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Dr. Fisher and the Pink Elephant
Sara Courtney

Dr. Brandyn Fisher can be hard to catch. There he is, in the Middle School, talking to the Robotics Team about handling pressure. Or along the sidelines of the World Cup Field, sunglasses on over a sphinx-like expression on his face. Or tucked away on the crowded bench with the hockey team, hands in his pockets, an air of quiet intensity about him. As the Director of the Center for Performance Leadership, Pingry’s innovative mental performance center—one of only a handful in the country, and virtually unprecedented at the high school level—he is a Mental Performance Coach, has taught Psychology in the Upper School for years, and is a ubiquitous presence, meeting with athletes and performers, helping to focus them in their approach.

Dr. Fisher wants you to think small. Or at least, smaller than you already are. The racing thoughts that threaten to overwhelm us before big moments—big tests, big games, big performances—are his specialty.

“Close your eyes,” Dr. Fisher told the room of Cross Country runners back in September, and the athletes closed their eyes. “Do your best to clear your mind.” A few bouncing knees and rustling legs stopped. “Take a few deep breaths.” A quiet fell over the room. “Clear your mind,” he repeated, and the room was still. Dr. Fisher looked at the room full of driven, competitive athletes, temporarily relaxed in their seats, and he smiled.

“Whatever you do, don’t imagine a pink elephant.”

A few brows furrowed, and, after the silence continued, more than a few smiles crept on the players faces. “Don’t see a pink elephant,” Fisher instructed them again. The room sat quietly a little longer, and then he asked them to open their eyes.

“Raise your hand if you saw a pink elephant.” All the hands went up, followed by a few laughs. “Look at how we talk to ourselves,” he cautioned. “How you talk to yourself is going to impact your performance. And I challenge you to think about what you need.” He paused here for emphasis. “What is your process? What do you need? All of the inputs, all of the self-talk, all of your preparation: what is it for?”

When asked about the Pink Elephant analogy, he smiles. “This is how our brain works at a very young age,” he explains. “When mom and dad say, ‘Don’t take the cookie out of the cookie jar’, what did you want even more?” For Dr. Fisher, who has a Ph.D. in Sports and Exercise Psychology, getting people to think consciously about their habits and behaviors drives much of his work. “Ultimately, what I am trying to do is get them to think differently and start to think a little bit more small.” A former elite tennis player turned sought-after tennis coach on the circuit, he understands the performer's mindset because, at one point, their experience was similar to his own.

“It was true for me, as an athlete at that age,” he says. “I was so focused on the big picture in college—tournaments, rankings—big picture things,” he rattles off. “You kind of forget the day-to-day stuff, that all those little moments add up to the big ones. So I talk a lot about the 1% improvements and how that is a daily opportunity to get 1% better at something.” To him, that means focusing on the here and now. “It might just be making the decision to go to bed earlier.” He emphasizes the need for kids—and their parents—to be practical. “Look, the reality of the situation is our kids are busy. They’re not going to be able to get as much sleep as they want to. They’re not going to be able to be great at every single thing that they do. So how can you kind of break that down into smaller bite-size pieces? College is overwhelming, but I can do this one thing in front of me right now. I can attack the moment in front of me right now, versus thinking ‘Oh, I bombed that math test three hours ago.’ Well, that’s not helping you in the moment right now.” Dr. Fisher finds the opposite is true as well. “Getting too far ahead of yourself and thinking, ‘Oh, if we win two more games, we’ll win the state title for the first time in school history.’ It’s that natural pull of being too far ahead or too far behind. Let’s just try to bring the focus into now and bring quality into now.”

Athletes seek out Dr. Fisher for one-on-one sessions, where they talk through goals and habits, frustrations and dreams and realities. He works with them to bring their focus and attention to the present. One thing he does not do is offer to get them “in the zone,” that mysterious destination of peak performance and winning streaks that so many performers covet. “When I work with an athlete, I am not trying to help them find ‘the zone’,” he says emphatically, and it’s obvious he has explained this before. “You hear a lot about the zone—this place where you’re performing at your peak, you’re so focused, so engaged, you’re performing to the best of your abilities.” Dr. Fisher considers the so-called zone elusive, and a misguided goal to focus on. “That’s not my approach because it’s random. It doesn’t happen very often. It’s rare.” Instead, Dr. Fisher works with performers to bring their range of performance up. “If we can bring the floor up, so to speak, they will be such a better athlete. So I am attacking those things.” And once again, Dr. Fisher leads the athlete in a direction he likes: thinking smaller. “Once you do that, you’re going to find that now your range is going to be much smaller. A lot of performers, their range is so big on a good day or a bad day, and they don’t really know what to expect from themselves.”

