Squash Universe Chats With Paul Assaiante – Part 2

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 second of two parts and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SU: Do you bring pressure into practice to prepare for pressure in a game?

PA: Yes. On game day, parents will see me as “Suzy Sunshine” and I have my arm around [the player’s] shoulder and it’s all happiness and sunshine. And they think, “wow, what a nice man. It would be so great to play for him, wouldn’t it!” You really wouldn’t want to see me on practice day. Because I am pushing, I’m pushing, I’m pushing. And on game day, I am taking pressure off, I am trying to diminish it.

SU: You teach your players to accept imperfection. I would imagine that would be hard at this elite level to accept that.

PA: Yes, but we are human. If you can’t accept your humanity, you are destined for a very unhappy life. You want to always be the best version of yourself which you can be, which is a daily journey, but to put that kind of perfection pressure on yourself, you are just going to be miserable.

SU: I sometimes put that pressure on myself, especially when playing against kids, particularly in camps, who are younger than me – but who are already as good as I am or better. I think to myself that I should be beating these kids since they are a lot younger. It is hard not to be hard on yourself about that.

PA: Yep, your opponent is just a person that you have to respect and fear. You go out there and put your cards on the table. If his cards are stronger than your cards, you shake his hand and say “well done.” And sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you have a bad day. It is all part of the journey.

SU: I saw in your book that you place a lot of emphasis on body language.

PA: Yes. When I called Billie Jean King to write the book, she said the two things you need to know are one, never let people be late to anything because that suggests that they don’t care and two, body language will tell you everything you need to know. That is true in every walk of life. When my wife has had a tough day, I can tell immediately by looking in her eyes and looking at her body language.

SU: For example, after a match, even if you aren’t feeling so well about it, you still keep your head up, shake your opponent’s hand …

PA: Absolutely. This is competition. You respect the moment. You congratulate. You console. But while you are in the court, you try to cut his legs out. But when it is over, you turn and shake his hand and say, “well done”, or “congrats” or “sorry, you didn’t play better today” or “geez, I was on fire today – I don’t know what got into me” or “I am sorry I was a little off.” You have to own it.

SU: You also tell your players to live in the now and never write the story in their minds while they are warming up. How does a player learn to do that?

PA: Practice [chuckle] and having the right mental preparation going into the match. “You know we are Trinity and we are playing Team X today. Ah, we should kill these guys, they suck.” Well, why? Why did you write that story in your mind? This is a match. Go in there and show your opponent respect. Respect the game. Beat him as badly as you can. And if you find yourself down, make an adjustment. Don’t sabotage yourself by writing the story line before you ever start.

SU: I know that thinking. There might be a school around here whose squash program has only been around for a couple of years and we think, “aw, they can’t be that good.” But you go on the court and your opponent is a top five player.

PA: I am taking the US Team this week to the Pan American Federation Games. We are going to have that problem down there. We are going to be playing against Honduras and the team is not going to come out as fired up as they should be. Then, we are going to be playing against Mexico and we are going be too nervous. You have to find the right balance.

SU: How do you think about solo practice?

PA: First of all, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. I think solo practice is really, really important. But you want to be sure what you are doing is constructive and productive. So you need to work with your coach to come up with the right routine. And I always like, on a solo practice day, to tie in some conditioning. So the [player] will do some cardio before the solo practicing so he comes in already a little tired. It is interesting – most people will go in and solo practice what they are best at. I think you should go in and solo practice what you are worst at. If it’s your backhand drop, or its your backhand volley – that’s what you should be working on. Most people go in and bang forehands. Well we know you can hit a forehand. Go in and work on what’s weak. And it’s very important to remember that you practice your weaknesses but you play to your strengths.

SU: I fall susceptible to that – getting lulled into practicing what I think I can do well because you I frustrated [and avoid] the things I am not doing well. 

PA: Well, it’s more fun when you are doing what you are good at.

SU: Speaking of something that is not necessarily fun for most people, what is your philosophy on challenge matches? And why do some players not play their best during challenge matches?

PA: Well, the sword is made strong when it is put in fire. Challenge matches are the fire. You have to do it because that is the only way you can prepare for match play. Because people care about their position in the ladder. And so you have to do that. And, yes, it’s true, people sometimes don’t play their best in challenge matches and that’s always tricky. Years and years ago, our number two player challenged himself out of the line-up. He ended up at Number 10 or something . And the day before the match, I had to say, “Guys, [this player] is the Number 2 player on this team because that’s where we need him. I had to intercede there but challenge matches are incredibly important.

SU: Seriously? I have never heard that kind of example before. I have struggled with challenge matches before. Because you play with [your teammates] all the time and you think they are coming for your spot a lot. And I was constantly being challenged and I thought – “aw, I don’t want to lose to him.”

PA: Yep, that’s the value of challenge matches. That’s the beauty of it.

SU: Just a few more questions. You place an emphasis on seniority to organize your teams. And players wait their turns to be captains. How do handle the freshman who wants to run the show?

PA: Well, first of all, he hasn’t earned the right. It’s time and service. Now, if my freshman is the best player on the team, he is going to play Number 1. But he is still a freshman and he doesn’t get to run the show.

SU: Your Trinity College Men’s Varsity team won thirteen straight Division 1 National Championships and at one point won 252 straight matches. When the streak ended, how did you pick your team back up to move past the end of the streak?

PA: I said, “We lost a dual match, guys.” The team that wins the NCAA basketball championship is probably going to lose a game during the season. We just lost a match and that’s all it is. And, in some ways, it’s a relief and let’s get up tomorrow and start preparing for the next match.

SU: They always say in professional sports, “your team needs to go through losing to be stronger because of it.”

PA: All learning happens in defeat. Which is why I make sure they lose in practice all the time.

SU: In drills, or challenge matches?

PA: Anything. Anything that I set up is to set them up to fail. It’s about resilience. Everything in life is about resilience. My motto is “get knocked nine times, get up ten times.”

SU: So, you have a lot of mottos.

PA: [Chuckles] Oh, I am sixty-six years old – I have been doing this a long time.

SU: I like them.

PA: Thank you.

SU: My final question – a hallmark question I like to ask is  – where would you like to see squash in the future?

PA: I would like to see squash continue to be a place where … it’s an unusual sport that is primarily a self-adjudicated sport … I would like to see squash continue to strive to be the beacon of sportsmanship in a world where sport is losing its mind. That would be my goal.

SU: Would you like to see squash in the Olympics?

PA: I think it is important because of funding, yes, but that wouldn’t be the end all be all. It would be great for the game but we have to improve our presentation today. We can’t have people calling 45 lets per match. And we can’t have parents screaming at referees. We have to get better. That‘s what I would like to see.

SU: I like it. Thank you for your time.