Imagine a world without competition. A world where people are working not against each other but with one another. A world where one person's success is not dependent on another's failure and a world where people strive to simply be better, not better than.
Believe it or not, such a world exists and it is the world of Brent Zeller. Zeller, a teaching professional from Woodacre, CA has created a tennis program where the environment is much like the one I've just described.
Zeller's program, called Effortless Tennis, is an innovative, cooperative way of learning with the goal of achieving peak performance---but it approaches this goal from an entirely different perspective than conventional tennis instruction---no competition.
Students learn the game in an atmosphere where everyone works together toward a common goal---to become the best tennis player possible, while at the same time, helping each other towards the same end.
For years, tennis "experts" have stressed the need for developing players to get involved in a competitive atmosphere as soon as possible. Competition, we have always been told, allows us to test our skills under pressure and brings out the best in us.
Zeller takes great issue with this, feeling that we tend to throw people into competitive situations far too early, before they have fully developed the basic skills of their chosen activity.
"This is the old trial by fire, sink or swim mentality that we have been brought up to believe is the best way to learn," says Zeller. "How can you expect someone to be able to do something under pressure before they truly know how to do it?"
"Competition as it is now being practiced is actually doing more harm than good in helping people develop themselves to the fullest of their abilities, not only athletically but emotionally and psychologically," says the 44 year-old pro.
Zeller, was an all-around athlete who grew up in our athletic "system" where competition was gospel. Beginning tennis at the age of 14, he went on to become a ranked junior player, played at the collegiate level and even competed on the professional tour for a brief time.
By the mid 70's Brent's focus began to shift away from playing the game toward teaching and in 1974 he came across Tim Gallwey's now legendary book, Inner Tennis. The book, which was the first to deal in depth with the mental side of tennis, spoke at great length about the "zone," that place where the tennis ball seems the size of a basketball, the court the size of an ocean, and everything we hit turns to gold. An athlete's heaven is "zone."
Gallweys book had a major impact on Zeller's teaching philosophy. "The goal in tennis," says Zeller, "is to achieve this state of being in the "zone." When you are in the "zone," you're playing great tennis and having fun to the point where winning or losing are unimportant." "To me," continued Zeller, "learning how, on a consistent basis, to play in the "zone" was going to be the future of the game."
After studying extensively in the areas of philosophy, psychology and learning theory, Zeller noticed that while it was difficult for people to attain the "zone" under any circumstances, it was nearly impossible in a competitive environment.
Tennis players rely heavily on muscle memory and "if a person starts to play competitively before they ingrain the proper muscle movements, as far as the form and footwork of each stroke are concerned, that person will most likely develop inefficient movements and once this happens, it is very difficult to correct them," says Brent.
This not only dramatically elevates the difficulty of playing the game, it also increases the chances of someone becoming frustrated and quitting tennis altogether. "Learning in a competitive environment is too much for many people, so they simply stop trying."
Zeller then read Alfie Kohn's book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, which I referred to in last month's column. The book presents a very strong case against competition and after reading it several times, Zeller was certain that competition was doing more harm than good relative to the learning process.
He became convinced that if he was going to create the best learning environment for his students possible, he would have to buck the system and remove all competition from his program. In the fall of 1992, he did just that.
"Effortless Tennis" exclusively emphasizes the fundamental aspects of the game with no competition whatsoever. These fundamentals are honed in a cooperative learning environment where the person on the other side of the net is now your partner, not your opponent. "The terms winner and loser are obsolete in my program," says Zeller. "My players work toward achieving the same goal, simultaneously playing great tennis."
Another key component in the program is what Brent calls "joy." He encourages his players to simply have fun. "In conventional tennis, people experience joy only after winning a point or winning a game. In Effortless Tennis, players are working to experience joy in the middle of the point and especially just before, during and after contact."
If you walk into any tennis club in the world and study the faces of those on the court you'll see a vast array of emotions with anger, stress and frustration topping the list. Zeller knows why.
"The reason no one is being joyful (having fun) during competition is because when people compete, the goal changes from learning to winning.
