The Japan Volleyball Association appointed 58-year-old Gary Sato as the men’s national team head coach in February. Sato is a fourth-generation Japanese-American and is the first foreign volleyball coach for Japan, men or women.
Sato was a longtime assistant coach for the United States men’s volleyball team and helped it win the gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and bronze in the 1992 Barcelona Games. In addition, he served on the staff for the U.S. team that tied for fifth at the 2012 London Summer Games.
He was a men’s assistant coach at Pepperdine University from 1978 to 2005, and the school’s women’s team head coach from 1979-82.
The Japan Times recently sat down for an exclusive interview with the new boss of Ryujin Nippon (Dragon King Japan, the men’s team’s nickname). We spoke at Tokyo’s National Training Center, where his team held a training camp in preparation for the FIVB World League Intercontinental round starts on May 31 (Japan is in Pool C with Canada, South Korea, Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal).
We all know that you are a Japanese-American. So where are your ancestors originally from?
My great-grandfather was from Sendai, and then he went to Hawaii. And that’s where my grandfather was born and raised. My dad was born and raised in Hawaii as well. I was born there but grew up in Santa Monica, California.
What was your first reaction when you heard that you earned this job?
Well, I was pretty excited, but also you have to take a deep breath. The magnitude of it, the situation, not speaking any Japanese, having to move and be away from the family, so and so . . . That was huge. A little bit intimidating, yet I was at the point in my life where it seemed to me the right thing to do.
You are the first national team coach that the JVA has ever chosen from outside the country. Does that mean anything to you?
It’s very special. You know, I enjoy being first for a lot of different things, first foreigner, first to finish college and so on . . . lots of things. I enjoy that. But beyond that, it’s quite an honor, I told them, to be considered for that position and now I actually have the position. . . . I’m treated with the greatest respect.
Before you took the job, how much knowledge did you have about Japanese volleyball?
Just their previous success in the past. How the rest of the world, me included, emulated and imitated the Japanese style of volleyball.
So from that point, I knew that much, but I also knew from another vantage point that the world wants Japan to do well in volleyball. Japan supported volleyball, in such a fashion that the world looks up to it. So I want to help get us back to a point where we can be proud of.
Every JVA executive, including chairman Taizaburo Nakano and national team general manager Haruhito Kuwata, said that they expect you to lead Japan to the No. 1 spot in Asia and eventually win a medal at an Olympics (Japan’s men haven’t earned an Olympic medal since they claimed the gold at the 1972 Munich Games). Are you overwhelmed by the high expectations?
No, not really. That’s a road you have to take. You have to shoot to be the best. You don’t play for third place or fourth place. You have to try to be the best. That’s the nature of the beast.
Your assistant David Hunt, who formerly coached for the U.S. junior national team, said that both of you don’t feel too much pressure for this job and you rather enjoy every moment. Is that true?
It is for me. If it is for him, that’s great. Because if you worry about things that haven’t happened yet or if you are fretting so much about the past, it interferes with the present. And we just try to improve and better and better every day.
So for me at work, I’m really happy with that. I like to plan, but enjoy the moment and being in the moment. And I think the athletes to play for the best (performance), have to achieve that goal as well, which I’ve seen them do. The trick is to stay in that moment until the very end, and usually great things happen.
What aspects of the game do you emphasize while coaching a volleyball team?
One of the things I like to do is, I like to study the game, I like to study the opponent and figure out what they are trying to do, or what they are good at and what they are not so good at, as well as our team as well. So I’m a student of the game.
And I want to impress on them to be a little bit more cerebral about it as well, because I think it can help them to make good decisions when I talk about playing smart volleyball by being aware of the circumstances and situations.
So that they are confident making them go 100 percent at executing what they are trying to do. It’s what I’m striving for.
You were talking about your smart volleyball to the Japanese reporters earlier in the day. Does that mean a data-oriented game in other words?
Information(-oriented). They have the statistics, the film . . . Film is excellent. And for me, because I don’t speak Japanese, I think if they see it when I explain what we are trying to do they can see it as an example and learn much faster. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do.
What’s the biggest difference between coaching the U.S. national team and the Japanese national team?
I think they are much better organized here in Japan than in the U.S.
That make your new job easier, right?
There’s a lot of things that get taken care of here that I would normally have to be concerned about. So now a lot of different areas are being taken care of, so I can focus on the information we’ve talked about and training the team. I mean, there are some other things I have to do that I wouldn’t have to do (in the U.S.). But it’s all right. I’m happy with how things are going.
What do you think your biggest challenge is going to be as you spend more time with the team from now on?
I would say there’s a lot of information that I like to impart during the heat of battle. Maybe I might not be able to communicate as effectively, but it just means that we prepare as much as we can and we finally get to that point, where I’m sure we will have some mutual communication style that will be good.