And with the expansion of the game, Fish has been able to expand his reach beyond the Ivy League level and become a national presence.
“Dave is one of the real titans of Harvard coaching, but also a titan of coaching nationally in the tennis community,” said Andrew Rueb ’95, a former captain of the tennis team. “All the top coaches call Dave for a little perspective and wisdom because he’s so well-respected amongst other college coaches.”
MORE THAN A FOREHAND
But beyond Fish’s success on the court, his former players believe that his greatest asset is his skill as a teacher and mentor.
“Results on the court are one thing, but Dave’s legacy is also as a mentor,” Rueb said. “He has a knack for helping young boys grow up into men, and really enjoys that process of mentorship and personal growth. There’s a reason the alumni are so supportive; he played a large part in shaping their future paths.”
Peter Stovell ’93 echoed Rueb’s belief that Fish was focused on making his players into better young men.
“Dave is concerned about how to hit a forehand, but also with the character of his players,” Stovell remarked. “There are a lot of people who can teach a forehand, but he can teach that, but also how to grow and mature. The character piece of his teaching is really important, and lasts a lifetime. A great teacher will impact you not only in the classroom, but also in all facets of your life—on the human side, your character.”
Fish’s strategy is to instill self-reliance in his players so that they can improve.
“I’m a thoughtful coach,” Fish said. “I try to persuade by logic rather than getting into your face…. My quieter approach means that people have to take responsibility for themselves.”
Fish’s desire to find motivated and driven players materializes in recruiting, where he tries to find players who will understand his message.
“Good organizations are effective because they’re clear about their missions and goals,” Rueb said. “Dave is smart about finding the right kind of kids who are a good fit for Harvard. He doesn’t hide Harvard’s challenges. In recruiting, he sends the message that this will be an adventure, and will test all of your skills and abilities. Kids that are attracted to that message come here with that set of expectations, and those players are happier and more engaged on and off the court.”
Players that buy into the message and appreciate challenges help to create a strong, cohesive team.
“I can’t teach somebody something they don’t already have in them,” Fish said. “I can’t coach effort, for instance. If they don’t have that built in, we have the wrong guys…. I love using teamwork to reduce the parts of people that tend toward being selfish. We can’t be a team until you reduce the amount of ‘I’ in your approach.”
Stovell embodied the type of player that fit into Fish’s program. By committing to the team-first philosophy and by giving maximum effort, Stovell transformed from a fringe player into a team leader.
“Pete came out for tennis, and wasn’t very good,” Fish recalled. “I used to joke that he was 15th on a squad of 12. But every day he’d work, suck up what I’d told him, and just kept creeping and getting better through sheer force of will. Finally, by senior year, he became captain.”