Lockdown has been a challenge for everyone and Jack Hunter-Spivey admits that in the first few weeks he lacked motivation and direction, feeling that his life was in limbo. But the 25 year old from Liverpool has turned that around and is now focusing on emerging from the current situation as a better and fitter athlete.
“As an athlete I thrive on routine and knowing what is next,” he said, “so when we went into lockdown the unknown aspect was a scary thing, especially as qualification for Tokyo was in the balance. In the first few weeks I didn’t exactly struggle but it took me a while to adjust to what was going on. I didn’t know how long it was going to be – whether it was going to be months, weeks, days – and I just treated it like I would a week off after a tournament. I just laid low and waited to see how everything was going to pan out. So it took me a few weeks to get my head around it but I’m strangely enjoying it now.
“I’m appreciating everything a lot more – not that I didn’t appreciate things before but I appreciate how much I used to see my friends at the weekends and how much I used to enjoy the social aspect of training as well as the physical side. I’m also noticing my surroundings when I’m pushing around the park. I’ve never really had that wider mind-set, I’ve always been so focused on table tennis and I think it has been great to get a perspective on everything.
“This is the first time in 14 years I have completely stepped away from table tennis in terms of not playing and it has been great to focus on things outside the sport to get the sport better. My whole focus is table tennis and achieving more but I am using external influences to drive that now and I think recognising that has been a huge factor for me in lockdown. Everything behind table tennis has to be a good foundation for me to achieve what I can so what I’ve focused on now is building the foundations properly – my fitness, diet etc – then I can achieve more on the table.”
The catalyst for change proved to be his brother Chris.
“My brother is quite level headed,” explained Hunter-Spivey, “and he said ‘treat this as your new normal and when it changes treat that as your new normal’. It struck a chord because I was just waiting for the world to come back to what it was and, for me, knowing what was ahead was important. I didn’t mind as long as I knew what was going on, so since then I’ve actually utilised the time really well to focus on myself, on what I want to achieve and my goals. So my mind-set changed a lot after speaking to my brother; it helped me to get my head around everything and realise that the situation is going to last for a longer time.”
The new normal revolves around the flat in Sheffield he shares with girlfriend Lucy and he admits that the situation would have been much tougher without her support.
“It’s been a massive help being with Lucy,” he said. “You can air your thoughts with another person and I think if I was on my own I would find it very difficult to cope. It’s been great and we’ve been helping each other – working on our fitness and diet. She knows more about cooking and nutrition and I’m setting the workouts. We are both losing lots of weight and doing really well.
“In the flat we are doing daily workouts. I’ve tried to come up with some core-based and cardio-based circuits – as much as I can do in the flat just to get my heart rate up. The big help for me is I live in Hillsborough, which oddly enough is full of hills, so it takes me a while to go for my daily push. It has been good to get some fresh air and work on my fitness.”
Hunter-Spivey views his new regime as a change for life and not just for lockdown.
“I think because I am quite extrovert it sometimes seems that I don’t take things as seriously as others whereas I massively do. I wanted to show that in lockdown I can bring myself out the other side as a better athlete and a big motivational factor for me was to show people that I can take this as seriously as I possibly can and change my whole lifestyle. Not just go on a fad diet and lose a little bit of weight – this is me for the foreseeable now and I’m here to take medals.”
Although well-established in the top 10 in men’s class 5 he is still looking for his first major medal having lost in the quarter-finals in the last three European Championships and the World Championships in 2018, twice by the narrowest of margins to the former World champion Ali Ozturk.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play for a medal in every major championship apart from the Paralympics although I’ve not won one yet,” he said. “At the time it is gutting and I always feel like the bridesmaid never the bride but I’m looking to take my first major medal in Tokyo and that is definitely feasible. I’ve beaten all the top players in the world and all the medallists from Rio apart from Cao Ningning (the Chinese Paralympic champion) and I’m definitely feeling that I could do well in Tokyo. It does light a fire in your belly when you lose a medal match and you draw on all those experiences. I’m learning every time I play for a major medal and hopefully that can all come together in the future and I can win some.
