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Japan Boccia Team Wins Bronze at Asian Para Games: A New Kind of Battle in the Team Event (BC1-2)

“We hadn’t lost to anybody except Thailand in so long. There was this anxiety there, and so now that we’ve lost, we honestly feel a bit relieved.” Surprising words from Coach Mitsuteru Murakami following the match.

What he was talking about was boccia Team event (BC1-2 class). The Japan team, which had won silver medals in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and the BISFED 2018 World Boccia Championships this August, had only managed to win a bronze medal.

An Unexpected Loss and a Japan Team United Again

In the semi-finals, they had lost 1-6 against boccia powerhouse Thailand, who had always been the one for Japan to beat. In this tournament, however, they had lost to China the day before the planned semi-finals with Thailand, in a striking blow that would become the turning point for the Japan team in the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games.

Sugimura grimacing, unable to make his shots count

The match against China, which they lost 3-5, had been a mess of missed shots on the Japan side. And the China team, alongside Korea and Hong Kong, was a force to be reckoned with. Asia had always been packed with strong teams, and yet Japan, in focusing too much on that elusive gold medal, had perhaps directed too much of their mental energy to their match in the finals against Thailand. Their underestimation of the other teams had led to their defeat.

Said Coach Murakami, “I think that loss in the preliminaries was due to this little bit of carelessness, this feeling of ‘oh, we can beat anybody that’s not Thailand.’ When I asked them about it after the match, they said they’d just felt that they needed to focus on the Thailand match. And it wasn’t just the players either—the staff and I had felt the same as well.”

This loss, however, was a turning point—the players reset their feelings, and came together as one for the match against Thailand the next day. Though, as mentioned earlier, they did not end up winning this match, there were some shots made by the Japan team that were very close. “I think we’re catching up to them,” said star player Takayuki Hirose. And in the third-place playoffs that immediately followed this match, they won a clean and easy victory, getting back at China for their loss in the preliminaries, and taking home a bronze medal.

Hirose, star player and very experienced in boccia

“For the last match, we had all these people watching—staff, players who had lost in their classes—and they really livened it up for us. Bronze wasn’t what we were going for, but it’s what we achieved with all of us together, as ‘Hinotama Japan,’” said Captain Hidetaka Sugimura, with a touch of relief in his expression.

The Growth of Two Star Players and a Newbie

What had they learned from their performance in this tournament? In terms of growth, there was 20-year old Takumi Nakamura, who emerged into the competitive boccia-sphere following the Rio Paralympic Games.

20-year old Nakamura performed well in this tournament

“It’s all thanks to Nakamura that we were able to have a good match against Thailand. He was doing all these things, like getting the ball where they wouldn’t want it, or—even if it was a missed shot—getting the ball to a spot where it’d be easy for his teammates to move. The more he plays in these major tournaments, the more he’s been able to make good shots in important matches.” said Coach Murakami. Nakamura himself, however, brought up his issues instead. “Yes, I was playing pretty well in the semi-finals, but throughout this tournament it just took way too long for me to get into my zone. And I know we need more accurate shots for matches against Thailand. I have a hard time strategizing—making perfect shots and thinking ahead at all the different scenarios that could unfold—and I’m going to need to get better at these things if we want to win a medal at the Paralympics.” It may not be an overstatement to say that Nakamura’s growth in the future is the key to the team’s success.

Sugimura, Nakamura, and Hirose play all different kinds of roles in each match

Coach Murakami also brought up “training players that can play all different kinds of roles” as the team’s gold-medal strategy for the Tokyo Paralympics. It is important that all three members of the team can continue to play at a high level when a strong player on the opposing team zeroes in on a player’s weakness—no matter who is being marked, and no matter if the three’s roles are switched in the process. “There were situations where Nakamura, who has a BC1 class, fulfilled the roles of our two star players [with their relatively lower levels of disability], and made the final shot [for the ends]. I really feel like they’re becoming players that can throw from whatever location, and handle whatever strategy,” said Murakami about the strides the team has made.

Reaffirming the Importance of Physical Conditioning

Another issue that was made clear in this tournament was the need to combat the heat. Jakarta saw temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius every day of the tournament, and the boccia venue in particular was especially humid. As a result, the players became more and more tired as the days went on.

For instance, there was no air conditioning in the media mixed zone or in the warm-up court. “We tried to preserve our energy by staying in the coolest place we could find,” said Hirose. They also made sure to take frequent breaks for water and ice during the match.

Sugimura, who did poorly in the Individual event, said “I lost because I wasn’t good enough,” but also went on to say, “Honestly, I didn’t think it would be nearly this hot, and I wasn’t in as good a condition as I could’ve been. There are a lot of things you only see when you get to the venue, and what’s important is how you prepare yourself within those conditions. When there’s big temperature discrepancies, my body gets tired and my form suffers, but I was able to discuss this with the conditioning staff and recover and adapt to it. I was able to learn a lot in this tournament, and it was a good experience that’ll help me in my future matches.”

Coach Murakami (left) cooling Sugimura down with a bag of ice during the game

Coach Sugimura also brought up some issues, saying, “Good players are very sensitive to changes in their own bodies. It’s important when their own level of fatigue doesn’t match up with the strategy they’re trying to go for, that they notice it early and discuss it with somebody.”

The humidity in the venue also caused the outside of the balls to expand, making them more difficult to roll. Since the official balls had to be 100% dehumidified, many players could not practice as much as they wanted to with the same kind of ball that was used in the matches, though teams worked to handle this by putting dehumidifying agents in their balls.

While various other teams struggled to come up with solutions to this issue, Thailand—victorious, just as expected—showed a stunning display of technical ability. “They were incredibly quick and smart about making adjustments to the ball,” said Coach Murakami in amazement.

Sugimura vowed to use his experience in the tournament as fuel for the future

“If I don’t connect this experience to the next match, this tournament will have been meaningless. I want to take the time to reflect on my experience, and make efforts towards the future,” said Captain Sugimura passionately.

――Their only goal—to stand atop the world. The Japan boccia team, armed with new experiences and insight, sets out again towards the future.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

*About the classification system:
BC1 – BC4 are the four classes for international tournaments (Paralympic Games, etc.)
Players are assigned into one of these four classes depending on their level of disability.

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