Monday, 4 March 2019

Pitchford Aims to Open Dialogue Around Depression and the Pressures and Expectations of Succeeding in Sport

I recently had a great, long, talk with Liam Pitchford about him opening up publicly about his battles with depression and becoming an advocate for Samaritans and how he dealt with the pressures of chasing the dream to become one of the world's best players.

Pitchford wants the dialogue to be open on mental health
Image courtesy of ITTFWorld
Liam Pitchford is one of the world's leading players, having recently broken into the top 20 players on the ITTF Men's World Ranking and having been part of an England team which is making strong impressions in the world of table tennis.

In 2010 the young prodigy relocated from his home in England to Germany, where he signed with TTF-Leibherr Ochsenhausen in the first division of the German Bundesliga.

At that time he was still a junior and had already represented England at the Commonwealth Games.

At a glance you may marvel at his success and think it was all a result of hard training and competition, but for Liam Pitchford – and many others like him, there were hurdles to pass that were unseen by the public eye.

“Moving overseas was hard at first, I come from a very close knit family, but it was something I really wanted to pursue so I went for it,” says Pitchford, who recently became an advocate for Samaritans and shared his experiences openly.

He identifies the loss of a someone close to him and an environment that he wasn't fond of as major contributors to the start of his problems, and that seeds of doubt about his future in the sport plagued him constantly as he dealt with his struggles.

I had a great chat with Liam about his experiences. We spoke about the road to success in sport, focusing on his table tennis journey. One of the things which stood out was identifying the amount of sacrifice and investment to achieve, and how that emotional investment can get you trapped once you start to doubt the future. It's a feeling of no way forward but no way out.

Liam described it was a hole that he couldn't get out of that constantly got deeper as his problems compounded.

In particular it opened up some dialogue about the focus on rankings and results, and how a deeply invested player can struggle when they aren't getting the results they desire.

“I think if you are not in a good state of mind and the results are not going your way there can be big problems, especially if there aren't people around that really care for your well-being in a personal way, not just as a player.”

It became more obvious to him when his winning experiences felt empty and even good results couldn't satisfy him, even though he knew he wasn't losing interest in the sport.

Liam reflects on the experience and notes that he had never experienced it before and didn't know who to turn to for help.

“As someone who always keeps my cards close to my chest, it was hard to make that first step.”

He says there's definitely a wide-spread stigma around mental health for men and that we need to 'man up' and deal with our problems. With suicide rates among middle-aged men increasing year by year, it is vital to start taking steps to help people going through tough times – especially while they are still young. In his home, the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of males under the age of 45, a devastating statistic.

Pitchford admitted he hadn't heard any published stories in table tennis of players struggling or facing these problems, which he felt was a shame because other players who had come through these issues could contribute back to the table tennis community and he is sure there are others who have gone through similar issues to what he went through. Putting his own personal story out in the open was a bold step, but one he believes could help others.

As more young aspiring players develop and chase their dreams, the English star believes that we need to paint a better picture of what it takes to make it to the top, focusing on all the aspects and challenges. Young players need to know what to expect and how to cope with difficulties when they arise.

Pitchford's career may have stalled momentarily while he faced his demons, but he stepped up to the plate and faced his problems head-on. With the help of a supporting family and partner, coaches and professional help – he was able to start fresh. After relocating to Sweden and beginning to compete in the French league, things started to come right. He now lives in Denmark with his girlfriend and has a fresh and positive mindset on things.

Liam Pitchford joins an exclusive club by defeating
Olympic Champion, Ma Long.

With that fresh mental state and a better understanding of how to deal with pressures and obstacles moving forward, we have seen Liam Pitchford catapult into the spotlight. He now sits among some of the world's best players – having defeated reigning Olympic Champion Ma Long last year, one of the few foreign players ever to do so.

The game is changing and Liam also notes that the new ranking system means that young aspiring players will have heavier competition schedules if they are too focused on rankings. His advice is to carefully balance schedules and focus on developing and being comfortable in the environment first, instead of pushing too hard from the beginning.

He has some great advice for those who may be struggling in their pursuit of their goals too:

“I don't want people to think that it's somehow showing weakness by admitting that you have a problem. In my case it's made me a lot strong and wiser coming through it and making that step to ask for help.

I would say make that first step and talk to someone, that can be the most difficult part. After that the ball is rolling and everything will start to become easier with time.”

Wise words from Liam Pitchford and a story that needs to be told, from him and other athletes like him. We need to prepare our youth to be ready for these challenges, and they need role models to follow – not just through the good times and amazing matches and results, but also through harder times, injuries, mental health issues, fluctuations in form.

Liam Pitchford is lighting the stage for others to step up and tell their story.

If you are experiencing things similar to Liam's story, or other challenges, remember the road forward is best set upon with the support of others. Talk to your friends, teammates, coaches, family and if necessary professionals.

Nations also have hotlines and support services available, just a google search away, don't be afraid to reach out for help.

5 comments:

  1. Interesting...here in New Zealand many sportsman including famous ex-All Black Sir John Kirwan speak publicly on this issue..John wrote a book...All Blacks don't Cry. ps Typo...Liam faced demons not omens !!

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  2. Good for him. It's hard enough to have depression, then everyone's expectations on top of it. Seems like some people just don't care about men's feelings.

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  3. I so appreciate this article and conversation. It's great that Liam is addressing the issue openly, as so many struggle with the same thing at all levels of play, not just those approaching the top. Central to the issue is one's motive for playing. Why do we play? Why do we love this sport? If we are only in it to win, we will suffer a lot.

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