Joel Fish (‘75) is the primary reason that this column is written every week. As a writer for the sports section for the The Scarlet, he helped come up with the idea for Cougar of the Week. At the time, it was a photo of an athlete and a small bio, and has since evolved into an interview column. Fish then went on to become Sports Editor for The Scarlet and majored in psychology. He is now a sports psychologist and works with the Philadelphia 76ers, Flyers, and Phillies, as well as the U.S. Olympic Women’s Field Hockey Team, U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, and several universities. His daughter, Tali Fish (‘14), was captain for Clark Field Hockey. Fish visits Clark periodically to talk sports psychology with various teams.
Scarlet: How did you get involved in The Scarlet?
Fish: I always loved sports. I had been an avid reader of the Philadelphia Daily News’ sport section for years. One of the wonderful opportunities about a place like Clark is that if you want to try something new, you can do it. You don’t have to wait a year or two do to it. You don’t have to wait for five or ten other people to graduate. In my sophomore year, I just decided that this was something I wanted to do. I had the opportunity to write some articles, cover some games, and eventually became the Sports Editor. I look back on my experience of having that weekly deadline, and writing week after week after week. It became something I looked forward to, and meant a lot to me, really helped my writing, and helped my college experience.
Scarlet: What was the sports section like when you took over?
Fish: When I started to have more influence over what the sports section would be like, I felt like we needed to continue to offer game coverage because you couldn’t look those things up in the same way [you can now]. But I felt like it would serve the Clark Community in a way that was of interest to the readers, but also broaden the sports section, to do more features. One of my goals was to do more features about the personalities of coaches, issues that were facing the athletic department, the way the university viewed athletics … I wanted to take people behind the scenes of the Clark Athletic Department in a broader way.
Scarlet: How did you think of the idea to write Cougar of the Week?
Fish: It was a fellow student John White (’74) and myself. I was a junior, and he was the sports editor. We developed the idea of Cougar of the Week. We felt like in addition to reporting games, writing more feature kind of things, Cougar of the Week gave us the chance to pin recognition to a student athlete for performance. But we also did Cougar of the Week for people who worked behind the scenes, not getting the kind of playing time that they needed. My senior year we started to broaden Cougar of the Week to people who were heavily involved in intramurals so that it wasn’t just a student athlete. As I look back at it, that was a conscious decision on my part senior year, to take Cougar of the Week, and broaden the definition of who would be eligible for it.
Scarlet: What impact did writing for The Scarlet have on you?
Fish: If I have to identify one area that Clark influenced me in a lot of ways, I would say it was writing for The Scarlet, because it’s a creative outlet. I still enjoy writing. In my professional work, I have to write a lot. Through practice, I became more disciplined with writing. I remember spending time in the basement of Dana Commons for what felt like an hour, like “Should I use this word or that word. Does this really express what I’m interested in?” Clark exposed me to what creative writing was all about, and it’s become an important part of both my professional and personal life. I don’t know if I would have had a chance to develop that interest if not for The Scarlet.
Scarlet: How did you become involved in sports psychology?
Fish: I was a psych major at Clark. Then I went to Temple for a Master’s. It goes back to my roots before Clark. I went to Wisconsin, and they had a program. I wish I could tell you it was more thought out, but I was like ‘I love sports, and I love psychology,’ so let’s give this a chance.
When I came out, I was licensed in psychology, with a concentration in sports psychology. I started teaching the sports psychology class at University of St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. At that point, I was doing general psychology in a mental health clinic, and there was an interest in St. Joseph’s athletic department in me doing psychology work with their team doing mental skills training and professional development. And so, I started doing that, and the 76ers used to practice at St. Joseph’s, so small world that it is, they were interested in having someone do personality assessments for their potential draft picks, and so they asked me to do that, and the rest is history.
Scarlet: What was the field of sports psychology like when you started?
