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Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012

Team mentality helps Japan

Staff writer

"Playing as a team" or "uniting as one" are cliches in sports.

But is there anything wrong with them?


Phrases inspiring great feats can have a positive effect. Many Japanese athletes have achieved victories with their teamwork in the ongoing London Olympics, making up for their disadvantages in size, power and speed.

While both the men's and women's soccer teams and women's volleyball team have showcased their unity, in other events such as women's badminton doubles, women's team table tennis and men's team fencing, the athletes have worked together tightly and earned podium finishes.

Japanese participants didn't win a medal in the individual competitions of those latter three events. But when they formed a group, they managed better results.

"It's a feature for the Japanese," said Mitsuo Kodama, a clinical sports psychology professor at Kagoshima Prefecture's National Institute of Fitness and Sports, in a telephone interview on Thursday. "They've historically emphasized team play and teamwork."

Though swimming is perhaps considered an individual sport, Kodama believes the record-setting feats of the Japan swim team are a perfect example of why it is mentally important to compete as a group.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist and breaststroke swimmer Kosuke Kitajima ended up with no medals in his individual races in London. But in support of Kitajima, team captain and butterfly swimmer Takeshi Matsuda inspired his teammates to win a medal in the men's 400-meter medley relay so they could give the ex-champ a prize around his neck.

And they did win a silver medal, a better color than the one they claimed at the 2008 Beijing Games.

"That's really an important thing," said Kodama, who earned a master's degree in engineering at UCLA and worked as a visiting researcher for the headquarters of the sports science of the United States Olympic Committee in the early 1980s.

"The swimmers kept saying they needed to back each other up and unite with all 27 members. It really gives you extra energy. From the sports psychology point of view, too, having strong bonds with your teammates makes your team stronger."

Meanwhile, although Japan has won 33 medals through Thursday, which is the second-most medals the country has ever claimed in a Summer Olympics (behind the 2004 Athens Games), there have been fewer gold medals than expected (due to the judo team earning just one).

Kodama, who's also known as an author and has written numerous sports psychology-related books, said that athletes need to have a better balance of teamwork and individual skills in order to be the best in the world to win a gold at the Olympics.

"I believe that the federations and their executives and coaches of each sports have realized that they need to develop individual skill-sets," he said. "Otherwise, you may win a silver or bronze, but you'll have a hard time to win a gold. It's a whole different thing."

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