Minter Dialogue with Paul Assaiante

“Coach” Paul Assaiante is one of the greatest coaches in the history of intercollegiate athletics. He’s labelled as the “winningest coach in college sports history,” sporting a 252-match winning streak over 13 years, a 507-29 all-time record, and winning 17 NCAA Championship titles as head coach at Trinity College. Paul systematically brought together great players from around the world and demonstrated how teammates from diverse cultures can unite to build a winning culture and team. And his experience is also enriched by having coached the US National Team in squash (17 years) as well as World Team Tennis with Billie Jean King. To add to his list of accomplishments, he’s also co-author with James Zug of the book, “Run to the Roar, Coaching to Overcome Fear,” (published by Penguin) and was the subject of a 2013 documentary film, All In, by Marc DiBenedetto. In this conversation, we discuss his philosophy of coaching, how he’s been guided by his personal purpose, the best ways to train, motivate and guide a team of individual athletes to bring out their best. We also look at the role of empathy in coaching, how to learn, improve and perform under stress, and the way to get the best out of everyone. He also addresses some of the challenges of coaching in today’s environment, with the perils of social media, helicopter parenting and coming to grips with one’s emotions.

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Music credit: The jingle at the beginning of the show is courtesy of my friend, Pierre Journel, author of the Guitar Channel. And, the new sign-off music is “A Convinced Man,” a song I co-wrote and recorded with Stephanie Singer back in the late 1980s (please excuse the quality of the sound!).

Full transcript via

SUMMARY KEYWORDS: team, coach, world team tennis, play, coaching, squash, sport, oreo cookies, years, good, people, watching, court, life, interesting, learn, emotion, player, coached, talk

SPEAKERS: Paul Assaiante, Minter Dial


Minter Dial  00:06

Hello, welcome to Minter Dialogue, episode number 554. My name is Minter Dial and I’m your host for this podcast, a most proud member of the Evergreen Podcast Network. For more information or to check out other shows on this network, go visit So, this week’s interview I’m very excited to bring to you. It’s with Coach Paul Assaiante, one of the greatest coaches in the history of intercollegiate athletics [in the US]. He’s labeled as the winningest coach in college sports history, sporting a 252-match winning streak over 13 years, a 507-29 all-time record, and winning 17 NCAA championship titles as head coach at Trinity College. Paul systematically brought together great players from around the world, and demonstrated how teammates from diverse cultures can unite to build a winning culture and team and as experience has also enriched by having coached the US National Team and squash for 17 years, as well as World Team Tennis with Billie Jean King. In this conversation with Paul, we discuss his philosophy of coaching, how he’s been guided by his personal purpose, the best ways to train, motivate and guide team of individual athletes to bring out their best. We’ll also look at the role of empathy and coaching, how to learn, improve and perform under stress, and the way to get the best out of everyone. He also addresses some of the challenges of coaching in today’s environment. With the perils of social media, helicopter parenting, and coming to grips with one’s emotions. You’ll find all the show notes on Please go and drop in a rating and review. And don’t forget to subscribe to catch all the future episodes. Now for the show. There aren’t many people who I know just have one word as a label. And coach is the word for you. Many people in my peripheral life in London, if you can believe it. No, I was just playing padel with one person who respects the heck out of you. A neighbor has had a son who played for you! Coach, in your own words, who is Coach?

Paul Assaiante  02:38

Coach is a person who gets up every day and tries to share messages with people to help them negotiate their journeys.

Minter Dial  02:53

Very well put. Succinctly so. One of the things that is stood out for me is that you’re the winningest coach, ever, in a sport that you really, as far as I understand it, don’t dominate it as a practicing squash player. How on earth does one do that gain credibility when you know you haven’t been there, or you don’t know what it’s like? And, and on top of that at a university where you’re constantly dealing with a new crop all the time. It’s a magical story, Paul.

Paul Assaiante  03:32

Well, you’re very kind. So, I coached World Team Tennis. And so, Billy Jean and I are good friends. And when we did the draft for the Hartford Fox, for us. Our first draft was Monica Seles, who at that time was ranked fourth in the world. And I called Billy Jean and I said, My God, what am I going to say to Monica Seles, you know, I mean, she’s forgotten more tennis than I’ll ever know. And she said, remember this, no matter what level of person you’re working with, number one, they want your approval. And number two, never pretend to be something you’re not. And that’s stuck with me. You know, we have young men and women in here who have had the best coaches in the world growing up and, you know, aspirations of being touring pros and many have. And the key is, I share things with them as a suggestion, but really never try to force my way onto them. Because then it becomes: Well, where is he coming from and, and does he really know what he’s talking about? It’s interesting as you get old, and now I’m as old as dirt.

Minter Dial  04:45

I’m as dirty as can be!

Paul Assaiante  04:49

You know, people tend to want to play for the old coach, which I don’t like I want them playing for themselves in their school, but they have a tenant See to play for the old coach, we see this in all sport, that when you’re young and vital, you know, you get on court with them and run around. And you do that. The danger zone is when you’re in your sort of 50s and 60s, where you’re not yet the sage old mentor, you’re sort of an annoyance at that point, why don’t we have a younger, more vital coach, I was able to dodge that that issue during those decades. But, you know, it’s, it’s really the case that if you make people feel like they’re the center of your universe, even for the moments that you’re engaging, they will appreciate that, and hopefully, you’ll get their attention. And then once you have their attention, you can try to help them be the best version that they can be. And, and that’s really, that’s what a coach is supposed to do, you know, get a person to aspire to be more or do more, and then collectively get a whole group to buy into that principle. And now you’ve really got something special going on.

