Squash Universe Chats With Paul Assaiante – Part 1

Cover photo credit: Trinity University

Paul Assaiante is the Trinity College Head Men’s Squash Coach, having earned his 17th College Squash Association (CSA) National Team Championship after the 2017-2018 season. From 1999-2011, his teams won 13 consecutive CSA National titles and 252 wins in a row, the longest winning streak in the history of intercollegiate varsity sports. He has coached the United States Squash Team and the USA Men’s Team.

Paul’s professional athletic career was nothing short of spectacular. He won the World Hardball Doubles Championship in 1988. He was one-half of the U.S. national doubles championship duo in 1994 and captured the USSRA 50-and-over men’s squash title in 2004. Paul is also an author of Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear with James Zug.

Paul kindly spoke with Squash Universe by phone. This post is the first of two parts and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SU: What sports did you grow up playing?

PA: Well, I was very small – I couldn’t play the traditional sports. I was born in the Bronx so I knew the traditional sports of football and basketball. I just was too small for them so I tried track and field but I wasn’t terribly fast and so I did gymnastics. It’s an intense sport.

SU: Your first exposure to squash came at age 27 when you signed on to coach the tennis team at the US Military Academy at West Point. What were the circumstances that led you to squash?

PA: I was hired as the Head Tennis Coach, and they took me downstairs to the second floor where the squash courts were and they said “these are squash courts and you are now [also] the Head Squash Coach.” So you can imagine, I met the team on the first day and I said, “Men, I want you to practice.” So they practiced. When the practice was over I said, “I have no idea what you are doing. I have no idea what the marks on the wall mean. Nothing. So what I am going to say to you is…what I can conclude from observing is that squash is a fitness sport. So I am going to make you the most fit team in the country. And you are going to teach me the game of squash.”

SU: So you learned a lot from your players?

PA: Everything! I knew nothing. I had no knowledge. I literally saw a [squash] court for the first time in my life as the Head Squash Coach of the US Military Academy.

SU: That is definitely a different answer than I have gotten from other people I have interviewed.

PA: Well, you can imagine – talk about being out of your comfort zone. But I will tell you this. Coaching is coaching. If tomorrow, someone said to me, “we want you to teach volleyball,” I would buy a book on volleyball and I would figure it out.

Because it really isn’t about the skills per se, it’s about managing people and motivating people and getting the best out of them regardless of the skill set.

SU: Those are some of the things you mention in your book that I personally struggle with sometimes as a player – getting out of my own head to perform at my best. What was the genesis of writing your book, “Run to the Roar”, with Jim Zug?

PA: Well, I was very lucky. We had a young man on our team, whose name was Tommy Wolf. And his father, Tom Wolf, was the world famous author. When his son was graduating, [Tom Wolf] said to me, “you know, Coach, you ought to write a book.” And I said, “Well that’s great, Tom, but that’s not what I do.” And then Jim and I took seven years and we put together this project and it came out really well, I think.

SU: I have interviewed Jim Zug, James Zug’s father…

PA: I love him, I love him. Jim is a great man. He used to come down and play with me in Baltimore when I was a pro at the Baltimore Country Club. Great man.

SU: I loved hearing what Mr. Zug had to say. He would say that when he was a junior squash player, they did not have clinics or anything like that so they would get better just by playing each other.

PA: You know there is something to be said for that. There was a famous squash coach at Navy whose name was Art Potter. Every single day, every single day of practice, the cadets would play challenge matches. That is what they did. They just played challenge matches. So you can imagine how competitive those guys were.

SU: I can’t imagine that. Everything is so structured now.

PA: It wouldn’t fly now. Parents would be calling the coach.

SU: In reference back to your book, what does the title mean – “Run to the Roar”?

PA: “Run to the Roar” is a psychology reference to the fact that when lions hunt they hunt in packs and they take with them the oldest female of the pride, who by this stage is infirmed and can’t catch her own food but she has the deepest roar. And they position her in the middle of the field and the lions hide in the bush. And when she roars, the prey runs from the roar to their deaths. But if the prey went to the roar, they would find out that it was just a toothless old lady. And that’s an analogy to the fact that we make things worse in our minds than they really are. They are never quite as bad as we think they are. And so that’s the message. What I ask the boys virtually every day in practice when they come to me with problems is “what is the worst thing that can happen”? Once they come to grips with that – once you allow yourself to think through that – you can usually do pretty much anything you want.