Much of what informs his perspective as a mental performance coach are his own experiences as a young athlete. As the youngest of three boys, he grew up playing sports—first soccer, then golf, a lively variation on the American Gladiator series with his brothers that left a hole in the basement wall, and even, at one point, competitive skiing. Then, at the age of 12, a friend who had been taking tennis lessons challenged him to a match. “That was the first time I ever picked up a racket,” Dr. Fisher muses. “We went off and played points—and I beat him every time.” Dr. Fisher fell in love with the sport, and the combination of his natural talent and fanatical drive quickly catapulted him to an elite level. His family moved from Columbus, Ohio to Baltimore when he was 12, and he started taking lessons for the first time at the age of 14—considered late for most sports, and especially tennis. Still, he rose in rankings to the top 25 in the state of Maryland. Yet, his late start meant he was left to try to figure out how to channel his own raw talent, and when his accelerated growth in the sport began to level off, he grew increasingly frustrated.

“I call it the law of investment,” he reflects. “You invest more time, you expect more out of it. So I was training four days a week, I was in the Gold Cup program, I was training more than ever before, and I just expected that the results were going to follow. And they don’t always do that. So I think that’s what really shifted my mindset. It led to my frustration, which led to some really bad habits.”  It was around this time, at the age of 16, when Dr. Fisher—that calming presence on the sidelines—began to smash his racket.

“I expected a lot from myself,” he admits. “I was pretty critical of myself. And tennis is a sport where you can’t be perfect, but you are striving for perfection. And that’s kind of a slippery slope of expecting nothing but perfect. And I fell into that category of expecting to be able to do it every single time. And that’s just not how things work.” At the age of 16, he abruptly quit, walking away from tennis entirely for four months. Although he returned and eventually went on to play for a year in college at West Virginia University, when the school cut the tennis program, he had a decision to make. Despite having opportunities to transfer and continue to play elsewhere, he chose to stay (“The best decision I ever made.”) and continue his studies in the school’s widely recognized Sports Psychology program, where he went on to get his Masters and Ph.D.

Now, when Dr. Fisher meets with elite performers, he pushes them to think consciously about their habits and what they can control—Do they have a test coming up? Can they go to bed early? Are they making healthy choices? He works with them to be consistent in their mental and physical approach. “A lot of performers' range is so big, in terms of a good day or a bad day, they don’t really know what to expect from themselves,” he says. “That was the case for me, too. That was the worst place for me as an athlete to be—going out on the court and having no idea if I would play and act great, or go out there and play horribly and throw a racket. That was a bad place to be—I just had no idea what to expect.” Now, he is driven to give performers the kind of advice he wishes he received as a young tennis player.

“Bad things are going to happen,” he says calmly. “So how do we respond to them?”

For Dr. Fisher, it’s very simple. “On your worst day, you’re still going to compete hard for every ball. Everything else might fall apart, but you know you’re still going to run hard for every single ball because that’s your bottom line. That’s where your standards are on your worst day.” This is what Dr. Fisher means when he redirects athletes from focusing on rankings and big games to the notion of controlling their controllables. “I’m still going to compete hard. I’m still going to have a good attitude. I’m still going to problem solve. These are what I try to get the teams and athletes to focus on,” he says, “because there’s too much attention on just trying to find that one percent. That’s important to me, but not at the expense of your bottom end.”

And although he dismisses the pursuit of that ever elusive “zone”, the cumulative effect of athletes narrowing their range into more consistent performance often translates into success in their endeavor. “Look, I don’t make any bones about it,” he says with some intensity. “I work with athletes and teams because I want them to win. I want them to be better.”

For those athletes and performers determined to get better, Dr. Fisher’s ubiquitous presence is a constant reminder of a simple truth: if they want to go big, they have to start small.

 

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First and third photos by Maggie Yuracheck

Second photo by Anthony Truncale '26

Contact: Sara Courtney, Communications Writer