Planning or lack of it is at the base of school sport in Japan
Steve Johnson explains the school rugby system in Japan and how he plans the training for his team.
The education system in Japan is known as 6-3-3, which means compulsory schooling for six years at elementary school (6 to 12 years of age) and three years (13 to 15) in a junior/middle school. The overwhelming majority (around 98% is the number I have heard) of youngsters continue to high school for their final three years (16 to 18 years of age) of schooling. Children may represent their elementary school in a range of sports, and then those students who are interested will specialise in one or two sports in middle school. However, when they reach high school at the age of 16, students who wish to continue with after-school sporting activities have to select just one, which they do to the exclusion of all other sports for all three years at school. These activities are pursued exclusively, and it is not unusual for students to pursue their sports activity for 350-360 days a year. I coach our school rugby and the Prefecture teams, but most of the following comments apply to all other after-school sports activities.
School rugby tournaments
Although new students begin their high school lives in April, the team's first tournament (shinjinsen which means "new person tournament") of the year starts in January. We have seven games (5 league games, a semi-final and final) on consecutive Sundays until the end of February. Then we have four weeks to prepare for a regional tournament (Shizuoka and the top teams from the surrounding prefectures play two games (semi-final and final) over the weekend), and the top two teams advance on to a 16 team "minor" national tournament in April. My Hamamatsu Technical High School team would hope to get to the regional stage, but we do not have the players to qualify for the nationals.
The second tournament of the year begins three weeks later and follows the same pattern - another seven local games, followed by a two-game regional weekend towards the end of June. Then, mercifully, we have an off-season break, the students take their end of term tests, and we rest a bit.
The Japanese summer is very hot, temperatures in my part of the country usually climb to the mid-30's every day, and over the summer holiday, we practice from 7:30 a.m. to about 9:30 or 10 at the latest, working on skills and avoiding any potential heatstroke inducing activities. This is a real problem in Japan, and the scale of heat-related illnesses is escalating every year. Most school teams go to the mountain areas for a 4 to 5-day summer training camp, and in the cooler climate, we can at least sleep at night. Most teams take the opportunity to play some practice games against teams of about the same level as themselves. Athletes, particularly distance runners can be seen on the roads and hills at all hours of the morning and evening. The danger we have to guard against is that after the heat of the lower-lying areas, players and coaches feel so invigorated by the fresh air that they want to play morning and afternoon, and it is hard not to overdo things - especially as rugby is a contact sport, and we must take special care to prevent contact injuries which can occur through fatigue.
During the summer, the better players from the teams in the prefecture are invited to play for the prefecture team in an event called the "kokutai". The four representative teams of our region gather for the first knockout stage at the end of August, and the winning team then goes on to a national prefecture tournament, which is held over about a week in mid-October.
Our "major" tournament schools' tournament starts at the end of October. This is a knockout tournament held initially throughout all of the 47 prefectures in Japan, and the champion teams from all the prefectures are then invited to participate in the All-Japan High School Rugby Championships, which are held in Osaka from December 27th to January 7th every year. The games are played every other day (1st round on Dec. 27th/28th, 2nd round on Dec.30th, 3rd round on January 1st, and so on). The new-year holidays usually extend from December 30th to January 3rd or 4th, so the number of supporters for the 2nd round, 3rd round and quarterfinal games go into the thousands. All the games are televised live on Sky, with the semi-finals and finals being broadcast on terrestrial television, and attendance can reach 15,000 to 20,000 for big games.
Planning the training
Then once again, regardless of how far a team went in the nationals, we are back into the shinjinsen in a couple of weeks. So, I think the question that any sane person (from overseas at least) would be asking at this stage is "Given this kind of non-stop intensity, how on earth can a coach do any planning"? And I have to confess that although it is very difficult (because in addition to the rugby programme, I have to also consider school activities such as mid-term and end of term examinations, visits by students to potentially hiring companies), planning each stage of the year is very important to:
The greatest difficulty is that throughout most of Japan, students do not start playing rugby until they get to high school. Most of my players have had enough of the former sports, especially individual sports, and want a change. They want to be involved in a team and want to enjoy the comradeship that contact sports offer. Most (of mine at least) are not built for rugby, and most have not seen a rugby ball, except on television. "Why is it out of shape"? is a question you can see in their eyes when they first come face to face with the ball.
