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Open Squash

Jun 26th 2024

Building Mental Resilience with Gina Kennedy

Building Mental Resilience Featured Image

Gina Kennedy, current World #7, shares her journey from soccer fields to squash courts, resilience against formidable opponents, and the joy of coaching young talents at Open Squash’s summer camps.

World number seven in the women’s game, Gina Kennedy has been wearing Open Squash’s logo on her shirts at PSA events for two seasons now. She’s also due to teach a summer camp this Summer at both of our locations (book here!) July 15-19 and July 22-26.

“I love that Open Squash’s mission is to open up the game to everyone,” she said. “Everyone who wants to play squash should be able to give it a go and I love the fact that they’re giving youngsters from all different backgrounds the chance to train with us.”

A month before the camp we caught up with Gina in June 2024, just before she was due to head to the PSA World Tour Finals event in Seattle, after a tough 3-0 quarter-finals loss to Nouran Gohar at the British Open, just after she won the Manchester Open and rose to her highest ever ranking of fifth in the world.

“The crowd at the British Open was amazing, I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like that,” she said. “It’s just a shame that I had to draw a quarter final match against Gohar (the eventual winner of the event) because I’ve come close to beating (WR#1) Nour ElSherbini, but I’ve never won a game from Nouran!”

Gina was up 8-6 in the first game against Gohar, “and I thought the roof was going to come off with the crowd,” she said. “But sure enough, she knuckled down from there and came through to win it.”

Gina, who studied psychology at Harvard University, where she trained under Harvard Squash Coach Mike Way, says there are plenty of physical as well as psychological challenges to overcome when you’re playing a fearsome opponent like Gohar, who has “upped her level recently, yet again.”

“She literally doesn’t give you an opening, so you can’t attack,” she said. “She doesn’t make any errors. The quality of her shots is just incredible, and you don’t have time to do anything. And then she starts throwing drop shots in, and it can just be very challenging to play her.”

What Gina has learned from squash is that no matter how far she rises in the game, she constantly must be building mental resilience for the next challenge ahead.

“At this point in my career the losses feel worse than ever, if that’s possible,” she said. “And the wins aren’t as fun. That’s what happens when you reach towards the top, it gets harder, so you need to have trained to be resilient from the start.”

There is also the challenge of having to make up for what Gina describes as her rivals’ “squash years”—at 27, Gina is a similar age to the top three women in the game. But she only turned professional after graduating from Harvard in 2020.

“Meanwhile, those top three Egyptian players have trained with a professional level of intensity since they were ten,” she said. “The mental focus they’ve put into every solo session, every drill session, it’s something I’ve got to catch up with. (British legends) Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro were both in their early 30s when they won their world championships, so I think there’s a precedent for building a successful career later, but to reach that top level, there are a lot of squash minutes to make up against the Egyptians.”

On the flip side, Gina feels lucky that her parents never pushed her to play squash.

“My parents didn’t play any sport. So, if I didn’t want to play squash and wanted to hang out with my friends, my parents would say ‘that’s okay’,” she said. “And if I have kids, I will have a different approach because I know what it takes to be the best. But on the flip side, you can’t force young people to train if they don’t love the game. Youngsters and parents alike need to navigate these waters and it’s a really difficult thing to get the balance right.”

A natural athlete, Gina played soccer (or “football” as they say in England) for Crystal Palace until she was 12. She also was a runner, holding the boys’ and girls’ records for 1500-meter races at under-13. She trained under Dina Asher-Smith at Blackheath and Bromley Harriers. She won the London Mini Marathon. But she didn’t like the psychological pressures of running.

“I was expected to win every race, and when I told people I was nervous they would disregard it, saying ‘you’re going to win so easily’, and yet I lived in fear for weeks before every race,” she said. “As a 12-year-old girl I would say I was injured rather than go through the nerves of competing.”

Gina brings more resilience to her squash training now, perhaps, from having experienced those nerves as a youngster in a different sport. She brings perspective. She got injured with plantar fasciitis, which “gave me an excuse not to run”, and then she started playing squash more, quitting everything else at 13.

“When I look back, it’s sad because I think running was probably my sport, where my natural talent was,” she said. “But I honestly didn’t like the pressure and it’s impressive to see other young athletes come through and handle that pressure. If I were talking to that young girl now, I’d say ‘it’s not the end of the world if you lose a race, and you have to find a way to enjoy it’. It’s not worth feeling bad over a sport. And I’m happy playing squash.”

We’re happy you’re playing squash too, Gina!

Now, all eyes are on the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, by which time, Gina will be 31, like some of those British greats she admires. She continues to balance the demands of training at an elite level with the psychological challenges of playing squash at the top and is looking forward to a great career ahead. Thanks for sharing your perspective with us, Gina, and best of luck! We’re excited for your summer camps, delivered in partnership with Amr Khalifa, Director of Squash at Open Squash FiDi, and Peter Creed, Director of Squash at Open Squash Bryant Park.