It stands to reason that Dan Zahler would approach and assess the human body as a machine. After all, he comes from a family of mechanical engineers. “I see the body as a machine,” he says. “I can see exactly when things go wrong with it. I love to be able to do that.”
“My dad and my brother own a machine shop and my uncle who died when I was nineteen owned a machine shop too. All my cousins who worked were engineers. I’m the only Zahler boy not to work in a machine shop.” Growing up, however, Zahler spent a good amount of time at the shop including summer months. “We designed and built machines through Alliant Tech, a military company,” he says. Clearly, whatever other profession Zahler intended to pursue, it had to come with some kind of engineering quotient to satisfy that part of his DNA.
He cannot pin point when he became convinced that the whole field of exercise and training (Exercise Physiology) would float his boat. But he was a gifted athlete at an early age and played multiple sports including football, wrestling, later on, boxing, all the while keeping his primary focus baseball. “I never really played tennis. I went out on a court a few times and didn’t really like it. I had never even heard of paddle,” he says.
His own athleticism then, introduced him early to the world of physical health and fitness in his native Chesterland, Ohio just outside of Cleveland. “When I was growing up, I would make fun of trainers. I would never want to be one. I would be embarrassed listening to them, because what they said didn’t make sense mechanically. As I got older and had to use trainers more and more, I felt I could do a better job than they could. I wanted to do things the right way. I thought that what these other people were doing gave the training profession a bad name.”
After graduating from West Geauga High School in 2000, Zahler moved on to Mt. Union College in Alliance, Ohio where he played baseball while pursuing a major in Exercise Physiology. In 2002, however, he broke his hand forcing him to put aside baseball and become more serious about his career as a trainer. In doing so, he discovered that the University of Toledo Exercise Physiology curriculum offered broader opportunities with a better range of jobs and significantly more connections than he could find at Mount Union.
He made the transfer to Toledo and would graduate from there in December of 2005 specializing in Kinesiotherapy. As part of the degree program, he worked as a kinesiotherapist at a VA hospital for eight months. Though he would leave the job a few months after his graduation, he had at least one transformative experience.
“I wanted to work with healthy people after working in rehab with mainly older people. But I had one person who was really special. I had been working with this old guy in a wheel chair and he was really negative and hard for me to reach. One day, a woman came in who was as bad or worse physically as he was.”
“She told me her goal was some day to be able to stand up and walk into her doctor’s office,” he continued. “The brutal part of doing rehab work is when people don’t care and aren’t on board with what you are trying to do, like the old guy in the wheel chair. But with this lady, I bought into her view. To this day, ten years later, she inspires me. My bosses thought I was too aggressive in my treatment, but before I left, she was able to walk into her doctor’s office. Less than three months after I left, she was back in a wheel chair.”
Zahler knew definitively that he wanted out of VA hospital rehab. He may not have intended leaving Ohio, too but it was clearly in his stars. Shortly before he transferred to University of Toledo, he met his future wife. Subsequently, she would move to Philadelphia for medical school. As their relationship progressed so did the attraction for him of a move to the East coast. He remembers the actual move vividly.
“I got a job offer from Standfirm Fitness in Wilton, CT. It gave me a chance to be close to my girl friend but not too close. We both still had to establish ourselves professionally and I knew that it would take up a lot of time. On the fourth of February 2006,I packed up my truck with everything I owned. I had a new mattress. When I arrived, I didn’t have any place to stay. For two weeks or so, I used that new mattress to sleep on at night in the place where I worked.”
There were other reasons agitating for a scenery change. “I felt like I had to get out of there,” Zahler says. “Everybody in my family was doing the same thing, living the same way they had for years. I had already chosen a career outside of the family business. I had gone to college and that meant I was supposed to make money. Get a degree, become a doctor or a lawyer and make money. That’s how they think where I come from. I would get questions, mostly from my father like, ‘Why do want to work in just a gym? It’s just a dead-end. How are you going to make money there?’”
“There wasn’t really any pressure put on me to stay or leave by the older generation of adults in my family,” says Zahler. “I’m not sure even now some of them think I’m serious about my career. When it comes to what I’m doing, I think they’re waiting for me to fail and then I’ll come back home and things will be normal. But the people my age, my contemporaries were supportive of me. I think maybe some of them wish they could do what I have done.”
At Standfirm, Zahler worked hard at his profession, constantly improving upon methods and practices that would help heal the various injuries from which his clients suffered. As both his knowledge and experience expanded, he began to entertain the idea of becoming a gym owner. In that role with help, he knew he could achieve some of the goals he had set for doing things right.
He stayed at StandFirm for over a year. Toward the end of his term there, he worked on putting a business plan together. In 2007-8 as an owner, he opened a fitness gym located in Wilton, CT. For seven years, Zahler has served as lynchpin of the organization. He has responded enthusiastically and successfully to his role as owner. “’Owner’” sounds better when I talk to my family back home,” he says, laughing.
