Doctor: "Ichiro has a very fine prefrontal cortex"
Countless attempts have been made over the years to try to pinpoint Ichiro's prowess, but Dr. Kenichiro Mogi may have trumped all explanations...
Special to The Seattle Times
TOKYO — Countless attempts have been made over the years to try to pinpoint Ichiro's prowess, but Dr. Kenichiro Mogi may have trumped all explanations.
"Ichiro," he says with confidence, "has a very fine prefrontal cortex."
Well, Mogi should know. He's a celebrity brain scientist in Japan. More to the point, he also co-hosts a TV show loosely translated as "Secrets of the Ultimate Professional," a popular weekly documentary series focusing on the methodology that has allowed certain individuals to reach the pinnacles of their trades.
After two years and 72 episodes, the program in January featured an athlete for the first time. That "ultimate professional" was Ichiro.
"When it comes to a genre like business, it's really hard to tell who is absolutely the best," Mogi explains. "But in sports it's very easy to tell who is the best. So I think the executive producer from the beginning had this idea that if we are ever going to profile an athlete, it can only be somebody who is unquestionably at the very top. Ichiro was a very natural choice."
For 70 days over three different spans of last season, a four-person, one-camera crew (of which this writer was a member) followed Ichiro's every move, trying to discern his professional methodology.
Japanese viewers were obviously interested in the findings. The program drew a 10.4 rating on the NHK network, by far its highest-rated program of the competitive New Year's holiday period and one of the highest-rated "Professional" episodes of all time.
What viewers saw was a program that quickly zeros in on Ichiro's meticulously crafted daily routine of preparing for a game. It doesn't start at the ballpark or with his equipment or anything else directly related to baseball. Rather, it begins with one of the first activities of the day for people who work at night — lunch.
The camera discovers that Ichiro has eaten the same lunch before home games all seven years he has been in Seattle — homemade Japanese curry from his wife Yumiko. Not variations of her recipe, but the exact same kind every single day. And on the road, he almost always opts for a cheese pizza, easy on the sauce and fluffy around the edges, if you must know.
But why must we know this? When that question is posed to Mogi, he first giggles in slight embarrassment.
"It's very interesting from a brain science point of view," he says as his tone becomes serious. "There are many solutions, not just one solution to a particular problem. Certainly, some athletes eat lots of different food, that's also a possible approach. But in Ichiro's case, he sticks to a particular style.
"We believe it has a lot to do with his baseball playing style. Ichiro has found in his particular case, it is helpful to follow the same ritual every day and that way he can really fine-tune his brain state so that he can concentrate fully on baseball. Ichiro's way is not everybody's way."
Nor should Ichiro's way be confused with superstition, because he doesn't alter his lunchtime menu depending on the previous night's performance. And it might not be as idiosyncratic as it first appears, either. By limiting himself to dishes he knows he enjoys, Ichiro eliminates the element of surprise. He knows exactly how the meal will taste and how it will sit in his stomach.
Lunch, then, becomes a stress-free way of beginning his daylong mental and physical preparation for that night's game. It doesn't mean Ichiro doesn't enjoy finer foods, which he certainly does. It merely means he's willing to sacrifice the immediate pleasure of seeking a gourmet lunch for the long-term reward of higher focus at game time.
This higher focus allows him to achieve his ultimate goal, which is an acute awareness of the sensations he experiences on the playing field. Some of the minute tinkering Ichiro occasionally makes to his batting stance has been reported before, but often with a tinge of sarcasm out of disbelief that such fastidiousness could actually matter, like a minuscule repositioning of his foot or an infinitesimal reduction in the pressure of a finger on the bat.
To Ichiro, though, batting, and really baseball overall, is absolutely about capturing a unique but essential feeling. The television program explored his unwavering pursuit of this.
"When Ichiro said he is aware of his own feelings and he is committed to his own feelings, that was the most interesting point for me," Mogi explains. "No matter what the batting theories are, he doesn't really follow the already established and well-honored style of batting. He follows his own sensations and feelings."
Certainly, different batters have different approaches to their craft. But among all the possible ways of accomplishing the task, Ichiro's chosen way of trying to understand and respond to exactly what his body feels is perhaps the most difficult. Mogi agrees.
"Ichiro's way is a very hard way and certainly out of the norm," he says. "In order to rely on your own feelings like that, you have to have something called metacognition. It's the ability to observe yourself as if you're observing your own internal state from the outside. Of course, it's all your own feeling, but you can access and analyze it as if you are observing it from an objective point of view.
"I find that quality very strong in Ichiro. He can actually report on his own internal feelings in an accurate language. It's very unbelievable. Even if he can't describe it in words, he has a very good idea about how he's feeling in a particular situation. For example, in batting, if he doesn't do well, he remembers how he felt at that particular instance so that he can reflect on it later and compare it with the feelings he had when he was doing well so he can make this very fine adjustment to improve his performance.
"In order to do that, you need to have these metacognitive abilities, and that is actually carried by the prefrontal cortex in your brain."
And that's where Mogi's earlier praise for Ichiro's prefrontal cortex comes from. But, during the course of the program, Mogi actually finds something even more stunning than his appreciation for what lies beneath Ichiro's forehead. It's the moment in the program's studio segment when Ichiro turns to Mogi and proclaims he's felt no sense of accomplishment to this point in his career because his records have been achieved from what he perceives as a deficient state.
Ichiro goes on to explain that during the course of last season, he captured what he imagines has long been an elusive feeling at the plate and now he feels he's closer to being able to perform at 100 percent of his ability than he's ever been before.
That revelation is also the key to grasping a comment Ichiro made in numerous interviews at the end of last season. As he turns toward what will be his 17th pro season, he finally feels he's on the cusp of where he's always wanted to be from a feeling standpoint.
That admission, coupled with the program's ending, could give any baseball fan great anticipation for what Ichiro still has to offer on the field. The signature moment of every "Professional" episode is when the featured subject ends the broadcast by giving his definition of the ultimate professional.
For Ichiro, that meaning is "to awe the fans, to awe the players, by achieving mind-boggling results."
Ichiro begins this season with 1,592 hits in the major leagues, just more than halfway to 3,000 in his seven years with the Mariners. If he plays beyond his new five-year deal that begins this season, he could conceivably achieve 3,000 hits in the major leagues. He'd be in his 40s, but 10 of the 27 players to reach the milestone achieved it in their 40s.
Adding his 1,278 hits from Japan, 3,000 more in America would give Ichiro more lifetime hits than Pete Rose's 4,256, currently the most of any pro to ever swing a bat.
Now that would qualify as anyone's definition of a mind-boggling result.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows the Mariners for Japanese media and he covered this story in Japanese.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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