Friday, February 3, 2023

Dr Jenny Denyer getting England psychologically ready for success

In a fascinating interview, Mike Dale picks the brains of Dr Jenny Denyer, former world no.8 and renowned performance psychology coach, who is now working with some of England’s best squash players. 

Since retiring from professional squash, Dr Jenny Denyer (née Tranfield) has forged a distinguished career in the field of high-performance coaching.

She worked with top-level figures at the Football Association before the 2018 World Cup, has worked with Great Britain’s Fed Cup tennis squad, female leaders at golf’s governing body the R&A, senior Metropolitan Police teams and has led psychological preparation of key witnesses ahead of intense cross-examination in high-profile trials. 

Her work centres around helping people handle pressure effectively, building mental toughness, focus, motivation, confidence, reducing interference and distraction and even learning how to breathe effectively in intense moments. 

Last summer, she was invited by national coach David Campion to help the England team prepare for the Commonwealth Games. There were some very experienced players in the team along with others for whom it was their first Games experience, so psychological preparation for such a huge event in their home country was vital. 

“It’s all about helping players to handle pressure most effectively,” Denyer tells SquashMad. “Players have different personality pre-dispositions which means that they are more or less likely to be stress-sensitive.  Some players are less sensitive, so the challenge with them might be getting them ‘up’ to deliver a performance. Some are very sensitive, so it’s about helping them to achieve ‘relaxed concentration’. There are a whole host of dynamics with each player. 

“Confidence is a major factor, especially in the face of a million distractions – key relationships with coaches, family, travel, injury, being away from home, the list is endless. Too much focus on these and self-talk becomes negative. My work with them is around, ‘what are the things that are going to win you this match?’” 

‘Performance = potential minus interference’ is a very insightful dictum that Denyer works by. It’s why a lot of her conversations with players centre around focus and eliminating damaging distractions that can negatively affect performance. 

To understand these distractions and what makes each player tick, she needs to form close relationships with them, so earning trust is crucial.

Denyer explains: “The fact that I’ve played for England definitely helps because it gives me credibility. Equally I’ve worked outside of the sport for 20 years as well, so that brings a different kind of respect.” 

Denyer comes highly recommended by one particularly influential member of the England team – captain and world no.8 Sarah-Jane Perry, who has worked with Denyer for almost 15 years. They speak on an almost daily basis, especially during tournaments. 

“Jenny is really invaluable to me,” said Perry at the Commonwealth Games. “Focus is not always my best asset so we work really hard on that. We also work on problem-solving; how to think my way out of trouble. I play my best squash when I’m thinking, can be objective about my game plan and adapt it if it isn’t working. Jenny has played at a very high level so can offer really good insight.” 

Denyer explains the machinations of their relationship and lifts the lid on something keen squash fans may have noticed when Perry is in action on the PSA World Tour – the quiet muttering she does in between points, particularly as she is about to receive serve. 

“We try to develop good self-talk so she gives herself positive instructions at the right time,” explains Denyer. “For example, if you lose a crucial rally and then focus on what you did wrong, you’re likely to lose the next few points as well. 

“But if you can recognise the good stuff within that rally – that you may have made your opponent do a lot of work to win the point, for example – you’re able to view the point optimistically and tell yourself specifically what to do next time.” 

Jenny Denyer during her playing days

She adds: “SJ is quite complex from an emotional perspective and the area I’ve helped her with most is how she feels about her game. Confidence is a feeling, so a significant chunk of the work we do is about helping her to feel good so she can perform how she wants to. 

“For me, that differentiates a decent sports psychologist; if you can work at a deep emotional level with a player, you’ll have a major impact on them and their life. 

“If you think about the classic iceberg graphic, the emotions are the stuff way below the surface. The behavioural work is above the surface and the cognitive stuff is just below the surface, but emotional work is what makes a massive difference. 

“Forging a strong relationship is a massive part of the impact you can have. You can’t have these kinds of conversations with no relationship at all behind it.” 

To get a full perspective, Denyer consults with Perry’s coach Rob Owen regularly and observes their coaching sessions. This can help identify behavioural patterns and issues. “We’re all part of a support team so having the coach on board is vital,” she states. 

After providing psychological support for Team England during the Commonwealth Games, Denyer will now work with selected players to support elements of the national programme. 

Previously, performance psychology was provided externally on a part-time basis by the English Institute of Sport. Denyer now wants to build psychology systemically so it’s a key part of players’ development through the pathway from junior to senior ranks. 

“The psychological side of the game is a fundamental part of being a world class player so we need to create a high-performance culture throughout the governing body,” states Denyer. 

“It’s a big job. It’s about raising the capability within the system. Luckily, in the likes of David Campion, Nick Matthew, Tania Bailey and Mark Williams, there are top-notch people in position already who will hopefully embrace it.”

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