“A lot of it is confidence and believing I can play at that level. I’ve proved that I can do it now and it is something I am working on massively with Andy our psychologist (BPTT psychologist Andy Hill) and my clinical psychiatrist. One of my strengths is using my mental side of the game. I’m not the most technically gifted player in the world but I feel like I really put myself on a different level when it comes to using my mind in a different way, to using my brain and implementing different tactics. So I can definitely draw on that and I’ve definitely got the confidence to take major medals – it is just a case of when it happens.”
Hunter-Spivey is a showman who enjoys the limelight. Acting has been an interest since he was a child – he was an extra in Grange Hill and also appeared in Christmas Lights and the film Millions – and he acknowledges that table tennis is more than just a sport to him.
“I was only working as an extra so I can’t really call it acting but I enjoyed the escape from reality and seeing how actors can change their real lives and play different characters. I’m a wrestling fan as well and like how the wrestlers play different characters and are different people off-screen to on-screen. Table tennis is my arena, my screen so I draw massively from that and since I was younger I have tried to relate to that.
“Playing table tennis is when I am most myself – I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve and when I go out onto the court it is me turned up to 10. It is me expressing myself on my platform just like a dancer would do or an artist with a pen. It is just my place to escape from everything that is going on and prove what I can do and enjoy myself as much as I can.
“I’m not escaping from anything really bad. I’ve had ups and downs in my life and that is well documented. It is just about wanting to be the person on the TV rather than the person watching and changing that persona. No matter what is going on behind closed doors, no matter how I am feeling, whatever is going on if I have to I can play different characters. I can act more confident if I know I’m playing someone who is going to be overwhelmed by playing styles that are more in your face or I can be more cerebral if players are going to be in my face. I try and gauge that and use it to my advantage. Table tennis is my release, not so much from my disability because I think the Paralympics has shown that we’re all elite athletes now, disability or not, but for me it is just escapism and a platform to show what I can do.”
The subject of mental health is now a widely acknowledged and accepted one in elite sport with a number of leading athletes having spoken out about the pressures that they have faced and Hunter-Spivey has also been open about his battle with depression.
“When I first started on the World Class Performance programme I was much shyer and didn’t really believe in myself much,” he admits, “and it is a credit to the BPTT coaching team and the whole staff that I am the person I am today because I’m a lot more confident. I feel that I can believe in myself a lot more because of the set up that we have around us. When I was 18 and going through my worst mental health stages they helped me to recognise that I had problems and one of the things that we talked about was speaking out about it.
“Then I started talking to people about mental health and my journey and realised that I wasn’t alone in what I’d been going through and other people had been going through similar situations. Once I was comfortable talking about it and comfortable in my own skin and my own story I thought why not go and tell other people. If one in three people suffer from mental health problems there has to be someone I can reach out to and tell my story and hopefully help them as well. It was that turning point of being comfortable enough in my own journey to tell other people and people seem to react to it well.”
Having just turned 25 he is still in the early stages of his sporting career and sees everything he has already experienced as building blocks for the future.
“The last four years have been the biggest years of my life probably,” he said. “Rio was incredible and I really enjoyed it but I learnt that in order to achieve what I want to in the sport I had to change things outside the sport. I needed to get my mental health right, work on my diet, train as hard as I could and just reflect as much as I could on everything. I’ve definitely matured over the years since I joined the squad and I really feel I am in my stride and feel like a young veteran now. I’ve been round the sport for that long and hopefully I can draw on everything I have done so far.
“I want to make my mark on the sport; I want to be European champion, Paralympic champion, World champion and just leave everything on the table. This may sound cheesy but I want to leave a legacy on the table and off the table as well. I’m doing a lot of work in schools and giving speeches to try and inspire other people to do great things in their life as well. I have managed to change my life and would like to give something back. Even if I can change a few peoples’ lives with what I am doing that would be a massive achievement for me.”