Minter Dial  06:13

Unlike other team sports, where you have multiple people on the court at the same time, squash is a singular sport, it’s you out there. I mean, let’s say that, of course, there’s doubles. But it’s essentially an individual on the court battling it out with another individual. And yet, you as a team rocked for 13 years without ever having a loss. How does one garner that kind of cement that relationship, that means that each individual feels that they’re part of a bigger team, because the end of the day, you know, it’s still you going out there and sweating and, and digging in and doing one more rail, one more rail and trying to win, that this feeling of creating a team that in point of fact, you had to do it over and over again?

Paul Assaiante  07:01

Yeah, we were sort of lucky, you know, I’ve always believed that a good idea, you will usually succeed in a bad idea will never succeed, no matter how hard you’re banging your head against it. And when we decided to diversify our team, and, and in fact, do international recruiting, it had many, many side effects, we’re still filling them today of benefits. When you have 11 people sitting on the pyramid, side by side, or 11 different countries, sitting side by side on the pyramid, it becomes a family. And just by virtue of the fact that they’ve come from all these different places, including America. And they really don’t have anybody. It’s not like, you know, they went to Taft [school] together. And now they’ve moved on to the next chapter. You’ve got people from Lahore and Mumbai and Bloemfontein, South Africa, and never alone in the world with each other here. And immediately, it becomes that connection to family. And so, that, if we repeat it over and over again, if we make it challenging for them, because one of the things that makes a team strong, is that they go through difficult things together. So, we make sure that it’s always difficult in practice, that creates a unity, that even though they walk on a court alone, they know that on the next court is a member of their family, and on the next court is a member of their family, and they’re not willing to give in. It’s funny, you know, when I speak to companies, we’re always talking about culture. How do we create a culture which is tricky in a in a world of Zoom. But one of the things is, when you are human, you’re not always your best version of yourself, you know, you had a fight with your partner, or you got a speeding ticket, and maybe you’re 60% of your best self. Well, then when you come to work that day, you got to give 100% of that 60. And many people will just check in and mail it in. But when you’re a part of a family and a part of a team, you need to go in and do the best you can for the person next to you. And that’s that raises the stakes to a whole different level. I can I can share a story. If it’s okay. Please do. We were down at the national championships at Princeton. And we had a young man on our team from Malmo, Sweden, and he was playing in the finals against a young man from Princeton, from Kuala Lumpur. And our guy owned the Princeton player, beaten him five straight times. Beat him a week before three zero just thumped him. So, who was the pressure on the pressure? was on our guy he was supposed to win. Well, the coach of Princeton, Bobby Callahan was a master. And he had completely out coached me that day. And our guy is out there on the court. He’s down to love. And I can tell from his body language. He’s beaten and he sees he is accepted defeat. He’s confused. He’s embarrassed. So, he comes off the court and I’ve got two minutes to talk to him. And I said, Gustav looked me in the eye, his head was down, his shoulders were slumped, no response. So, I started talking louder. I started talking louder. I lifted his chin by this point, I’m screaming at him to say, you can’t give him you know, you have Wonka on one side of the court and Matt on the other side of can’t give him you can’t give in. So, he just runs away from me now, because I’m a lunatic. And he goes on the court and I sit down on the floor outside the glass, so that every time he looks outside the glass, I’m pointing at him saying, don’t give in, don’t give in. So, this was the nine-point scoring back then. And Gustav is down 0-2, 0-5. And he’s trying, he’s trying to find a way. Any rate, Gustav runs up to retrieve a drop shot, and he brushes against his opponent, who sort of stumbles a little bit and puts his hand on the floor. And, and because he had lost his balance, and Gustav stood straight up, and looks outside the glass at me, and he smiled. He’s down 0-2, 0-5. And he smiles, because he knows that he has found a way to stay in there long enough to get this guy tired. And he came back and won the match. If he was playing for himself that day, it was a 3-0 loss. But because he was playing for his teammates, he found a way. And that’s, that’s what it’s all about.

Minter Dial  11:57

That’s delicious, what a story. The notion of the diversity is interesting. The notion of having to go through hardship is interesting. And yet, at some level, there’s these other lots of teams that play for pride, the history, you know, you’re on a team that’s been around for a long time, in your case, you had this record you had to go for you also can build up reasons for it. And I’m wondering if there can ever be or needs to be a higher purpose than team?

