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Kakita and Iwabuchi Win Team Gold at the Asian Para Games: The Secret to the Team’s Success

“In the last tournament, players with physical impairment won five medals (for a total of seven medals including players with intellectual impairment). In this tournament, we want to win at least twice that.”

So proclaimed Nariaki Kakita, captain of the Japan national table tennis team (physical impairment). The Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games began on October 6. How did he feel about the tournament? Having made such a proclamation before the tournament even started, he went on to win a gold medal in the Men’s Team event (Class 9-10) alongside Koyo Iwabuchi. The other members of the Japan national team won two silver and six bronze medals, bringing the medal count up to 9.

Kakita, who led the Japan national team

This is an amazing leap forward for Japan, especially considering there are so many other powerful teams in Asia. “It’s been four years since I played with Iwabuchi at the World Para Table Tennis Championships, and we could both feel how much we’d grown as players,” said Kakita after his victory. The current Japan national team, however, has a momentum and a strength that cannot just be explained by the growth of these two players.

An Awareness of Themselves as “Team Japan” Fueling the Desire for Victory

What brought about these amazing results? Coach Ryoji Iota-Tateishi says that it comes as a result of the players having more awareness of themselves as representatives of Japan.

“They get support from sponsors, and starting this year, have been featured a lot more in the media. There’s this strong desire to win that’s only getting stronger, and that transcends their personal desire to win.”

For instance, immediately before the Asian Para Games, the team had a public practice day opened to the media, and even held a pre-tournament press conference. The Japan Para Table Tennis Association also encouraged the players to be more aware of themselves as a member of “Team Japan.”

Kakita (left) and Iwabuchi (right), the guiding forces of the team

The pre-tournament training camp also seemed to bring a positive energy to the team. Held at the Nippon Foundation Para Arena, the camp took up the last four days before the team left for Jakarta. Looking back, Kakita said, “I think each of the players were able to figure out their own goals.”

Iwabuchi, who is a member of a powerhouse team in the Japan league, and who has poured himself into full-time training since April, said his time at the camp was spent problem-solving his own unique issues.

“Para table tennis players have to hit the ball differently than able-bodied players. There are instances where if it were an able-bodied player, the ball would come back fast, but because it’s para table tennis, actually comes back quite slow instead. I have difficulty hitting the slower balls, and so at the training camp I worked on getting the timing right for those balls.”

The time he was given to work on this issue, and to shift to a play-style distinct to para table tennis, was part of the reason why he was able to win a gold medal in the Group event, and a silver medal in the Singles event.

The two of them together showed an amazing performance

The Presence of an External Coach to Change the Tide of Battle

Integral to the team’s plan to double the number of medals was the presence of external coaches, who showed up for the first time at the Asian Para Games. This time, the coach was Yuichi Tokiyoshi, who came in second place at the Doubles event in the able-bodied All Japanese National Championships, and who is a professional coach while also remaining an active table tennis player.

“Every table tennis player knows who Yuichi Tokiyoshi is, so his words hold a lot of power. And since he’s also used to teaching junior and women’s teams, he coaches in a way that’s easy to understand. As a player, he knows all the latest information about table tennis, and is extremely good at coaching,” said Coach Tateishi.

Coach Tokiyoshi was able to use the full strength of his coaching during the first game of the Doubles match against China, with Kakita and Iwabuchi going after the gold medal. In an intense back-and-forth match, it was Coach Tokiyoshi that changed the tide of battle and eventually allowed Kakita and Iwabuchi to win, 3-1. “His words really got to the players, and changed the tide in our favor,” said Coach Tateishi.
Though Kakita (ranking #24) suffered a 0-3 loss against Lian Hao (ranking #4) in the second game, Iwabuchi was able to defeat Kong Weijie 3-0 in the third game, and bring victory to the Japan team.

Iwabuchi shaking hands with Coach Tokiyoshi (left)

Said Iwabuchi, “Normally, you go to tournaments on your own. I think having one of the top able-bodied table tennis players watching as we play these matches has led to some positive changes in the atmosphere, and helped us achieve these results.”

Coach Tokiyoshi’s coaching skills were apparent even outside of the games. Kakita and Iwabuchi were competing in Class 9-10 (a joint class that combines adjacent classes). Since Class 10 players have a lesser degree of disability, most teams in this class are comprised of two Class 10 players. Kakita and Iwabuchi’s two Chinese opponents were both Class 10 players as well.

Coach Tokiyoshi, however, thought differently, seeing an opportunity for victory in the combination of Class 10 Kakita and Class 9 Iwabuchi. Kakita is left-handed, Iwabuchi right-handed. Together, Tokiyoshi thought, they could create opportunities for victory without moving as much as the other team. This turned out to be remarkably accurate. Iwabuchi, who was under a lot of pressure for this match especially, said that he gained more from this match than any of the others.

“I was able to win against players that were one class below me (with a lesser degree of impairment) in the match against China and also Taiwan. This experience has made me more confident, and I’ll take this confidence with me to the World Para Table Tennis Championships next week.”

Coaches that were able to read the players’ strengths, send them into difficult battles, lead them to victory, and give them confidence. The extraordinary performance of the Japan national team in Jakarta came as a result of the players’ awareness of themselves as “Team Japan,” and a more varied training environment, but most of all the keen judgment and powerful instruction of the coaches, which acted as a driving force for the players.

Eight days of intense table tennis matches

Yudai Kikawada (photo) and Toshiya Takahashi won a bronze medal in Class 11 (intellectual impairment)

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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