Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Twenty-Year Adventure in Non-Competitive Learning

            I began playing tennis in 1968, and teaching it in 1974. In November of 1992, with eighteen years as a teaching pro, and 15,000 hours of tennis instruction under my belt, I made a bold, some said crazy, decision to eliminate all competition from his tennis program. My twenty-four years of playing and teaching competitive tennis had changed my perspective.           
           As long as I’d played tennis, I had noticed how people’s behavior and personalities changed, often dramatically, when they got into competition. The desire to win, and its shadow, the fear of losing, became a distracting, even debilitating factor in their play. Players often became tense and emotional, timid and deflated, or aggressive and volatile, often by turns. Bad behaviors and general poor sportsmanship commonly emerged in competition – cursing, screaming, cheating, breaking rackets, bullying, or quitting. The enjoyment of the game was often lost completely.
            I began realizing the counter-productive nature of a competitive educational model, and started questioning an approach to learning in which virtual beginners were thrust into competition before they’d truly learned, let alone become proficient in, the basics. I saw how this model turned potential learning partners into adversaries, retarding rather than enhancing the learning process. It became increasingly obvious to me that the greatest obstacle to learning and mastering the basics, and to entering the fabled state of the Zone, prized by athletes in every sport, was the premature introduction of competition into the learning process.
            How can we expect people do well in competition before they've learned the basic skills of that activity? Competition is an advanced aspect of any activity, not something for people who haven’t developed competence in the basic skills. Yet this competitive approach dominates almost every aspect of our educational system.
           By the mid-1980s I had begun deemphasizing competition in my program, now called Effortless Tennis. Shifting the focus away from winning and losing, I concentrated instead on helping players develop the essential physical, mental, and emotional fundamentals of the game without competition. I saw how this new model of teaching diminished the pressure, frustration, and negativity so many people brought to the game — side-effects of being raised in a competitive system. My students gradually unlearned the negative self-talk and self-sabotaging behaviors instilled in them from their earliest years. They began experiencing the simple joy of learning and playing, free of the shadow of winning or losing. As I like to say, “When you know how to play the game, success is the natural outcome.”
            I noticed numerous benefits of a non-competitive learning system. These include:
• Students learn the basic physical, mental, and emotional skills before they start competing. This makes it possible for them to compete from a place of technical competence, emotional balance, and personal maturity.
• From their first day in the program, players develop relaxation and concentration skills that enhance physical performance and cognitive learning. Learning to be relaxed while competing is virtually impossible.
• A non-competitive learning environment enables players to go back and undo physical and psychological “bad habits” ingrained in competition. (It’s much harder to undo bad habits while competing, because you’re likely to lose a lot in the transitional period before attaining proficiency in the new good habits.)
• In a non-competitive environment, players experience substantially higher levels of enjoyment of the learning process, and a significant reduction in performance anxiety. The elusive “thrill of victory” is replaced by a more deeply satisfying and rewarding “thrill of accomplishment.”
• In a non-competitive, learning-focused system, people develop deeper levels of cooperation and camaraderie. They tend to take more pleasure in helping each other get better. They are friends, instead of adversaries. Psychologically, it creates a much more positive, supportive learning environment.
            In 1988, I started working with the Drake High School, San Anselmo, CA Boy’s tennis team during the last month of their season. The team ended with a 0-14 record. The next year, with the head coach’s approval, I worked with the team on de-emphasizing competition and focusing on practical, emotional and psychological skill development and enjoyment of the game. Over the next three years, the team’s results went from 1-13, to 7-7, to 14-0 and winning the county championship in the spring of 1991. I had proven that my non-competitive learning system could be successful—even in competition.
