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Trinity College Squash Coach Has A 224-Match Winning Streak And A New Book Detailing His Coaching Style, Life's Up and Downs

Paul Assaiante's success on the court tempered by troubles with his son

Kathleen Megan

November 27, 2010

In 1996, Trinity College President Evan Dobelle asked the small school's squash coach, Paul Assaiante, what it would take to compete with the elite Ivy League colleges that dominated the sport like an old boys' club.

"Not to be national champions, Paul, but just contend and maybe knock one of them off once in a while," Dobelle said.

To contend, Assaiante told him, he would have to recruit players from around the world. Dobelle gave him the go-ahead. Then, as Assaiante went to leave, Dobelle added, "Don't blow this."

Today, Assaiante has collected 12 national titles and is running a 224-match winning streak, reportedly the longest streak in American collegiate history. He has recruited players from all over the world every continent except Antarctica and somehow turned the tightly wound, highly individualistic premier squash players into a team that cares about each other.

But while the accolades have piled on his shoulders for his coaching success, Assaiante has faced personal tragedy for which he largely blames himself: His son Matthew has wrestled with a heroin addiction for years and has been in and out of jail..

"I've done a better job working with other people's children than with my own," said Assaiante in an interview this week.

Now Assaiante has written a book, "Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear," in which the above scene with Dobelle is described. In it, he also details his theories on coaching; his good decisions and bad ones; the nail-biting matches when it appeared certain the streak was over; as well as the journey with his son.

Here we talk to Assaiante, 58, about his book.

Q: What is your approach to coaching your championship teams?

A:. My feeling is that what you fear owns you. Most of my contemporaries will sit down before the season and say: What do we want to accomplish as a team this year? What do we want to accomplish as individuals? I don't do to that. We don't goal-set here. I just ask the guys: What are you afraid of? What's your biggest fear? When you come to grips with those, you are able to reach your top physical performance because you are not encumbered by fear.

Q: What comes up when you ask that?

A. Well, of course, right now, the big thing that they say is the streak: "I don't want to be on the team that loses." They are afraid of letting their teammates down. We emphasize team so powerfully here. They talk about disappointing their family. The natural fears. You know, Arthur Ashe once told me that everyone chokes, everybody. But the people who are more successful are the people who are more able to manage their choking. The first thing is to recognize that it's going to happen, because if you go on the court and you're thinking "Oh god, I hope I don't choke," then it's going to happen and you are going to be scared to death of it. So we talk all the time about, when you're choking, take deep breaths and move your feet. We try to help them come to grips with their fears. My biggest fear is becoming too wed to winning. I didn't come here to win. I came here to touch young people and I don't want to be wed to winning.

Q. How do you deal with the burden of the streak?

A. It isn't tough on me at all because I don't care. I look forward to when we lose. It's going to be wonderful, a celebration, because then we can get on with the business of starting a new one. For the kids who practice every day under 12 banners, that's a little more problematic, so we talk about it a lot. The first day of practice I held up a piece of paper that had the number 12 on it and then 224 which is the number of wins and I tore it into pieces. I said, guys, it doesn't mean anything.

Q. How did you decide to weave your son Matthew's story into your book?

A. Having Matthew in there was always important. You have to have a life that's balanced. My life has not been balanced. And it doesn't matter what you accomplish professionally. Something in the ledger is going to give and my children, particularly Matthew, paid a dear price and so it has to be shared. Otherwise it would be living a lie. You have to be honest. When you sign up to be a parent, you promise to be omnipresent and there was a time in Matthew's life where I wasn't there to guide him at every fork in the road, so he was making decisions that I wasn't there to help him with and he invariably made some very poor choices and I can't have that time back. He's in a program in Vermont now. We talk often. I'm hopeful now. I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful.

Q: Where does the title, "Run to the Roar" come from?

A: In the jungle, lions hunt in packs and they take with them with the oldest female of the pride. Usually, by this point, she can't catch her own food, she's infirm. They put her in the middle of the field and she has a deep roar. All the lions are hiding in the bush, so when she roars, the prey run away from the roar to their deaths. It means go directly at the problems. The problems are never as bad as they seem.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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