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Tennis Channel Academy: Rectifying Road Rage
Is the lizard brain driving your tennis bus? Coach Pete Scales weighs in on how to put it back in the passenger seat.
Published Oct 13, 2022
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Stress and nerves are part of playing any tennis match that you care about. It doesn’t have to be in a league or tournament, or a match that has a trophy or rankings at stake. Just playing a match with someone you really want to beat can be enough to raise your stress and nerves up to levels that produce the yips, heavy legs and arms, gasping for breath—even, unfortunately, some serious racquet abuse.
Your lizard brain, the most primitive part of the brain, has succeeded in grabbing the keys to your tennis bus and is driving you off the cliff or at least well off the road.
How can you get the lizard back into the passenger seat?
First, understand where the stress and nerves are coming from. Humans like to have autonomy, choice, control. We want to belong. And we want to feel competent. And when we don’t feel like we have control, that we’re liked and respected, and that we’re good at things we value, it can spiral pretty quickly from not playing our best, to feeling like a worthless being who never should have picked up a racquet or even been born.
The primitive lizard brain doesn’t know that we simply shanked a tennis ball. If we care enough about the win-lose outcome, the lizard brain thinks we’re being chased by a saber-tooth tiger or standing naked in front of a huge audience laughing at us. It is life and death to the lizard. Lizard just wants to get the heck out of there.
Don’t start with positive talk. That comes later. Start with breathing and muscle tension.
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.
Then you can start keeping track of what you’re thinking or saying to yourself when you get stressed, and exactly when those moments are the worst—before the match? Before a big point? In-between all points?
One high-level college player I worked with was smacking themselves in the leg after losing points. I had them keep track of their in-between points talk and body actions for a week, and the patterns became very clear. We came up with a more effective in-between points routine for responding positively or at least neutrally, relaxing, refocusing, and getting ready for the next point.
I suggested they could start by doing the whole negative reaction with the racquet, except they had to miss their leg on purpose. The player laughed—but it worked. That one little thing gave a bit of control back to this player, and pushed the lizard a bit off the driver’s seat.
Start keeping track of what you’re thinking or saying to yourself when you get stressed, and exactly when those moments are the worst—before the match? Before a big point? In-between all points?
Finally, use a great exercise from the USTA Mental Skills and Drills Handbook: Write down or record what it is you love about playing tennis. Then highlight the words that are the most meaningful and motivating to you. Use some of those in your in-between points routine. Those cue words will remind you of what’s really important to you.
Players almost never say winning is why they play, yet it is the lizard being consumed with winning and losing that produces most of the negative fallout from stress and nerves. Seeing in your own words—not mine or some other coach’s or psychologist’s—your real reasons why you play will calm you down.
None of this is about getting rid of stress and nerves or kicking the lizard off the bus entirely. That’s not possible and not even desirable. The lizard is there with us, so get used to it. You’re just trying to take the keys back and put the lizard in the passenger seat.
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Coach Pete Scales is a developmental psychologist, USPTA tennis teaching pro, a longtime high school tennis coach, mental game columnist for Racquet Sports Industry magazine, and author of the forthcoming book from Coaches Choice, The Compete-Learn-Honor Playbook: Simple Steps to Take Your Mental & Emotional Tennis & Pickleball Game to a New Level.