After being made head coach of the national soccer team last August, Hiroshi Ohashi’s first order was for the grown-ups to get off the pitch.

“I could not distinguish between the coaches and the parents and teachers who were swarming all over the field during practice,” said Ohashi. He commands the Japanese squad in the World Football Championships, sponsored by the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability.

“I had to start from changing the way of thinking of those around the players,” said the 42-year-old former junior high school teacher.

Dubbed “The Other World Cup,” the quadrennial football event for the mentally handicapped runs for 18 days in August at 16 venues in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture. The final will be held at International Stadium Yokohama — the site of the June 30 final of the soccer World Cup, which begins Friday in Seoul.

Japan is making its debut in this year’s WFC competition, in which 16 countries are participating, kicking off its first game, against Mali, on Aug. 8.

Ohashi graduated from Osaka University of Health and Sports Science, where he played on its regional-champion soccer team. He began his coaching career at a junior high school in his native Mie Prefecture in 1982.

Ohashi was determined to break with the conventional training regimen, which consisted of “too much practice off the pitch.”

“To play soccer, you need a ball, goal posts and opponents, but the practice sessions were held without them. The players were just made to run,” he said.

A complete outsider in the area of mental health, Ohashi said he felt the environment surrounding the players was “weird” when he was asked to coach the national team last summer by the Japan Football Association.

“It’s not the children’s fault — it’s the adults around them who do not let the players do things they should do by themselves,” he said.

Ohashi was appalled during one half-time when teachers and parents swarmed around the players, giving them directions and comments and taking away chances for them to make their own judgments.

“The players will never develop the proper decision-making skills demanded for various situations in the game in that way,” he said.

His “leave ’em alone” policy is not limited to the soccer pitch; Ohashi also made it a rule for team members to show up at training camps by themselves and participate in overseas tours without guardians.

“Once a member arrived late for a practice session because he took the wrong train, but I told him it was fine since it was a failure after taking the challenge,” he said.

For him, special treatment given unconditionally only feeds discrimination by creating a wall between the handicapped and others.

The coach, therefore, demands that games be played in the same competitive way as those involving nonhandicapped players, not as some convivial get-together.

“In competitive sports, there is always a winner and loser, and defeat should be accepted as part of the game, whether you are handicapped or not.”

Team Japan’s struggle in the upcoming tournament might be attributed to its nascent status in the international arena. Ohashi says the players’ performance is likely to have more to do with the social environment in which they grew up.

This realization came when he led the team on a European tour last year and witnessed local players demonstrating physical coordination that his team lacked.

“Obviously, the European players have mingled a lot with the nonhandicapped on playing fields since they were children. Otherwise, they could not have developed these abilities,” he observed.

“Mentally handicapped Japanese cannot play soccer on a par with world-class teams unless the environment around today’s handicapped children changes.”

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