UTSUGI Reika: “We’ll give our maximum effort to win the gold medal” 

Head coach Utsugi leads Japan's national softball team
Head coach Utsugi leads Japan's national softball team

Head Coach of the Japan National Team promises to bring home the crown at a home Olympics and inspire the people of Fukushima

Softball returns to the Olympic programme for the first time since the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 where Japan captured the gold medal.

As a symbol of the ‘Recovery Olympic Games’, the softball competition will open on 21 July 2021 at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.

Leading the Japanese team that will be going for their second Olympic gold is ace pitcher from Beijing 2008 UENO Yukiko and captain YAMADA Eri. Along with head coach UTSUGI Reika, who made two Olympic appearances as Japan’s slugger winning sliver at Sydney 2000 and bronze at Athens 2004.

Tokyo 2020 spoke to Utsugi about her strategy to win the world’s number one title, her faith in Ueno and her feelings about playing in Fukushima.

The national team’s training camp always has a positive atmosphere with ace player Ueno showing a big smile
The national team’s training camp always has a positive atmosphere with ace player Ueno showing a big smile
(c) JSA

The training camp for the Tokyo 2020 Games has resumed. What is the atmosphere like?

I figured the team members were stressed out because of the situation brought on by COVID-19, so I told them, 'Be energetic, be cheerful and let’s have fun'. The atmosphere has never been more positive. Members communicate with each other more, and I think the younger players find it easier too. The team doesn’t just practise by the book, but Ueno and the other experienced members voice their opinion about what and how to practise, and I think that’s good.

How well is the team doing? Did you find anything the team needs to work on more?

Having the team train together and seeing them before my eyes gave me relief and comfort. The members remembered what they needed to do and put it to practise while they were at their own team, and I could really feel their sense of mission toward the Olympic Games. At the same time, we are faced with a strategic challenge of not being able to fully regain our style of playing which should come naturally.

Softball is a sport where you need two teams to play a game, so you need to practise to beat the opponent. Each player’s character is revealed through the game. Also, Ueno, Yamada and MINE Yukiyo are the only players on this team with Olympic experience. I’m worried how the younger players will adapt to playing in a major competition, especially one that will take place in Japan. Practising is very different from playing a match, especially in a major competition. For example, Ueno can be calm even after she hits. She can analyse, ‘If I throw this ball, this player will bat this way.’ However, a young pitcher may panic when she hits. I hope we’ll be able to play teams from other countries in May and June so the players can gain more experience in a real game situation.

What about things you need to improve for each position?

Pitchers: We have Ueno and FUJITA Yamato as our two ace pitchers. They can play according to the ‘winning strategy’ that I’ve been emphasising as head coach. I tell HAMAMURA Yukari and OZAKI Nozomi to show me what they are capable of.

Younger players, KATSUMATA Misaki and GOTO Miu, are working on their breaking ball. Players from overseas will easily hit a straight ball with a speed of 110km/h or 120km/h like a machine. Among the Japanese players, Goto throws fast balls but she’s a left-handed pitcher. For the future, she should master a rise ball [a pitch with an upward trajectory that rises in front of the batter]. Goto usually pitches in the lower range, but it’s easy for batters to lower their bat and hit the ball. She is practising the rise ball that she can throw against players who are over 180cm tall.

One of the younger players, Goto, who is a left-hand pitcher, is working to master her rise ball technique
One of the younger players, Goto, who is a left-hand pitcher, is working to master her rise ball technique
(c) JSA

Catchers: AGATSUMA Haruka has been training to become the first catcher. I hope she develops her skill to mix pitches so that the pitcher can throw her best ball with confidence. If you don’t have courage, you’re not confident how to mix pitches. So I give her specific advice. Mine has been the catcher when Ueno pitches and she also paired with Fujita too, so she knows how to mix their pitches. I feel comfortable leaving it up to her. One other catcher, KIYOHARA Nayu, is really talented, but she has never paired with Ueno or Fujita so I try to match them up during practice and in games.

Infielders: We have many great players in infield. Learning from our mistakes up to last year, we’re now putting more emphasis on second base. American players are tall and they often hit grounders that are very strong and fast. If you don’t have a strong shoulder, it’s difficult to jump and throw the ball. KAWABATA Hitomi is young (24-years-old) and full of energy. She has a strong throw and also bats well too. ICHIGUCHI Yuka doesn’t throw as strong, but I’m teaching her techniques and body movements to maximise her abilities so she can throw using smooth, continuous motions immediately after she catches the ball. I take pride in Japan’s defense, which is the best in the world, and I think we should all be confident.

