Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani winning the Mixed Doubles gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was a watershed moment for table tennis in Japan. A quarterfinal match with a seemingly impossible comeback that would even be farfetched in a feel good Hollywood summer flick, followed up by a fairytale ending of the underdogs clinching top of the podium in their home stadium was as perfect as sporting stories come.
It may seem like destiny now, but the decisions made to get from point A to B and walk away with gold were one’s carefully planned out over the last two decades.
JTTA, through the lead of Vice President Mashiro Maehara, have taken on a holistic approach to developing table tennis in Japan. There is the technical side of sport; the on table drills, the physical conditioning, psychology and nutrition. This is the necessary grunt work, the sweat, tears and sacrifices of an athlete. But then there is the other side of the coin. Providing a path that nurtures athlete development and creating an environment that amplifies their stardom and success. It is in this area where Maehara has looked to excel, in a process described twenty years in the making. It’s no coincidence that Japan’s star athlete, Mima Ito, will soon be celebrating her 21st birthday. Ito is the poster child of Maehara’s model.
Educate the coaches
Education has been at the forefront of Japan’s strategy. Getting coaches up to speed with the technical knowledge and knowhow that will allow them to develop world class athletes is not an easy problem to solve.
This started to come together in the late 1990s when JTTA invited Soren Ahlen from Sweden, and Mario Amizic from Croatia in the early 2000s, to be part of Japan’s coaching team. It was an echo of the days gone by in which Sweden looked to Ichiro Ogimura to help invigorate their table tennis; but this time Japan was striving to modernise. Japanese coaches were able to learn new theories and methodologies of training methods, camp management, and coaching.
“Since 2001, we have held coaches’ meetings at Under 12 National Events to conduct training seminars to inform about the trends in the world, and the Japanese style of play,” explained Maehara. “The content of achieving qualification for Japanese coaching has been carefully examined and improved to meet global standards.”
As each generation of coaches’ skills have improved, they have been able to attract and develop more talented players all over Japan. But the education is not only theoretical. A coach isn’t just formed from a textbook, they require a practical apprenticeship to hone their skills and put them under pressure in real world situations. JTTA identified that not all answers were to be found at home and it was best not to put all their eggs in one basket.
The experience of coaching on the international scene comes with more than the chance to win medals; it’s the best school for learning where the zeitgeist of table tennis is headed. As an island nation, the possibility of remaining isolated is one that has to be confronted head on. A sustainable model was developed for tapping in to the rich vein of international table tennis and the knowledge that comes with it.
JTTA established a system in which the athlete’s personal coach was enabled to attend international tournaments with their players.
“In order to respect the fact that players and coaches are usually trained together in their own teams, we set up a personal coach system,” explained Maehara. “This allowed the coaches to experience many international tournaments and improve their coaching skills.”
It’s a move that empowered the athletes, allowing them to have increased control in their own sporting career. There is nothing more personal than who you turn to on your bench in tough times on the international circuit. Ito’s coach, Taisuke Matsuzaki, is prime example of this model put in to action. A stalwart of the international scene for years now, the coaching system offered Matsuzaki the opportunity to fill his famous book of tactics ten times over compared to if he was back home watching through a screen.
Allowing personal coaches on the international stage had the effect of multiplying table tennis knowledge exponentially. Lessons learnt on the international stage now could be directly relayed to the widest possible audience back home. Instantly more athletes had access to international standard coaches who have seen firsthand what it takes to compete with the best. Each coach would be in contact with numerous developing athletes all over Japan, whether in clubs, high schools, universities or company teams. The model has ensured sustainability, growth, and ultimately an Olympic gold medal, with the real chance of more to come.
With Tokyo 2020 now behind them, the Japanese association is looking to continue its education model. It’s a process always in motion and constantly evolving.
“The preparations which took place in achieving the gold, silver, and bronze medals, as well as the activities to strengthen the team, will be summarised and a seminar will be held to pass on the legacy to instructors nationwide,” says Maehara.
Engage the media
The other part of the puzzle for Maehara was how to have an informed and engaged media presence. Sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a table tennis education doesn’t just end at coaches and athletes. Communicating to a wider audience and creating an engaged fanbase is essential to a successful sport. Headlines, hot takes, fandoms and debates are all part of participating in sport and being part of its community. The media is the gateway to achieving this.
Likewise, event presentation and strong media relationships are the avenue for getting new players excited about playing table tennis. It’s all about building a sustainable sport in which new potential athletes have a clear pathway and the reward for success is not a fantasy but a reality. Exciting the next generation to take up table tennis and pursue it is just as important as learning the latest technical and tactical trends. It’s a responsibility Maehara took to heart.
“We believe that it is the role of the association to further enhance the implementation of media training, interaction with the media, improvement of event presentation, and to try to develop players who are loved by table tennis fans,” he says.
An active role in the promotion and education of the sport to the general public is crucial. Even in a country like Japan which shares a rich cultural history with table tennis, this is necessary. It’s just as competitive off the table and in the new media landscape. Trying to get your star players seen is a challenge. It is not enough to be simply winning medals. Interaction with fans through the media is fundamental, because once success comes, it’s an opportunity to amplify your sport.
It’s a consistent through line in Maehara’s action strategy; education and engagement is key.
“We hold an exchange with the media personal once a year,” Maehara says. “We explain the rules, equipment, and tactics of ping-pong around the table, and give the media and young players time to actually play against each other.”
Japan has been proactive in establishing relationships and guiding the public appreciation for table tennis. The effects of this is evident. According to Maehara, not only has it resulted in increased and higher quality press coverage, and it has inspired new generations to take up table tennis with greater passion and earnestness than ever before.
Mima Ito herself has sighted the prominence of table tennis in the media as an influence for chasing gold in Tokyo 2020. The rise to media stardom of Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa was part of what laid the groundwork for Ito’s career. Now Ito firmly holds the spotlight, and not only is it brighter but the audience has grown. With gold in Tokyo 2020, the process initiated two decades ago has come full circle.
“I have heard many people who has watched the Mixed Doubles Japan vs Germany and Japan vs China match has had their image of table tennis changed and has great interest in the sport,” says Ito. “I am truly happy and honoured to hear that people have great interest in playing the sport, or are motivated after watching me play. I have received many letters from people such as ‘I will train harder so that I can get better at table tennis’, and ‘I will start playing table tennis’. I am truly happy for these letters.”
Maehara’s model is one that constantly empowered athletes. The strategy has increased athlete access to world-class coaching, control over their athlete pathway, and provided a real opportunity for a sustainable and success career with a chance of sporting stardom. It’s an achievement only made possible by a cohesive and coordinated effort.
“I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all the like-minded staff and people who have worked with me to support the Japanese team,” says Maehara.
Discussion may continue about what tactical or technical choices led to Japan’s successful Tokyo 2020 campaign, but it should be remembered that behind the scenes it was a twenty year endeavour to foster the environment which could let the success blossom.