Fish: When I was getting started, it was, for lack of a better word, cutting-edge. I believe there were 15 graduate programs that offered something in sports psychology, and now there’s over 200. In terms of working with professional athletes and elite athletes, it was still the exception rather than the rule for a team to have a sports psychologist as part of their player development. When I started working with the Sixers in 1998, I was one of the first to be asked by a professional organization to take a look at character, personality, and fit with the team. Now, everyone has one.
Every team I worked with, I’d start with the same question: ‘What percentage of performance is mental?’ And every athlete, no matter what sport, say the game is largely mental. So if the game is largely mental, let’s spend time talking about the mental parts of the game. I did not vary for one day in believing that there was a future in sports psychology. It makes too much sense.
Scarlet: Growing up in Philadelphia, I imagine you grew up idolizing players on the city’s professional sports teams. Do you ever find yourself star-struck by your profession?
Fish: I don’t mean to sound cliché or anything, but every day. I was just at the Sixers facility yesterday, and they just put up these numbers of guys they retired, like Hal Greer, Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Julius Erving … and I was just looking at it the other day and was like, ‘Wow, look at what I’m doing. I remember watching those guys.’ It’s still a job, but there are those moments every day.
Scarlet: How informed do you think people are about what you do?
Fish: A lot more than ten, twenty years ago. There are still many times where I am educating people about what sports psychology is. The sports part of sports psychology is mental skills training. It’s strategies for training, for confidence, for composure … The psychology part of sports psychology is introducing an athlete’s personal life and how it can impact performance. I talk to athletes of all skill levels about stress, about anxiety, about parental pressures, personal relationships. The biggest change over the past twenty years is, in my opinion, that there’s an understanding that sports psychology is part of player development. It’s part of improving all aspects of yourself. In the same way that you practice the technical part of your sport, it’s important to practice the mental parts of the sport.
I think there’s also less of a stigma connected to someone working with a sports psychologist compared to when I first entered the field. Almost every major golfer has said that a sports psychologist is part of their team. So that’s been a big change over time too.
Scarlet: Something we haven’t talked about yet: You wrote ‘101 Ways to be a Terrific Sports Parent.’ Would you consider yourself a terrific sports parent?
Fish: [Laughs] My first response to that is, I’m very proud of my three children, Eli, Ari and Tali. Each of them continues to have sport, fitness, and recreation as part of their lifestyle. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, but I’m hoping that one of them is that I’ve helped make the experience enjoyable enough for them to have it as part of their lifestyle. Is it humbling that you can write something, and recognize that it’s hard to practice what you preach sometimes? 100 percent. I was writing that, and I’m sure my kids could give you examples of that, where it’s just something about sports where you see your kid up there with the bases loaded that activates certain feelings and thoughts. In the book, I used a lot of examples of things I said or did where the next day I was like, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ The book from a parenting point of view for me, hopefully addresses the most common questions parents have about navigating their kid through competition.
Scarlet: Do you still watch sports?
Fish: Absolutely, and I still follow the Clark teams. I love competition. After all these years, the last five minutes of a game intrigue me. Take a look at the NBA Playoffs right now, and the courage that it takes for LeBron James to put himself on the line. Because he’s LeBron James, and if he misses a big shot, everybody knows about it. How do you focus when you have 80,000 people making noise? To be honest, I’m still as intrigued by that as I was when I played Little League at ten years old.
Scarlet: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Fish: As a parent as well as sports psychologist and an alumnus, I want to thank Linda Wage, my daughter’s field hockey coach, Trish Cronin, who is the athletic director, and the Clark Athletic Department, because I think Talia had a fantastic experience at Clark, and that really enriched her entire Clark experience. I think Clark had a terrific ability to teach her skills that I know are helping her now that she has graduated Clark. I think Clark has good core values that they bring to the student athlete experience. Talia missed less class in college than she did in high school. The fact my daughter had an opportunity to develop the competitive part of herself, as well as the academic part and social part, has led to her having a well-rounded personality that she is taking into her post-Clark life.
Thanks for the interview, Joel Fish!