The top teams in Japan (more often than not private schools) recruit players from junior schools, and some have a combined middle school and senior high school club. We at Hamako neither recruit players (to my great regret), nor are we able to find the time to leave our players to work with middle school potential players. So, we are starting to climb the mountain of success from a deep valley. However, after a 2-year team development period, since 1999, we have managed to win the prefecture title twice and go on to the national stage, and the other four times we have been runners-up.
Like coaches in all sports throughout the world, my time is constantly spent worrying about how I can maintain and improve upon the health and fitness level of all my players (usually about 75 of them). Because they have not been specially selected for the sport, they are often playing above their level. They have to be at their peak for long periods of the year to avoid injury through muscle strain, and since it is rugby through contact injuries.
I spend a considerable amount of time scouring the various coaching websites to find articles and advice that will give my little hobbits a chance or an advantage. Successful Coaching, Peak Performance and How to Win articles frequently provide timely advice, and even though their focus is on individual sports, the advice is relevant to all.
For me, the vital factor in planning is to ensure that the players get sufficient rest time. Japanese students who involve themselves in their schools' sports teams are the most committed in the world. Last year, (this was unusual but necessary) we ran an all-day camp; we wanted to cover weight training, do some aerobic work, and a skills session, and we were busy for about 6 hours (including meal breaks). Two Australian guest coaches who joined us for the day could not believe the intensity shown by our players, right up until the end of the last activity - and then the players had to put the equipment away. One commented, "Where I come from, after about an hour or so, there would be one loud mouth disrupting every activity, and the others would follow, and the worst of it is that these disrupters would be your best players".
Japanese youngsters (like others in other countries) have too many "toys" to keep them awake at night; mobile phones to send text messages, CD players, DVD and TV sets in their bedrooms, etc. etc. Trying to get them to understand the need for adequate sleep and rest and getting them to follow the instructions is the steepest hill I have to climb. Following some recent tragic heat stroke-related accidents in Japan, we have no problem getting our players to drink. Still, most Japanese players do not eat enough to maintain their energy output levels. We have implemented a six-meal/snack-day regimen and must adhere to it. Still, I can tell when some players have got out of bed too late to eat breakfast before weight training, and after I tear them off a strip, I have to give them a banana and protein milkshake out of my private supply!
We try to run a 4-week cycle, with three hard weeks, and one more relaxed fun-type week. (I say "try", because the best-laid plans can go completely awry if we have a couple of days of rain, and the (grassless) rugby pitch becomes waterlogged.) Each player weight trains for 90 minutes twice a week starting at 7 a.m. and "club" is from Tuesday to Friday after school. We try to keep the aerobically based skills workouts to between 90 and 120 minutes, and after giving the players some free time for individual skills. We then try to send them home, which often proves to be very difficult, because the players enjoy being on the pitch with their friends, and they are very reluctant to go home! So, in a usual week, all the players are involved for about 15 to 18 hours. The A-team (selected from 25 players) usually have a game on Sundays and have a light "Captain's Run" for about 60 minutes on Saturday morning.
If we do not qualify for the nationals (we did not last year) then we have one off-season time from mid-November to the beginning of January, and after a one-week rest, we start on developing the new team. We work on weights (2 or 3 times a week), stamina work (the weather is usually gorgeous - sunny yet fresh - in early December) and the team plays. Once the shinjinsen comes, we are back on maintenance. The other off-season is from the 3rd week of June for one month. This is a total rest period -although the players still have a full-time school commitment and all that is entailed therein. From the end of this time, we re-start much as in December, but without the stamina work (because of the heat) which we begin in September.
Summary of the year
So, there it is, a year of activity that is as structured as I can make it. It is far from the seasonal approach found in England and other countries, but we do what we can with what we have.
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About the Author
Steve Johnson is a Rugby Football Union Level 3 coach who has been coaching for over 20 years. In 1997 he went to Japan where he currently coaches a high school team and regional teams.