Paul Assaiante  12:36

Well, you know, authentically, authentically, it should be for the love of the game. And the shared brotherhood of coming in here every day. But these young people are so goal oriented. It Oh, you could say all the right things, but it always comes down to they’re out there battling for each other. And, you know, one of the things that’s made it successful here. And I’m telling you, and I mean this, this is not silly humility. This is a statement of fact, these were not my ideas. This was not my concepts. I didn’t do very much here, we just happen to be fortunate that this thing created its own swirl. And we were all in that in that bus together. But one of the things is, Trinity College is 2100 students, 2200 students, we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder, you know, we get in our rickety van and we drive up to Cambridge, and we drive down to new lung, New Haven. And you know, you’re playing against the team, at an institution where the interest that spins off of their endowment is bigger than your endowment. We’ve, we take that stuff seriously as a motivator to say, we’re not Harvard, and we’re not Princeton, but we might be able to beat you. And we revel in that opportunity. And that’s another thing that has sort of helped us because motivation is a big deal. Right? And I, you know, one of the things that I’ve learned is for a 20-year-old. On game day, a coach’s job is to take the pressure off. And in practice, the coach’s job is to put the pressure on, because you don’t have to get a kid up to play against Penn. They’re excited. But you got to find a way to get them up to practice on a Wednesday when nobody’s watching. And if you can bring those two together, then you’ve got something special. You know, so many sports psychologists are making millions and millions of dollars and driving much nicer cars than I’ll ever own. And their whole focus is on the game day. We got to get you into the zone. You have to be in the flow clear thinking free of thought, blah, blah. I don’t believe in any of that. I really don’t. Because it’s you In nature, you’re not going to be able to get the scoreboard out of the back of your mind. So, there’s your reality. So, do we want to try to compete more like we practice? No. You want to practice more like you compete. And so, that’s really the crux of it. Practice has to be unpleasant. Because competition is inherently unpleasant, because there’s a possibility you could lose. And in that possibility, you could go through a pretty serious self-flagellation, because you’re somewhat tied to the outcome, which is not healthy. But it’s a reality.

Minter Dial  15:41

There’s so many things, Paul. Let’s start with recruitment. And you mentioned the word luck a little early. I was lucky. Yeah. By the way, horseshit, but you know, when you win, you win over 252 matches, as you did 13 years like that. The there’s an often there’s a Chmura of qualities that are pulled together called out for victory. And that mixture is luck, work, and skill. How does that rhyme with you? And what’s your recipe with, with making success?

Paul Assaiante  16:27

Well, you know, luck is you make your own luck with hard work, right, and you put yourself in a position. You know, one of the things we talk about all the time with the guys is if you’re a better player, and you leave it up to chance, if you let that guy hang around, luck is going to bite you in the ass, right? So, you can’t let that happen. Conversely, if you’re you know, if you want to be number one, you have to train like you’re number two. So, you make your breaks through your work ethic you are what you do every day. You know, those are some of the things that we just have always tried to focus on. And, you know, ultimately, yeah, the luck. It’s just the beauty of the sport. You know, we’re preparing for nationals. Now we’re going to the national finals, men and women both ranked number one in the country. Wow. You know, and so we’re trying to figure out what’s the right lineup, blah, blah, blah, Coach Mustafa is unbelievable. You know, he played here, by the way, we use the word he played for me, nobody played for me. They played a trinity. So, but you know what the beauty of it is, we don’t know on game day, who’s going to show up and who’s not. And that’s every day, it’s something different. And then when it’s over, you sit and look at each other and say, Oh, my God, I never saw that coming. So, you know, the luck piece of it is is an undeniable fact. And it’s what makes life so interesting. You know, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. So, you’ve got that piece of it. The recruitment piece is important when we first started this experiment. And it really was an experiment that was suggested by the president of the college at the time. Let’s go out and find the best and the brightest. We got a guy from Malmo, Sweden applying. We’ve never seen a transcript from Malmo, Sweden, we didn’t even know how to read it. Admissions calls me he says, he’s, we’re, we’re not we don’t know what we’re looking at here. But it doesn’t look terribly strong. You’re going to say, Okay, if this person is achieved this level of success in some area, that must be a disciplined, hardworking person, give them a chance, graduates fourth in the class. So, you know, this experiment was working every step of the way. But when we first started doing this, we were looking for squash ability straight up. What’s your junior ranking? You know, the video looks great. Now, we’ve become a lot more discerning. You know, okay, we are looking for somebody that’s character large. Obviously, they have to have the skills they have to have the competitive instincts, but you want somebody who’s character large? What is this person going to do when nobody’s watching? Is this person going to play a double bounce? Are they going to do something away from the facility that puts the whole thing at risk? You know, at this stage of the game, the 17 banners hanging out there, really don’t want a bunch of knuckleheads in here. When we were younger and getting going, we didn’t know better, or we were willing to roll the dice. And coaches think they’re gods, you know, yeah, this kid is a bad actor, but he’ll change under my watch. Now that zebra will have the same strikes. So, you know, it doesn’t change that much. And so, we’re much more discerning on what we’re looking for. As you know, as you know, I’ve turned the baton and the reins over to a former player here and you know, watching how much more sophisticated He is then I was in the recruiting process has been really fun and humbling to watch. So, yeah, you know, I think he make your own luck, but you also have to show up every day and put it out there, and then find a way to detach the emotion. We in reality, and I tell this to the guys, I don’t think it really resonates with him. But today, you’re going to go on the court, you’re going to put your cards on the table, he’s going to put his cards on the table, and the stronger hand is going to win. When you shake hands, and you figure out how to get better cards next time, but man, it’s it. There’s so much emotion and passion and drama. And that’s part of the journey.

Minter Dial  20:31

You have said and written, I believe, that emotion is your enemy.

