Taking a team to the highest level of fencing is a task that’s filled with tough decisions, long hours, and much sacrifice on the part of everyone involved. Getting there takes a team effort, and it takes a fencing coach with vision like Alexander Gorbachuk.
Originally from Ukraine, Gorbachuk has been the leader of the Japanese men’s epee fencing team for a dozen years now, but he’s always looking forward. Even after his team’s win on the world’s biggest sports stage, he’s got an eye for what comes next for Japan and for fencing.
His rigorous work ethic and layered understanding of the intertwining cultures of fencing across the world have helped him to lead the Japanese epee team all the way to the Gold in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Bridging the cultural barriers has not been a walk in the park, but after investing more than a decade into the Japanese epee team, Gorbachuk has found a way to bring out the best in his fencers. In this piece, he gives us a remarkable insight into how fencing in Japan works, from the way that various weapons interact to how athletes are supported during their fencing career, to what happens after.
Clearly, Alexander Gorbachuk is a deep mine of knowledge within fencing, but he’s also a coach who meets his staff and his athletes where they are. Once he meets them, that’s when he’s able to take them to the next level.
The transformational methods of his coaching are showcased in this series of interviews. In Part 1, he shared his experience shaping the team in the lead up to the Olympics. Then in Part 2, he showed us what it means to do the challenging work of crossing cultures in sport. Finally here in Part 3, Gorbachuk gives us insight into training through COVID and the path forward.
COVID to Careers – Part 3 of AFM’s interview with Alexander Gorbachuk
IG– How did Covid affect the preparation for the Olympics? What did you have to overcome?
AG – I have to tell you a very important thing here – the preparation process for the Olympics was incredibly difficult through the pandemic. In Japan, draconian laws on sports and training were passed in connection with Covid. We were simply not allowed to train for almost one year. Then eventually we were allowed to train for one hour a day. Just one hour! Then they expanded that to two hours. Then they came to us and said, “Guys, you haven’t made any progress for a month. You have not been training.” I was indignant. I told them, “How can we do anything with these conditions?! How do we prepare for the Olympics?! I know that Ukraine is training. Russia is training. Somewhere there are people who are training, but you don’t allow us to train at all! We will have the Olympics at home soon, in Japan! We must prepare. We must train!”
I talked to my coaching partner and told them, “Come on! Find some place in some university, in some high-school somewhere here and let’s lay a path. We must do something.”
And frankly, we trained in secret from the federation at our own peril and risk from many different angles. The federation decreed that those who served in the army were to train in the army. They decreed that those who studied at university were to train at the university. What about team training? I asked: “Where will Kano train, who is alone, on his own? Where will Uyama train, who is alone and sponsored by Mitsubishi? ” They told me, “Well, where? They have nowhere! They have nowhere to train at a time. “
I told them that I understood everything they said. Then I gave the task to my assistants to find a place, which they did. We found a place and then we trained in a stealth mode for about a month. What other way did we have to prepare for this most important and once-in-a-lifetime event?
Gold in Paris?
IG – What’s next? The Olympics in Tokyo ended with triumph. You have been living and working in Japan for 12 years, which is a very long time. What’s the next step? Paris 2024?
AG – The federation wants me to stay for another Olympics. I myself also think that it would be logical to finish with the Paris Olympics in 2024. Besides, there is very little time left – less than three years. In less than 2 years, the qualification will start. I have to meet with them and we have to negotiate a new contract.
IG – With this last victory you are already a different coach. Now you are the coach of the Olympic champions, and the rest of the results are amazing!
AG – Well, yes that’s true. This is the first, but over the past five years I have had some of the highest results with my epee fencers on every stage around the world. We only lack one victory, that being at the World Championships. We lost twice with a one touch to the Hungarians, the French, and then to everyone else. We missed the top eight, and the black card is the last one that we had the real opportunity to win. I want to work with the team, of course, because there really are just two years left and it will be necessary to start qualifying soon.
I understand that we are sitting right now at the peak, the top number in the ranking. We are Olympic champions. At this height, the main task is not to fall. This is a big sport. We are epee fencers, where there is a huge amount of competition. All countries face this. It is the same with Switzerland, the same with France, and the same with Italy or Russia. This is a normal process. Therefore, you need to normally relate to the tough competition in the world. Today it is one way, but tomorrow it may be different. The first important thing is to preserve everything as it is. The second, which is my new task, is to prepare three or four new team members as soon as possible. Here, I have two good Juniors in Kumato and another fencer. They need to be brought up to the highest level in the world and very quickly.
Kumato, I’d say he’s already ready. He was in the top eight in Kazan. He did not lose a single match to the French – he won all of them. He showed himself as a leader. He also showed himself well in Switzerland. That means I need at least two more fencers to come up for Paris 2024. Most likely, Minobe will step away. He tells me “I still can,” but I understand how difficult it is for him. It will be necessary to look for a replacement. Uyama, most likely will not stay but I will talk to him about where he is and how he’s doing. That’s an unknown. I expect that Kano and Yamada will stay on the team, but as I say I need to raise the next echelon of the fencers up now in a very quick way to get them to this level of competition. That’s both within the team and in the context of the international level.
