By Alison Thompson | For IBSA
The Japanese men’s goalball team continues to focus on improving their technique and strength, hoping to bring home their first Paralympic medal in 2021.
Ryoga Yamaguchi, a key player in the team’s bronze medal win from the IBSA (International Blind Sports Federation) Goalball Asia Pacific Championships last year, has a clear programme to reach their goal:
“Although we haven’t been able to train much as a team, we are all highly driven and are training individually. And to keep ourselves motivated, we visualise each strong team or player.”
The team is growing in confidence after securing the medal with an impressive win against South Korea.
With the competition held in Japan, it made the medal win just a little more special for Yamaguchi and his team.
“I was relieved and delighted to receive a medal and thanks to the warm support from the locals, I didn’t feel any added pressure to win at home,” he said. “The team and I were deeply appreciative of the affection of the home crowd and we are lucky that we are blessed to have a lot of support from sponsors, our employers and families that enables us to play our sport in the best environment, without any worries.”
Yamaguchi's personal performance was also key. He scored 21 goals overall, finding the back of the net in each game to end the Championships amongst the top five scorers.
Although proud of his achievements, he wants to do more: “I strongly believe each point was for the team and I just wanted us to win as many points as possible. I do think though, I need to become an even better scorer.”
Yamaguchi is one of his team's key players in the build-up to Tokyo 2020
Having found goalball after transferring from a mainstream high school to a school for blind people, Yamaguchi was introduced to the sport as an extracurricular activity and was quickly hooked.
“I hadn’t heard of goalball but my new school had a team with a coach who was the Japanese representative’s captain and ace player, Mr Ito and other players, who I really looked up to,” he remembered. “I grew to love the sport and wanted to follow in their footsteps. Goalball has become such a big part of my life and has a massive positive effect on me.”
After 18 months, Yamaguchi competed at the 2013 IBSA Goalball Youth World Championships, and although winning the competition, he recalls that with success came some new pressures:
“I struggled for a while after winning the international youth championships and lost myself a bit. But, trial and error made me the person I am today and competing against the strongest teams has shown me the sheer difference in strength and the need to adapt.”
Going on to compete in the 2017 Asia Pacific Games and the World Championships the following year, Yamaguchi knows the team is strong and can improve on their recent success.
“There has always been a gap of experience between our team and the stronger countries, so we need to work on creating our own style so we can compete with them.”
And despite not being able to train together right now, Yamaguchi is certain that they are on the right path. “In order to step up as a team we remain positive and will continue to strengthen. Teamwork is our greatest strength and we bring out the best in each other. Personally, I want to continue to be at the heart of the team in five years, competing as a key player internationally”.
Yamaguchi and his teammates are dreaming of the podium in Tokyo next Summer and as well training, they also have one eye on their rivals, having faced strong competition in Chiba to secure the bronze medal.
“China remains our biggest rivals, but the game against Iran in the semi-finals was the toughest for sure. Even though I scored at the end of the first half with a leading point, during the second half of the match I lost the team a point and this put me off. This meant that for me, the game was a disappointment but the match did allow us to make some advancements of our own, as well as becoming aware of new challenges.”
Taking that mix of success and learning, Yamaguchi and his team are hoping to successfully overcome their rivals at Tokyo 2020: “Our focus now is on the Paralympic Games and we have been working on our explosive (aggressive) offence and sturdy defence in order to win the gold medal. In order to step up as a team we remain positive and will continue to strengthen our team and reinforce or motto - One for all and all for one.”
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will open on 24 August 2021. Goalball gets underway the following day at Makuhari Messe Hall C and runs until 3 September when the medal matches take place.
Twenty men’s and women’s teams will go for gold. Lithuania are the defending champions in the men’s whilst Turkey hold the women’s title.