Paul Assaiante  20:39

It really is. And we live in a world now, where we are emotionally out of control. There is so much anger. There is you know, so much hatred, social media is driving the cart. Can you imagine being a comedian in society today? You get up there, you can’t say anything, you’re going to offend somebody. Okay, everybody, I hope you had a good time I’m going home. What do you do? We’re in here now. And, and you know, God forbid, we say something that might offend a person. And the end, our hands are so tied, you know, and we’re doing all of this special accommodation. And giving people extra time to do this or prepare the world doesn’t give you a special accommodation, when you walk into the boardroom, you better be on point. So, we’ve got to find that balance of how hard to push them in and how not, not to offend. But the emotional piece of this is a critical component. Because at least in sport, it’s a way of getting yourself up and keeping yourself up, but not spilling over the edge. I love watching the doll, Nadal competes with ferocity, you’ll never see him go over the edge of the cliff. It’s always to the point of the edge, but never too much. And in a sport, like the ones that you love so much. Or the sports that you love so much. It’s all about the repetition of skills over and over and over again. Well, getting jazzed up for that isn’t going to make you more effective. It just simply isn’t. You know, to me, it’s like heart surgery. You know, when my doctor performed open heart surgery, I mean, he wasn’t overly emotional in the moment, or at least I hope he wasn’t because he would have dropped the scalpel. Same thing here. And now we’re seeing young people in sport, participating watching things on social media, and what are they watching? They’re watching the fist pump. They’re watching the player on the sideline, bumping into the head coach and screaming in his face. — Mr. Kelce — and we think that that’s cool, or I want to be like a sol. And have you know, 64 appeals called in a squash match decisions. And, you know, guys, that is not what this is about. And if you go to that place, then you lose control over the outcome. Why would you do that? Why would you put that in, you know, other people’s hands. And so, what I talk about all the time is I use the analogy of Oreo cookies. And I call it Life lessons and Oreo cookies. And if you could see my belly, you could tell that I really, really like Oreo cookies. And so, what I do is I give my talks, I’ll give everybody to Oreo cookies. And I say all right, here’s the deal. Take your Oreo cookie and standard on its edge. You have a wafer, you have cream, and you have a wafer. What are those represent? One way from his thought? We have millions of thoughts in a day. Many of them are not very good thoughts. Then you have time. That’s the cream. And then you have action. There’s thought and there’s action. Now I want you to separate the two Oreo cookies and make it a quadruple filled Oreo cookie. What have you just done? You’ve increased the time between thought and action. The chances of bed actions are now halved. Because you’ve given yourself more time. That’s what you need to do. You know if you watch the Academy Awards, you know, Will Smith had no cream and his Oreo cookie he was straight and he will be forever remembered for that. Zidane, the greatest soccer player in France history. headbutted a person in the final so the World Cup that is what he will be remembered for forever. So, slow it down. Let’s get the emotion out of it. Give it time. And that’s what you need to do what squash players do They walk around the court, they dry their hand on the wall, they regroup, they re-center. And that you know what tennis players do, they walk to the back line, they pick up a towel, they’re not picking up a towel, because their hand is sweating. That is their routine to slow the train down so that they make better decisions.

Minter Dial  25:20

Love it. I mean, we all know that emotions are the first reaction core as we go in, we see something we our emotions start. And then we have a gap before the thought pieces come in. And then then there’s the further gap, which is the action piece, in your book, run to the roar, coaching to overcome fear. It’s something that you talk about openly, which is that you’ve been motivated by the fear of failure, if I understand correctly. Do you think that everybody has a fear that runs through them? Is it possible that you can also be motivated in a positive way, effectively over time or not?

Paul Assaiante  26:08

Boy, that is certainly the goal. That’s much more authentic, and much more healthy.

Minter Dial  26:16


Paul Assaiante  26:17

I mean, who says, Yeah, that’s true. I don’t I haven’t seen many of those in my 50 years of coaching. You know, it’s where that run to the roar concept came from is: I’m in neurotic mess. And I was talking to my therapist, and he said, you know, Coach, you’re an odd duck, because I’ve never met anybody. So, conflict avoidant as you, you will do anything to avoid a difficult conversation. And yet, on weekends, you lead young people into difficult situations. So, I’m going to tell you a story and the story is running to the roar. And he said, This is a true story that in Africa, Lioness hunting packs, they take with them the oldest female of the pride. By this point, she’s old and infirm, and can’t catch her own food, much like me. And but she has the deepest roar. And what they do is they position this old lioness in the middle of the field, facing the bush, which could be hundreds of yards away. And there is prey between she and the bush, in the bush are all the lionesses waiting. When she roars, the prey run away from the roar to their death. Go at the problem. I read something recently that bison instinctively are the only animals in the world that when a severe storm is coming at them, turn and run into the storm. Because they know instinctively, that’s how the storm will pass most quickly. That’s what it’s all about.

Minter Dial  27:55

So, know your demons…

Paul Assaiante  27:58

Know your demons. You know, I did a podcast recently with Michael Gervais, who is another level and very humbling to be on with him. And he has this acronym called FOPO. And FOPO is fear of people’s opinions. And in a world of social media, that’s gigantic. You know, you do have to reach a place where you understand that this is all part of your journey. And you can’t worry too much about what other people are thinking. But it’s almost impossible. It’s been, you know, I’ve my whole life has been the imposter syndrome. I’ve never been anyplace I thought I belonged ever. And I wanted to try to prove to myself and others that I did belong. And if anybody said anything rejected about it, they crushed me. And that’s not that’s not good. And so, we were talking about success. And he said something to me, that blew my mind. And he said, but you have to define what your successes I never had. I never had. And I don’t think many do. You know, I’ve got this wonderful 13-year-old at home. She’s the sweetest little thing. But I can’t pry the cell phone out of her lifeless hands. And she doesn’t feel particularly great about herself. And so, what does she see? She sees Perfect pictures of her girlfriends. They’ve taken at pictures of themselves, they found one good one. And there it is. They are having the most fabulous party they’ve ever been to and she’s not invited. Oh my god. And this social media thing is crushing. crushing our society. And now there are states that are starting to come out and banning social media before the age of 16. I don’t know how you’re going to pull that off. But so, defining success for yourself. Very hard to do, or purpose. You know, it wasn’t until later Much later in my life, that I figured out what my purpose was. And my purpose simply is messaging. That’s all it is, you know, on my tombstone, all I wanted to say was, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Just sharing that stuff. And once you can define that, then you can define how you’re going to get there. But you know, I look at these kids, they’re getting ready for the National Championships, part of my heart goes out to them, they’ve already done it. They’re playing, it’s such a high standard. It’s super exciting to watch. But they’re going to go down to Philadelphia. And they’re going to expose themselves to the possibility of winning, or the devastation of losing. And you know what, in 10 years, none of it will matter. They’ll come back with their partners, and they’ll say, this is where I went to school. And none of it will matter. But except the journey and the shared time, and all of that catch the whole deal. But we get so caught up in the in the outcome of the moment. I wish I could take that away for them.

