So, what do we have control over that can put the lizard back in the passenger seat?
Don’t start with positive talk. That comes later. Start with breathing and muscle tension. The lizard reaction is a physical one that comes with unproductive self-talk, yes, but if you don’t first learn how to manage the physical acts of breathing and muscle loosening, your positive words won’t matter much.
Stress and nerves produce shallow chest breathing and tight, contracted muscles. Practice belly or diaphragmatic breathing—in through the nose and out through the mouth, with your belly, not your chest, rising on the inhale and deflating on the exhale.
Smell the tennis ball on the inhale—that keeps you focused on a physical sensation and not on “woe is me” thoughts. Say “OK” on the exhale. And smile as you do. Smiling releases dopamine and endorphins that help us feel joy and happiness, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol.
Learn how to contract and release all the muscle groups from fingers to toes. Take your pinky and even your next finger off the racquet, and feel the difference in the looseness of your grip. If you’re right-handed, clench and unclench or squeeze a ball with your left hand.
The left side of the brain influences the complex right-side body movements that we want to be automatic in competition. Studies of German athletes showed that those who did that before high-pressure competition did as well or better than in practice, compared to control group athletes who didn’t squeeze a ball. Sorry lefties—like so much about being a lefty, the research isn’t as clear for you.