Basketball

Performance staff plays big role for Japan hoopsters

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Right after the final buzzer, the TV camera momentarily caught head coach Julio Lamas giving a strong hug to athletic trainer Takeo Ichiyanagi after they helped accomplish a big feat in the Middle East in late February.

Koichi Sato, the sports performance director for the national teams of the Japan Basketball Association, teases Ichiyanagi, saying it was such a “passionate” embrace.

“I just happened to be there,” Ichiyanagi bashfully responded.

It was actually a moment when all the members of the Japan men’s national team erupted into excitement, not just Lamas and Ichiyanagi. After a disastrous 0-4 start, the Akatsuki Five successfully grabbed a spot for the FIBA World Cup with their eighth consecutive “W,” a 96-48 triumph over Qatar in Doha in its final Asian qualifiers contest on Feb. 24.

The Lamas-Ichiyanagi hug perhaps proved that the team was more like a family that included members who work behind the scenes, not just players and coaches. Its medical staff includes Ichiyanagi, Sato and strength and conditioning coach, Katsuhiko Abe, who served as irreplaceable family members in the team’s phenomenal campaign during the World Cup preliminaries.

If the players are the stage actors, those back-room staff are scene shifters. The three were just some of the contributors that were a part of Japan’s World Cup qualifiers run.

None of the three, however, brag about their work because everybody, not only them, helped develop and improve the national team, which earned a spot in the World Cup on its own for the first time in 21 years.

As a result, the men’s squad was granted a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by FIBA, the sport’s global governing body, last Saturday.

But if there was one thing that they feel has been accomplished, it’s to let the players understand taking care of their bodies and training on their own — why and how they do it, in other words.

Speaking in an interview with The Japan Times along with Abe and Ichiyanagi at Tokyo’s National Training Center last month, Sato said that his medical staff “places weight” on their players to be proactive in taking care of their bodies and understand the necessities of their training programs and medical care.

So, for example, when players have pain or their performance is poor, the staff seeks to find the causes. Abe said that he observes their movements to see what affects their bodies and performances.

“It’s our main concept to correct the places that have problems,” said Abe, a University of Alabama alum who later worked for the Athletes’ Performance training facilities (now called EXOS) in Phoenix and Los Angeles before the JBA.

“By correcting the moves, we can ease the pain of the players or improve their performances on the court. And if the players understand our intentions, then it makes us feel we have done the right things,” Abe stated.

Sato, a former NBA performance coach who took the JBA position in September 2016 to oversee the entire medical team for the national squads, and Abe and Ichiyanagi came on board a half a year later. The medical staff for the national teams has three more members, including 3×3 squads and youth teams.

Teaching proper training

Sato and Abe are strength and conditioning coaches. But their job is not simply taking the athletes to the weight room and helping them build muscle. That is only a part of their work. They are often referred to as performance coaches because they are hired to improve players’ overall performance skills on the court.

Abe noted that it is significant for athletes to learn how to use full functions of their bodies. The 39-year-old added that he has tried to educate the players to understand why whatever they do in training is necessary.

“So when I come up with training programs, I certainly let them do weight training. But you have to let them understand the intentions — if you do this, how your body could change and how it’ll lead to influence your movements,” Abe said. “It’s all about movements.”

It is no different in Ichiyanagi’s realm as an athletic trainer, whose job is getting the players ready to compete, to have proper diets and provide medical treatment. The 35-year-old said that he has worked with the players to help them become aware more of their bodies, and that effort has steadily paid off with fewer injuries since he came to the squad.

Injuries are often thought to be healed after they happen. But Ichiyanagi has tried to instruct players on preventive ways to avoid getting hurt. For example, by carefully stretching, especially when he sees problems and awkwardness in their bodies during warmups before practices.

Sato, Abe and Ichiyanagi echoed the point of view that there has been a gradual decline in injuries as they have spent more time with the players. They have especially been able to reduce ones that stem from fatigue and chronic pain in the knees and lower back.

“I think the players have understood our messages (to take care of their own bodies on their own),” said Ichiyanagi, who studied to be a physical therapist at the University of South Carolina.

He added that positive results have been achieved for players with their efforts in diet and recovery.

“We’ve seen differences in terms of their body fat and sharpness in some of our players,” he said.

While Abe said the medical staff has not recorded numbers like how much weight their players lift in the bench press, Sato referred to the names of Naoto Tsuji, Tenketsu Harimoto, Takatoshi Furukawa and Joji Takeuchi as players that made notable physical improvement. Sato, however, added that “all the players” have had a positive outlook.

But the three feel like that they have only established the foundation for the national team and that it would always have to be on top of Asia in order to compete on par at the global stage going forward.

World Cup challenge

Abe said that he is uncertain how much Japan, which will face Turkey, the Czech Republic and United States in the first round of the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup in China, will be able to equally battle with non-Asian nations there.

“But as a staff member, I am looking forward to it (the challenge),” Abe commented.

Japan’s performance coaches actually were not really able to upgrade the players’ physicality when the Asian qualifiers were held during the season, but think they would have more time to do so in training camps after the season ends. They hope to be able to bring the athletes to the next level before the World Cup.

“We have been able to establish the foundation (for our players) in these two years,” Abe said. “Now I think we are ready to have them go through training at even higher intensity in order for them to get even better.”

Sato, 48, said his medical staff appreciates that Lamas is open to listening to their opinions, too. According to Sato, Lamas changed training schedules after hearing the medical staff’s perspectives.

Sato, who previously served as the sports performance director and athletic trainer for the Minnesota Timberwolves, hopes to introduce the importance of the medical staff and sports medicine to teams throughout Japanese basketball and even other sports in the country.

So his medical staff keeps the door open for outsiders, including strength coaches and athletic trainers for B. League clubs, to visit the NTC and ultimately be on the same page.

Sato keeps press clippings that have quotes of players from the national team for the final Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. At the event in Belgrade, Japan was crushed by Latvia and the Czech Republic and quickly eliminated.

Some of Japan’s players said they would have to work harder, capitalizing on the global experience after the tournament, Sato recounted. He was looking for an occasion to one day show the articles to the players, asking them if they are serious about developing themselves and the national team.

“But,” Sato said, “I don’t have to do that any more because I know their motivations are high now.”