Midway through “Winners and Losers,” episode 16 of the volleyball anime series Haikyu!!, volleyball captain Yui Michimiya consoles her teammates after a loss. Although her team lost the game, she seems relatively composed. But once she’s alone, Michimiya buckles and begins to sob.
Michimiya isn’t a central character of the series, and even within the episode, the girls’ volleyball team isn’t the main focus. But one of Haikyu!!’s greatest strengths is effectively using its minor characters and their storylines to add further nuance to the simple plot line of competitors wanting to win. With “Winners and Losers,” Haikyu!! transforms from a show about the Karasuno High School boys’ volleyball team’ and their singular goal of winning into a show that captures the complexity of being an athlete. After watching that episode, the show stopped just being enjoyable TV, and became a series that shifted my view of sports in general — suddenly, I was hit with the memory of wanting to win, a feeling I hadn’t tapped into for nearly a decade. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I understood the appeal of sports.
Even though I swam competitively for most of my childhood, I’ve never described myself as an athlete. I went to practice every day — twice a day during the summer — and competed in regional meets, but I didn’t think of myself as athletic. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad; I placed high enough in regional meets to qualify for finals and state competitions. But the disconnect for me came because I didn’t really enjoy the competitive part of swimming. I liked to win and beat my own times, but I never understood my teammates’ passion for the sport. And I attributed that to the fact that I just wasn’t as naturally good as them.
So when I started watching Haikyu!!, I had my doubts. The only previous sports anime I’d watched was Yuri!!! on Ice, and that was more because of the tender relationship between Yuri and Viktor than because of any interest in ice skating. Haikyu!!, which follows a once nationally ranked high-school volleyball team trying to achieve greatness again, is extremely sports-heavy. The first few episodes, which focus mostly on spunky protagonist Shoyo Hinata and his dramatic foil, surly Tobio Kageyama, threw me off with just how overwhelmingly fixated on volleyball it was. I knew it would be a sports anime, but was I ready for an all-sports anime?
But once the cast rounded out enough to balance the intensity of Hinata and Kageyama’s personalities, I started to ease more into the story. The clueless yet helpful coach Ittetsu Takeda serves as a helpful entry point to explain some of the nuances of volleyball. Hinata and Kageyama’s initial annoying rivalry mellows out when the more level-headed upperclassmen explain that as teammates, they need to have each other’s backs when they’re on the same side of the net. I liked the idea of camaraderie on the court, as well as the focus on the team’s friendships when they weren’t playing, so I kept watching. Even if I didn’t care for the sports part, I told myself, at least I cared about found family and teammates, especially since my own athletic experience was so bereft of those things.
Swimming is a solo sport. You have a team, but aside from relays, most competitions consist of one swimmer alone in a lane, trying to beat her own time. Sometimes I competed against my teammates in the same events. I spent months waiting for the girl a year older than me to age out of the 11-to-12-year-old age bracket so I could snag her spot on our top-seeded relay — only for a younger, better swimmer to age in and grab that spot from me. If there was one thing about my athletic experience I could identify in Haikyu!!, it was disappointment.
While Haikyu!! does focus a lot on the very skilled players, it gives equal depth to the stories of team members who aren’t as talented. The story of third-year setter Sugawara echoed hardest for me. Before the coach picks the lineup, Sugawara realizes that Kageyama is more skilled at setting, and that it’s the best move for the team for Kageyama to get that position, even if Sugawara has seniority. For me, the individual-focused sport swimming didn’t share the same team mindset of sacrificing for the greater good, but I understood the complicated feelings behind Sugawara accepting his role. There’s a special poignance to realizing that someone younger is better than you at something, and that no matter how much you practice, time has run out for you to surpass them.
Throughout the first season of Haikyu!!, I went from sighing during volleyball-heavy episodes to leaning on the edge of my seat. At first, the matches dragged for me, but once I started learning the rules, identifying the different positions, and understanding what made a play good, they became fun. During particularly tense moments — like when the scores became tied — I wound up holding my breath. I started looking forward to the matches, not just the team banter and individual character arcs. I wanted Karasuno to win — I wanted all the characters to achieve their dreams. I became invested, but in the same way I was invested in Secretariat, Netflix’s Eurovision: Song Contest, and Cars; I wanted the underdog to win.
It wasn’t till Karasuno entered the inter-high tournament — until “Winners and Losers” — that my investment touched on a feeling I wasn’t even aware I had.
