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The Genius of the Japanese Boccia World: Creative Adaptations Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many athletes losing access to their training environments, and living under various stay-at-home restrictions. Even amidst these circumstances, however, boccia players have worked to remain positive, and focused on what is possible at every moment. At the base of these developments have been the efforts of the Japan Boccia Association, which has utilized the online format at every opportunity.

Doing as Much as Possible in Preparation

The story begins in spring of last year, around when the COVID-19 pandemic had begun to result in the cancellation and postponement of sports events of all kinds. The Boccia International Sports Federation (BISFed) on March 27, 2020, announced that they would cancel all official tournaments until December of the same year—becoming one of the first sports to do so. Boccia players tend to have lower respiratory function due to conditions like cerebral palsy, and there was concern that they would be at higher risk of getting severe symptoms from the COVID-19 virus.

The Japan Boccia Association, which is the overarching organization for boccia in Japan, also cancelled all activities for the Japan national team starting early February 2020, stating that their #1 priority was the health of their members. The association also banned players from staying in hotels, and traveling via plane and bullet train. By the end of February, they had already told the players to avoid the “three Cs” (closed spaces, crowded places, close-contact settings), a guideline later established by the Japanese government.

Since, players have had to make their own adjustments to the changing circumstances. These were players, however, who had been working toward the express purpose of winning a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. How would they keep up their motivation? Wouldn’t they lose their sense of unity?

These concerns, however, turned out to be groundless. The Japan national team, after some back and forth through email, began holding remote meetings using the LINE video chat function.

Head Coach Murakami taking part in an online interview

“People voiced all kinds of opinions in the remote meetings, and it was to the point where we came up with ideas we hadn’t thought of when we’d met face-to-face. We discovered we could work on this together, even when we were apart.”

So said Head Coach Mitsuteru Murakami, smiling. Boccia hadn’t even come up as a topic of conversation, he said, for the first few meetings. But as they had more and more meetings, their communication became more effective—in terms of, for example, being able to extract the information they needed from each of the members.

One of the opinions voiced was that the members should all wear their uniforms, to provide a sense of unity even when they were apart. There was no sense of isolation, of players having to deal with their issues and concerns all on their own. Instead, there was a feeling of solidarity, a sense that they should come together because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. All in all, the restrictions seemed to be moving them toward a positive direction.

Staying Positive Amidst Serious Circumstances

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extremely serious issue. However, players and staff have remained optimistic with regards to its resolution. Bits of these efforts can be seen on the Japan Boccia Association’s Facebook and Instagram pages, where they have continued to promote information about boccia, in an effort to maintain interest and bring in new boccia fans despite the lack of tournaments.

Players train for various strategies remotely using a miniature, tabletop boccia set—a new training method they’d come up with in response to the pandemic
©Japan Boccia Association

The “Boccia at Home” series, which began on the Facebook page of the Japan national team, Hinotama Japan, in late April 2020, consisted of posts from players and staff showing the players practicing high-difficulty techniques, and showing off their best plays. The posts, which also discussed simple ways in which people could play boccia at home, how to make a boccia ball, etc., were shared widely on social media.

A remote intensive training camp was held for the Japan designated training athletes on June 13-14, 2020, after the state of emergency was lifted nationwide. This training camp, which was open to the media, had each player participating online from their homes, and engaging in strength training, strategy research, etc., in real-time. The players also engaged in a practice match using “table boccia,” a miniature version of boccia played on a tabletop boccia set.

The intensive training camp in December 2020 was conducted fully online, including the lectures, groupwork sessions, etc.
©Japan Boccia Association

These remote intensive training camps were also held in September (certain select players) and December of the same year. Captain Hidetaka Sugimura, who participated in the training camp remotely from Shizuoka, where he bases his training, said the results of these training camps spoke for themselves.

“Last fall, when we got together as a team for the first time in a while, the plays just were not good enough. What with these weekly remote meetings, it really feels like our communication as a team has gotten better, even with the pandemic. Now, I’m confident we’ll be able to get it together for the Tokyo Paralympic Games.”

