I want to play well so our fans are satisfied
Nahomi Kawasumi is a member of the Seattle Reign, a team in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). She finished her third season with the team this year. The local media call her “Naho.” You’re likely to see her name pop up more and more these days. We sat down with her to discuss soccer and life in Seattle.
Interview conducted by Naoko Watanabe, translation by Bruce Rutledge
The life of a pro soccer player
This season, the Reign just missed a playoff spot. Kawasumi was still able to show her tricky ball-handling skills and her dynamic play. In May, she set a new record for assists in a single game. What did she bring to the Reign during her third season? “This season, there was a fair amount of personnel change in the team, and I felt that some aspects of the game that were supported by other players in years past needed to be supported by me,” she said. “I think I’m more pampered by my teammates than pushed by them. I’m one of the older members of this team, but they don’t know my age!(laughs) Even in Japan, I look a lot younger than I am.”
The very likable Kawasumi turned 32 in September. In April, she threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game. She had a big smile on her face through the whole experience. She has had a career full of rich experiences. She’s won the World Cup with the Japan national team and received a silver medal in the Olympics. She had a long career in the Japanese women’s league with INAC Kobe Leonessa. Kawasumi often thinks about how she can raise the profile of women’s soccer. “I believe a pro’s job is to send the fans home satisfied with your play. To do that, I make a conscious effort to play in a way that will surprise the fans and get them to appreciate me. This is the American pro league, so in the middle of a season, I could be traded or cut. That keeps our individual motivation high. In Japan, women’s soccer isn’t professional. There are only a few players who have individual professional contracts. There isn’t that sense of ‘I’m a pro, so I can’t make any excuses.’ I think that if Japan had a pro league, the players’ motivation would come out more clearly.”
Kawasumi has been impressed with how Americans handle public relations. “Social media messages and TV broadcasts have a strong effect, and YouTube broadcasts highlights right away. There are also the goal of the week and the player of the month, which draw in the fans. It’s really fun.”
Kawasumi has kept a blog updated daily since 2009. “There’s not a lot of information sent out about women’s soccer. It’s important to keep people engaged, so I try to keep the information flowing, posting something new about women’s soccer at least once a day. I try to show other sides of the players through my posts.” She writes about soccer, Seattle, everyday activities, like she’s chatting with a friend. And she has a lot of avid followers. Since she moved to the Reign, her readers have gotten to know about Seattle, the team and US women’s soccer.
Continual effort is important
In Seattle, more girls are playing soccer. A lot of those girls are fans of the Reign. Kawasumi, who has loved soccer since kindergarten, once wrote in second grade that she wanted to become a soccer player. “I’ve never once grown tired of soccer,” she said. “I’ve never thought about pursuing a different path.”
Her family all likes sports. Her sister, who is three years older, led her to soccer. In her neighborhood in Kanagawa, there were plenty of good female soccer players, but she played with older girls and started playing in matches when she was in third grade. When did she realize she had all-Japan skills? “I didn’t,” she replied. “Since I was young, I was smaller, especially in elementary school. There were plenty of kids who were faster or could kick harder. But I have a strong drive to not want to lose to anyone, no matter if they are older or bigger than me. I’ve come this far thinking, ‘I am not going to lose.’”
Can someone really become a world-class soccer player just by hating to lose? What goes into achieving at that level? “Continual effort is the most important,” Kawasumi said. “I continue to play with the goal of turning the plays I strive to achieve into routine ones I can do without thinking.” For example, take the step of trapping the ball. At first, the ball goes all over the place. But through practice, a player can trap the ball well and think about her next move. Along with basics like trapping and passing, a player might think, “Once I get the ball, I’ll charge ahead.” Then, she needs to think about how to do that. How should she position herself? Once a player can get into position without thinking about it, then she can think about executing her play in two touches or fewer. And to do that, she has to think about what she’s going to do when the ball comes her way, Kawasumi explained. “You repeat that detailed practice over and over until you can produce the kind of play you want to achieve. I did that especially from middle school through university.”
Easy living in Seattle
On days when she’s not on the road and doesn’t have a game, she’ll practice in the morning and relax around the house in the afternoon. Sometimes, she’ll head downtown or over to Bellevue to do some shopping. She has become a big sports fan since moving to Seattle, too. “It’s Seattle’s magic,” she said. “In Japan, we’d have to travel quite a bit to see these different sports, but in Seattle, men’s soccer, American football, basketball and baseball are all played nearby. I attend so many Storm games the players recognize me. I’ve also seen the Sounders and the Mariners. I haven’t been able to see the Seahawks because our seasons are different, but this year I finally saw a preseason game. In the US, sports is entertainment. Fans have fun following their team and cheering for their favorite players. They identify with the players on the team and get angry when the refs miss a call.”
Kawasumi is a people person. Her teammates, friends and many other people appear in her blog posts, including Ramu Tokashiki of the Seattle Storm. “We talk about a lot of stuff and are good friends,” Kawasumi said. “We’re both athletes, so we can spend a couple of hours talking about issues like doping, about getting tested or an unannounced testing. And customs that are ordinary in soccer but not at all ordinary in basketball.”
A lot of her friends visit from Japan. While Kawasumi keeps her focus on playing soccer, she also finds time to take her friends to the best sightseeing spots in Seattle. “First, it’s downtown and Pike Place Market. If we have time, I take them to Snoqualmie Falls or maybe kayak on Lake Union. Mount Rainier is lovely, so if I have an extended time off, I’ll visit. But it takes six hours there and back, so it’s a little tough for a day trip. I rarely have two days off in a row.”
Finally, Kawasumi had this message for our readers: “I can’t imagine another place outside of Japan that is as easy to live in as Seattle. I love this place. I hope you’ll keep supporting me!”
Nahomi Kawasumi: Kawasumi was born in 1985 in Kanagawa Prefecture. She grew up there, too. She stands 157cm (about 5’2”). She’s No. 36 on the Reign and plays forward. She started playing with a ball when she was still in kindergarten. During her time enrolled in Nippon Sport Science University, she competed at home and abroad. In 2008 she joined INAC Kobe Leonessa of the Nadeshiko League and also debuted on the Japan national team. In 2014, she was loaned to the Reign but then returned to Leonessa. In June 2016, she became a full member of the Reign.