            Most people would have been elated by such success, and motivated to pursue more championships. But at that point, I was so disturbed by the negative side effects of the competitive system, I decided I’d had enough. I resigned my position with the team, but continued teaching privately.
            Then, in October of 1992, I read psychologist Alfie Kohn’s landmark book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition. There I found all of my intuitions and insights about the competitive system confirmed, clarified and amplified. Kohn’s extensive research showed that a competitive based learning system prevents a majority of people from achieving their potential, seriously undermining their long-term development, self-esteem, and enjoyment.
            Not long after that, I realized that if I was going to help people be their best and achieve their potential, I needed to remove all competition from my tennis program.
            That same October, a mother brought her 9 year-old daughter to me for tennis lessons. I began teaching her in my now completely non-competitive learning system. By the time she got to high school, she was one of the best players in Marin County. She won the Marin County High School Girl’s Singles Championship her sophomore and junior years, in 2000 and 2001. Once again I demonstrated that a non-competitive learning system could be successful in competition.
            In the intervening eleven years, I have further developed my system. I do not believe that competition should be eliminated, just the premature introduction of competition into the learning process. I am confident that my non-competitive approach to learning will help diminish much of the stress, cheating, bad behavior, and poor sportsmanship that are rampant in our competitive system, and that ruin the enjoyment of the game for many people. A non-competitive learning system creates a better, psychologically healthier environment for all participants. And it will produce better long-term results and greater enjoyment for a larger percentage of participants.
            I have also written a book on the subject, Evolutionary Education: Moving Beyond Our Competitive Compulsion. Since 2001 I have taught my non-competitive program through the College of Marin Community Education. My motto, “Competence Before Competition.” The classes are very popular and many students have stayed with the program from its beginning days. People like the lack of competitive pressure. They’ve been so stressed out by competition, that this approach allows them to relax and learn the skills of this challenging sport while getting a great physical, mental, and emotional workout, and having a lot of fun. We’ve been conditioned to think that the only way to have fun and excel is through competition, but that’s just not true. Excellence and fun can also happen with cooperation.” 
           This year I returned to the Drake High School boy’s tennis team as head coach. Now with twenty years and over 10,000 hours teaching my non-competitive learning system, my model has proven its value in the lives of many junior and adult students who have gone through the program.
            Yet, the competitive approach to learning is still the standard model in almost every sport, and also in the world of academia and business. The false belief, unsupported by scientific research or data, is that the sooner people start competing, the more “fun” it will be, and the faster they’ll improve in competitive play. Thus people are routinely thrown into competition in the early stages of the learning process, before they’ve really learned, let alone mastered, any of the fundamental practical and emotional skills necessary to do well in competition.
            One premise of my book, Evolutionary Education, is that the myriad problems facing our society and world today are largely a result of an adversarial system that encourages us not to work together in a cooperative spirit, but rather to compete against each other in a counter-productive, often unhealthy, manner that can degenerate into needless conflict, to the detriment of all. We see this clearly today in the political arena. And yet the consensus is that this approach and the negative behaviors it generates are somehow normal and necessary.
            Competition is so ingrained into every aspect of our society and life that it’s disconcerting for people to acknowledge and examine its many negative aspects. It’s true that humans tend to be competitive, but allowing a competitive mentality to dominate the learning process is not wisdom, but habit. It is clear to me that the premature introduction of competition into the learning process sabotages that process, and, for a vast majority of people, it produces more negative than positive results. So I’m working to change the system, one class, one student, and one mind at a time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The System's not Just Broken—It's Fatally Flawed

