The freedom to be unpredictable.
In the three years since Rio, Ito has been honing her skills on the International Table Tennis Federation World Tour, regularly competing against the top-ranked players. Tournaments are held almost every week, and because she has been performing so well – chalking up win after win – she often competes until the final day of the tournament. In other words, winning can be exhausting, so she is careful to maintain a positive mental attitude.
“I want to enjoy the matches as much as possible,” she declares, “and when I’m having fun, I smile naturally, which pumps up my confidence. But recently, I’ve had a lot of really close matches, and my expression tends to become pretty serious.” Ito feels that becoming too serious limits her thought process and restricts her play. Thus, whenever she realizes her facial expression is becoming too serious, she makes a conscious effort to smile. “When I smile, I remember that feeling of fun, and it broadens how I think.”
This approach has given Ito a sense of freedom and facilitated a unique playing style that is sometimes described as unpredictable. She attributes the freedom she feels to the training regimen her mother put her through when she was young. Ironically, her mother’s training had little to do with freedom and was so regimented it nurtured a rebellious streak that is evident to this day.
“Practicing with my mother was just repeating the same action over and over for hours. Now I understand how important that was and see it reflected in my results. But at the time, I hated it. I was part of a youth sports association, and it was fun to go there and play matches against my friends and just relax as I practiced. I was told I was wasting time when I practiced freely, but if I was too serious during every practice, I’m not sure it would have helped me win. Because I had more freedom, I could think about various things and was able to come up with moves to outsmart my opponents. I think it gave me competitive power.”