Japan Men's Volleyball team: Ready to take on Tokyo 2020 and beyond

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“A team that can seal a win is ideal. My mission is to secure results that will satisfy everyone,” says head coach NAKAGAICHI Yuichi.

Japan’s men’s national volleyball team is undergoing continued evolution

The team came fourth for the first time in 28 years at the FIVB World Cup 2019, with major players including ace player ISHIKAWA Yuki; YANAGIDA Masahiro, the captain; 20-year-old 'opposite' NISHIDA Yuji; and Beijing 2008 Olympians SHIMIZU Kunihiro and FUKUZAWA Tatsuya.

After having missed two successive Olympic Games since Beijing 2008, the team is now eyeing the podium in Tokyo 2020 - their home Olympics. At the helm of this ambition is head coach NAKAGAICHI Yuichi, who was the star player on Japan’s team at the Barcelona 1992 Games.

Nakagaichi talked to Tokyo 2020 about how building the right team and how they plan to score high in their home Games.

Higher hopes for new key players

With international competitions cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season must have been challenging for you and the team. What have you been able to achieve and what have you not been able to carry out?

I’ve been able to motivate the new key players thanks to the extra year caused by the postponement of the Olympic Games. What I wasn’t able to do was to allow the new key players to build more experience through matches. No matter how gifted young players are, they need to accumulate experience to be able to play at the highest level. This goes for TAKAHASHI Ran, aged 19, for example, and other college players too. In retrospect, Ishikawa is now able to enjoy a good season as a result of step-by-step improvements through the years. Younger players cannot necessarily play on an equal footing with existing players right away. There are no shortcuts. They need to gain lots of experience.

In the limited time leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, is there a possibility of new players joining the national team?

I wouldn’t [say no] to that possibility. For a veteran player, for example, a postponement of one year could have a critical impact on his career as an athlete. The performance of an experienced player declines year by year. Some of them are essentially racing against time, which is a sharp contrast to young players. So, nobody can tell right now who will be on the team, including young players.

The current Japan national team seems like a well-balanced blend of young and experienced players with no barriers between them.

Most young players nowadays are outspoken, and the hierarchical relationship based on seniority is no longer as rigid as in the old days, so everyone is presumably on an equal footing regardless of their age. Players don’t play based on their age. It’s not the case that experienced players can always deliver good performance and score points. Scores are gained by whoever is capable of scoring and nice plays are made by competent players. We already have a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Games, but we are looking further ahead and continuing efforts to strengthen our team for Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. It wouldn’t be bad to make drastic changes to the team roster to plan for the future.

The players will experience the domestic and international leagues before the Olympic Games. What do you expect during this period as the head coach?

The key is how they can achieve growth. I’d like to see them grow exponentially through league matches. The players haven’t been able to play in matches this year, so they are hungry for competitions. I’d like them to hone their skills by gaining experience in league matches.

(c)JVA

Head coach as team leader

What is an ideal leader for you?

There are different kinds of leaders, but with the current team, I believe my job as a leader is to create a team where each member is strategically positioned to display their unique strengths to the maximum and be able to work comfortably and with confidence. I’ve thought [a lot] about what I should do with the current team, and I've finally reached this conclusion.

When do you feel rewarded or satisfied as a leader?

I feel satisfaction when I see the team battling through to win matches and the younger players achieving growth, both in terms of their skills and mental strength.

What factors do you think are pivotal in building a good team?

Definitely communication. We give top priority to communication. In drawing up the team’s training plan, we put great emphasis on communication among staff members and between players and staff members. We focus particularly in speaking with players who leave in the middle of a training camp. After talking to the staff members, along with the coaches and sometimes the head of training, I share my frank views with the player about what he should work on. We also pay attention to how we put our thoughts into words.

We often see Ishikawa and other players talking to each other during matches. As the head coach, do you feel that the players are growing or changing?

That’s what I expect them to do, and I believe they are gradually becoming good at communicating with others.

