Pure Failure: Lessons from the Heart of a Winner


Lessons From The Heart Of A Winner

By Michael Schulder
October 15, 2014

A WaveMaker Conversation With Coach Paul Assaiante

Why is it that Coach Paul Assaiante always seems to be smiling?   What enables him to be so optimistic and consistently upbeat?

The obvious answer would be that Coach Assaiante has the longest winning streak in college sports history.

   When Coach A, as his players call him, took over the Trinity College squash program the mid-1990s, the team was second tier.  Under his leadership, the Trinity Bantams logged a record 252 consecutive team victories -- 13 consecutive national championships. You might think that explains why Coach Assaiante has such a positive spirit. 

   But then he begins to reveal the layers of his life story.

   The high school guidance counselor who told him he wasn’t college material.

   The college gymnastics coach who cut him from the team – three times.

   The self-doubt which triggered recurrent nightmares after he was hired to coach the West Point squash team -- imagining 4,000 Cadets standing silently at an Army-Navy match while a General shouts:  “Stop the Match.  This Man is an Imposter!”   

There is the coach’s self-described “broken body.”

Paul Assaiante has had a stroke.  He has had five knee surgeries and three back surgeries.

When we were walking together in Boston before our interview he took regular water breaks, explaining that dehydration can trigger symptoms of his Meniere’s disease – an inner ear disorder that can cause vertigo and severe vomiting.  

And then there is Paul Assaiante’s most difficult challenge of all:  living with the knowledge that while he was hyper-focused on his team, hyper-focused on keeping the promise he made to the mothers of the foreign students he’d recruited -- that he would watch over their sons -- he missed the signs of trouble in his own home.

In this WaveMaker conversation, Coach Paul Assaiante describes what it was like to be leaving campus on the team bus for a match against Harvard and noticing a young man on a street corner selling heroin.  That young man was his son.   His own son, Matthew, had become an addict.

After some 20 rehab programs, this is a long-term trauma for father and son with no clear resolution – no ability to fully exhale.

And so, the question remains, how does Paul Assaiante remain an optimist?  Where did he get his reservoir of resilience?

“Pure failure,” he tells me.  “All of these things that I’ve learned, and how to approach my life, came from failure.”

I hope you’ll listen to this WaveMaker Conversation With Coach Paul Assaiante.

You will hear a man who has come to accept, after many years of therapy and through sheer determination, that failure and success can coexist.  On some level, they must.

A WaveMaker Conversation With Coach Paul Assaiante

For a fuller account of Coach Assaiante’s life and the athletic and psychological challenges of excelling at squash, you can read the memoir he wrote with author James Zug entitled Run to the Roar.  

To witness Coach Assaiante and his team in action, facing adversity, you can watch the work of young filmmaker Marc DiBenedetto, who was a Trinity Senior when he made the immersive documentary “All In.”