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Mind Game

Your game can be divided into four areas, each of which needs to be worked on if you want to improve your performance: physical, technical, tactical and psychological. This last area is the subject of the first in a new series of articles, written specially for The Squash Player Magazine by England International, WISPA no. 8 player and sports psychologist Jenny Tranfield

Jenny Tranfield, a former British Junior Open Champion and World Universities Champion, has won 18 junior and three senior caps for England. She is ranked no.8 in the world rankings. Jenny obtained a First Class Honours degree in Physical Education and Sports Science with Social Science from Loughborough University. She has a PhD in Sports Psychology and has provided sport psychology support for the England Junior Team and the Sue Wright Academy.

Almost all of us reach a point where we feel that our game has gone stale. We reach a plateau, bang our rackets against the wall and scream, “What more can I do?” Train harder? Put in more time with my squash coach? Seek advice on my tactics or techniques? We go over and over the physical, tactical, and technical aspects of our game. What we forget is that there is a fourth element to sports performance – the psychological element. 

There are many examples in squash of top players attributing success to ‘getting it right mentally’….Lisa Opie was ranked top two in the world yet had not won a major title - she would get so frustrated at refereeing decisions that she would lose games and even matches as a result.  After intensive work with a sport psychologist, Lisa learned to relax at the critical moment rather than to ‘blow up’ mentally.  Shortly afterwards she won the 1991 British Open.

Think back to a time when you played really good squash – when you felt you were in the zone and your game was impeccable. How did you feel? What sort of things do remember seeing? Do any particular sounds stand out?

Now think of a game in which you felt unable to perform well and your game was mediocre and predictable. Again, how did you feel? What sort of things do remember seeing? Do any particular sounds stand out?  What was different in the two games? The chances are that your physical, technical, and tactical play hadn’t changed that much between one and the other. What is more likely is that you couldn’t concentrate or focus because your mind was somewhere else besides the court.

A classic example of this is the current England captain David Beckham. After his move to Real Madrid and high profile scandal involving Rebecca Loos, he suffered a severe lack of form.  He didn’t suddenly become a worse player overnight, what is more likely is that he was no longer focused solely on the task on the pitch.  His mind was distracted with task irrelevant information. 

In my experience, few players pay enough attention to their psychological preparation. They spend hours in the gym or on the court making sure they are in top physical condition. They spend hours with their coach discussing tactics and techniques. But when it comes to mental fitness, they barely give a thought to how they can develop and maintain this all-important element of performance.

TECHNICAL - Biomechanical elements of movement and swing. 

TACTICAL - Understanding how to win rallies, how to create and hit into space.

PHYSICAL - Speed, agility, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, flexibility, strength, core stability, body fat.

MENTAL - Confidence, motivation, anxiety control, concentration etc.

There are two components to psychological preparation that need to be considered: 

1. Developing appropriate mental skills;

2. Developing an effective mindset.

Mental Skills Training

There is no doubt that squash is one of the most psychologically demanding sports to play. It is one on one, there is always a winner and a loser, the opponent is in the same physical space, and there is literally nowhere to hide. Consequently, developing mental skills such as concentration, motivation, confidence, anxiety control and relaxation are all essential in order to produce effective performances.

In order to improve these skills, you must practise them with the same level of commitment and intensity as you do tactical, technical or physical skills. But first you need to identify the areas that need development. For example, you may be very confident but lack concentration and motivation. Or you may be well motivated but find it difficult to relax in pressure situations. In conjunction with your coach or perhaps another mentor, you should devise a mental skills training programme specific to your needs and measure improvements over an agreed period.

It is only by systematically working at each mental skill that you will derive significant benefit. The earlier you start to work at developing and refining your mental skills, the better.

Mindset Coaching

Once you have the appropriate mental skills (as well as physical, tactical and technical skills), you have the capability to perform at your highest level. However, transforming capability into competence is a matter of developing an effective mindset. To do this, you must constantly consider the following:

(i) Where are you now? What are you currently getting from your squash? What is missing?

(ii) What is it that you want to achieve? Is it to win titles, ranking points or friendships or simply to have fun?

(iii) How must you change what you currently do in order to get what you want?

Again in partnership with your coach and/or mentor, explore and discover your personal genius and find a way to bring out the best in yourself. 

To summarise, if you want to improve your performance:

1. Acknowledge psychology as an important part of your overall preparation.

2. Begin to find out more about and engage in regular mental skills training.

3. Start to work towards developing an effective mindset through a planned programme of personal change tailored just for you. 

Future articles in this series in the magazine will investigate the methods and tools used by top players to mentally prepare.