Ayumi Nakamura is a professional volleyball player from Japan currently playing in Israel for the local "KK" Tel Aviv club in the Israeli premier league. We sat down with her to talk about her path to becoming a top notch international player and what we in Israel can learn from her experience.
Ayumi, thank you very much for this interview. How are you?
You're welcome - it's my pleasure to contribute if I can. I'm good, thank you. Although we lost the last game against Haifa, the league leader. Now we need to prepare to the cup game and a more tough league games schedule, with sometimes two games a week.
Please tell us how did you start playing volleyball, and how did your career unfold?
My parents always wanted me to be involved in sports. At kindergarten age I started swimming until we moved to a new house in my home town of Fukuoka, Japan. My father was practicing judo as part of his Police officer job. One time me and my brother went to see a judo practice, but then went upstairs to the second floor where there was a volleyball practice of the local school. We liked the game of volleyball and asked our parents to attend the volleyball practices. So at age 7 years old I started my volleyball practice, which has been my the major part of life ever since. Although, today kids in Japan don't start this early because parents prefer to give more focus to studies and also other interests.
How intense was the training at that age?
It was a practice every day. Sometimes coach would decide if there is a day off, but the default was that the practice is on. But it was amazing, we were not tired and wanted more to learn. On weekends we had long practice days, two practices a day with lunch in between.
This is very intense, how did you manage? Did you walk by yourself to the training for example?
It was not very far, but still a driving distance. Parents drove us, and sometimes other parents would do turns to drive kids. Also parents had many different chores to support the team that they would share between themselves, like preparing water bottles before the practice for example. The coach also was doing it as a volunteer, after his work. Although I loved it, it was hard, and the coach was very tough. My mom and dad always helped me overcome the difficulties but never pressured me to stay.
At age 12, I wanted to finish. But then one day my brother had a game quite far away at the best high school team in the area. All my family were going so I had to come too. There, the girl team's coaches saw that I was tall and offered me to come learn play volleyball, and they didn't even know I was already playing for 6 years. I joined for couple of practices and they offered me to come and live there with another family and play with the high school team (although I would study in a junior high-school because was I was too young). It was a hard decision to go away from home, but the opportunity was very promising to get the best volleyball school I could have. A top star of the team was Megumi Kurihara, which is a very famous player in Japan and now plays for the club that I played for- she talked to me and advised to join. So my mom gave me a smart phone and I went for it (laughing).
How popular is high school volleyball in Japan?
Oh, it is very popular. Maybe even more popular than professional. I spent my best time there. I had a chance to play and practice with girls older than me and learn a lot from them. We worked very hard, but also spent a lot of time together. It is the time of my career I enjoyed the most. We won top places in the national league.
And then you went to a professional team?
I had an offer to join a pro team right after high school, but my parents advised me to go study for a degree first. So I turned down the pro team offer and went to study and play for the sports college. I got my sports teacher degree there and participated in the college league. Then I got an offer from the JT Marvelous club, which is one of the best clubs in Japan, and spent 4 seasons there before coming to Israel.
And you also played in the Japan national team, right?
Right. In Japan the national team has a pool of about 43 players, and each year they take the best 14 to the final squad. I had an amazing year with Japan national team and traveled the world for tournaments. I also participated in two Universiads.
How did you decide to come play in Israel?
I wanted to play in a foreign country, and my agent was looking for an opportunity. I new some people in Israel, like Kfar Saba coach Chen and my current teammates Becky and Ron. We met in Japan when the Israel national team came to play my club JT. JT's coach was a player for then Israel national team coach Arie Selinger when he coached in Japan. So I joined Kfar Saba for one season, and now it's my second season in Israel with KK. I love the people and the atmosphere here.
What is your impression about volleyball in Israel? How is it different from Japan and other countries you played in?
It is very different. It's the same thinking, like wanting to win, wanting to enjoy, to get better. But it's more relaxed than in Japan. It is not really professional, because the local players have to go to work before the practice. Also the professional attitude is not there. The gym is not available for self practice, and the coaches don't dedicate time besides the team practice for individual players. In Japan this is also the coaches' job. In Japan I would wake up at 5 am to do 200 serves reception self practice to improve my reception. I'd ask the coach and he would come and train me.
What in your opinion made your success? What advice can you give to young girls and boys wanting to become pro volleyball players?
I'd say it's the dedication and thoroughness. The focus. And of course, you have to love the game. In my mind parents also play an important part - they need to lay the lane, show the way. Then it's the kid choice whether to follow it or go left or right sometimes.
Ayumi, thank you very much for the interview and good luck with your team!