He has the air of a genial grandfather, always wearing a broad smile as he talks about his favourite beef noodles and the best Japanese restaurants in Singapore.
But, on court, there is nary a smile on national volleyball coach Akihiko Narita, as the 70-year-old keeps a strict eye on Singapore's volleyball players, shouting instructions and gesticulating wildly to his charges as they train for the 28th South-east Asia (SEA) Games here from June 5 to 16.
By his own admission, Narita (right, in black) is a demanding coach as he relentlessly pushes his team to excellence, sometimes leading to the female players shedding tears of frustration.
National women's captain Quek Soo Teng, who has been under Narita's tutelage since he reprised his role as national coach in 2012, admitted that the team had been "very affected" at the beginning.
"We were scared of making mistakes and played with fear instead of enjoyment, which defeated the purpose," said Quek.
"But we soon realised that it was coach Narita's way of helping us improve our focus and mental toughness.
"If we do a simple action wrongly, he will make us do it the right way - not once, but over and over again, so that we will remember the movement."
The 28-year-old recalled an instance when Narita had told his assistant coaches: "If they cannot take me shouting, how will they handle it if people are jeering at them during a competition?"
"He pushes us very hard, but he has his reasons to be harsh during training."
Indeed, for Narita, who was also here on contract from 1982 to 1985 as national coach, his fierce style is meant to help the men's and women's teams grow in confidence and not succumb to pressure.
Said Narita: "Pressure during training is good. But pressure during competition is not good.
"Now they don't have confidence, that's why they feel stressed.
"With more training, they will be more confident and less stressed."
Apart from guiding his players to achieving a top-four target at the upcoming Games, Narita is also looking to emulate Japan by grooming a team of local junior players.
Formerly assistant coach of Japan's junior team, Narita has been attending the National Schools A and B Division volleyball matches to scout for young players to form a national youth squad.
Emphasising the importance of an efficient youth bridging programme as Singapore's ticket to reaching greater volleyball heights, he said: "In Japan, the system provides for better progression from primary to secondary school level, and from secondary school competitions to club competitions and so on.
"Here, the move for young players from primary school to secondary school level is not as smooth, and some of the basics could be missed along the way."
Narita also pointed out that Japanese players were exposed to the sport at a much younger age due to Mama-san Volleyball, or middle-aged women's volleyball.
"The women who play Mama-san volleyball often take their children along to games with them," said Narita, who had been head coach of Japan's women's silver medal-winning team at the 1995 Summer Universiade.
"So these kids get more exposure to volleyball and are very eager to join their schools' teams."
This article was first published on May 22, 2015.
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