Japan coach Sato ready for new challenge
Tokyo, Japan, May 15, 2013 - Gary Sato says he is ready and relishing the challenge of reviving the flagging fortunes of Japan's men's national volleyball team after the American's appointment earlier this year as coach.
The Japan Volleyball Association (JVA) has turned to a foreign coach for the first time after the men's team failed to qualify for last year's London Olympics.
JVA president Taizaburo Nakano said earlier this year that a fundamental change was in order after the failure to secure a berth to London by (previous coach) Tatsuya Ueta's team.
"We have to forget the glory of the past and start over fresh," Nakano said. "I think that a foreigner who can look at Japan in an objective way will be able to courageously execute a new strategy."
Sato, a former assistant coach for the US men's team, was appointed in February and he has set a target of not only qualifying for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, but being in medal contention.
"My goal and I hope the team's goal and everybody else's is to compete for a medal," he said.
Sato was involved with the US men's team as a coach for many years and contributed to its gold medal win at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the team's bronze medal finish at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
He was also an assistant when the US finished tied for fifth in London last year. After London he said he had planned to take a break and spend time with his family, but became restless away from the game and could not turn down the offer from Japan.
"I missed it being away from volleyball and this opportunity came up. In the past Japan has entertained the idea of having a foreign coach but it never came to life, the system being as it is. Finally when it became more of a reality I researched it said that this is something I'd like to do. It's challenging and for me I felt the next level was something that had to be intriguing and so far it has fulfilled all my expectations."
Sato is a fourth generation Japanese and says being able to learn new things in the country of his roots is an added bonus.
"It's fun for me because I am getting to learn a lot. Every three or four minutes I am learning something new in lots of different ways," said Sato.
"The one thing growing up in the United States we have always had a tremendous respect for Japan volleyball. They have extended their hand and helped us along the way. I like being here."
The Japanese men's hope for a second consecutive Olympic appearance ended when they finished fourth at the World Olympic Qualification Tournament in Tokyo in June last year. The women's team, on the other hand, went to London and scored a bronze medal, their first medal since the 1984 Olympics.
So what is required for Sato, whose theme is "play hard, play smart," to turn the men's team into a force to be reckoned with once again?
He says the fundamentals are basically in place and says he has been impressed with what he has seen so far, but stressed the need for the players to take responsibility to think outside the box.
"A lot of the fundamental discipline that previous coaches have established is great. So it is a really good foundation to build on," said Sato. "What I would like is for the players to be more accountable and responsible and think creatively for themselves. I will provide a lot of information that they can think about and then they can implement it, hopefully in a smooth fashion. I just want them to be smarter to find a way win. A little bit more without me having to tell them 'do this, do this, do that.' I'd much rather have to pull in the reins on peoples as opposed to have to poke them to get them fired up."
Sato said he has been particularly impressed with Sakai Blazers wing spiker Yusuke Ishijima but also wants to look at less tried and trusted players.
"Every time I have seen him (Ishijima) play he has played at a really high consistent level so I have been really excited about that. A few guys are injured that I have seen enough of in previous years to be confident that once they get well they will be fine."
Sato and his new team will hold a training camp at the National Training Center in Akabane, Tokyo from May 21 to 29 before the team leaves Japan to compete in the FIVB World League Intercontinental Round where they take on archrivals Korea on the opening weekend in Hwasung starting on June 1.
"This is kind of an opportunity for younger players or players that have not played as much to get some experience," Sato said. "With such a short period of time (at the camp I will) implement some minor tweaks in technique and just some general rules about team strategy, for instance some rules about blocking, some rules about good percentage play, things like that, some ideas that will stimulate thinking."
Japan are in Pool C for the FIVB World League Intercontinental Round, which also features Canada, Korea, Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal. The winner of the group will qualify for the World League Finals which will take place in Mar del Plata, Argentina from July 17 to 21.