|French Horn Performer and Successful Tennis Coach: A Q&A with Paul Fisher '71
Hershey native Paul Fisher ’71 began his college career as a music performance major at Carnegie Mellon University, where he also started on the tennis team. In his sophomore year however, he transferred to the Valley, alma mater of his parents, Dr. Paul G. Fisher ’47 and Sara Schott Fisher '47, and changed his major to music education. Unfortunately, since the College did not have a tennis team at that time, Fisher was forced to hang up his racquet—but only temporarily.
“I received my draft notice during my senior year, so I ended up in the U.S. Air Force Concert Band after college,” Fisher says. He went on to perform nationally and internationally as a member of the elite concert band’s French horn section for 24 years. “When I went to the Air Force band I figured I was done playing tennis, but they had a league and we travelled around and I was able to play in some big tournaments.”
Since he was stationed in Washington, D.C., Fisher also was able to compete and coach in the tennis community near his home in Fairfax County, Va. After he left the Air Force in 1995, Fisher took a position as tennis director at the nearby Burke Racquet and Swim Club, which led to an extraordinarily successful coaching career at James W. Robinson Jr. Secondary School in Fairfax.
Fisher’s boys’ tennis teams have won 19 district titles in 21 years, as well as seven regional titles with 16 trips to the state tournament—culminating in three consecutive state championships from 2006 to 2008. In addition, he has also coached four state singles champions and seven state doubles titles. During the 2012 season, the team extended its winning streak in district play to 100 matches. Among many other awards, in 2006 and 2012 Fisher was named the USTA/Virginia State Tennis Coach of the Year. He also was named the High School National Tennis Coach of the Year in 2007 by the Professional Tennis Registry, the world’s largest association of tennis professionals. This spring, he will begin his 22nd season as coach at Robinson.
How did you acquire your competitive spirit?
I’ve been playing sports my whole life! I remember playing football when I was a kindergartener against sixth graders. And then playing the French horn, you constantly have to go through tryouts and recitals, and that’s a form of competition. It’s not something that I’ve ever thought about, but competition has been a part of me since I was young.
What motivates you?
It’s not so much that I want to be first chair or win a state championship. I want to be the best that I can be. The winning is just a result of the process. That’s what I try to impart to my players—first you have to work hard, learn the game, play smart, and then the other things will follow. As long as we do the best that we can, then we’re happy. The results take care of themselves.
What I’ve learned is, there’s always going to be somebody better than you, somewhere. You might be number one in the district, but if you go to regionals, states, or nationals, there may be somebody that’s better.
Or, in my case as a horn player, when I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, they had recruited a class of French horn players that was … well, we were talked about for years. One guy is now principal of the New York Philharmonic, another one is in the New York Philharmonic, and all the other guys played professionally. I learned that if those guys went to the practice room, I went to the practice room. Because you don’t want to be the one who makes the mistake that people hear, so you’re always driving to be better.
What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
I can think of three professors right off the bat: Dr. James Thurmond [late professor emeritus of music] was a stickler! You train with somebody like that—someone who’s played professionally and has been a teacher who developed other players—you want to practice and be prepared for your weekly lessons to avoid sloppy mistakes. Professor Frank Stachow [late professor emeritus of music] and Dr. Bob Lau [professor emeritus of music] were similarly particular and didn’t let us get away with anything. In addition, I was in a unique position because my dad was principal in the Harrisburg Symphony. My parents were friends and colleagues of my professors—these were people who were sometimes guests in my house. I didn’t want them going back and saying anything about my work to my dad!
How has global competition changed your field?
Among all college sports, tennis is the most “global.” A major controversy in college tennis is the use of foreign players. A quick estimate would put the percentage of foreign players competing on American university and college teams at about 40 percent or higher. The top college teams generally get the best U.S. players so the other coaches have turned to recruiting overseas as a way to remain competitive. These players generally are older and have played competitively on the international circuit against pros. And they tend to be “hungrier”—that is, they’ve been living in harsher conditions, their coaches have been harder on them physically and mentally, and this college opportunity can represent their big break.
What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
Continuing education. I probably have almost every tennis training video that’s ever been produced. I want to learn, I don’t want to be bored, and I don’t want my players to be bored. I don’t want to go out and do the same thing every day. I probably get that from my dad. He was never standing still—he was always moving forward, trying new things, and that’s the only way I know how to do it. I’m almost 65 and this business is a young person’s business. I know that I have to keep learning just to stay level. The only way I can stay ahead of them at this point is mentally—not physically!
How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
Our team goes through a warm up and then I usually try to talk individually with each player, particularly for big matches. Then, we get together as a team for a ritual. I let them know what we’re playing for, but I don’t ask them to win—I encourage them to work hard and play smart. I know it’s often more of a mental than physical game.
Who is your favorite competitive role model?
My role model is my dad. He was a band director and I watched him conduct from the time I was four or five. I saw how he worked with people and how he always approached his musicians from a positive perspective. There are a lot of parallels between coaching tennis and directing a band. Everybody has to be on the same page and it matters how you handle people—when you need to tighten things up or when you can loosen things up and give them a little freedom. Coaching to me is more than just coaching tennis. I want my players to grow as people, to accept responsibility and leadership and become mentors, particularly as they grow from freshmen to seniors.
What makes LVC competitive?
In the 1970s, it was the professors. They had high expectations and they didn’t let things slide. Today, I visit Lebanon Valley’s website and the school seems to be moving ahead—they’re not standing still. From an athletic perspective, I see the new field, the football team, the basketball team. They’ve improved the facilities and they’re competing with other colleges.
What advice would you give to current LVC students?
Your Lebanon Valley degree is only the beginning. The world is competitive, getting a job is competitive, and things are changing so fast that you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to constantly upgrade, learn new things, and be flexible. I’m an example. I left Lebanon Valley with a music degree. I had no idea that I would end up in the tennis business. Some students will leave Lebanon Valley with a specific degree, yet years from now make a right turn due to the skills they developed as an undergraduate. Flexibility is very important.