In a competitive situation it is impossible to understand and feel what true relaxation is. When people compete they are very serious (and tense) when they make contact with the ball. Studies have shown that relaxed muscles react faster and that we are able to see and asses situations more quickly when we are relaxed."
True relaxation, according to Zeller, can only be achieved and experienced in a cooperative environment. "By getting people to enjoy themselves (and relax) while they are playing, I am increasing their chances of playing well."
Zeller's drills are designed so that the players are not hitting against each other but rather with one another and instead of trying to put the ball away, they work to sustain rallies for as long as possible. They practice hitting to various areas of the court, making their partner work, but the overriding goal is to sustain the rally for as long as possible.
If a person can learn to keep the ball in play while hitting various areas of the court they will be developing control and consistency which are the two most important aspects of the game.
There is no feeling of pressure or of being afraid to lose because one's self-esteem is never on the line. All the players in Zeller's program are in it together and support each other as they strive to improve.
Once Zeller's players have a solid foundation of the various techniques, they can then choose to compete (or not to) as a way of further developing their skills and not, says Zeller, for reasons of proving that they are better than someone else.
Predictably, Zeller's approach has met with much skepticism in the competitive society in which we live. The powers that be in the world of tennis have not embraced Zeller's techniques though he admits that he is not surprised.
"I think there are several reasons why my program has not been well received," says Zeller. "First, it has to do with the fact that things have been a certain way for so long that it is hard to see alternatives, especially when the powers that be have been relatively successful with competition."
"There is no doubt," he continues, "that competition has had its successes but the problem comes with the failures. Many more people fail in competition than succeed and this leads to lower performance, motivation and self-worth."
"If these people, who have a competitive based view of the world, acknowledged that someone may have a better approach, that would be tantamount to saying that they have been wrong. To be wrong would be equated to being a loser and there is nothing worse for those with a competitive view of the world than being a loser, so there is resistance."
"Finally, the people running tennis today are businessmen and the goal for businessman is the financial bottom line, not teaching people how to really play the game. They want to sell products."
Zeller does have his supporters in the tennis world though. Dick Gould, Head Coach of the Stanford University Men's Tennis Team said that "Effortless Tennis is an exciting approach to the game which I feel can make a very positive contribution to our sport." Tennis professional Kathleen Jones agrees saying "Effortless Tennis enabled me to play the best tennis of my competitive career without trying to be competitive and without trying to win."
Brent wisely realizes that we live in a competitive world. Though he finds it ironic that he must prove his no competition program through competition, he is doing just that.
Zeller recently used his "Effortless" approach with the Drake High School Boys Tennis team in Fairfax, CA. In three years the team went from 1-13 to 14-0 and won the county championship.
"All during this time I emphasized learning the skills and that the winning would take care of itself. At first everyone thought I was crazy, but winning did take care of itself."
Brent realizes that he is fighting an uphill battle, with hundreds of years of social conditioning as his nemesis, but he continues to fight to spread his word. He is currently organizing a nation wide program for high school and middle school students that should be in place in 1999. He is also starting a non-profit organization so that he can help provide scholarships for kids who have the desire, but not the money to do his program.
Zeller's program is innovative, creative and a direct contrast to what we have been taught over the past several hundred years. Society by nature is resistant to change. However Zeller, as well as a growing number of sociologists, feel that if we don't begin to do something about our cultural obsession with competition we are going to have far bigger problems on our hands than the proper way to teach someone to play tennis. I happen to agree!
Brent Zeller has put together what he calls the "Effortless Test" saying that "being a tennis player does not mean hitting great shots once in a while, it means hitting good shots most of the time. If you cannot complete these exercises, playing competition will severely limit your long-term development.
THE EFFORTLESS TEST
** Form counts. No Hacking!
- Groundstroke rally--15 each
- Cross-court groundstrokes--10 each
- Down the line groundstrokes--10 each
- Volley-Groundstroke rally--15 each
- Cross-court volley/groundstroke--10 each
- Down the line volley/groundstroke--10 each
- Lob-Overhead rally---10 each
- Serve--10 in a row (1 bounce over baseline)
- Return of serve--10 in a row (same as #8)
** Rallies are continuous--if someone misses, start a new count. Exercises 2,3,5,6--both forehand and backhand sides.