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 my 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 behavior 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 to 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 selfsabotaging 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 in competition 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 longterm 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 ruins 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 noncompetitive program through the College of Marin Community Education. My motto, “Competence Before Competition.” My 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 noncompetitive 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 or 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.