Minter Dial  31:08

Right. But having I mean, maybe it’s also about learning to gain perspective.

Paul Assaiante  31:14

Hard to give that it’s, you can’t teach experience. I love the Mark Twain quote, I’m sure you’ve heard that, you know, when Mark Twain son was 15 years old, he said, you know, Dad, I just can’t believe what a fool you are. And then when he was 25, he said, Dad, I can’t believe how much you’ve learned in 10 years. You know, wisdom is just, it just you can’t teach it.

Minter Dial  31:41

That’s, that’s what it’s so beautiful about it. And fortunately, we have some benefits to getting older. Paul. Yeah. There’s a I don’t know how absolutely common this particular statement is. But I heard it from Alexi Pappas, who’s an Olympic runner, writer and filmmaker, much like you, Paul. And a phenomenal coach. They said there’s a rule of thirds, you have to feel 1/3 Good. 1/3. Okay, and 1/3 crappy. Have you heard about? And do you think that’s a good moniker or a good way of going about understanding? You in sports?

Paul Assaiante  32:29

I have to get it’s, it’s too profound for me. I think. I think that’s interesting. And I’ll have to think about it. My philosophy has always been, if you’re at 75%, on a given day, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Because if you look at the averages, some days, you’re really feeling great at 95. Some days, you’re really feeling crummy at 50. But if you’re around 75, that’s a pretty good average. You know, it’s interesting, I’ve always, one of the things I’ve always thought about is, you know, when people have affairs, you know, you go home at night, you’re 75% happy, but there’s something missing. Then you have this flirtation at work that brings 25% into your life, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re 100% Now, well, eventually, your marriage falls apart. And you know, what you have, you have 25% Now try to do something about that. So, it’s just the human condition. You know, people get angry at me when I say I’m 71. I’ve learned to accept where I am in the world. You know, if you told me tomorrow, you can do any sporting activity you want. You can play tennis, squash, pickle, padel, whatever you want to do, what would you choose? I would choose to go for a run. I loved going to a different place in my head. After a good long run, it just felt so good. I can’t run anymore. It’s painful to walk. But it’s okay. It’s okay. And so, people get angry. What are you giving in? I’m not giving in. This is just my reality. I have a new reality. And I think in terms of our humanity, this is where we are today. You know, we’re going to have a podcast together. You’re going to send it to me. I’m not going to like the way I look. I’m not going to like the way my voice sounds. It’s just that’s me. It’s okay. But I chose you know, I can accept that.

Minter Dial  34:35

That’s the neurotic Paul speak. So, what I think we’re talking about is learning to accept it. Because when you have an injury is when you’re young. Of course, it’s sort of it feels like calamitous. And by Gmail, it can be for your body. But learning so learning as a whole concept is interesting, especially when you’re like number One. And you’re, you’re obviously very good at your trade. Do you this, there’s sometimes a temptation to say, well learn from your mistakes, learn from your failures. There’s also people who say focus on your strengths. Well, actually, which one is it?

Paul Assaiante  35:18

I don’t think any learning happens in victory. I really don’t. I think losing is the playground of success. When you’re winning, if you could win in, let’s use tennis as an example, you can lose win in a tiebreaker in the fifth. And in your mind, you forget how hard that was, you just say I won. And you’re on to the next one. The person that lost is chewing on that, and it doesn’t taste good. And if those two play again, always bet on the person that lost because for them, the train stopped. And everybody came out with their magnifying glasses. Well, what went wrong here? Did we not prepare? Well, do we not make in game adjustments was I not fit to play? Was the person just better than me? It forces you to evaluate where you are. And so, I think losing is critical. Critical. Now, you mentioned the idea, though of playing to your strengths. I think that you should always play to your strengths. But you should practice your weaknesses, so that that hole becomes thinner, while knowing that you can go out and play to your strengths. I always found it interesting with the Bill Tilden would go out to play an opponent, and he would attack his opponents strength first. You got to be pretty damn good to that. Because his thinking was, if I can beat you with your strengths, where are you going to hide?

Minter Dial  36:46

I like I like it. I mean, it takes fortitude. And yet, Paul, you had this 252-match winning streak. So, you didn’t even have time to lose?

Paul Assaiante  36:58

No, but I made them lose in practice every day.

Minter Dial  37:02

I love it. I want to want to talk the last piece here about the different types of sports and levels. So, the context is, let’s start with the sport. To what extent does coaching change when you’re coaching squash versus football or soccer or a team sport? What does the sport actually matter?

