This month I have been featuring anime that speak to the theme When determination is not enough. And I know what you’re thinking: this anime has its answer right in the opening theme song, “Believe in Yourself.” That would be satisfactory if you liked straightforward answers to all of life’s toughest problems.
But since I’m a critic who has no soul, giving such a vague, cliché claim is easier said than done. And thank goodness, our protagonist Eichiro Maruo doesn’t get it right away either! So rather than just stipulate that believing in yourself is what you do when determination isn’t enough, I will be deconstructing what this tennis anime has to offer about what it takes to get to that point. After all, Eichiro is so good at analyzing things, he makes note-taking so intense!
Baby Steps is about Eichiro Maruo, a student at the top of his class with a cowlick up the center of his head that kind of resembles a Mohawk. Being as smart as he is, it would seem that Eichiro was destined to be some successful person later on in life, but he lacks any passion to do anything other than study.
All of that changed when his friend and soon-to-be love interest Natsu Takasaki introduces him to tennis. While it was intimidating at first, Eichiro quickly discovered how exciting tennis could be to help with his studies by giving him something else to do. In a sudden change of plans, the first-year high school student Eichiro decided to join Natsu’s tennis club on a track to become a pro tennis player.
But let’s be real. A 15-year-old novice aiming to go pro in 3 years? Tell that to all the tennis players who have devoted their lives to the sport throughout their childhood — that’s just nuts!
Now truth be told, Baby Steps has a romantic element to it. Natsu is among the top girls in the All-Japan Junior Cup of tennis and has been playing tennis all her life, while Eichiro is a nerd who picked up tennis as a teenager because he needed a hobby. But Natsu needed a study partner and Eichiro needed to get better at a new sport if he ever hoped to reach pro level in a relatively short period of time, so they seem like a perfect match. And if spoilers weren’t enough, they do eventually start dating.
But at the core of the anime adaptation for this series, Eichiro and Natsu’s relationship is more like a side story that offers plenty of comedy for them and their friends. What I’ll be focusing on for this review is Eichiro’s journey to become the tennis world’s prodigious sensation from such a late start. And unlike many other sports-themed anime, Baby Steps is more technical than dramatic. Believe it or not, this series actually taught me how to play tennis!
Like any new experience, it seems like Eichiro started at the bottom of his tennis career. His stamina was low, he lost a lot of his early matches, and when you’re getting picked on by an elementary school kid, you know you got problems! But to say that Eichiro has no experience from the beginning is a huge misnomer.
He may not have his toned tennis body right away, but he has a very keen sense of analyzing everything! From swinging techniques to opponents’ personal habits, to a daily regimen of his own progress, no amount of data can get past his notebooks. And throughout the series, Eichiro uses these intellectual skills to help him score against his later rivals.
Eichiro is one of the best at reading his opponents and coming up with all kinds of strategies on how to get better at tennis, but I do have to warn you. These techniques only work for Eichiro because of how much effort he puts into coming up with these strategies, which might suggest that determination is in fact sufficient in helping him win. But even if Eichiro has all of these analytical skills at his advantage, he still loses quite often.
Eichiro’s tennis style is helpful for adaptation, especially when reading into other players’ strategies. This comes to his advantage in figuring out all of his rivals’ strengths and weaknesses, especially considering that just about all of them have been playing tennis for life. For many of his rivals, Eichiro became that annoying stamina freak who would play long games just to figure them out. But even though this strategy might work for lower tier opponents, Eichiro lacks the will to win against stronger players because he hasn’t developed a winning strategy of his own! In short, Eichiro’s tennis style is boring!
Not only that, but Eichiro’s other weakness comes as a side effect to his greatest strength: he spends way too much time in his head!
Crippling anxiety aside, Eichiro learns quite a bit about each of his opponents to where he at least knows how to beat them. What he doesn’t realize right away is what he himself has to do in order to defeat them! In a lot of his earlier matches, Eichiro’s wins were more like a fluke than a reflection of his actual skills, and that becomes problematic when his own physical and mental capabilities are nothing compared to intuitive players who have know how to play tennis like the back of their hand.
Eichiro puts a lot of effort into his critical thinking skills when it comes to tennis, but doesn’t give his instincts enough credit. Frankly that’s because Eichiro doesn’t understand what his own intuitions are and no amount of science can explain where the balance is between reason and instinct. His coaches have tried to explain it to him, using examples like piecing together all of those analytical things that Eichiro is so good at, only to drop them altogether when he actually performs.
What’s allegedly left of Eichiro’s skills are brought upon by his reasoning, performed by his instincts. But only he can find out where the balance between thinking and not thinking lies. And like anything else, using this idea in practice is easier said than done.
Eichiro may not understand this concept right away, but what he learns over time is a style of “disinterested action.” Eichiro has plenty of thoughts running through his mind that his body adapts to subtle situations without him thinking about it. There are times when he overthinks his own thinking and becomes mush when he thinks about nothing, showing that he hasn’t quite figured out where his balance is yet. But in the few, but amazing instances where he doesn’t realize that he’s figured it out, Eichiro learns not to stop thinking, but to harness his thoughts into actions so that he doesn’t have to primarily think about them.
To put more simply, this is what Eichiro discovers as “getting in the zone.”
But even then, Eichiro doesn’t quite get how close or how far he is from his dream of becoming a pro tennis player. And while I will admit that determination is often self-motivated, realizing it isn’t always that simple. Well it’s a good thing that Eichiro isn’t the only one contributing to his own thoughts!
Baby Steps may have had a heavy focus on building Eichiro Maruo’s character, but I don’t think he could have been so successful without his friends, rivals, and mentors. For the most part, tennis is competitive. And because of how it’s played, it is also a sport that puts more quality on the individual than a community. But even so, it’s impossible to play tennis alone, no matter what the wall keeps telling me.
Eichiro may be able to gauge where his opponents stand in terms of skills, maybe even compare it to his own. But thinking about how he interacts with other players separately puts him in a position that discredits his own experiences, including the ones he gets from outside of tennis. If Eichiro has any chance of becoming a great tennis player, he can’t just think about himself as part of that goal alone.
Eichiro may seem self-motivated in winning matches on the court, but what keeps him motivated off the court are his friends. Particularly Natsu, because this is still a romance series. Now I’m not suggesting that having a significant other will always improve performance in such matters, but it does help that Eichiro and Natsu can motivate each other in this case. After all, they both share the same goal to become national champions. And together, they can share their victories.
And so, I come back to the point where I started from: Believe in yourself. Eichiro can spend all of his time analyzing tennis, his opponents, maybe even his own skills compared to them. But if he’s thinking about those things too much in the moment, he can’t perform well. And if he’s not thinking about it at all, he becomes a mess.
Eichiro’s strength ultimately comes from himself, but so does his weakness. Eichiro cannot rely on his thoughts alone to become a good tennis player, seeing how his opponents also have their own experiences that clash with his own. When he comes to understand how he is compared to his rivals and others, he can believe in himself.
But on the practical side, realizing that takes time. And with that, Eichiro must also learn to manage all of these thoughts and experiences in little chunks, before he can reach those goals. In the words that this series expressed, Eichiro is taking “baby steps for giant strides.” His progress may look slow on a daily basis, but they are necessary steps for him to get closer to his goal to go pro. Eichiro has the skills to reach his goal. He trained a lot to get there. All that’s left for him is to rely on those skills he has without thinking too much about them.
That’s what it means to believe in yourself.
So if you are looking for an anime that can motivate you or help you to believe in yourself, watch Baby Steps.