asked the question.

    Looking back now, I am glad that I came to the U.S. Before that, I wasn't a person who studied much, and I also had no experience competing in national tennis tournaments. Even so, I was able to make it in America. There are many universities, and I believe that there is a place for everyone, somewhere that suits you. I played on the college tennis team while at university, and I experienced the difficulty and fun of balancing both. So, if you have a desire to go to the U.S., I would recommend studying abroad.

    First, I studied at a tennis academy in Florida for about a year. There, I interacted with the trainers and realized that was what I wanted to do as a career. After consulting with my counselors there, I enrolled at Chapman University in California. It is a small private university. I was afraid that if I went to a large university with tens of thousands of students, I would be buried, and that I might not be able to keep up in a class with over 100 students. So I chose a small college.

    In the U.S., changing schools and changing jobs is very common. I was told that if I didn't fit in, I could just transfer to another university, and if you change your mind about what you want to do in the future, you can change your major. I realized that America is a society where people can change their environment at will.

    Around the time I studied abroad, there was the well-known theory of "mental toughness" by Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist. The theory was that you should display how strong you are. Everything from the way you hold your racket to your posture should be strong.

    I enjoyed the sports documentary series "Untold" released on Netflix this summer, and Loehr was also featured in the story of U.S. tennis player Mardy Fish who struggles with mental health issues. It was a documentary that showed that even athletes have their own struggles to stay strong all the time.

    While some athletes proceed with Loehr's method, others like Naomi and U.S. gymnast Simone Biles have started to talk about their weaknesses. It will be debated what works well in sports, but now even athletes are sharing that they don't have to show only their strong selves.

    I thought "Untold" addressed the current trends in America and portrayed that it's OK to have your own answers. I think that the things that athletes have been doing, like their training methods and their mental preparations, will gradually become more popular among the public. The world is changing rapidly, and I keep learning more and more as well.

    (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 2018 and 2020 U.S. Open and the 2019 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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