SU: I struggle a lot with that in playing…

PA: Everyone does. It’s human nature. And I am the most conflict avoidant person in the world. My psychiatrist says to me all the time, “you are such an oxymoron – here you are afraid of conflict but yet you lead boys into battle every weekend.” Such an interesting dichotomy. It is who I am. This is me.

SU: In your book, you devoted a chapter to each of the nine players on your team at the time. How did you come up with that idea?

PA: Well, as I said, it took seven years. The book morphed. Initially, [James Zug and I] were going to write a how-to book. But you know, nobody is going to buy a how-to book on squash. We were going to write the second coming of “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu, which is the second most sold book in history. But that wasn’t our thing. It was a very complicated task to balance all of these different things out but James was masterful. James is a phenomenal writer. And now this book has been bought by Hollywood.

SU: Oh, wow!

PA: And will supposedly be made into a movie but I will believe that when I see it.

SU: What actor would play you?

PA: Mark Ruffalo is the person they have been speaking to. I thought it would be Pee Wee Herman…

SU: [laughter] As a coach, you take the time to develop a personal relationship with each of your players. How does that help you to be a better coach?

PA: Well, the single most important quality to successful leadership, to me, is empathy. You have to be able to put yourself on the other side of the desk and understand where the person is coming from to really be able to help them. And there is no way that can happen unless you get to know your players well. And actually, Bobby, this year, my change in focus is going to be much more individual. We have always done everything as a team and we have created a team culture, which, candidly, has been very successful. But now I want to get in there and bore down and be more helpful to each individual.

SU: I always wonder how coaches come up with a team atmosphere when squash is such an individual sport.

PA: Right, the only thing I have ever focused on is team. I don’t even coach the boys the week before the individual championships. It is my way of saying, “this is important to you but it is not important to me.” All I care about is the team. And what it has done is created a family culture where people genuinely care about each other. But in there, I also have to meet the individual needs of each person and I need to become better at that. At 66 years old, I am still trying to improve every day because, as I tell companies all the time, “what got you here won’t get you there.” You have got to continually improve and develop.

SU: You push your players to look deep inside themselves to figure out what holds them back. Do all players do this willingly?

PA: No, no, not all. You have to remember that most of these boys who have come to Trinity have had better coaches than I will ever be. And so they are initially fairly resistant to what I am peddling. But eventually, in their time, they come to trust. And once they get to that place, then they see the value of this self-exploration journey…for life, not just [at Trinity].

SU: You focus on convincing your players to play for themselves and not for you, as a coach, or the school, or their parents. Was that a hard change of thinking for some players?

PA: I try to get them to focus on playing for the team. But what I will try to help them understand is that if they improve upon their individual skill sets, then they will contribute at a higher level for the team. It is all about the team. I teach them a new game – I teach them team squash.

SU: What are some of the specific techniques you teach to help your players block “forces that crowd the mind?”

PA: Daily practice. Daily, daily practice. I believe in the Japanese philosophy which is cry in practice and laugh in competition. That if you want to be successful on game day, practice has to be hard. It is the only way to get there. And it is not human nature. If you get ready to play against Chestnut Hill or Haverford, you are engaged, you are fully focused. But you are not as focused on a Wednesday in November when nobody is watching. The trick is to get the same degree of focus there – then the player will become a better player.

SU: Practice like you play?

PA: You’ve got to. Actually, what I try to teach is “play like you practice.”

SU: I read that you make every practice different. How do you ensure that you have a steady flow of new coaching ideas?

PA: The boys. I pick their brains. We have a real shared set of ideas and experiences. I encourage my assistants to go out and learn more. We don’t want to learn in a bubble. We want to have a continual flow of ideas and agree, and disagree. “Guys, I didn’t like the way our cross courts were against Princeton. I want the three of you tomorrow to come up with your favorite cross court drill.” And that sort of thing. So constantly mixing it up.