By Julie Dailey, Club Director, Team Sting Volleyball Club (Birmingham, Alabama)
As a partner club of Sports Performance Volleyball Club, I was given the unbelievable opportunity of traveling to Nagano and Tokyo, Japan with Rick Butler and the staff of the Great Lakes Center, as well as the National Champion Sports Performance 18 Elite team for 11 days of training. Spring in Japan is full of cherry blossoms and volleyball and I was fortunate to get to experience both at their fullest capacity.
After a 12 hour non-stop flight from Chicago to Tokyo, we embarked on a bus trip to the former Winter Olympic city of Nagano. We settled into the Lodge at the Sports Training Center in Nagano. The girls had time for a quick lunch of traditional clear soup, ginger salad and protein, and then went across the street for their first practice. We were the first team to arrive and walked into the gym with a welcoming banner, which made the girls feel right at home. Sports Performance foundation is based on the training systems of Japanese volleyball and SPVB 18 Elite immediately went into warm up and practice mode.
The girls ranged in age from 14-17 and walked in the gym with a complete focus and determination that was evident from their walk, to their work ethic and communication. Although the language barrier was difficult at times, the love of the sport between these two teams tied them together immediately. Both Seitoku and Sports Performance were in Nagano for one thing….to become the best team as possible that season.
Day in and day out, Seitoku and Sports Performance battled during wash drills, fighting tooth and nail as if in a national championship. I felt at times as though I was watching Olympic athletes in competition. Although Sports Performance had a massive height advantage on Seitoku, this 9 time Japan National High School Championship team battled with precision ball control and an unwillingness to lose a point to such an extent that I must have witnessed twenty five rallies that lasted at least 45 seconds, which is a very long life span for a single volleyball point to be one. Sports Performance would offensively set the court on fire as well as put up a massive block, only to have Seitoku battle back with the most unselfish defensive point that I have ever seen.
The coach for Seitoku, Yoshiki Ogawa, is a fantastic man who has devoted his life to the sport and the development of new techniques. Rick Butler and Coach Ogawa are really the same person... a full and devoted life to bettering youth volleyball worldwide. Coach Ogawa’s philosophy is “not to stereotype a volleyball player but develop their potential to the fullest”. It seems that so many times here in the United States we look at the here and now, the size, the speed or what a player possesses now. However, in Japan, they want the players with full dedication to the sport and they will train them to be volleyball players.
Not only were these 2.5 hour training sessions massively intense, drenched with blood, sweat and tears, but after every session Seitoku and Sports Performance would condition for 30 more minutes. I am not talking about light conditioning; I am referring to a workout that would drop most grown men.
After a grueling 4 days of competition we bid farewell to Seitoku and the other 5 high school teams that were practicing at the Nagano Sports Facility and traveled by bus back to Tokyo to begin 4 more days of training with Kiatsu University. Kiatsu is one of the top female university programs in Japan. An interesting fact is the girls trained with Kiatsu twice a day and had to travel 40 minutes each way to get there. The Cherry Blossoms were in bloom in Tokyo and the anticipation of getting to train with Kiatsu made the second leg of the trip even more exciting.
Walking into Kiatsu University, the first thing I noticed was the floor of the gym. They do not varnish the wood floors. They sand them down as much as they can and that is what they play on. It allows for great traction in attacking and blocking but also the availability to play the ball on the floor. The University team was taller than the Seitoku, and had several players from Seitoku on the team. As with Seitoku, the players walk in to practice with such focus and a sense of respect for the sport that it definitely takes you aback. Watch the 45 second rally below.
It was great to see Sports Performance and Kiatsu with such a true love of competition and respect for each other. As in Nagano, the players did not have to speak the same language for the competition, drive, desire and intensity to be immediate. Day in and day out, Kiatsu gave Sports Performance all that they had. It was such an amazing time for me, because I knew that I was watching a Sports Performance team that WAS going to win AAU Nationals. The girls were led by Lauren Carlini, Gatorate HS Player of the Year and JVA All-National Team member. For 11 days I watched these girls, that could have been spent this time at the beach or in the mountains or anywhere else but training, walk on to the court every practice with a sense of “We will Win”, “We are Champions”.
After the trip was complete, I had no doubt in my mind that this Sports Performance team would come back to the United States and dare someone in their gym to not work hard or “just get by”. I knew that they would come back with so much intensity that it would be very difficult for someone to take a set off of them. It was inspiring to watch them at AAU Nationals in 2013, a team that used their spring break to train hard to become the best team in the country, players that flew 12 hours to train with the best to be the best .
Volleyball in Japan is more than a sport, it is volleyball in its truest form. Their concentration is ball control, heart, desire, dedication, team and family and those characteristics became rooted in those that spend time with them. My life is forever changed and I cannot wait to get back to Japan to continue to understand the True Love and Respect of the Game.
Team Sting Volleyball Club