Chuo University’s volleyball team has regained its strength. They have consecutively won the Kanto University Spring League (with 12 schools participating) for two years running. They dominated this spring, winning every single game. Last December they won the All Japan University Championships (the Intercollegiate League) for the first time in 18 years. On June 9, Coach and Chuo University alumnus Rio Matsunaga (33) gave a talk at the Chuo University Surugadai Memorial Hall.
He spoke on the theme, “Returning to Glory”. The event was hosted by the Hakumon 39 Alumni Association (a branch of the Chuo University Alumni Association chaired by Norikazu Shiraishi). The audience gazed up to see as the 190cm-tall Coach Matsunaga took the platform. Matsunaga, who has played on Japan’s national team, was quite nervous, as this was his first time to speak publicly for almost one hour.
He said, “There are two time-outs in every game. Please allow me to take one if I become stuck for words”, to which members of the audience responded, “Take it easy!”
This little interaction with the audience was a successful ice breaker.
Engaging with the players
In April 2012, Matsunaga was appointed coach at Chuo University. Generations of Chuo University Volleyball Club coaches have come from corporate teams.
“I was trying to figure out what to do, and I decided to buy a book. That book was How to Unite a Team, written by Yuuzou Murata and published by Nippon Jitsugyo Publishing. I decided to make ‘engaging with the players’ my theme. How can I make them play their best? The answer lies in two keywords: ‘Dreaming’ and ‘coexistence’.”
When you ask the students on campus what their dream is, most of them say that they want to graduate and get jobs. That may be realistic, but it is far from what you could call a dream.
“I wanted the athletes to have specific dreams. For example, to be in one of the eight top domestic league teams and to play for Japan. I want students to dream big. To help them do so, I try to put myself in the athletes’ shoes and listen properly to what they want to say. Rather than talking to them as a superior, I build a relationship of trust where the players and I can talk about anything at all, putting aside our formal roles as adults and members of society. That was quite difficult for the first year or two, and there were times when I spoke sternly with them. But even when I scolded them, I chose my words carefully.”
“There is a great tradition of autonomy at Chuo University. When the coach isn’t around, the players are able to think for themselves. They think about what they need to do to win. And they often shout out to each other to recreate the atmosphere of a training session for themselves. In fact, they probably don’t need to be all that loud! During practice games, they have even been told off by the club practicing next to them at the gym for making too much noise. He’s not the only one, but (Yuuki) Ishikawa in particular talks during the entire game. You can tell that he is trying to assert his independence.”
At the age of 19, while still in his second year of university, Ishikawa was playing for Japan against teams from around the world. Back when he was a student at Seijoh High School in Aichi Prefecture, his team made history by winning the “triple crown” (the Inter-High School Competition, the National Athletic Meet, and the All Japan High School Volleyball Championship) for two years running. Matsunaga set out to recruit Ishikawa in a bid to return the Chuo team to its former glory.
“After he entered second grade, his team won 99 out of the 99 official games they played. I believed that if we could get a superstar player into Chuo University we would be able to win back our former glory. I was always asking the high school coach what Ishikawa was up to. I couldn’t go near him. All I could do was let him pass me by and watch him with an expectant look on my face. I would have been happy just to have tweaked his interest. I wasn’t allowed to meet with him until he entered third grade. I told him I was glad to finally meet him, and he gave me a big smile.”
I received an enthusiastic response. Every time I met him after that, Matsunaga would talk passionately to Ishikawa about the future he envisioned for the sport. And he didn’t just talk — he compiled the data and created visuals, and each time they met he would spend about two hours pitching his vision for the future of the game, with Ishikawa at its center.
“The high school coach wrote to me telling me that Ishikawa had said he wanted to meet me again. He said that this time his parents would be there too...We got him! I also invited Chuo University’s top trainer, Kanako Kikuchi, to come to the meeting with me. I wanted to tell Ishikawa that what he needed next was training. Kikuchi has been taking care of us since we were students. She also took care of Tatsuya Fukuzawa (29), who played on the national team.”
Trainer Kikuchi has been at Chuo University for 15 years. Her unique training methods helped improve Fukuzawa’s tidemark from 3.4 meters to 3.55. When Coach Matsunaga was a student, she increased his tidemark from 3.35 meters to 3.45. The net is 2.43 meters high. That extra 10 to 15 centimeters makes all the difference.
“Ishikawa showed an interest in the training that Trainer Kikuchi described. I urged him on, saying that he would go on to play on the national and international scale. I was relieved when he picked Chuo University. It was my first time to scout a player. Of course I managed to hold back tears, but it was a moving moment. After coming to the University he was only able to do one chin-up. He would just hang there. He had no muscle strength. That was where the training started.”
At 3.48 meters, Ishikawa’s tidemark is now on par with players on the national team. He is working with a famous trainer to increase strength, build muscle, and make his body resistant to injury. Since he joined Chuo University, the team has won the Kanto University Spring Volleyball League for two years running, and he was pivotal in their dominating performance at the Intercollegiate League. In lower grades, there are talents developing in the under 23 and the National Selection Youth/ Juniors.
Defeating the top teams
“Our next goal is to hold onto the lead in domestic university volleyball, to win all four of the annual university leagues (the Spring, East Japan, Fall and Intercollegiate League), and to win against a team in the domestic top league. It won’t be easy, but we are gradually making ourselves invincible.”
Chuo University has won the Emperor’s Cup All Japan Volleyball Championship six times, of which the five consecutive victories starting in 1965 were particulary impressive. Current students and alumni faced each other across the net and fought for supremacy. Chuo University has supported Japanese volleyball.
“As a coach, I want to train players to play internationally. Ishikawa was the first player in Japan to get an invitation to join the professional Italian team Modena. In the end he put his studies first and only went on a short-term study trip, but he may well end up playing overseas one day. If enough players start to play overseas the Japan team will be able to return to form. I’ll put everything I have into fulfilling that goal.”
Former members of the Volleyball Club say that nothing makes them happier than going to matches to support their team.