The System’s not Just Broken—It’s Fatally Flawed

We hear it everywhere: “The educational system’s broken," "The financial system’s broken," and most recently, "The political system’s broken.” The unpleasant truth, though, is that these systems aren’t just broken, because that would mean that they could be repaired; rather, the core principle upon which each is founded has been fatally flawed from the beginning! Each system is part of our larger competitive-based society. The problems we are seeing today are not abnormalities, but are the natural culmination of working from a competitive model. This is simply how a competitive system plays itself out, over the long term.

Obviously, we live in a competitive world. Us versus them. Me versus you. Look how huge sports are today, from Pop Warner to the NFL, etc., etc., etc., plus business, education, relationships, politics, and religion. It’s all about competition, all the time. Life is literally one big contest!

Yes, there are aspects to competition that can be a positive motivation for some people, but for many others, the negative side effects greatly outweigh those positives. We are taught and encouraged to be competitive from our earliest days. And, as hard as it might be to believe, most of the seemingly intractable problems we are facing now can be traced to this competitive mentality. When you have a system that promotes as its central belief what psychologist Alfie Kohn called, “mutually exclusive goal attainment,” i.e., "I can’t win unless you lose" -- well, at some point serious problems will arise. And we're at that point right now.

But don’t worry; we don’t need to eliminate competition altogether, because it has its place. Competition just can’t be the cornerstone of the system. Competition is the advanced part of any sport, subject, or activity, not something that beginners or people who don’t know what they’re doing should engage in. Currently, we throw people who have no skill development into competition, and then we’re puzzled when only a small percentage succeeds. It’s important to understand that in any contest, no matter how poorly the participants perform, someone will always be declared the winner. What does this prove? Only that this competitive system is not about creating excellence, it's about winning. How can we expect people to do well at something when they have no training? Yet we do have that unrealistic expectation, and that’s an enormous part of the problem.

If we look at the results objectively, the competitive system is a failure; nearly 50 percent of the world’s population lives on less than three dollars a day, and 80 percent lives on less than ten dollars a day. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day of hunger and malnutrition. One billion people are illiterate and another billion don’t have access to clean drinking water. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are casualties of violence, abuse, and war. And in this country, how many millions are undereducated? What kind of results are these? Either we are a mediocre, uncaring species, or we need to develop another model that will produce better results.

Many people are working incredibly hard today trying to get ahead and “make it” in this system, but they aren’t succeeding. We'd rather ignore these facts and believe that hard work always pays off. If you are someone who has become successful through hard work and luck (yes, luck also plays an important role), it’s difficult to believe that there are problems with the system. But by its very nature, the competitive system is designed for only a small percentage to succeed. Although most workers religiously support the system, holding out hope that some day it will be their turn to be wealthy, let’s be honest; that rarely happens. In a system based on a competitive model, there’s clearly not enough for everyone to have enough to survive and thrive.

Just because it’s commonly assumed that being competitive with each other is the best way to attain excellence and success doesn’t mean it’s true. The reality is that it’s impossible to achieve our potential by competing against each other. We can attain high levels of performance in a competitive system, but we can’t reach our potential. How can we be our best when our adversary is doing everything in his or her power to keep us from achieving our goal? A competitive-based system, you see, actually prevents us from being our best. Only by working together can we achieve our potential.

Being a winner is seen as the be-all and end-all of existence. People parrot the common refrain, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it's how you play the game,” and while this is a nice sentiment, all we have to do is look around and see that, no matter how hard we try to spin it, it actually does matter if we win or lose. The winners get the lion’s share, while the losers get only crumbs.

Being a winner is great! I’ve never met anyone who likes to lose, but the myriad negative side effects of a system based on a competitive model are evident all around us today. Lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, scamming, fear-mongering, diminished performance and potential, racism, greed, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, ignorance, and war, to name a few, lead inevitably to the conclusion that the basis of our system is fatally flawed. This competitive foundation is the system’s Achilles heel.

The critical reason why the competitive system is fatally flawed is that its design creates a dynamic by which each generation has to be more competitive than the previous generation, not to achieve excellence, but simply to keep up. Yes, it’s important to strive to be our best, but why do we believe that that goal is best accomplished in a competitive environment? We believe it because we’ve been taught and conditioned to believe it.

Think about this: the underlying philosophy of how we perceive reality makes it necessary for each generation to work harder, to be more competitive in order to surpass the achievements of previous generations. One generation does X, but then the next generation has to do X-plus—and so it goes, generation after generation. While it is good to try and go beyond prior generations, it is the competitive mentality that is problematic.

Sports, politics, and education provide clear examples of this increasing intensiveness and competitiveness. It’s true in all sports, but let’s use soccer to highlight the difference between today and twenty years ago. To play college soccer today, kids have to get on traveling squads at an early age, play year-round, and practice many hours every week, for a minimum of six years. In politics, if you wish to run for state or national office today, you need millions of dollars to have any chance of winning. In education, parents jockey for position to ensure that their kids get into the best preschools. And high school kids who want to attend the most prestigious universities have to work at their studies virtually non-stop; even then, there is no guarantee they will be accepted into their school of choice.

