Into the Wild

    Bates College coach Peter Steenstra has guided the Maine-based program to four NCAA Division III titles in the past five years. His approach? Let the athletes lead.
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    If you can picture the coast of Maine, where the trees meet the water and the mist rises during sunrise, that will get you close. If you can let that image in—the peace that comes when water and earth become one and the sky cradles even your darkest fears—then you might just begin to feel what it’s like to be in the erg room at Bates College as winter turns to spring.

    Peter Steenstra, once a captain of sailboats, is the head coach of the rowing program at Bates College; he has a calmness that belies his burly laugh. As the coach of a rowing program that’s in Lewiston, Maine, almost as far north as one can get on the East Coast of the United States, Steenstra’s athletes spend a lot of time in the erg room. “In the erg room, we don’t use the monitors, we push them up, out of the way. We leave the music off and sometimes I turn off the lights.”

    Steenstra describes an erg room that I’ve never witnessed: no monitors, no music, no lights. This odd scene stays in my mind as I ask Steenstra about the results the Bates rowing program has achieved since he took over as head coach in the fall of 2008. “Bates has been at the NCAA [championships] since 2007.” Steenstra smiles a soft smile, one that highlights his love of the sport. “Since 2009, we’ve been first or second, except for 2014, when we took third to Williams [College]. They had a powerhouse of a program, Williams,” he says of one of his fiercest competitors.

    I ask Steenstra about the powerhouse he’s built in his own backyard, at Bates. “We’re getting there, yes, but don’t tell anyone,” he says, with a chuckle. A Division III program, Bates College’s rowing program has grown, with Steenstra as the head coach of both the men’s and women’s program and two assistant coaches. I ask him about the erg room, and the unconventional way he and his coaches run it. “I’ve realized,” he begins, settling into what I can feel is a story that only a sailing captain can tell, “that I don’t create the culture that’s here, I just provide an atmosphere. From that, the team is able to create their own culture. It’s moving. It’s organic. And it changes every year.” 

    “I don’t create the culture that’s here, I just provide an atmosphere. From that, the team is able to create their own culture. It’s moving. It’s organic. And it changes every year.” – Peter Steenstra

    Steenstra arrived at Bates as an assistant coach in the fall of 2007 and spent one year in that role. “I left Bates at the end of the academic year,” he explains. “It just wasn’t the right fit for me as an assistant.” Steenstra and his wife had spent that year apart as she finished graduate school in upstate New York. “It was a big decision,” he explains, to live two states away from his wife for a year. “Taking the assistant job at Bates was a bit of a risk,” Steenstra goes on, “but my wife and I are both from Maine and we knew we wanted to move back home.” Steenstra pauses briefly, “There are only three coaching jobs in Maine: Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby.” 

    Steenstra had begun his coaching career at Colby College, as an assistant under Mark Davis, then led the club teams at The Ohio State University, and also spent a year as an assistant coach at Cornell University, while he earned his master’s degree in sports management at Ithaca College.

    In August 2008, three months after Steenstra had left Bates, the head coach position became available. “When the athletic director called, offering me the head coach position,” Steenstra recalls, “I was driving a forklift in a lumberyard in upstate New York to pay the rent while my wife was in residency.” He grows serious, and I lean in. “I aged a lot that summer. To have gone 10 years in coaching, invested in a master’s degree—that’s what’s needed these days as a coach—to be driving a forklift in July, when what I wanted to be doing was setting up a boathouse…” Steenstra trails off a bit. “I realized I might not be a coach anymore.”

    I ask Steenstra what his response was when he got the job offer from Bates that day. “That was the easiest negotiation of that AD’s life, that’s for sure” he laughs. “It was a 10-second phone call. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll be there tomorrow.’ I didn’t even ask about the salary.” 

    Once at Bates as the head coach, Steenstra began growing the team. “I knew that I had something,” he says, when I ask him about the success he’s seen his crews achieve, “that I understood how the boat goes. But it wasn’t until I got to Bates that I…” and here he stops, searching for the right words. He looks up and I pay attention. “I never felt like I was really good at anything until I started coaching.” He stops again, trying to explain himself to me.

    “Rowing is simple. You sit down, you go back and forth, you hit repeat. But it really comes down to the people. What I’ve learned is that you have to give them as much as you can, so you can then stand aside, in the shadows. You have to give them the ownership so they can go as far as possible. From that ownership, they get control. The athletes themselves are in control of the program.”

    I ask him if his rowers know this about him, that his goal is to hand over the control to them. “Yes,” he says, matter-of-factly, “I tell them all the time. I tell them that if they need me in order to be successful, that’s a problem. I say, ‘You guys have to be able to run with it.’ We put a lot into the leadership of the team. The captains are elected by the athletes, the coxswains have a very distinct role, and within the team, everyone has a responsibility. My assistants—every one of them over the years could be a head coach.” Steenstra stops and rewinds a bit. “I can definitely say that I’ve been blessed with good mentors: Jim Joy, Mark Davis, Dan Roock. I’ve worked in programs that taught me the importance of a good relationship with the athletic department and what it can mean to a rowing team. When I ran the club program at The Ohio State University, it was the good old-fashioned, hard-knock kind of education, old-school learning. I look back now and I’m glad I did it—it was hard on my retirement account and it didn’t necessarily move me forward because it wasn’t a varsity program—but I learned so much there.”

