Oikawa Tooru’s personal narrative in Haikyuu!! is constructed in opposition of “geniuses” and the “naturally talented”. However the narrative itself deconstructs the very idea of “genius” throughout the story, until it’s clear there’s really no such thing.
From the beginning of the story, Kageyama is positioned as this “gifted” and “genius setter”, in contrast to both Hinata’s high athleticism but lack of skill, and Oikawa’s hard-earned skills and supposed lack of natural talent.
We as the audience remain oblivious to anything outside of this paradigm for most of the story. Until Nationals when it’s revealed that Kageyama diligently keeps a journal of his practice and physical condition. It’s the very first peek into his process for learning and improving his skills.
Hinata, who has spent the most time with Kageyama, already knows about it. But the rest of the team had been completely unaware until that moment. Even they had interpreted Kageyama’s skill as being primarily a result of talent rather than hard work.
And that’s all we’re given until near the very end of the story, during the Schweiden Adlers vs MSBY Black Jackals match, when we find out the history behind Kageyama’s life-long love for volleyball and all the years of work that went into it before anyone had even heard of him.
Kageyama is considered one of the most “naturally talented” players in Haikyuu!!, but is shown to have his talents rooted in years and years of experience, and in his dedication to thoughtful, methodical practice.
Compared to Kageyama’s more skill-based talents, Ushijima’s advantage is framed as physicality-first. His height and build grants him many advantages, he’s tall, strong, and left-handed, which makes him tricky to play against at the very least. But even this “simple strength” is a result of struggle and dedication.
First, there’s the struggle of his father, who protected Wakatoshi’s left-handedness against his wife’s family’s wishes to “correct” it. But past that, he still put himself through grueling training and practice in order to build on his strengths.
Shiratorizawa may have a somewhat limited view on what makes a good volleyball player and team, valuing individual strength above all else, but it’s also true that individual players have to be strong and capable in order to keep up with and work well with a high level team. The fault was in the idea that only those who were strong to begin with could make it.
But even then, the fact that Ushijima spent years telling Oikawa that he should have chosen Shiratorizawa over Aoba Johsai suggests that although Oikawa saw himself as being outside of the category of “naturally strong and talented,” Ushijima and perhaps Shiratorizawa would have considered him one of their own.
Oikawa may have seen Kageyama and Ushijma as rivals and people he wasn’t “supposed to” ever surpass, but in their eyes, Oikawa had always been a worthy rival and equal. Or in Kageyama’s case, someone to look up to and learn from. Even as a professional player, Kageyama still credited Oikawa for his powerful serves, and continues emulating him even years after they’ve parted ways. And while Ushijima had some strong (and unsolicited) opinions on what would have made Oikawa stronger, it was always out of respect for his abilities.
Although Japan and the rest of the world didn’t catch wind of Oikawa’s abilities until the 2021 Olympic games (because Aoba Johsai never made it to Nationals in those three years), among the “monster generation” Oikawa was the only one who ever saw himself as “less than” in any way.