Lega Volley Femminile A1 2023 - News.

Mayu Feature

When Yuki Ishikawa became the first Japanese to play in Italy, back in 2014, he wanted to open the doors of the top national club league in the world to his compatriots. What he couldn’t imagine at the time, though, is that almost ten years later, his younger sister Mayu would be among the ones benefiting from his decision.

After five years of success in her home country with the Toray Arrows, the 23-year-old outside hitter decided to follow in her brother’s footsteps and joined him in Italy, signing with Il Bisonte Firenze in the Lega Pallavolo Serie A1 Femminile ahead of the 2023-2024 season.

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Moving continents and adapting to a new culture are not always easy and Mayu has been feeling it in her first weeks in Italy. The Japanese national team star has been in great form on the court, ranking seventh in points scored (118) in the Italian League and helping her team continue inside the qualification zone for the playoffs – Firenze are currently in seventh place with four wins in eight matches.

The Most Valuable Player of the 2019 FIVB U20 World Championship, she felt it was time to step outside of her comfort zone and embrace the challenge of proving herself in the most competitive league on the planet as the only way to progress.

There’s been struggles, but also a lot of joy, and Volleyball World caught up with Mayu in an exclusive interview to understand how she’s doing less than two months after arriving in Italy.

Volleyball World: What made you think that this was the right moment to move out of the Japanese League and go to Italy? How was your decision process for that?

Mayu Ishikawa: After some years with the national team, I realized that the only way for me to consistently play against taller and more powerful opponents would be to move to another league. I also thought that there were many things that I could learn in Italy and, with the presence of my brother here, I decided to take on the challenge of playing in the Lega Femminile. I was a little bit concerned about taking this step the year before the Olympics because adapting to something new is not always easy, but even with that uncertainty, I still wanted to pursue my personal growth and I’ll make sure that the experience I get here helps me when I join the national team next year.

VW: Your brother, Yuki, has been playing in Italy for a few years now. What did he have to say when you told him you had an offer to play in the country? Have you been in touch frequently?

Mayu: He didn’t say anything very specific, but he advised me that learning English would be very beneficial and I fully realized the importance of it when I got here. We’re in the same time zone now but it hasn’t been very easy for me to watch his matches. I tried a few times, but they often overlap with my matches, so I haven’t been able to watch much. We haven’t talked a lot since I got here but we’re always in touch in the family group chat.

VW: What are your first impressions of the Italian League?

Mayu: It took me no time to see that there are several top-level players here. Players here are also much taller than the ones I used to play against in Japan and feel that more strongly when I’m hitting. Spikes and serves are also much faster here and while I think I’ve adjusted fairly well with my serve-receive, but I still want to do better with my defense and that’s a challenge for the future.

Mayu Feature 2

Mayu thinks that facing taller players on a frequently basis will have her more prepared for the international season (Photo: LVF)

VW: What makes matches and training different in Italy and Japan?

Mayu: In general, the atmosphere during matches in Japan is quieter, especially when we’re serving. Here in Italy, regardless of the time of the day, there’s a lot of cheering and people playing drums. I also feel that there’s more proximity between players and fans here. When it comes to training, we used to practice for longer hours in Japan, but here there’s more passion and intensity here in Italy. With my former club, we’d typically arrive well before practice to prepare for it, but here I was surprised in the first days to see that several of my teammates arrived right before the start time and went immediately to the court.

VW: What has been your main challenge in Italy so far?

Mayu: The language. I’ve been learning Italian from an interpreter, from YouTube and also in practice. I feel like I’m learning new words every day but it’s still difficult to use them in daily life. I’ve been helped by an interpreter, so I can communicate with my teammates and the coaching staff, who have expressed their desire to always hear my thoughts, which is great. But coming from overseas, I think that communication becomes even more important. I think that expressing my thoughts through words is essential and sometimes I get frustrated in matches when they don’t come out.

VW: In Firenze, the team has players from several different countries, such as Italy, Ukraine, Cuba, USA and Sweden. How has it been to live with people from so many different cultures?

Mayu: The first thing that stood out is that each person has its own approach to things. During practice, for example, I always notice that the Italian players engage with more intensity than the others. I’m looking forward to elevating my intensity and reaching the same level they do.

VW: Did you get to explore the city yet?

Mayu: When I got here, my main priority was to set up my house first, so I didn’t have much time to explore. But I got to visit the Firenze Duomo and Ponte Vecchio. The city is very beautiful and I enjoy just walking around and looking at the buildings. The environment is much different than Japan and I can really feel that I’m in Italy.

VW: What have been doing when you have time off?

Mayu: I like to buy ingredients and cook. There are many Asian supermarkets here, so I like to buy stuff and cook Japanese dishes. I’ve also been to some Japanese restaurants and everything is delicious. I’ve been out sometimes with my teammates too and really enjoyed Italian food.

VW: What are the goals you have with Firenze this season?

Mayu: I want to improve my skills individually, but also to contribute to the team’s growth. I want to become a player who can lead the team and help it be among the best in the country. Communicating better with my teammates and being more stable and making fewer mistakes are two other things I have in mind. I have been able to score, but I feel that I’ve been making too many mistakes and getting blocked frequently. These are some of the moments where I feel that having better communication with my setter would really help, so I’m working to improve it.

VW: What are your thoughts on the team’s first matches in the season and how far you believe you can get?

Mayu: I think that when things are going well, we have been able to make plays effectively. But when we have difficult moments, we still make too many mistakes. I believe we can improve our defense and our chemistry as in certain plays we’re still uncertain about who should do what. There are many good teams in the league, but I think we can compete and even get wins against the top ones. Our goal is to improve from last year’s result (tenth place).

VW: How do you expect this season in Italy to help you prepare for the 2024 international season with Team Japan, in which you’re going to try to qualify for Paris in the VNL? What aspects of your game do you expect to improve with the season in Italy?

Mayu: Playing in an unfamiliar environment will require a lot from me in terms of motivation and toughness, so I believe that the mental aspect of my game will be strengthened. Technical-wise, the fact that I’ll be consistently playing against taller opponents will help me adapt to it and strategies that work to score against them here will certainly help when I’m with the national team too.

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