In the episode leading up to “Winners and Losers,” Haikyu! introduces some of the other teams competing in the inter-high tournament. Specifically, Tokonami High, the team first up against Karasuno, gets a moment in the spotlight. One of the players, Ikejiri, is a childhood friend of both Karasuno team captains, Daichi and Michimiya. They all share a moment looking back on their days in middle school and how they once bonded over their love of the sport. It’s a bit bittersweet; all three are seniors, and they’ve realized that there is a good chance this tournament will be their last.
It’s especially true for Ikejiri and Daichi, since they’re playing against each other; one of them will lose. Because the focus is on the Karasuno boys’ team, they win, with Tokonami almost giving up, until Ikejiri remembers what Daichi told him in middle school — that even in the face of defeat, they should always play their best. I watched the episode knowing who would win — there were 10 more episodes in the season, and Karasuno was the main team. But the Tokonami team rallied for a game they knew they would lose, because they wanted to keep playing the game they loved for just a bit longer.
The Haikyu!! players don’t want to win just for victory’s sake, though that’s certainly a big part of their drive. They want to win because that means they’ll get more chances to keep playing their sport, more time to do what they love. Losing isn’t so much about defeat as it is about being pushed out of a tournament, with fewer chances to play competitively again. Throughout the games seen in the show, the seniors of Karasuno High express this thought the most, especially Sugawara, who watches most of the games from the sidelines. This is the last chance they’ll get; they want to do it right.
The brilliance of Haikyu!! is that it extends this feeling to both sides of the net. The show rarely paints the teams opposing Karasuno as outright antagonists. Instead, they’re given nuance and motivation. Even the more antagonistic teams, specifically Aoba Johsai High and Shiratorizawa Academy, get some depth — they aren’t just simple rivals. The opposing teams want to win just as badly as Karasuno — sometimes I wasn’t even sure who I wanted to win. Karasuno always winds up as the audience’s rooting interest, but even when they’re facing their most intimidating opponents, I can’t help but feel a little bad for the losing team.
It helps that when the protagonist, Hinata, encounters brilliant players, he never sees them as foes. He sometimes gets intimidated, and he swears to beat them, but mostly, he’s in awe of their skills. He wants to get better at his sport, and keep playing it. He doesn’t want any given game to be his last.
Unlike the players in Haikyu!!, I don’t remember my last competition, the last time I dove into the water and pushed through to that final feeling. I didn’t have one last big race; schoolwork took a toll on me, and I simply stopped going to practice.
I do, however, remember one of my last races — where after working for months, I slammed my hands against the timer, gasped as I breached out of the water, and turned to the clock to find out I’d become even slower than before. I remember feeling dazed as I lifted myself out of the pool and walked to my coach for a standard pep talk. Once alone, I slipped into the warm-down pool, and with my goggles pulled over my eyes, I began to sob.
Back then, I thought I was just disappointed in myself for not beating my time, and ashamed I wasn’t as good as my teammates. Through the lens of Haikyu!!, I see that it’s more complex than that. There was a time when I loved swimming — where practicing meant getting better, and cheers from my teammates during a relay thrilled me. As my own skill plateaued, no matter how hard I worked despite working harder, I already began to slip away from that feeling before the race where I cried. But that was probably the specific moment where I knew I wouldn’t grasp that feeling of gliding through the water with such grace ever again.
Haikyu!! helped me understand my own complicated feelings about swimming, and unpacking my days as an athlete helped me understand sports in general. It’s not entirely about the glory of victory, so much as it is a dedication and love of the feeling of playing the sport. I know the specific details of what that means for swimming, and seeing it unfold on screen in Haikyu! helped me understand how the sensation extends to other sports.
The idea of watching sporting events in real time used to feel like a drag to me; I went to one football game in my undergrad years at a famous sports school, and I left after halftime. The one Yankees game I went to was mostly for the Instagram opportunity. But now, I watch replays of my university’s volleyball meets, and I’m even intrigued at the football games my partner watches. I may not sit through a whole game, ever, but breaking down where that feeling of craving victory comes from, I understand what other people are getting out of watching these competitions.
I’m not an athlete anymore, but I once knew what it felt like to want to win. Not because I wanted the glory of a medal. For me, winning meant getting to feel the power of propelling myself through the water, the sharp feeling of inhaling a quick breath during a stroke. I used to look back on my swimming days with shame because I wasn’t better. Now I look back on them fondly with a love I never realized I had. And all it took was an anime about volleyball to help me understand my own history, and what it was like to be a swimmer.
Haikyu!!’s three seasons are available to stream on Crunchyroll. The fourth season is currently airing, with new episodes on Fridays.