You also talk to the players quite often yourself, don’t you?

I try to communicate with them as much as possible. If that’s the way you see me, then I’m glad because I must be succeeding.

What factors do you think are necessary to become a good team? What roles should the leader play in this regard?

It all boils down to whether the players can maintain their motivation to aim higher. Conversation is the key to keeping them motivated. I try to help them identify their own goals and provide guidance so that they can work toward those goals. When the players seek to hone their techniques and achieve their targets one by one, they become fulfilled and motivated to work harder.

What constitutes an ideal team in your view?

That’s not an easy question to answer (laughs). My mission at the Tokyo 2020 Games is to achieve a result that satisfies everyone, preferably a medal or something close to that. A team that can seal a win is the ideal team. If I could wish for more, I’d say a team with a few players taller than two metres who can jump one metre and a couple of players who can serve 130km/h (laughs). Of course, these are impractical, so my best bet is to make the most out of out current players to edge closer to the targeted goal, although we still have a lot of areas we need to improve. The final team hasn’t been decided yet, so I look forward to seeing how each player grows and continues to pursue our target through to the very end.

What is the team’s strong point in terms of technique?

I have been saying this since I became the head coach, but the most important element for Japan to win is to leverage strong serves. We were very pleasantly surprised that a server like Nishida has come along. I believe our basic strategy is to try to rout the opponents with a strong serve - like Nishida’s to earn a breakpoint. Also, when trying to gain a side-out, we should aim from the centre. For decades, volleyball players in Japan have disregarded attacking from the centre, but this will be our key strategy.

Part of the team's strategy is to leverage strong serves like those of NISHIDA Yuji
Part of the team's strategy is to leverage strong serves like those of NISHIDA Yuji
(c)JVA

Giving our best to reach the podium at Tokyo 2020

You were also an Olympian. Are the Olympic Games really so special, as people say?

If I were to write an autobiography on my life, my experience at the Olympic Games would constitute a big chapter, at least from my own perspective. Everyone wants to be an Olympian. Not only the players registered on Japan’s national team, but every player in the professional volleyball league aim to be part of the final 12 players who will compete at the Games. I can understand their desperate desire. The Olympic Games keep the players motivated at a far higher level than usual.

What about your training plan for the Tokyo 2020 Games?

Our plan is almost finalised. The matches will be coming thick and fast as soon as the next fiscal year starts, although some aspects may depend on the players’ condition. We will be fighting through the test matches and the Volleyball Nations League ahead of the Olympic Games. The result at the World Championship 2018 was disappointing (17th), but that motivated us to give our all at the World Cup 2019, where we secured fourth place. I was very pleased with that outcome. However, the Olympic Games are totally different from the World Cup, and our opponents will not be easy on us. Unless we battle each and every match head on and overcome our shortcomings, we will not be able to achieve the result we desire, so I want to make sure we get our rigorous preparations just right.

(c)JVA

What kind of performances do you hope to show fans at the Tokyo 2020 Games?

I’m hoping to show people that we are a team capable of doing “the standard job.” If we go beyond what we consider “the standard,” then we can undoubtedly secure victory. The men’s volleyball team is working very hard, but we haven’t been able to widely convey just how hard we have been working. However, since around last year, people have gradually started to pay attention to the team. I hope the momentum will continue, and the team will be able to display their skills at the Tokyo 2020 Games, as well as produce a great final result.

All our opponents will be strong. No easy win can be gained against any of them. No predictions can be made either. Since the Beijing 2008 Games, we haven’t been able to qualify for the London 2012 or Rio 2016 Games, so we are a far cry from the rest of the world. Although we are currently ranked ninth in the world, we are nowhere close to any medal. Yet, we are hoping to give our all at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where many Japanese people will be watching, and reach the podium. That is our goal. I hope everyone will keep an eye on men’s volleyball.

The Tokyo 2020 men's volleyball competition begins on Saturday 24 July 2021, with the final taking place on Saturday 7 August 2021.