Outfielders: There’s no question that outfielders must have outstanding running and throwing abilities. Leftfielder YAMAZAKI Saki, Centerfielder Yamada and rightfielder HARADA Nodoka are the core players. In terms of batting and defense, they are the best outfielders in Japan, and probably in the world as well. Yamazaki and Harada have a lot of defensive range, and I’m sure they will use that to display good defense.

World’s top outfielder. Captain Yamada knows how to come out on top.
World’s top outfielder. Captain Yamada knows how to come out on top.
(c) JSA

The key to winning: defense and homeruns

What about batting?

Having experienced many softball competitions over these long years, I learned that it’s difficult to get three consecutive hits. Over 80 per cent of the games are won with a homerun, so it’s obvious that homeruns are the key. Therefore, Japan is now training to develop more power hitters. Our opponents’ pitchers will also have a plan. Their head coach would look at past statistics and tell the pitcher how to pitch. So I tell my players to practise anticipating the pitches by reading the opponents.

“Homeruns and the world’s best defense are the key to winning,” says Head Coach Utsugi.
“Homeruns and the world’s best defense are the key to winning,” says Head Coach Utsugi.
(c)JSA

Head Coach Utsugi’s idea of “play-to-win softball”

In my strategy, defense is the top priority. Defense starts with our pitcher, and the objective is to keep the opponent’s score at zero. It wouldn’t be so hard to win if we could hit all the time, but we need to think how to win when their pitcher is very good. It goes back to good defense. For example, with the spread of COVID-19, it’s difficult to know the condition of our opponents; but if our defense is 100 or 200 per cent, we won’t make mistakes in the game and we can defeat any team.

What is most important when playing in the Olympic Games?

To win, the pitcher is the key. If the batter hits a homerun from our pitcher, we’re likely to lose. I always tell Ueno that even if she walks three batters, if she can pitch three strikeouts, there’s a chance we can win. But if the batter hits a homerun, we lose four runs. The ball travels farther with a metal bat used in softball, and the playing field is not so big either. We have to prevent our opponents from hitting homeruns, and we have to make sure we hit homeruns. This summer, it will be up to having a stronger will and determination than the other teams.

Fujita is expected to be the ace pitcher alongside Ueno.
Fujita is expected to be the ace pitcher alongside Ueno.
(c) JSA

Ueno is the perfect player to execute the strategy to become number one in the world

Do you have special feelings about Ueno?

Yes. The two of us have been involved in softball together for 20 years ever since she was in high school, and I trust her more than anyone. She is actually an unpredictable player. Sometimes she bats and at crucial games she pitches her usual game and wins effortlessly no matter who the opponent is. At the opening game of the national league, she threw four innings and conceded six runs; but in the final she pitched perfectly, striking out 14 batters and shutting out the other team. That’s the kind of talent only she possesses. Not only can she win a game, but she has what it takes to execute the strategy of the head coach to become number one in the world.

Yukiko Ueno # 17 of Japan throws a pitch against the United States in a women's semi-final softball game during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Yukiko Ueno # 17 of Japan throws a pitch against the United States in a women's semi-final softball game during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
2008 Getty Images

It is a blessing to open the competition in Fukushima

The Tokyo 2020 softball competition will open in Fukushima.

Thanks to the support of many people, we are able to play sport today. When I think, ‘what is the purpose of our playing sport’ and ’what can I give back to the people who support us’, I believe it’s not just to win but to show people our courage and our vigorous play, and deliver the message that ‘sport is fun and life is really fun, so let’s have fun’. In that sense, I feel blessed that the softball competition will open in Fukushima so that we can play in front of the people of Fukushima.

The other day, the fashion designer KOSHINO Junko said in a TV programme that ‘physical activity means your luck is moved [the Chinese characters ‘luck’ and ‘move’ are combined to form the Japanese word for ‘physical activity’]’ and I was very impressed with her interpretation. I told my team to play positively so that we can ‘move [change] our luck’ too. Ueno and I often talk about what makes a first-class player, and we think that a first-class player is someone who can inspire people with one’s abilities. I want our team to give their best and demonstrate that to the people watching.

Finally, what are your ambitions for the Tokyo 2020 Games?

We want to win the gold medal, and I’m sure that everyone in Japan shares our desire. It will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us to play in the Olympic Games hosted by Tokyo, so we’ll give our maximum effort to win the gold medal.

The team is aiming to win an Olympic gold medal to inspire the Japanese people
The team is aiming to win an Olympic gold medal to inspire the Japanese people
(c) JSA
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