Things could have turned out very differently for Liam Pitchford at various points.
If it hadn't been raining in the East Midlands of England one day when he was eight or nine, he might never have become a professional table tennis player.
"I was at junior school and normally we would go outside and play football, but it was raining so we stayed inside where a lunchtime table tennis club was going on. So me and two friends went along and really enjoyed it, and it carried on from there," Pitchford told Olympic Channel of his start in the sport.
Fast forward to the end of 2015, when Pitchford was at one of his lowest points. If not for recognising the strain on his mental health and asking for help, he might have quit the sport altogether, or worse.
Speaking to Olympic Channel, the 27-year-old from Chesterfield explained: "I wasn't enjoying playing at the time. I think it was the environment I was in. I would be alone in my flat in Germany and just kind of not doing anything. I didn't want to be there, and once I got into that mentality it was very hard to get out."
The world number 15 has since received treatment, including medication, for his depression. Those were just two key turning points of Pitchford's career, which has seen him take part in two Olympic Games.
In a wide-ranging interview, edited for clarity and brevity, Pitchford spoke of his mental tribulations earlier in his career, and his recent surge up the world rankings.
Olympic Channel (OC): Things progressed really quickly for you, didn't they? You were part of the British team at London 2012. What was having a home Olympics like for a young lad?
Liam Pitchford (LP): I had probably just turned 19, so still quite young. Maybe it was slightly early for me in my career, and maybe at that time I kind of felt that maybe I didn't deserve it because we had a place because we were host nation. I didn't actually qualify by my own right. Being with a lot of great athletes spurred me on to want to qualify by my own right for Rio 2016.
Depression and mental health
OC: In 2016 you were part of the England team that won bronze at the Team World Championships, but you were going through some tough times yourself. Could you tell us about your experiences with your mental health around that time?
LP: It was sort of the end of 2015, leading up to 2016 and through to the Olympics. I was playing for a club in Germany at the time and a lot had changed there, and I got stuck into a bad place. I reached out and spoke about it to a psychologist and tell her what was happening and how I was feeling, which was the first big step for me.
[It was] a difficult time because I didn't know how to really deal with it at the time, but I had a lot of people behind me supporting me and guiding me.
When I went on the table, I just tried to just forget about everything that was going off, and just try and enjoy my table tennis.
In March 2016, we went to the World Championships. I don't think anybody expected, least of all us, to challenge the powerhouses in table tennis and to come away with a bronze medal. At that time in that tournament, I could just forget totally about what was going on off the table and just be a different person.
OC: So playing table tennis was an escape for you?
LP: Yeah, I think so. It was. Being on the table, outside of Germany, being with friends, team-mates for England, was sort of an escape for me. Luckily, I had a lot of help around me once I spoke up about it and what I was going through. I can only say to people, try – and I know it is very tough – to make that first step and speak up. There are people around that can help.
OC: Did it ever cross your mind to just give the sport up?
LP: Yeah. It did. That was end of 2015 when I first spoke to psychologists and honestly I didn't know if I wanted to continue to play table tennis. I didn't know if I enjoyed it any more. And then when I could go to a tournament with England and be with team-mates and people that I enjoyed to be around, I kind of realised this is what I wanted to do.
OC: Given your struggles with your mental health, as well as some time off from playing this year, have you been able to reflect on yourself? How would you describe yourself in three words?
LP: Tough question. I'd say I'm a funny guy, laid back but serious when I need to be, and very driven and determined. I definitely learnt a lot about myself going through what I did, and it made me definitely made me a stronger person, not just on the table, but also off the table. I've found that I can make harder decisions now.
On court breakthroughs and setbacks
OC: Tell us about the last few years for you, you've managed to beat Ma Long and Xu Xin and nearly beat Fan Zhendong too; you've reached World Tour semi-finals and won Commonwealth Games gold as well. What's behind this uptick in your form?
LP: For me, 2018 was a breakthrough year, massively. Towards the end of 2017, I was struggling a little bit with my form. I've always known that I've had the ability, it's just been trying to make that breakthrough to consistently beat the best players in the world.
I was playing okay, I just kind of felt that I needed an extra step to make it to the next level. I started doing some specific work together with my coach and psychologist trying to make everything click together at the same time. 2017 was kind of a breakthrough year, everything just sort of clicked together and I started to play really well.
I managed to break into the top 20 in the world; I managed to get to number 12, my highest, at the start of 2019. And then I needed another step which took me a while to find because breaking from the top 20 to the top 10 is another level. I put pressure on myself that I should be playing better, where maybe I didn't need to do that.
I started working with a new coach at the end of 2019. After a few months, I kind of found a new level again, a level which I think can can take me into the top 10 in the world and hopefully even further. The next step is trying to break the top 10 in the world.
OC: How much of a role did getting help with your mental health play in the improvement of your game?
LP: I think it's made me sort of a stronger person on the table. I kind of go out there and I'm not really worried about my opponent anymore.
I've shared everything I have. I've put all my cards out on the table.
It shaped me to the player I am today. I truly believe that.
OC: After doing so well with England and Great Britain, you failed to qualify as a team for Tokyo 2020. How do you feel about that setback?
That was probably one of the worst tournaments of my career, I'd say.
LP: We thought we were prepared, we weren't. Disappointed, obviously. None of us were in good shape.
None of us were mentally prepared as well, we weren't ready for the fight. And I'd like to say it happens in sport, but at one of the biggest events – to qualify for Olympics – is not the ideal time for that to happen. But it's something to learn from.
OC: You got engaged last summer. What's next for you on the table and away from it, too?
LP: I still need to qualify for the Olympics (in singles), so I'm trying to make sure of that. Trying to get my ranking up into a safe position, hopefully it will be high enough for a backup plan.
I'll go to Tokyo and then after that, we have a date set to get married. That'll be just after the Olympics, really. I'll be a bit tired, hopefully, if I go!
It'll be a big year on the table and off the table.
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(Top photo credit: ITTF)