IG – Let’s talk about the next big goal then. Now that you are a coach with this high of a title, having Olympic gold in your bank of accomplishments, do you think that it will be easier for you to work with athletes and with the Federation? Or do you expect that you will still have that undercurrent of misunderstanding and caution because you are a foreigner and not Japanese?
AG – It’s easier of course. Throughout this time, no one in the federation really believed in epee. I took it seriously and swore that I would defend epee because foil and saber were allocated money. Clearly the federation believed in them. The leadership of the federation and the president were once engaged in working with sabre, so that weapon got much of their attention. Epee didn’t start showing results right away. In most of the competitions, the epee team could finish the best at the round of sixteen and could not make it out. Therefore, the Federation were reluctant to give us funds at first. I tried to explain that there is potential, but that there is also a need to work. I told them that you have to give a chance to everyone.
Sometimes I would hear arguments come back from them like: “It’s difficult, because there are only 150 people in the sabre tournament, and you have 300 people in the epee tournament. You understand that it is hard for you to win these medals. ” I told them that I understand everything, but that if you do not give us a chance, if we do not work at it, then nothing will ever happen.
We worked and worked, and I always believed that we could win! Only when our fencers began to win medals at the World Cup, not only Minobe but Uyama as well, they in the Federation finally had started to believe too. Japanese epee fencers won gold and silver in Tallinn, and many were surprised. They said, “How?! Japan in first or second place?! Wow!” Then Kano started showing results, was third twice, then he won in Canada. We won the Asian games for the first time. Yet the Federation was still skeptical about it. Nobody said anything in the Federation when we made those wins. No one even sent a text message of congratulations. This is how they treated epee. They still did not believe in us.
IG – Now, finally, everything will change. Now you are fencing heroes in Japan.
AG – Definitely. I received many congratulations from the Olympic Committee and the Federation. They look at me now with a lot of respect, although the Japanese have an interesting approach. Even successful leaders are often replaced. Even after successfully working, they can start a new cycle where they replace the leaders in the committee and the team. Then new people will come in.
Initially, I asked the question of why they do this? When you have this level of success you understand and know your people. You know everything about everyone you work with. The reason for that is that the system in Japan is set up to give the young a chance. The idea is to avoid the old cadre to sit and relax because they have already achieved something. The experienced people have already accomplished something so that they no longer give it their best. Any young person is going to come in with a vengeance. This is how it is in everything, not only in sports. They don’t want anyone to relax, always to go harder. It is interesting. Old people find work, they don’t sit back. They simply transfer them to other places, say, with another team to work. It might also be Olympic level, but another place. Then the others are pulled up by the young and there is this alternating that goes on.
IG- This is a very interesting approach. When you don’t know anything about the inside and how it works because you only see the headlines in the news and you watch the matches. The results are right there, but the decisions about why they happen are difficult to comprehend. Everything is impersonal. When you just spoke in more detail about how relationships work with real people, their thoughts and the reasoning in coaching, it makes it possible for those of us on the outside to see things differently.
The training process in Japan
IG – What are the details surrounding the assistant coaches in Japan? What do they do – lessons? Cross-training?
AG – For the first two months after an assistant arrives, I try to teach him how I think we should go, in this direction or that direction. There are certain techniques, movements, attacks, and preparations that I want to see them master. I want them to work with the epee in the way that I need it to happen. These are based on the actions that I need because it should be “my school”, my system of training methods and fencing philosophy that I built over the course of my career. Then I tell them, “20% should be your ideas. You don’t have to be a robot.”
In my opinion, the Japanese suffer from this mindset. They are geared to follow a set pattern totally and without wavering. I believe that what you have learned from someone is only the base. Without your own unique vision and understanding, you cannot become a great coach.
Once one of my assistant coaches, I will not name names, went to China for 3 months for a refresher course. They were led by the great French coach, Daniel Levavasseur. It seemed that all of the secrets of the greats would be revealed in this course. I understood that in these two or three months, no one revealed all their cards to you. At most, you came back with some of the basics of training and that was it. There is so much in this big, big life. Thoughts about high level fencing are accumulated all through life, and no one can just teach it to you like that in just couple of months.
When my assistant coach came back with what he was shown in two months, he did the same for the next five years. He then did the same thing with everyone. H didn’t develop his ability to give new things, he just gave everyone the same thing. Though these techniques suited one, they didn’t work for everyone. I never got along with that assistant because of that mindset.
I always say to new assistants, “You should have your own ideas. You gave part of the lesson as I needed it to be, and now you can add your ideas. Whatever you think is necessary in the additional ten minutes. Translate your ideas to the fencers so that they can see it. I also see that you are developing, that you are showing growth. Besides, I am not a perfect coach. I can be wrong sometimes and in some moments. I would be thankful if you help me grow, even when you are seeing my mistakes from the outside. Really, this is fine with me.”