Paul Assaiante  37:28

No. It’s and it’s the same in the workplace. It’s the same, you know, to me, you know, I the first time I ever saw a squash ball, I was made the head squash coach at West Point. They took me down to the I was made. I was given the tennis job. They took me downstairs and they said this is a squash court. You’re now the head squash coach. And I watched the first day of practice. And I said guys, I have no idea what you’re doing. I don’t know what the lines mean. I don’t know what that damn metal at the floor means. So, but by observing this one thing I do understand, I think is that this is all about fitness. So, I’ll make you a deal. You I will make you the most fit team in the country. You teach me the game of squash? Well, I mean, I got fairly good I was a US champion three times I won the World doubles. I wasn’t a hack!

Minter Dial  38:24

Which I didn’t even know! Wow.

Paul Assaiante  38:27

So, but the point being, if tomorrow, the athletic director said, we need you to coach volleyball, I’d say okay, get some videos, go on YouTube, find some volleyball instruction and everything else. Because what does it come down to: there are skills, okay, there’s technique, okay. But there’s the mind piece of this. And if you, through observation, can tell what level of persons performing at on a day. And when they’re performing better or performing more poorly than you can motivate improvement. And you know, body language will tell you everything you need to know. Same thing in life. Your child walks in the room. You can tell right away through their body language to the fact that they’re not looking you in the eye. You know they’re in trouble. You try to get them to communicate with you, your partner, a peer at work, your boss, you try to get them to communicate with you. Now, this requires trust. And trust is a meal served with a teaspoon. It takes time. But it doesn’t matter what you’re coaching. It’s all the same.

Minter Dial  39:44

My impulsion is to believe that you need to have a context in order to be able to read that body language because you can’t necessarily assume, just because slumped shoulders, necessarily first time = bad news, or do you believe that there is some sort of uniform universal sense of body language?

Paul Assaiante  40:07

No, it’s different for everybody. Coaching is different for everybody. One of them, one of the things when I was started coaching in 1974, it was everyone, let’s do the same thing. Now, I realize that every for every athlete, you coach, there’s a different language. And, you know, at the end of the freshman year, I think we’re about ready to start coaching that person. Because by that point, we kind of understand what makes them tick, what they want, what they don’t want, the communication improves. But so, yeah, no it with everyone. It’s different. Some people are imposters lying to themselves. Some people are chameleons. But when you get them to the place where they can trust you enough to share where they’re at, then you can start making sense of the nonsense that’s spinning around inside their heads.

Minter Dial  41:02

This notion of trust, I had recently on my podcast to Dr. Peter Sear, who wrote the book “Empathic leadership, coaching from elite sports,” and he talked a lot about the importance of empathy.

Paul Assaiante  41:15

Beautiful, beautiful, I wish that to me. So, I was recently asked what the single most important quality in a coach is: Empathy. You have to be able to put yourself on the other side of the desk. Where is this person coming from? And then you got a chance.

Minter Dial  41:35

And it doesn’t mean being nice, right? Because you were especially when you you’re putting them through the ropes in the practice, and you’re making the drill one more time and doing another set of sprints, and their lungs are burning. The empathy piece is recognizing just how far you can push them.

Paul Assaiante  41:52

There’s no question. You know, we’re about you know, I’m now coach Mustafa’s assistant. And we talk every day about what in the world are we going to do with this lineup now going to the national championships? How are we going to? Because we always had time, Joe, you’re, you know, nine people playing a match, Joey, you’re playing number 10. We’ll watch you play in the match. We need to see that information. Well guess what time is now run out the lineup we’re going to put out there as the lineup. So, one of the things that with regard to empathy, and all the other obligations that a coach has for to his players is, I believe a leader has only one obligation. That is that the person or people you’re working with, have a right to know what goes into every decision. They’re not going to like it. They may not agree with it, it’s fine. But you deserve to know what went into that decision. When you’re dealing with young people. It’s because someday you’re going to be a leader be better than I was. It’s not a very high bar. That’s what you need to learn. And then okay, now I understand. Don’t like it. You know, and we have conversations in here all the time. Well, you set me up to fail, coach, you’re putting this pressure. Yeah. Okay. All right. Well, let’s talk through that. You know, and the other thing that’s interesting in this society that doesn’t, you know, buy into this we live in a world where everybody gets a trophy now. Let’s make sure everybody’s you know, doing fine.

Minter Dial  43:25

19th out of 19! Good for you.

Paul Assaiante  43:27

Good for you. Here’s your trophy. Yeah, so I heard a great story one time, Bill Belichick. I had the honour of speaking to the Patriots. And Belichick was Bill Parcells’ assistant with the Giants. And they had a rookie on the team that fell asleep in a team meeting. And they fired him. And then the star player on the football team, Lawrence Taylor was late for, “LT.” And Belichick said the Parcells: he came in late for practice, what do I do? And Parcells said, “Well, I hope he delayed the meeting until he arrived.” You don’t treat everyone the same command. It’s not going to does that how it works in business does the CEO get same thing is the is the mailroom person know. Now work your ass off and go from the mailroom to being the CEO. That motivator is important. And I believe in chains of command and I believe in junior varsity letters and everything else. A hierarchy motivates some, but it cripples the weak.

Minter Dial  44:41

What about Captain?

Paul Assaiante  44:42

Captain is the telephone line between the team and the coach. If you have good captain’s use them you’re blessed. If you have weak captain’s you got to put the program on your back and swim across the lake with the anchor around your throat.

Minter Dial  45:00

How do you choose the right captain?

Paul Assaiante  45:03

We let the team choose the captains. But we count the votes.

