Most sports anime put a lot of emphasis on teamwork. One of my favorites is Kuroko’s Basketball, and I’ve written about how Kuroko’s humble gameplay reminds me of the humble way Jesus calls us to live. But DAYS takes a different approach, as Tsukamoto’s soccer mentors encourage him to stop thinking so much about the team and start thinking selfishly. These lines are so different from what I’m used to hearing in sports anime I had to take a minute to process what they were saying, what they meant, and why it made me uncomfortable.
I brushed it off the first time I noticed the captain, Mizuki, include this individual-oriented encouragement before a match. It was his way of encouraging the players to do their best and ultimately benefit the team. Then, at the end of episode 13 and beginning of episode 14, vice captain Usui Yuuta gives a more pointed admonishment along these lines.
Tsukamoto is helping Usui make food for their teammates, who are studying in the other room. They’re all there to help the less scholarly first-years pass their exams so they won’t have to go to cram camp instead of soccer training. Tsukamoto tells Usui he’s like a mom, and not just because he can cook for the team: “You have everybody in the team on your radar. And I reckon nobody thinks about the team as much as you do. I’d like to be like that.” Tsukamoto continues, “I’m really bad at soccer, so I figure I need to help the team out in other ways.”
Sounds pretty humble, respectful, and servant-hearted, right? But Usui, while he does compliment Tsukamoto’s ability to help tutor his teammates, doesn’t agree with his approach overall: “Still, aren’t you getting a bit above yourself?”
Tsukamoto is startled.
“You say you want to do thinks ‘for the team.’ Are you in a position to even think about that?” Usui ignores his underclassmen’s reflexive apologizes and continues, explaining what he hasn’t always been supportive of the team. When now-captain Mizuki transformed from a newbie player to an excellent on, Usui “couldn’t accept it.” He even wished injury on his teammate. “I only thought about myself. I didn’t care about the team whatsoever.” He didn’t start thinking about the team until after he became vice captain. Then he noticed the other guys’ passion. He saw how much they were like how he used to be, and he realized, “I want to help these guys win.” And, he told Tsukamoto: “And that’s also when I learned that the days where I did nothing but look forward… were the days I was doing it right. We’ve inherited 50 years of Seiseki history from our predecessors who did just that. As a first-year, that’s not a a responsibility you could ever shoulder, Tsukamoto. So you just need to look forward. Only think about yourself, and do what you can to become a starter. Let us worry about the team as a whole.”
I think Usui exaggerates the contrast between looking forward and caring about the team—Usui himself hasn’t lost his personal passion, and he still works to improve himself as an athlete. But he’s older, more experienced. He’s grown into this role as a leader, just as Mizuki grew into the role of captain (and even Mizuki knows there are certain elements of guiding younger teammates that are best left to his vice captain). Despite his words about how right it was to do “nothing but look forward,” I doubt he’d endorse the kind of ambition that wishes ill upon a teammate, and he’d tell his story differently to anyone who’s already bordering on too ambitious. He’s found the balance between two extremes, and he wants Tsukamoto to find the same.
Balance between support for others and personal growth is important, but relatively easy to talk about. I think those of us who seek to value humility need to ask a deeper question: Can we focus on our own growth and compete for positions (on sports teams, in work environments, in universities) without compromising a servant-hearted approach to our competitors and [future] teammates?
I think so, if being better than others isn’t our motivation.
Big Picture: Why Should We Value Servant-heartedness so Much?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m not sure about you, but I need to review why it’s so important to serve others, and why I can do so without resentment. Different philosophies and religions emphasize service for different reasons. As a Christian, I’m motivated to follow Jesus’s example of humility. This motivation comes from respect and gratitude, yes, but also from confidence that, like Jesus, I can give up honor and benefits without losing anything that has eternal value.
Several of us have written about humility and service before, but here’s a quick recap of what Jesus Christ modeled:
Jesus is God, but he became a man, subject to pain, sickness, taxes, government authority, and execution. As Paul writes, Jesus “took the form of a servant” and “was obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:1–11). Why? Because he loves us and wants us to be redeemed and reconciled to God—and he considered our needs for these things to be more important than his own desires. And because he wants to bring glory to God—which, yes, means glory to himself, but that’s where glory belongs, and he shares it with those who follow him. He’s servant-hearted, not because he undervalues himself, but because he puts his desires in perspective of God’s eternal plan and of others’ interests. He was confident in who he was and what was waiting for him on the other side of death, so he wasn’t worried about getting his glory right at that instant. He could give everything of himself in the moment and only add to his eternal glory. He could submit without losing his own worth.
That’s not to say Jesus was constantly pouring himself out in service to others. He had to deal with the same limits of an earthly body as everyone else—which, logically, means he had the same limits to every brain function. So he took time to sleep (stories indicate he slept like a rock regardless of environment) and pray, even when others were seeking his help. I’d suggest that the same eternal perspective and confidence that allowed him to serve without hesitation allowed him to recharge without guilt. There’s a time to sacrifice, and there’s a time to take care of yourself in order to sacrifice another day (and sometimes, you have to sacrifice your own ego in order to get away and rest).
