Shaun Fishel

Shaun Fishel works with students in the Downer Fitness Center at Exeter.

"At the end of the day, I want you to be a better person."

Shaun Fishel walks into a huddle of teenagers and disappears. At a brawny 6 feet, 3 inches, Fishel is used to being the biggest guy in the room, but these teens are long and lanky.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in late September, and the band of giants surrounding Fishel is the varsity boys basketball team gathered for a workout at Downer Family Fitness Center. There isn’t a basketball or hoop to be seen, and the season won’t officially open until winter term, but no matter. This workout is with “Coach Fish.”

The Academy’s new head coach of strength and conditioning isn’t the guy who teaches jump shots — or slap shots or curveballs or corner kicks — he’s the guy who makes all of those things a little better. Throughout the school year, in-season and out, Fishel and new assistant Craig Doran develop Exeter athletes physically and physiologically, helping them to improve their performances on the field and their overall well-being off it.

It’s the latter outcome that motivates Fishel most.

“We want you in your peak condition as far as cardiovascular condition, physical condition, strength — but to me, it’s also about developing them as a person,” he says. “I think facing the adversity, in the weight room, putting this time in, doing all this stuff really builds character, and I think that’s really our end goal. Can we make you a better person? Yes, I want you to become physically better and perform better, but at the end of the day, I want you to be a better person. And if I can help you in some way, I’ve done my job.”

A student of science

That philosophy dovetails well with the Academy’s goal of developing well-rounded students, and Fishel’s primary classroom is the Downer Center. Opened in 2015 and made possible by a gift from Trustees President John “Tony” Downer ’75 and his family, the 9,000-square-foot center boasts dozens of treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bikes; a bank of pneumatic function trainers; and 12 power-rack platforms with free weights.

A 25-yard-long artificial turf floor offers room for agility and plyometric training. Andrea Sweet, Fishel’s predecessor and boss for two years, and Rob Morris, the Big Red football coach and former athletic director, developed the vision for the center after touring some of the top collegiate facilities in New England.

To Fishel, the center is a state-of-the-art laboratory for the evolving field of sports science, and he is a constant tinkerer. Physical Education Instructor Bruce Shang, the Academy’s head boys and girls volleyball coach, calls Fishel a “strength and conditioning nerd” because of his appetite for studying the latest best practices and tweaking his approach.

“Originally, the field was football coaches and weightlifting,” says Fishel. “There wasn’t much science behind it. Nowadays, most of the top-level collegiate programs aren’t about ‘How much can I push you?’ It’s far more scientific.” He offers as an example measuring the girls ice hockey players’ vertical jump heights each week with a laser-based system and logging the results over time.

Hockey players don’t do much jumping, but their ability to trigger those muscles can tell Fishel how well their central nervous systems are firing. He then can tailor an individual’s training regimen accordingly.

“Science is always changing and a lot of stuff loops back,” he says. “So, maybe some of the stuff we’re doing is what we were doing four or five years ago or 10 years ago, and the information recycles. But I think the science, in general, allows us to look at the human body in a different way, and it’s been cool to see how we can affect the lives of high school kids.”

Every day is training day

The boys basketball team might be easily confused with the cycling team on this afternoon. After stretching and running through some agility drills, the players climb aboard stationary bikes for “four quarters” of pedaling that loosely simulates their cardio expectations in a game come December. Fishel counts them down and blows a whistle. The teens simultaneously race in place, conjuring up a small gale as the bikes’ wheels spin in frenzied unison.

When the session ends, Fishel keeps watch as the sweaty players sprawl across the turf floor and cool down. “How’d it feel today?” he asks. They huddle again and break ranks with a robust “one-two-three, thanks, Coach Fish!”

The hoops players are his most frequent visitors. They train as often as four days a week during the offseason. Many of them will return 12 hours later for a predawn weight-lifting session. All of the offseason workouts are voluntary and vary by team and sport. Some follow a regular routine, others occur whenever the athletes have free time. Fishel will work with anyone who walks through his door, in close collaboration with the team’s head coach.

The offseason is a strength and conditioning coach’s bread and butter, when he can maximize his time and impact with an athlete. But Fishel and Doran also train each Big Red team, varsity and junior varsity, twice a week during its season. A day after guiding the varsity basketball players through their preseason spinning session in the fitness center, the two coaches are out on Hatch Field to work with the JV field hockey team.

An early autumn sun bathes 15 players as Fishel puts them through a series of agility and conditioning drills. They deftly navigate horizontal “ladders” in what looks like a game of high-speed hopscotch before Fishel asks them, “Does anyone have a favorite we haven’t done yet?” Just as he tailors drills based on the athlete, he also fine-tunes his methods and messaging. An 18-year-old postgraduate hoping to turn a college coach’s head will respond differently from a new prep playing for fun to fulfill a gym requirement. Fishel appreciates the nuance. Not everybody is looking for a scholarship, but everyone can benefit from learning proper conditioning habits and technique.

‘Hey, coach Fish!’

One thing is unanimous: The athletes love Coach Fish. The varsity field hockey team chats him up before its practice starts, bouncing an idea for a children’s book off him and trying out material. “Hey, Coach Fish? Where does a hamburger go to dance?” one player asks. “The meat ball!”  

Fishel loves the banter. He prides himself on the trust he builds with the athletes, with whom he might spend as much time as their head coach or any teacher on campus. On game days throughout the year, he’ll bounce between the fields and courts and rinks and see the fruits of his labor. He is a self-described “underachieving athlete” who once weighed 320 pounds before he discovered the rewards of fitness training. He is eager to share his knowledge with the Exeter community.

“I’ve seen kids who were [preps], and they were like ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this,’” he says, sitting in his glass-walled office in a corner of Downer Family Fitness Center. “And now it’s their [upper] year and they’re knocking down the door to get a workout or they’re in here on their own.

“It’s because they realize ‘Hey, I feel better. I run faster. I throw harder than before.’ They see how their bodies can change. As soon as they understand that, all that extrinsic motivation I’ve been giving them has turned into intrinsic motivation, and they’re their own motivator. That is really cool.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.