By David McDaid
BBC Olympic sports reporter
Liam Pitchford punched the air and kissed the lion on his shirt.
His French opponent had just hit the ball into the net to give the British number one a vital victory on the way to the 2016 Rio Olympic team quarter-finals.
“That was a really strong mental showing,” said the TV commentator as Pitchford, then 23, came from match point down to win.
Those words would not have been lost on the quietly spoken man from Chesterfield.
“A few months prior to that I’d been diagnosed with depression,” he says. “I got in quite a bad place. I didn’t expect to play as well as I did, going through everything.
“It was a hard time, something that took me a while to get over.”
Pitchford’s mental health began to decline after the death of one of his coaches while he was playing at a club abroad. The grief at the loss of a valued mentor hit him hard.
“He’d taken care of me and made me improve,” said Pitchford. “When he died, the dynamic in the club changed – a lot of new people came in.
“I was the main focus of the team, the next star, but after that I kind of got pushed out.
“I probably wasn’t strong enough to go against it. I felt like there was no escape. I couldn’t get out of the club because of the contract I was in.”
Pitchford felt his situation could have been helped had there been more understanding.
“There were a lot of coaches who were strong characters,” he says. “They were quite hard and tough, and the things that I was going through were kind of just brushed aside.
“I didn’t want to go to practice. I didn’t have any enjoyment in that hall.
“It wasn’t all of them. Some coaches were really good. Just one or two were not the most subtle. They were telling me: ‘You just need to get through it and work harder.’
“They wanted the best for the club. They wanted to win matches.”
Eventually, Pitchford sought help. Medication was one form, but so was opening up about his feelings.
“When I first spoke to somebody about it I kind of broke down,” he says. “I just had to get it out.
“After that, the weight was lifted off my shoulders and then I could start to rebuild.”
Pitchford says he had “thoughts in the back of my mind” about retiring from table tennis but feels reinvigorated after returning to England and getting help.
Speaking after a training session at Nottingham University, he says he is in “probably the best place I’ve been mentally, physically and in my game”.
Now 26, and having climbed as high as 12th in the world rankings, Pitchford is hoping to qualify for his third Olympics – in Tokyo this summer.
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That quest begins this week in Portugal, where Britain’s men and women take on some of the world’s best nations.
“I’m just glad that I got the help I did and I’m quite proud that I managed to get to where I am now,” he says.
“I think it’s definitely shaped me into the man I am and the player I am.
“I’ve experienced everything and I don’t really fear anything now.”
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by mental health issues, help and support is available: bbc.co.uk/actionline
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