Over the course of two years, he noticed gradually at first, then with marked frequency, that several people seeking treatment from him had sustained injuries related to a game called paddle, short for platform tennis. “We started doing a lot of training and rehab for paddle because an increasing number of players were coming to the gym.”
One person in particular, Bert Pykosz, recommended that Zahler should give the sport a try. “Bert introduced me to the game and got me interested in it a year after we opened,” Zahler says. He played at the Wilton YMCA and the first day I went out there and played singles, I did pretty well. I really liked it. After that, I would sometimes go down to the courts at Long Shore Country Club in Westport and practice by myself.”
Though Zahler was not a racquets man, he has embraced paddle with uncommon zeal. “I didn’t like tennis all that much. There are two things I really like about paddle. First, there is more finesse in the game. Power is not as big a part of it as it is tennis. Second, the camaraderie – I love it and how it and how people who play at all different levels can enjoy it”
Zahler’s almost fever-pitch love of the sport which led to his Division 2 Championship finals of this year’s Paul Fowler Fairfield County Paddle Tennis League Tournament spills over into his driving desire to diagnose, treat, and where possible, prevent paddle player injuries. “This game is growing and the number of injuries are rising,” he says, noting that how you prepare your body to play efficiently will have significant impact on reducing the severity and occurrence of physical breakdown.
His approach is holistic focusing on how your body can generate maximum force expending minimum energy. He constantly incorporates his ideas about fitness into paddle performance. “They’re all interconnected. In a workout you try to maximize what you have in your body just like in a stroke you try to maximize what you have in your paddle.”
“One of the big things to remember is that when it comes to your body and movement, everything needs to be working as one, a kinetic approach which means fewer moving parts. Your body finds a way to get a physical task done but not always efficiently because it taxes joints, ligaments and tendons. The goal is to use your muscles and not stress or abuse those joints, ligaments, and tendons. They are not designed to take the shock. They can’t keep up with the physical demands of the game. That’s how injuries happen.”
While Zahler has become increasingly familiar with paddle related injuries, still the more plentiful are those that are generic to racquet and other sports. Some general observations: 1) until you find it (the knowledge) you just don’t understand how much and how long it takes to know how important your legs are to upper body movements; 2) most people who have knee, back (or both) pain try to “save” their knees and backs instead of using their glutes, hamstrings and quads, the muscles that must be deployed to save your joints.
In its wake but catching up to the exploding growth of platform tennis is the need for continually improved injury prevention and treatment. What is special about Dan Zahler is that he comes to the sport with such closely related, yet quite different perspectives – as a trainer who helps to both prevent and treat injuries, and as a player who can inflict them especially on himself as paddle is a non-contact sport, at least most of the time!
Furthermore, his passion for his profession helps fuel his love of the game. They feed each other and keep him engaged bringing the kind of curiosity and inquiry associated with the cutting edge. His solid grounding in and intuitive understanding of mechanics is comforting. So is his patience when it comes to diagnosis. Though he wants to get you on a healing regimen quickly, he is a careful listener. Each client represents a certain amount of ability, injury history and age. “Each person has to be taken on a case by case basis. You have to listen. You have to hear,” he says.
Clarity about what he hears and then acting upon it is standard Zahler operating procedure. He insists relentlessly that his prescribed exercises be done correctly.
“I’ve had a lot of coaches, and trainers throughout the years,” he says. “Especially the coaches, all they cared about was how much you lifted, how many repetitions you could do. They didn’t envision the bigger picture. What they focused on were just numbers to me. I watched kids develop the wrong way to do the tasks and develop bad habits that would carry over for years and are very hard to break.”
Zahler uses as an example repetition of the basic curl. When executing that movement using a free weight, you grasp the weight palm up with your arm extended at your side. You lift, “curling” to your chest, and then lowering back down to your side. “I must say that there are many ways to do an exercise and because you do it differently doesn’t mean how you do it is wrong,” notes Zahler.
“But very often,” he says, “a person’s dominant body part, in this case the arm, will operate in a smooth, controlled path while the non-dominant (weaker) side will rotate or bend as it adds other muscles in trying to find a more comfortable position. That way, the non-dominant arm will compensate for its weakness in order to get the job done. You might not be able to notice it because you’ve done the rep but at what cost to your body?
“If you do the exercise the right way, you may not be able to do as many reps. but your muscles get the maximum benefit of your effort. It will look easier to everyone else but feel harder to you. And that’s what makes your workout most effective,” he concludes.
Zahler’s emphasis on detail and getting things right has led him to the forefront of his field. Right now, as he rides the crest of a sports medicine wave, you couldn’t have a better point man leading you to a healthy, paddle playing future.