by Lynn Mills

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VOL. 1 NO. 26 Encino Sun
DECEMBER 16-22, 2006

Zen of Tennis serves up life skills
on and off courts across the Valley

Coach Zach Kleiman’s mental game is a winner every time

BY LYNN MILLS

Zach Kleiman volleys thoughtful questions across the net as solidly as he lobs tennis balls.

“What personality quality would you like more of?” he casually asks his opponent, then swiftly moves into a meaningful explanation of how the question relates to tennis. If a student is open to it, he may even delve deeper into off-court issues that manifest themselves in the student’s game.

Sports coaches know the importance of the mental game, and in the game of life, psychotherapists recognize the body’s influence on mental and emotional health.

Valley tennis coach Kleiman connects the two with his unique blend of teaching and on-court personal conversations, linking the psyche and tennis like a Yin Yang symbol.

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a tennis teacher is just a tennis teacher. Not so for Kleiman, who is a combination coach/advisor/insightful friend — and nudge.

Kleiman’s warmth and sincerity make opening up to him inviting; his insight makes it worthwhile. And it’s all done with a sense of fun — he never lets you forget that after all, life is just a game, too.

His method makes the psychiatrist’s couch seem like a strait-jacket for both the mind and body. Revving up with the endorphins released on the tennis court, the mind moves as quickly as the ball from one side of the net to the other.

From Toluca Lake to Calabasas, Kleiman has been teaching tennis for the past 30 years.

Of his students Kleiman says, “More than half show up for the tennis and then they realize, oh, there’s much more. And then they make the decision to stay or leave. I don’t stay on the tennis for long. I’ll go to concentration, I’ll go to spirit, I’ll go to what is their relationship with the ball before I’ll go to footwork or racquet preparation. Because I know that if I see the ball, my racquet will prepare itself.”

Dee Dee Daniel has been a student of Kleiman’s for decades.

“Not only do you work out problems, but you get exercise,” says Daniel, who started simply with a desire to learn tennis because her husband was into it. Ultimately, she found that Kleiman offered a great deal more.

Daniel explains, “Then it got into my mother dying, my father dying, secrets… With Zach, what evolved was the ‘post office box.’ It’s easier to close the box up than to open the box and let stuff out. So, I’ve been using tennis to get inside the box.”

Daniel, who has done traditional therapy in the past, prefers her on-court discussions with Kleiman. “Zach gives you a safe way to get into those dark spots. If you’re sitting on a couch with a therapist, it’s scary. But somehow out here, because you have the ball to focus on, it becomes the universe, so it’s just safer.”

Kleiman’s students deal with everything from professional problems like writer’s block and stage fright, to intimacy issues, eating disorders, addictions, grieving, and anger management.

Once a producer brought in his kindhearted assistant, hoping Kleiman could help him “turn off his ‘nice’ valve.” Another time, a family of fi ve took a lesson together, with Kleiman instructing them to take their spots on the court in relation to their place in the family to show, literally, who’s calling the shots and who’s standing out of bounds, out of the game.

While it isn’t exactly therapy, it can definitely be therapeutic — a number of mental health professionals have even referred patients to Kleiman as an adjunct to traditional therapy.

Adjuncts can be therapeutic activities such as yoga, hypnosis and group therapy sessions.

“(Therapists) say, ‘I need to get them into their body. I need to stop intellectualizing this work and let them feel something physically, not just emotionally,’” Kleiman states.

Psychotherapist Susan Picascia confirms “Zach is very good at using the body and the game of tennis to help someone know themselves better. They are able to identify what’s inhibiting them or enhancing them, both in their tennis game and in their lives and their relationships.”

But Kleiman makes it clear that he’s not a therapist. “I can counsel. I can give opinions. I can have great intuition. I can use psychological terms and I have the freedom that a therapist doesn’t have, but I also follow a lot of their confidentiality rules. I know that I’m not out there to hurt anyone. I’m there to help heal,” explains Zach.

Several of the mental health professionals who refer patients have also been students of Kleiman’s. Psychologist Jeff Marsh says he began referring clients because of what he found helpful in his own on-court sessions. “In my experience it’s unusual to fi nd someone who can work with people as well as Zach does, as comfortably, and provide such a great environment for them to really be able to talk and discover things about
themselves,” says Marsh.

Some patients have even abandoned the couch for the court.

As Marsh points out, “It may be easier, less expensive and/or just more enjoyable to be on a tennis court than it is to be in an offi ce in Beverly Hills.”

Often, therapists consult Zach regarding mutual clients. “What I see in the therapy room, he sees on the tennis court. We’re amazingly similar in our understandings of the person,” says Picascia. “That’s always validating as a therapist.”

A native of Yonkers, New York, Zach discovered his teaching gift when he was 15 and started giving tennis lessons to friends. “I realized pretty quickly that it was not just about tennis and started asking questions rather than telling. ‘Did you see the ball?’ rather than saying, ‘Watch the ball!’ The answer that the student gave seemed to be more leading toward their learning than my telling them what to do,” he recalls.

Purely from a tennis standpoint, Zach gets high praise. He competed on the circuit briefly in Australia against players ranked in the Top 40 and has traveled all over the country teaching tennis clinics.

Although he is a member of the United States Professional Tennis Association, his teaching style is much less formal and rigid.

“His technique, which I really like, is less about how to position yourself and swing and that there’s some ‘appropriate’ way to play tennis,” explains writer/producer Jeff Spezialy. “He tends to approach things from a more emotionally based point of view -- were you impatient? Were you aggressive? Are you being tentative?”

Students range from beginners to advanced players, from all walks of life and cultures. Kleiman has learned to say, “See the ball?” in seven languages and tailors the instruction for each.

He tells a woodwind musician to loosen up and play tennis à la Oscar Peterson instead of John Phillips Souza. He also teaches professional athletes from other sports, such as billiards, soccer, basketball, and golf — even the entire U.S. Olympic Fencing Team — with the intent that techniques learned on the tennis court will carry over to their respective sports.

Kleiman’s approach seems to work well with both women and men. “I’m always surprised a lot of men who I think would not do work like this trust me,” says Kleiman. “A lot of them have said, ‘I don’t really want to do therapy, but this is fun.’”

Actor Jamie McShane, a lifelong athlete, one-time tennis teacher, and high-end tennis player who competes in USTA leagues, was skeptical, so he interviewed Zach before taking a lesson.

“I didn’t see any point in having [a tennis teacher], because I didn’t think there was anything for me to learn,” recalls McShane. “And I’ve never done therapy in my life. Never had interest.”

Never say never. McShane has been an avid student of Kleiman’s for twenty years and
describes it as “working out your baggage in life and opening up who you are and finding it through tennis… finding a correlation of what works and doesn’t work in your tennis game and seeing how that correlates to your life.”

And, he adds, his serve is now 10 to 15 mph faster.

Business consultant Paul Barker succinctly sums up the Kleiman experience. “I thought I came here to hit tennis balls, so my expectations were very mundane. I didn’t expect that I would learn a lot about myself.”

Contact Zach Kleiman at metaphorman@juno.com.