Men's table tennis head coach eyes victory at mixed doubles to start Japan's winning streak
The Japanese men’s table tennis national team — comprised of Japan’s ace player HARIMOTO Tomokazu, Japan's first Olympic singles bronze medallist MIZUTANI Jun and Olympic silver medallist in the team event NIWA Koki — are expected to win medals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
At the helm of the team is head coach KURASHIMA Yosuke, who started leading the national team after London 2012 and helped Mizutani become a medallist at the Rio 2016 Games.
Tokyo 2020 asked Kurashima about the strengths of these three players on the men’s team and the keys to winning medals at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Return of international competitions
International competitions have resumed now. How do you feel about this?
I’m really glad about it. My style of training players is to have them gain experience at a competition, reflect on their matches, work on their points of weakness, and then play at the next competition. I’ve taught many players based on this routine cycle. With Harimoto, for example, I’ve got him to gain a hands-on feel of international meets since he was young to teach him what it takes to win on the world stage. We have the World Cup and the ITTF Finals coming up this November, and although there are self-isolation requirements and travel restrictions, the players can at least enjoy taking part in big events and absorb the atmosphere. I feel excited that things have at last kicked off for the table tennis community.
It must be challenging to run training camps while taking measures against infection.
We suspended the training camp for the Japan team on 4 April, before the state of emergency was declared. Then we resumed the camp in June for three weeks, sent the players back to their own teams for a couple of weeks, and called them back to our camp. We’ve repeated this cycle five times so far. At our training camp, the players must always stay on site, and meticulous attention is paid to prevent infection at the practice venue as well as the accommodation facility. Our new training camp style is deeply instilled in the players now. We are especially careful when playing doubles because players are within close distance. Having no big events to compete in, we were hesitant at first about training the players intensively, but considering that Japan needs to be on equal footing with the European players and South Korean and Chinese hard hitters in terms of physical strength as well as technique and speed, we decided to focus on strengthening the players’ physical fitness as we prepare for a restart.
Strengths of Harimoto, Niwa and Mizutani
Could you provide us with a review of the Japan team players’ strengths as well as their attributes you are trying to reinforce?
When the Rio 2016 Games were over, I felt a strong urge to foster Harimoto for the Tokyo 2020 Games. So, when he joined the JOC Elite Academy Program when he was in his first year at junior high school, I invited him into the national team as its youngest ever player. He has made great strides ever since, and is now ready for Tokyo 2020. His signature strengths are his world-class powerful backhand shots, his speedy game, and his quick hits. His swift attack that deprives his opponent from having time to think is his distinctive style. But to win on world stage and become the world champion, he needs more than just a strong backhand and speed. So, he is working hard to brush up on all his techniques to become an ultimate all-around player. His aim is to win all singles and team matches at the Tokyo 2020 Games as the star player of the Japan team.
The Tokyo 2020 Games will be Niwa’s third Olympic Games. At Rio 2016, he reached the best eight in the singles event and greatly contributed to the team medal by winning a key doubles match. He has vast knowledge backed by a wealth of experience, and is expected to apply it at Tokyo 2020 as the grand finale of his career. His style also features swift attacks immediately following the serve. A Chiquita receive, which is a backhand drive technique, and an ensuing immediate attack are also part of his tricky style. To take on the world with his small physique, he has a variety of techniques up his sleeve. His cut block, for example, features an intense sidespin, which demonstrates his excellence in handling spins. Niwa tosses his opponents around with such inimitable style that defies normal standards. I believe he will produce results that exceed what he had achieved in previous Games.
Mizutani, at over 30 years of age, is in his prime. He is also determined to take on the Tokyo 2020 Games to mark the grand finale of his career. For an experienced player to remain at the top, they need to keep evolving over decades on end while younger players seek to catch up by acquiring an array of new techniques. Mizutani is a seasoned player, continuously evolving on the world stage. His way of contacting the ball is ingenious and he is capable of excellent forehand attacks that capitalise on his active footwork. In table tennis, the serve is the “first offence”, and Mizutani has an excellent selection of serve techniques that allows him to overpower his opponent in a variety of ways to gain the upper hand in rallies. He is indeed an all-around player with diverse techniques and a wealth of experience, and is also good at handling adversities. The Tokyo 2020 Games will be a gruelling competition, but I have confidence in him as a player who will maximise his potential under such circumstances.
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What are the key points for competing at the Tokyo 2020 Games?
At the Rio 2016 Games, I felt that whether we can gain momentum in the second half depends on whether we win a medal in the first half. At Rio 2016, first came the singles, where Mizutani wasn’t at his best because of the pressure. But despite that, he clinched a bronze medal. After achieving this goal of winning a singles medal at a world competition, he started displaying great performance in the team event. I had never seen him in such impeccable condition. At the Tokyo 2020 Games, we will have the mixed doubles first, so ITO Mima and Mizutani will step on the stage. A medal, even a gold, is within our reach. The key lies in whether we can start off by gaining a gold medal in the mixed doubles to give the team an impetus in the remaining events.
