Albert Einstein once said ‘in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity’ and for Fliss Pickard the enforced break from training and competition due to the coronavirus pandemic has given her the chance to take a step back and reassess her goals and how to achieve them.
The 25 year old is currently back home with her family in Burnley and has surprised herself by how well she has adapted to life in lockdown.
“I can’t believe how well I have coped with the situation,” she said, “but I just accept that it is totally out of my control so what can I do to put myself in the best position to not only come back as strong as I was but better than I was. It has been nice to spend some time with the family and my dogs, and it has put life into a bit of perspective. With everything that is going on I’ve seen the bigger picture rather than just table tennis.”
While athletes are unable to compete, like other sports fans around the world they also have no live sport to watch but football fan Pickard has a simple answer: “Not being able to be in that competitive environment but also not being able to watch live sport is difficult,” she admits, “but you can always watch past matches and I’m just trying to keep busy.
“I’m doing my physio that I normally do with Morag (British team physio Morag Sheridan) in the morning, then I do some shadow play followed by watching an hour of different table tennis videos. I profile one player a day on the ranking list; I’ve got a book of not only tactics but what I can do and how I can dictate play so there is a lot of focus on that. In the afternoon I’ll take my dogs out for a long walk in between chats with the team and generally keeping in touch with people.”
While the two family dogs may be helping Pickard to see the positives in the current situation, their American cocker spaniel Bertie owes his life to the skills she has learnt from the British team physios after suffering a spinal stroke last week.
“Bertie is really my dog although he lives at home,” she said. “I got him after winning the Belgian Open in 2015 so he is quite special to me. He woke up last Thursday morning completely paralysed and couldn’t move. We took him to the vets who thought that was it and he’d have to be put down but my dad asked to bring him home and said that they’d got me walking so let’s get this dog walking. I’ve been doing a lot of physio on him and he has made a miraculous recovery; he’s back walking again now and is almost back to normal, just a bit wobbly.”
Pickard acknowledges that her father’s never-say-die attitude has helped to shape her own approach to life and its challenges.
“Dad has always adapted things for me,” she said. “It’s never been a case of ‘you can’t do that’ but ‘we’ll find a way’. He’s also tough – if I’m having a bad day he’ll just say ‘you’ve got to get on with it and find a way’. That comes from both my parents – they’ve always just made me get on with it. It might be tough but that’s life.”
Having tried horse riding, boccia and swimming Pickard found the challenge she was looking for in table tennis.
“I think being an individual sport helped a great deal as it meant that I’ve only got myself to blame,” she explained. “I could push myself and challenge myself as hard as I want and that really helped with my personality. Also it was the one sport that my Dad had said: ‘you’ve got no hand/eye coordination so you’re probably not going to be any good at this.’ He’s half-decent at sport and can play a bit so to have that challenge of wanting to beat him was a big thing. If someone tells me I can’t do something then I always want to find a way of doing it – it may not be the textbook way but I’ll definitely find a way of doing it. Now being able to beat him and seeing how far I’ve come is just amazing.
“The level when I started playing international tournaments really surprised me and to see the growth of it over the years and the strength in depth now just pushes me even more. Everything I do is focused on thinking about how I want to be better than all the other players and how I can find my own way to be better than them. This period of lockdown has definitely helped with that because it has just given me an opportunity to focus on me rather than looking at everyone else.
“The biggest challenge for me with table tennis is the fact that when I am trying to learn new things or the coach is giving me advice I know exactly what I want to do but perhaps because of my cerebral palsy the brain signals don’t necessarily take that on board. So what I want to do and what my body is actually doing can be two completely different things.”
Since making her international debut in 2011 Pickard’s progress has not been without its ups and downs but the Commonwealth Games in 2018 when she represented Team England on the Gold Coast and reached the semi-finals of the women’s class 6-10 singles proved to be her coming of age.
“That was definitely a time when I didn’t just improve as a player but off the court as well in terms of being with people I’ve never really met,” she said, “and it was a huge growth for me as a player and a person. Being out there posed challenges in itself but being able to compete as well as I did gave me the boost I really needed to kick on with what became my best season so far.”
A few months later Pickard took bronze in the women’s class 6 singles at the World Championships in Slovenia and admits that the expectation she felt to consolidate that result affected some of her performances last season.
“It was a huge shock to some people for me to get a bronze at the Worlds in terms of rankings but I believed that anything was possible and I could definitely have gone further. So going into 2019 I think perhaps I didn’t play with that freedom that allows me to play my best because I wanted to do so well and I was working so hard. Perhaps I questioned myself too much as opposed to believing in the process and what I do day-in, day-out and just playing and enjoying the moment. That has been an issue not just last year but in terms of my whole career.
“I have always put a lot of pressure on myself and one of the things I have been able to look at during the past few weeks is to question the pressure that I do put on myself and why I don’t give myself the chance to enjoy both the work that I put in and that process of challenging myself.”
Tokyo next summer would be her Paralympic debut but unsurprisingly participation is not the limit of her ambitions.
“The Paralympic Games is the pinnacle and it would be a dream come true to compete in Tokyo,” she said. “But I don’t just want to get there – it is about going there and performing to the best of my ability. In terms of results I want to win every major – Europeans, Worlds and Paralympics – but most importantly I want to look back and know that I’ve given everything I can to table tennis and hopefully inspired people to want to take up the sport. There are not a lot of girls playing and it would be good to see more coming through and hopefully I can help them along the way.”
Helping others is important to Pickard who has been volunteering since the age of 14 and was Volunteer of the Year for Burnley in 2010, subsequently accompanying 24 disabled and disadvantaged children on the Journey of a Lifetime to Borneo.
“I really got into volunteering because I felt when I was younger there weren’t a lot of options for me with my disability,” she explained. “That has changed a lot since London 2012 so I wanted to try and put something back and make sure disabled people get those opportunities that my parents gave me. It is definitely something I would like to look at again – whether it is coaching or advising some of the younger players – because I really enjoy that and it is something I would definitely like to get back into when my playing career is finished.
“I really enjoy helping the Pathway and Development Squads and it is fantastic to see Grace (Williams) coming through. She is obviously a team partner for me for the future but I’d like to just see people enjoy the sport and whatever route that takes them down so be it.”