Though he never played or coach any sports teams, Joel Fish will be honored by the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame this week for the advances he’s made in sports psychology.
He wasn’t a player, coach or owner for any of the local teams. He didn’t work in the media or became a sports agent.
So why, exactly, is Joel Fish, a sports psychologist, being inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame next week?
The advancements Fish has made in his field — where he has become one of the leading experts, raising the bar to a level where now nearly every professional team in addition to many colleges employ sports psychologists like him — make him a worthy choice, say Hall of Fame officials.
“What he’s done as one of the pre-eminent experts in the field — both locally and nationally — has been very important for both individual athletes and teams,’’ said Stephen Frishberg, the Hall of Fame’s chairman of the board. “It’s a privilege to be able to recognize someone who’s added so much to the world of sports.’’
The others who will be inducted with Fish at this year’s annual event, to be held May 28 at the Gershman Y, include sports agent Arn Tellem, journalist Franz Lidz, golfer Ben Goldman, tennis coach Marty Gilbert, New Jersey and Cornell basketball standout Sam Jacobs and Penn State mascot/program supporter, the late Norm Constantine.
“The Hall is interested in recognizing people who’ve impacted the world of sports,’’ said Fish, whose brief baseball career consisted of playing left field and captaining his team at Lower Merion High School in the early 1970s. “I happened to catch the wave at the right time in sports psychology.
“I always loved sports. Loved psychology. I figured, ‘Let me see where this goes,’ ” he continued.
It’s gone further than the 61-year-old resident of Chestnut Hill could possibly have imagined. “When I entered sports psychology, it was just an emerging field,’’ said Fish, whose family moved from Overbrook Park to Wynnefield around the time of his Bar Mitzvah at Beth T’filah.
He later attended Clark University in Worcester, Mass, where his 22-year-old daughter, Talia, just received her master’s degree. Then it was on to Temple for his master’s in psychology before heading to the University of Wisconsin, where Fish received his doctorate at the same school his father attended and where his 26-year-old son, Eli, is currently doing post-graduate work. Talia’s twin brother, Ari, recently graduated from Pitt.
“Thirty-eight years later, it’s very well established at the elite level with Olympic and professional athletes,” he says of his niche. “The field continues to grow the same way strength and conditioning and nutrition have grown. But not only has it become more mainstream at the professional level — it’s more mainstream in general.’’
For confidentiality reasons, Fish declined to disclose specifics of where or with whom he is currently working.
But he did say that over the past 38 years, he has worked with most of Philadelphia’s professional sports teams, including 20 years with the Sixers, 18 years with the Flyers and 12 with the Phillies. He also has had longstanding relationships with St. Joseph’s University, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team.
In that time, he said, he has discovered that while most of us don’t possess the skills of an Allen Iverson, Claude Giroux or Chase Utley, they’re not really all that different from the rest of us.
“I’ve found there’s not any difference dealing with athletes and with the general population, which surprised me,’’ said Fish, founder of the Center for Sport Psychology in Center City, whose mission, according to its website, is to “to help athletes reach their full potential by focusing upon and mastering the mental aspects of sports, fitness, exercise, rehabilitation and competition.”
“When I came into this business, I knew there was a competitive personality type,” Fish said. “What I’ve learned since is some are more competitive than others, but the range of personality types is very similar. You have extroverted vs. introverted, confident vs. not confident.
“Some players are good in their sport, but not any more competitive than you or me. They just happen to be more athletically blessed.’’
There’s also not much difference between a struggling major leaguer who can’t hit the curve ball, a basketball player who can’t sink a clutch free throw and a 12-year-old Little Leaguer.
“I might be talking to a 12-year-old having confidence issues and a major leaguer having confidence issues,” said Fish, the author of the 2003 book, 101 Ways to be a Terrific Sports Parent. “It continues to intrigue me.’’
He said he loves sports psychology because it “cuts to the basic issues: confidence, composure, communication, concentration, cohesion. Sports psychology becomes an area to teach life skills. The same skills that help someone be the best they can be in sport are the ones that will help them in other parts of their life.”
That’s the kind of message Fish has been delivering to athletes for nearly four decades. Next week, the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame will recognize those efforts. “I can’t think of a club I’d rather be part of,’’ he said proudly. “Philadelphia is my home, my roots. Judaism is the core of my identity.”
Considering his strong commitment to Judaism, this honor is especially meaningful to Fish, whose three children attended both Forman and Saligman Jewish day schools, while his wife, Debbie, worked 20 years with Jewish Family and Children’s Service before serving as director of online learning at Gratz College.
“To be inducted into the same Hall as Dolph Schayes, Larry Brown and Dave Zinkoff is overwhelming,” he said.