This is the nature of a competitive system. But to function at our peak, it's essential that we have significant amounts of “down time” where we get to relax, goof off, or ponder the bigger questions of existence; few are getting enough of this down time. Today, even if you’re lazy, it takes a lot just to get by.

While this competitive approach has increased performance levels at the high end, it comes at a great cost. The relevant questions are, “How much more competitive can we be? When does the stress of this unrealistic expectation begin producing more negative results than positive results? Have we already reached that point?” The pace and intensity of daily life has accelerated dramatically in the last forty years. This is why we see and experience so much worry, stress, fear, anger, aggression, despair, and aberrant behavior all around us. People are freaking out, both quietly and not so quietly! And with our current system, it's easy to understand why.

A competitive system teaches us, as its not-so-subtle message, that others are against us, are our enemies, and will pose obstacles to our goals. Where did this commonly accepted wisdom, that we need an adversary in order to be our best, come from? Such an approach makes it impossible for us to learn to work together to solve our collective problems. This is our dilemma; instead of being taught to trust each other and see others as partners and allies, with whom we need to cooperate to create a better, more humane world, we’ve been encouraged to fight against and be suspicious of others, try to get the better of them and thereby demonstrate our superiority. What a sad, low level of consciousness!

Although many people feel in their gut that something’s really wrong in our world today, it’s difficult to identify the source. Whether you consider yourself a conservative, a liberal, or a moderate, there’s a real sense of unease. That’s how I’ve been feeling since the 1960s. I spent over forty years trying to understand what’s going on in this crazy world. About ten years ago, the core issue finally came into focus.

Even if you’re doing very well financially, are you fully enjoying your life? Are there times when it’s hard to enjoy all your success when you realize how many people are still suffering? If you’re busy trying to keep your head above the rising tide, or spending all your time trying to out-compete everyone by proving that you are worthy of being Number One, or you just want to bury your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on, please look around. Realize that our world is in big trouble. If one person suffers, we all suffer. We can no longer blame and scapegoat a few “bad apples” or “weak links” for our problems. These are the predictable outcomes created by a competitive system; it’s high time we found a better model.

The mindset created by our highly competitive system is a vital issue for our times, one with profound implications for our long-term survival. Only by working together will we ever realize our potential as a species and solve our collective problems. So, while it’s great to see our team beat the other team and experience the “thrill of victory,” our competitive obsession is actually limiting our performance, potential, compassion, vision, enjoyment, and most importantly, our ability to solve our problems.

I’m sorry if the subject of this article makes some of you uncomfortable, but I believe that if we are going to survive, thrive, and evolve to higher levels of consciousness, where we can finally attain our amazing potential and help everyone have a better life, then we need to talk about changing the foundation of our system. Think how amazing we could be if we were all on the same team! Hard to imagine, no?

Working together to solve our collective problems will be very effective; cooperation is just as natural as competition. In his last book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin concluded that the evolution of humankind succeeded, not as he first thought, through a "survival of the fittest" mentality, but through altruism and love, the essential glue that binds human beings together in family and community.

We need to come together to figure how to create an excellence-based, cooperative system, with competition as one aspect. This model will help many more people realize their potential, become more productive members of society, and enjoy their lives more fully. What better outcome could we ask for?

Since we’ve been so deeply programmed to be competitive for such a long time, changing to a cooperative-based system will take a lot of work and several generations to implement. There are no quick fixes to our problems. But if we are to have any chance to create long-term solutions, changing to a cooperative system is essential. It’s not going to be easy at first, but if we “stay the course” with the competitive-based system, it's certain that things will continue to deteriorate. Becoming a society that works together instead of competes against each other is long overdue; we owe that to future generations.

Please take a look at If you’d like to lend your support or join my cause, email me at

Thanks for your time and consideration,

Brent Zeller

Copy Editor: Linda Jay Geldens,