Players who were far away participated remotely, engaging in the same training with everyone else while at home
©Japan Boccia Association

An Opportunity to Show Off the Fruits of Their (Remote) Labors

Then, it was time for the Zenkoku Boccia Senbatsu Koshien, on March 16, 2021. Indeed, this tournament became the perfect opportunity for the team to show off the progress they’d made from these remote training camps. The Zenkoku Boccia Senbatsu Koshien is a tournament comprised of teams from special education schools/classes all over Japan, junior high school-aged and above, and is an opportunity for players to show off the results of their day-to-day training, and to make themselves known as an up-and-coming star in the world of Japanese boccia.

The Zenkoku Boccia Senbatsu Koshien normally follows the structure of most tournaments, with preliminaries held on-site, and winning teams playing against one another all the way up to the finals. This time around, however, the whole thing—from the preliminaries to the finals—was held online.

The decision to hold the tournament in this online format was based on the organizers’ steadfast resolution to “find a way to make it happen,” instead of running to cancellations. In order to make it work, they incorporated a tactic for the preliminaries that had been used in the training camps, wherein players, presented with boccia “problem scenarios,” would submit videos of the strategies that they would use to tackle these scenarios.

This being such a novel attempt, the organizers first held an online information session where they explained the rules of online boccia, so that each of the schools could participate without issue in the preliminaries. About a week later, they released the problem scenarios. Each of the teams then had five days to tackle the scenarios in their own ways, and submit videos of themselves doing so. These videos were to be submitted along with a record sheet (uploaded onto the designated cloud service, mailed to the organizing committee, or sent through email using a file sharing service) within a designated period.

A sample video, prepared to show the teams how they should go about tackling the scenario, was posted on the official website and tournament Facebook page. Out of consideration for teams in Tokyo Prefecture, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saitama Prefecture, and Chiba Prefecture, which were under a renewed state of emergency, and who were unable to train as a team, the organizers were also very flexible with the dates for the strategy webinars and the preliminaries. For their efforts, the organizers were rewarded with comments of gratitude from the participating schools, who appreciated that the association had moved to host the tournament instead of cancelling it.

50 teams from 48 schools competed in the preliminaries, with the three teams who scored the highest for the problem scenarios moving onto the finals

This gratitude was also expressed by the students who competed in the finals.

“Competing like this during the pandemic made it easier for me to stay motivated, and it showed us the things we have to work on. It was really fun to be able to compete as a team with all my teammates,” said Sotaro Iwase from Komaki Special Education School, the winning team in the tournament.

Airi Yamada of the Fukui Special Education School, however, also commented on the difficulties of competing in an online tournament.

“It was really nerve-wracking, and it was fun in the way tournaments are, but we couldn’t really learn about the other teams, or talk to the other players, or play them face-to-face. It was hard, because I’m so used to the environment at my school that I couldn’t get myself to feel like I was competing in a tournament.”

High-Level Matches, Even Online

Even then, said Takayuki Hirose, star of the Japan national team, “the matches were very high-level.”

“This tournament was remote, but it was amazing how often you’d see these players working together to figure out, for example, how many points they could get out of each scenario.”

Hirose, who has qualified for Tokyo 2020, showed up to the tournament remotely to cheer the players on

Head Coach Murakami, responding to an interview following the tournament, said he was inspired by how this particular tournament had boosted the visibility of boccia, and even improved the players’ techniques.

“We received a lot of questions from the schools about the rules of the preliminaries, so we were able to explain the rules of boccia in great detail. And if you think about it, the online format also means that schools that were too far away to compete before can now compete in this tournament.”

He also commented on the things they had learned by virtue of it being an online tournament.

“Until now, we’d only see the students who were actually competing in matches, or we’d actually have to go to these schools to discover promising players, but this time around we were able to discover so many new players [through video] in the preliminaries. Of course there’s more fun in playing boccia face-to-face, but it’d be great if we could take some aspects of this format and apply it somehow in the future as well,” said Head Coach Murakami.

To do what you can, even under considerable restrictions. The Japan Boccia Association’s various efforts are a true reflection of the spirit of parasports—the idea that so much can be done, if only you can think creatively.

text by TEAM A
key visual by Japan Boccia Association

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