Mizutani and Ito are such an exciting mixed doubles pair, aren’t they?
Ito is an unpredictable player. Her play is beyond imagination. In mixed doubles, it is usually the norm for the female player to extend the rally and let the male player attack, but with Ito, she takes initiative as an attacker and and can outplay a male opponent. She also excels at changing her style during a match. Meanwhile, Mizutani is equipped with utmost stability and backs up Ito’s aggressive play. I had always thought that the two would make an excellent pair, but I hadn’t had any chance to try them out. The Tokyo 2020 Games is the first Olympic Games to include the mixed doubles event, so the opportunity was perfect for the pair. There was no other choice. Both being native to Shizuoka Prefecture, they have rapport, and Ito is outspoken even to Mizutani who is older than her, so the two are the best pair in terms of both communication and combination as players.
How are things with the team event?
Japan is third in the global team ranking. If we can rise to second place and get the second seed, we won’t need to play against People's Republic of China until the final, which means we will likely gain a medal. The key will be the doubles. At Rio 2016, we leveraged our third match, the doubles, to gain a medal. At Tokyo 2020, the doubles will be our first match. Following the doubles match, our ace player will appear next. [Note: The rule is that the second match must be played by the player who did not play in the doubles. The singles player in the second match will therefore play in two singles matches.]
The second singles match will be played between ace players, so they will be under great pressure. If we lose the first doubles match and the second singles match, the situation will become desperate. That’s why it is critical to ensure the best doubles combination. If Harimoto is to be the ace singles player, then Niwa and Mizutani, both left-handed, will be paired up. A pair of lefties is said to be disadvantageous, but from the opponents’ viewpoint, the combination may be difficult to handle because it’s uncommon. The key point is whether we should battle with our left-handed pair, or go with a conventional pair. If we can nail the doubles match, it will be unlikely for Japan to lose against any other country but China.
Is China the greatest rival for Japan? What is your view on China?
Table tennis is the national sport of China. Just as Japan have great judo players, Chinese table tennis players are formidable. But in recent years, Harimoto and other young players have emerged in Japan, who are increasingly threatening China’s dominance by clinching victories in the singles and doubles at international competitions. Yet, when it comes to the Olympic Games, China is expected to be thoroughly prepared. They take a complete all-round style showing no weaknesses whatsoever. Japan has maintained the world’s top level in speed and technique over the past decade or so, but to beat China, we also need to enhance the quality of each shot. If we can achieve this, the time will come when we will catch up with and take over China. In the team event, we must of course win three matches, so we have a far better chance of winning in the singles and mixed doubles events.
Motivating players is the key
What do you most focus on in fostering Olympic hopefuls?
The important thing is to motivate them. However, talented a player is said to be, they feel anxious about their lack of experience and their unknown future, not being able to decide on their style or set their goals. The point is how we can make them stronger by brushing such insecurity aside and get them to take on the world. They will not move forward unless you inspire their hearts. For example, with Harimoto, when we got off the bus on our way to the Japan Open at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in 2016, I pointed to the Japan National Stadium under reconstruction and asked him, “Do you know what’s going to be held there?” He answered, “Tokyo 2020 Games,” so I asked him, “Do you want to play there?” He said, “Yes,” so I told him, “Tomokazu, you’ll be able to play there if you work hard”. That's why, instead of just imagining the players’ future, it’s important to tell them what you think in concrete terms. I do this, knowing that my words have value as the head coach and that I must bear responsibilities for what I say.
At the Rio 2016 Games, although no male player had ever gained a medal before then, I was able to individually motivate each player to aim for a medal, both before and during the Games, which led to success. I always try to lift the players’ spirits up and motivate them, trying to enhance their awareness as a table tennis player.
You also value spontaneity, don’t you?
It’s not good when the players just follow directions given by the instructors. With table tennis, the coaches are on the bench, but the players are on their own when they play. Matches take different turns, so the players must put things behind them and figure out all kinds of issues as they come up. They also need to predict how the ball spins during a rally, and return shots within less than a second by making good judgements. Deciding on how to hit the ball, shifting strategies, and changing the pace of matches are crucial elements. In other words, switching the mindset is important. I incorporate a lot of spontaneous training, whereby the players are required to formulate their own training regimen tailored to their problems. In the process, I give advice when it seems essential, and I talk to players when they are losing a lot or when they seem dispirited. I try to keep an optimal distance with the players, while encouraging them to think for themselves. I believe that players develop their social and human skills along the way.
Lastly, please share with us your aspirations for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Table tennis is a lifelong sport that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or gender. I strongly hope that people will watch our matches at the Tokyo 2020 Games and take interest in table tennis. At Tokyo 2020, we hope to produce better results than at the Rio 2016 Games. My hope is to show matches that draw long-lasting attention to table tennis, even after the Olympic Games are over. We will give our all to deliver dreams and moving experiences through table tennis at the Games.