Those who believe in Jesus Christ can enjoy that same confidence in our identity and our future—what the Bible calls our “inheritance.”
You could argue that if we know a reward is coming, we’re not really being that selfless or loving. But the more I study related Bible passages, the more I realize that the coming “reward” doesn’t serve so much as an incentive as a reassurance. The Christian way of life, focused on eternally valuable things and not on normal human success, would be illogical if we didn’t expect following Jesus to benefit us and those we spread the good news to. When we follow Jesus, things don’t always go great. In fact, we might give up comfort, status, health, and our very lives in the process. When things get tangibly difficult here, it’s helpful to have reassurance of something a bit more tangible than an improved spirit. Why would we encourage others to join us in this often-difficult path if we didn’t expect it to be good for them in the long run? The promises Jesus makes us (and proves his ability to fulfill, thanks to his resurrection, among other things) assure us that yeah, his way is ultimately the logical one, even if we don’t understand all the details and it doesn’t fit with the world’s logic. That’s why we can serve without fear, but the chief motivation comes, by God’s grace, from love for him and for others.
So if you’re a Christian—or otherwise believe that the rewards to come are better than those you’ll get in this lifespan—then you know you lose nothing important when you seek to build others up. For competitive students, that means you can skip a class or rush an essay in order to help a friend—without stressing out over the effect on your grade (or the effect on the teacher’s opinion, though I recommend some sort of explanation/apology to the instructor in many cases, to show that you value their time and instruction, even if you had to prioritize something else this time). For athletes, that may mean giving up a bit of practice time in order to love someone else—perhaps to help a teammate with specialized practice, even if they could take your place in the starting lineup as a result. In a work environment, that could mean you don’t speak up when someone neglects to give credit to you for your part in a project. There’s no need to seize opportunities for honor or worldly success, because that kind of reward—whether reward for your ego or something more material—will fade. The way we serve others, though? That can have eternal benefits, for both parties.
Finding the Balance
There’s still the matter of good stewardship. Wherever our skills lie—soccer, traditional intellect, writing, organizing people—it’s important to hone them and use them for God’s glory. We serve others more effectively when we tend to our gifts.
In that way, Tsuakmoto’s upperclassmen are correct: he needs to focus on how to become the best soccer player her can as an individual, rather than only worrying about how he can help his team all the time. He’ll be more effective after he works to make himself a better player. And he needs to be told that it’s okay to focus on himself a bit. He’s always known that he’s weak and needs to improve—sheesh, that pretty much sums up the entire show—and he’s always shocked when he’s wanted on the field. But he’s never really asked how to become a better player—only how he can help as he is now (just with more endurance, since he’s always running). He doesn’t really think he’s worthy of competing for a spot on the team. The vice captain, Usui, turns that idea around: how dare he think only of benefiting the team when he hasn’t even worked to expand his own soccer skills? Failure on the field helps drive the point home.
There’s a balance between building up others (whether in a team or not) and focusing on your own construction. Everyone recognizes this, regardless of their philosophy. Members of Tsukamoto’s soccer team may believe that individuals’ selfish desires to play or receive honor will ultimately help others play and receive honor as well. In other words, it’s in the individuals’s best interests to serve the team/community’s interests, and it’s often in the team’s best interests for the individual to be selfish. In this framework, individuals either enjoy honor on a communal level or enjoy specific honor because they shined in that team environment. Either way, the focus is on success in a specific sport and league (though more ambitious players may have their sights set on a college and professional play as well). Eventually, they’ll find careers and their skills will slowly fall into disuse. Their bodies will age and muscles will atrophy. Honor may last in memory for a few years or decades—maybe a century or two if someone becomes a really amazing world-class soccer player, but only in the minds of die-hard fans.
These athletic characters talk about improving themselves and helping the team while prioritizing soccer goals. This is valid. And it’s the kind of mindset we encounter in every field.
Christians, however, are to follow Jesus, and Jesus’ priorities were a bit different, since they weren’t limited by the needs, desires, and benefits of a specific field or era.
So I ask again, keeping in mind what we’ve reviewed about Jesus’ humble example and an eternal perspective: can we focus on our own growth and compete for positions without compromising a servant-hearted approach to our competitors and [future] teammates?
I’d say yes, but it’s going to look different, and it requires us to spend time with God, seeking his help as we discern how best to follow and serve him. We’ll enjoy competition, not for the approval of others, but for the challenge. We’ll seek to improve, but also to help others improve. When we aren’t chosen for a competitive position, we won’t despair because of lost opportunity or self-doubt. And, while we respect and support others in their earthly goals, we’ll seek opportunities to point them toward Jesus Christ, who offers a more fulfilling, eternal way of life. Most of all, whether we’re giving attention to our own growth or to the needs of others, our primary focus should be on God. Otherwise, it’s too easy to lose perspective.
It’ll be interesting to see how Tsukamoto continues to improve as an individual athlete and a teammate. Our views on personal and team growth will never align completely, but I expect he’ll slowly gain a more balanced, less apologetic view of himself and his teammates. That will be worth seeing.