For the Japanese, this is very unusual. When I told them that they should bring their own thoughts, they were so surprised! They were so happy! They see it as progressive and joyful. They feel valued. I tell them, “Yes! You can add ideas too. You are people too. I can be wrong too.” My assistants and partner coaches feel trust and equality, and that’s where we begin our work.
IG – How much does a professional athlete train in Japan?
AG – Well, it depends on what kind of professional athlete you are talking about. When they are students, they come to train once a day, but it’s not every day. If the fencers have already graduated from university or they are just graduating, they can move back to their regions and they no longer train with the national team. The post-university job system in Japan works like this: you graduate from university and you have to get a job right away. The state arranges jobs primarily at the place of residence. If you leave your region and try to go to some other area, they will find you a job in the area where you originally lived. If you want to stay somewhere in another city, then you yourself decide how you will find employment.
The federation and the Olympic Committee are working very well. They have excellent programs that have been launched before the Olympics. I have all the epee fencers who have already had some results. For instance, someone who won the Japanese Championship or the Japanese Student Games or someone who succeeded more in the international arena. The Olympic Committee helps to connect us with sponsors. The federation submits applications to the Olympic Committee with specific names of athletes. They send who graduates from university in what year, who wants and can potentially get into the national team and participate in the Olympic Games.
The Olympic Committee sets up serious meetings and screening of the candidates. These meetings gather about 200 managers and directors of various Japanese companies, banks and corporations. Every athlete from different sports walks onto the stage and tells something about himself: “Ah, such and such a fencer, tennis player or biathlete. I want to go to the Olympics, I have such and such results. ” They all listen, analyze and write something down, and then invitations for sponsorship come.
It’s here that Uyama impressed Mitsubishi, and he was offered sponsorship. Sometimes several sponsors are interested at once, and that’s great. Some athletes might have three letters from different companies and so they are choosing offers, considering conditions. Uyama works for Mitsubishi, Kano for the Japanese company Japan Airlines. Minobe gets sponsorship and works for the huge corporation Nexus who, with all slot machines throughout Japan, is a very lucrative business. The Japanese all love to play, and this industry makes a lot of money there. Minobe, it turns out, works for this company. The company pays his salary. Someone works in a bank, someone in other companies.
IG – Are these athletes nominally working or are they really working?
AG – This is an interesting question. In such sponsoring companies, everyone understands what preparation for the Olympics is and what professional athletes are. Most definitely, these such athletes are supported and helped. They go to work once a week, and I don’t know the precise nature beyond that. Maybe they are sitting in the office somewhere or doing something. The rest of the time is training, training camps, competitions.
IG – This is what it is to be a professional athlete in Japan. Unlike in Russia, Ukraine, France, Italy – are they not members of the police or the army then. They are employed in private companies that sponsor them?
AG – Mostly yes, but we have the army and the police too. I have athletes who serve in the army. Yamada, he’s in the army. Although in Japan, unfortunately, there is no fencing department in the army, but the army has a pentathlon department. They were offered to go to the pentathlon department, and now they are paid their salaries. The army helps with cheap housing, they pay wages. Ito, a young fencer I worked with, was also in the army, along with several other of my athletes. There are also young athletes in the police. The terms of the contracts are individual, especially if the federation asks for the athletes. There are more loyal bosses who provide excellent conditions, pay bonuses, or pay for equipment in full or in part. All companies have different conditions, but it is a very good way of promoting and helping athletes. It’s also prestigious for companies.
IG – What happens to athletes after they have finished their sports career? How do sponsoring companies react to this?
AG – The huge Japanese conglomerates Mitsubishi, Nexus, Jаl, etc. can afford to take such sponsorship in order to promote the sport. They can then enable the athletes who are leaving the sport to continue their careers. This is a big problem in sports all over the world. What do we do after all the Olympics are done and the athletes leave the big sport? For example, a fencer is done with their career at 30 years old, or longer in the epee at 35-40 years. Life in sports is over, but then real life is just beginning.
At this moment, the largest sponsoring companies do not abandon their athletes, but guarantee them a job in their company. You can work in this company until the end of your days. Who wouldn’t be proud of Olympic champions? This title is for life!
IG – It is very good when such private companies support athletes and sports in the country! It is a great honor for the country and a point of pride to have that kind of huge success. If successful, as with your national team, names such as Mitsubishi will only raise respect for such athletes.
AG – Yes, sponsoring companies are spread out all over Japan – their logo patches at competitions are very prestigious.
IG – Thank you so much for a very interesting conversation! I am sure many readers and your fans, as well as and fans of the Japanese epee team will find this interview to be inspiring and insightful.
Alexander, we wish you and your stellar team great success and conquest of the next mountains to climb!
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length and split into three parts. Read about the road to the medal and the challenges of pushing through difficult training in Part 1 and Part 2 of our interview. It is published with Coach Gorbachuk’s approval on this blog.
AFM is so grateful to Japanese Olympic Team Coach Alexander Gorbachuk for his time and openness. His candid answers and remarkable discipline are both exciting and inspiring. Thank you Coach Gorbachuk!