Minter Dial  45:09

Interesting, I want to ask you one last zone here, which is about the different levels. So, I’ve had on my podcast, members of national teams, captains of national teams, you know, amazing rugby players. And one in particular, Lee Mears, to name him, was captain of his professional city team the Wasps, I think it was the Wasps professional rugby team. That’s talking about union rugby, and then he was captain of the English national team, which is a very different type of level. You’ve got the professional group of 15 (a lot more, of course) playing professionals. Then you’re representing your country. And you have had the chance to coach national tennis, as I understand or squash, you’ll correct me. But then there’s a third level, which in the UK, is called the Lions, where they make a team that is constituted from the best of the Welsh, Scottish, English and Irish. And so, you don’t even have national pride call on each person is now not just the best in their country, but the best of the best of these four different nations. And he talks about how captaining motivation is different at these different levels. So, if since you’ve had this experience, you did the Trinity men’s tennis, squash World Team Tennis, and the USA national team. How does how does one go about orchestrating that team-ness? And how is it different when you’ve got these different levels between, you know, college kids, the professionals and then the best in the world?

Paul Assaiante  47:13

I think first of all, it’s important to remember that nobody in the stands, came to see you. You know, I mean, they were after World Team Tennis matches, we’d have a press signing, which usually gave me about an hour to go do whatever I wanted to do, because nobody wanted my own graph. That’s a healthy thing to remember. But keep yourself in check. When you’re coaching the best of the best. That’s a different animal. When I am working here, you know, with Coach Mustafa coaching a member on the team, I feel like I can be fairly pointed in any information that I want to disseminate. When you’re coaching, James Blake, you know, it’s one of those things where I would go up…

Minter Dial  47:57

The black pro tennis player… So, we know who yes, because some people may not.

Paul Assaiante  48:01

Right, former number nine in the world. I would go up to James and I would say, James, I’ve noticed something. And is it okay, if I make a suggestion? Sometimes James, depending on what his mental state was, we’d say sure. And other times, he’d say no. And that was fine. And, but I also think it’s different with a rugby team, versus a World Team Tennis team. You know, the rugby team, it’s 15 people and there’s got to be glue connected between them. And World Team Tennis, there’s going to be individual scores to count toward the final score. Even in college tennis, there’s going to be individual scores that count toward the score. The difference is how we connect them at the college level, because that’s what’s going to determine how the team performs. But when you’re dealing with the best of the best, at least in individual sports, you’re catering to the needs of each individual. And the newspaper the next day is going to report the final team score. It’s really not a team event that night.

Minter Dial  49:14

One of the things you mentioned is you’ve got to go through hardship. And I personally believe that there’s a not just because of a team, but there are different sports where the level of hardship is another level. I mean, I played badminton and squash, squash and pink table tennis. But when you give your body in, in a in a in a way where you can where literally every time you go in for a tackle, you can damage yourself. It’s another level of damage and I tend to think of that hardship when you In West Point, actually, or in the army, and you are on the front line, and you are a band of brothers, that sense of hardship is another level. And I’m wondering how that might change the way you coach, when the risk is actually at another level?

Paul Assaiante  50:21

Well, you know, there’s a, there’s a plaque on the wall at West Point, which drove my career. It’s a quote from MacArthur. MacArthur said was “on the friendly fields of strife are sown the seeds that our later fields will bear the fruits of victory.” What that meant to me was, you’re going to learn more on the squash court, on the football field than anything you’re going to learn in the chemistry lab as it relates to your later life. You’re going to learn that emotion is not your friend. It’s not okay to go home and smack your partner because you had a bad day. It’s not okay to lose your cool. It’s not okay to give in. You learn those things. You learn how to you learn how to strategize, you learn how to adjust on the fly, you learn how to win, you learn how to lose, when it becomes, for instance, in England, you have Sandhurst, here we had West Point. That’s a whole different level, in that situation. Defeat could be death. The stakes are much, much higher. You know, it’s interesting what, when I was at West Point, I always thought I was there to offer the dissenting perspective. I was there just trying to Okay, let’s take chill out here, guys, we’re getting a little too caught up in this. But one of the things I learned at West Point was in your first year of beastly behavior called Beast barracks. What they’re doing is they’re taking away your freewill. Because what is important on the battlefield, is you never question authority, because that could cost lives. What we do here is we get them to understand that their freewill might not be for the best thing for the overall team. The stakes are not that high. And so, you know, it’s, it’s, that’s an apple and an orange. But it’s an interesting one to consider.

Minter Dial  52:19

A meal in itself. And, you know, we’ve talked about your approach to having a diverse team looking for the best and the movements that you’ve had. And now you’re looking for more character. I would also imagine, so we talked about empathy, as well. But I’ve also imagined that dealing with parents has changed over the course of your career.

