by Simon Daish
Ichiro Ogimura is one of Japan’s most successful table tennis players to date, winning 12 medals at World Championship level in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1981 Ichiro Ogimura formed a national table tennis championships for elementary students to help the development of Japan’s aspiring young stars.
However, prior to 2000 only a small number of the winners went on to represent the country at the biggest events and Mr. Maehara Masahiro, vice president of the Japan Table Tennis Association and executive vice president of the ITTF, believes that this ultimately hindered Japan’s progress on the world stage.
“But up to 2000, only two of the winners of that competition went on to take part in singles events at the Olympics. Coaches focused too much on taking the immediate prize of the national tournament, rather than looking ahead to international competition. As international play moved on, Japan was no longer competitive. There were only a few coaches able to provide instructions on how to prevail against world-class opposition.” Maehara Masahiro
In 2001 Mr. Maehara Masahiro, who was national head coach at the time, decided to take action, establishing a new way to harness the potential of Japan’s younger generation of stars.
The new national tournament was split into three categories: Hopes, Cubs and Bambini which were contested by under 12s, under 10s and under eights respectively.
20-24 of the top players and others with the most potential were then selected for three-day training clinics and a Hopes national team was also launched to compete at international events
“There was a pressing need to hold training camps for elementary school students and develop young players with the technique and mindset to win in international competition. The Hopes national team needs four things: world-class technique and physical, mental, and nutrition training to match the players’ growth and development levels. To compete internationally, they need to be equally capable of backhand and forehand play. Mentally, they have to move on from simply snapping when things don’t go their way and develop the ability to endure adversity and maintain presence of mind.” Maehara Masahiro
Jun Mizutani, who became the first Japanese representative to win an Olympic Games singles medal with his fine effort at Rio 2016, was a member of the Hopes team in 2002 while Kasumi Ishikawa also came through the Hopes programme.
Another approach was to invite the coaches from a number of Japan’s strongest schools to attend classes where video analysis of international matches was shown to give guidelines on technique, a practice Mr. Maehara Masahiro believes is essential to player development.
“Video makes everything easy to understand I’ve done that since I was a player and a coach. When I saw players with a new way of serving in China, say, or Sweden, I’d immediately get it on video for analysis—even back in the day when cameras were still heavy and bulky.” Maehara Masahiro
Japan now has an abundance of young stars not just appearing at youth level but also in its senior team with the likes of Miu Hirano, Mima Ito and Tomokazu Harimoto competing at the very top of the sport and Mr. Maehara Masahiro is hoping that Japan can finally get that Olympic gold medal when the Games come to Tokyo in two years’ time.
“I want to get gold somehow. The players have also set their sights on winning.” Maehara Masahiro