Paul Assaiante  52:43

Yeah, it’s one of the things that’s forcing many of my colleagues out of the business. You know, it’s an interesting thing, when at the end of each year, we go down to see the athletic director, and he hands you a packet of student evaluations. And I would always take that packet and say, Thank you very much. But I’m not going to read this. And he would get very upset with me, and well, why not, and I don’t care. Honestly, what 20 19-year-old kids think about me, if you want to hand me a packet of kids, 10 years out of here, I want to know what they thought. That’s very important. Now, this is our classroom, we’re taking the mess that you raised or didn’t raise, and we’ve got four years to help them get ready for life. So, take a helicopter and leave the facility stop hovering around our offices, our body of work will be measured 10 years down the road. We don’t sit behind your desk, when you are trading stocks, and correcting every single thing you’re doing that we don’t agree with. Stay out of our classroom. But unfortunately, you can’t say that. So, I think it’s amazing. I’m lucky. I’m finally at the stage of my life, where I can tell a parent, I think you’re misbehaving. Fire me they’d be a mercy killing at this point anyway. But when you’re a young coach coming up, you can’t do that. But it is become unbelievably difficult. I’m speaking next week at the Brunswick School, which is one of the one of the elite schools, all boys schools in America down in Greenwich. I’m going to talk to the young men about doing the right thing. And blah, blah, blah and Oreo cookies. And then that night I’m going to talk to the parents. And I’m going to tell the parents let them fail. Let them skin their knees. You let them fail and then let’s figure out what really just happened. You’re not doing them any favors. You know, by you know if Johnny is a C student fully on, that kid is working hard and getting a C. That’s who Johnny is. That’s okay. Don’t pay $10,000 to get SAT tutors. So, somehow Johnny gets up to a level where now he’s in college, he’s in over his head, it becomes depressed. Now you have mental health issues, let the kid fail.

Minter Dial  55:25

The lessons and failure, the notion of what actually is education. And surely education, and I think this is something you and I agree on is, is about preparing you for life, not for necessarily a job, or the next task at hand. But dealing for 10 years on, like you say, and learning how to pick yourself up managing loss, dealing with your emotions, these are life skills. And I think that’s the beauty of, of, of what you’ve done. I’ve seen, I’ve seen the work 10 years on directly underneath me. And that’s been such a privilege. I’m very grateful for what you have done. What’s in the future for Coach or assistant coach?

Paul Assaiante  56:18

Assistant Coach!

Minter Dial  56:20

it doesn’t sound quite the same saying, Hey, assistant coach!

Paul Assaiante  56:23

Assistant coach, I love it. Being an assistant coach has been very interesting for me, because what it’s really helped me understand is how ego attached, I was it you know, wow, you’re the head coach. I’m so lucky to be the assistant for such a great person. And it’s helped me understand that you’re not all that, you know, you just given out messages. What’s in the future for me: messaging. I’m just going to keep messaging to anyone that will listen to me, and, and hopefully continue to learn because that makes the messages richer.

Minter Dial  56:59

Yeah, and staying curious and vibrant. And when it comes with your lovely eyes and good voice, surely some good messaging is out there for the taking. Coach, great to have you on my on my show. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to this for such a long time. Lovely. How can someone who would like to, at least start with, get your book and/or maybe call you or get you into to come speak to them about your trove of experience?

Paul Assaiante  57:30

Well, I will certainly allow you to share my email address with everybody and you know, I’ll be I do speak to companies and teams and I’ll do bar mitzvahs and christenings, whatever you need me to come and do.

Minter Dial  57:48

Beautiful. Well, I’ll put that in the show notes. Coach signing off, sign our stay in touch that way.

Paul Assaiante  57:53

Thank you, my friend. Thank you.

Minter Dial  57:56

So, a really heartfelt thanks for listening to this episode of The Minter Dialogue podcast. If you liked the show, please remember to subscribe on your favourite podcast service. As ever, rating and reviews are the real currency of podcasts. And if you’re really inspired, I’m accepting donations on You’ll find the show notes with over 2100 blog posts on on topics ranging from leadership to branding, tech and marketing tips. Check out my documentary film and books including my last one, the second edition of “Heartificial Empathy, Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence” that came out in April 2023. And to finish here’s a song I wrote with Stephanie Singer, “A Convinced Man.”

I like the feel of a stranger

Tucked around me

Precipitating the danger

To feel free

Trust is the reason

Still I won’t toe the line.

I sit here passively

Hope for your respect

Anticipating the thrill of your intellect

Maybe I tell myself

There’s no use in me lying.

I’m a convinced man,

Building an urge

A convinced man,

To live and die submerged.

A convinced man,

In the arms of a woman

I’m a convinced man

Challenge my fate

I’m a convinced man

Competition’s innate

A convinced man

In the arms of a woman.

Despise revenges

And struggle to see

Live for the challenge

So, life’s not incomplete

What’s wrong with challenge

I know soon we all die

I’m a convinced man

Practicing my lines

I’m a convinced man

Here in these confines

A convinced man

In the arms of a woman.

I’m a convinced man

Put me to the test

I’m a convinced man

I’m ready for an arrest

I’m a convinced man

In the arms of a woman.

I’m a convinced man… so convinced

You convince me, yeah baby,

I’m a convinced man

In the arms of a woman…

Minter Dial

Minter Dial is an international professional speaker, author & consultant on Leadership, Branding and Transformation. After a successful international career at L’Oréal, Minter Dial returned to his entrepreneurial roots and has spent the last twelve years helping senior management teams and Boards to adapt to the new exigencies of the digitally enhanced marketplace. He has worked with world-class organisations to help activate their brand strategies, and figure out how best to integrate new technologies, digital tools, devices and platforms. Above all, Minter works to catalyse a change in mindset and dial up transformation. Minter received his BA in Trilingual Literature from Yale University (1987) and gained his MBA at INSEAD, Fontainebleau (1993). He’s author of four award-winning books, including Heartificial Empathy, Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence (2nd edition) (2023); You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader (Kogan Page 2021); co-author of Futureproof, How To Get Your Business Ready For The Next Disruption (Pearson 2017); and author of The Last Ring Home (Myndset Press 2016), a book and documentary film, both of which have won awards and critical acclaim.

👉🏼 It’s easy to inquire about booking Minter Dial here.

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