    Steenstra doesn’t mince words. He tousles with the lessons he’s carried from each coaching job and they all seem to careen into his approach to making the Bates rowing program as successful as it can be. Specifically, Steenstra has led the women’s rowing program at Bates to the top of the Division III podium, winning the NCAA championships four of the past five years. Over the past 11 years, they’ve placed either first or second every year, except in 2014. It was in 2014 that they stood on the third step of the podium, finishing behind Trinity College and Williams College.

    I ask Steenstra if he talks with his athletes about winning. “Never,” he says, without missing a beat. “Never ever.” He catches himself then, and rewinds. “I talked about it for one year. Can you guess which one?” he quips. “From 2009 to 2013, we were second behind Williams,” he explains. “They were getting faster and we were getting faster. They were beating us by open water and we were beating everyone else [in our region] by open water. In 2014, I made a conscious decision to talk about winning. I wanted my rowers to face that demon. We were having a remarkable year. Then, when we went to NCAAs, of course, it all piled on top of them.” Steenstra tells this story as if he’s explaining a perfect storm forming out at sea, and he knows a course adjustment is the only thing that will protect his sailboat.

    “In the NCAA finals, it was all in their hands. I told them, ‘We have every reason to win this race.’ But we had spent so much time talking about winning, and not about the final step of their performance, that it just crumbled. During the race, once winning was out of reach, it all came crashing down and we fell to fourth.” The silver lining that day? Bates’ junior varsity won their race. This brought Bates to third in the NCAA points race in 2014. Since then, Bates’ second varsity eight has won six consecutive NCAA championships. “Never before have I felt so pulled in two completely different emotions as a coach.” Steenstra pauses again, reflecting on the role a coach has when working with multiple teams at championship races.

    “So that was my experiment with talking about winning head on. It’s too bad the 1V boat suffered that on my account.” Steenstra’s voice conveys the regret coaches often have about the losses they feel directly responsible for. “Now the focus is on another place. Now it’s all about caring for the people.” Steenstra sits back and his boat captain’s manner shines through. “I just sent out an email to my team—56 women—asking them to answer this question in five words or less: ‘Why are we strong?’ Here’s what I got back: ‘We care about each other,’ ‘love,’ ‘trust,’ but the word ‘rowing’ was not anywhere in their answers. This is how they are together. They understand the commitment they have to each other. This monster that is Bates Rowing is here to help whoever wants to be a part of it to succeed.” 

    Steenstra slows down, as if the energy to let go of the control sometimes circles back on him, too. “When we’re on the water, we end at the 4k point, when we’re 4,000 meters from the dock, and we end the day’s workout there. All my rowers have heard us say that if you practice a bad stroke, the result is a bad stroke. We take every opportunity on the water to produce a good stroke because we have so little time on the water. They know that at the 4k point—from that point back to the dock—they will be deciding what the standard of their boat, their team, is going to be. The coaches go silent with 4,000 meters to go and they have to decide what kind of work they’re going to put in on the way home. We tell them, if you have a low standard, that’s the kind of program we’ll have.”

    I ask Steenstra how directly he explains to his rowers this idea of setting standards. “We discuss it all the time,” he says. “I say it during every session. I say it on the water, in the boathouse, and in the erg room—and we spend a lot of time in the erg room.” And here it is: that room with no erg monitors revealing the work each rower is putting in and no music blaring from the speakers. There are just rowers, doing the work. “You’ve just got to know that you’re putting everything into it,” Steenstra explains, when I ask him about not using monitors or music to guide the rowers. “You can hear it in the room. During an erg piece I generally don’t say anything until the piece is over.” And it’s at that moment that Steenstra stands in front of them and says, “You’re at the 4k point, you’re going to the dock.” He pauses as he explains the moment. “Then, as they finish the last 4,000 meters of the day, they’re doing a whole other workout.” He lets his words slow. “They know they’re a part of something.”

    Steenstra circles back to his idea of what a coach can—and can’t—do. “Good coaches know they can’t motivate people. It’s also true that coaches can’t provide culture. All you can do as a coach is to provide an atmosphere and opportunities for athletes to self-motivate and for them to create the team’s culture. My assistants, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Kinney and Haley Eovine, know this, too. Lizzie rowed at Vermont and coaches the men’s side. She does an outstanding job. The guys respect her so much. And Haley joined the women’s team mid-year and we feel like we hit the jackpot. She was a coxswain at the University of Massachusetts; often good coxes make good coaches.”

    Steenstra’s work this spring, like so many coaches’, has shifted to supporting his team through an unprecedented season due to the cancellation of competition. Something he said stays with me as I watch from a distance how his team is responding. “I tell my athletes that to be rowers they have to think like a farmer. Get up tomorrow and do the job you did today. It’s hard work that makes you successful. That may offend some people, but we find this sport because we like hard work.”

    “I tell my athletes that to be rowers they have to think like a farmer. Get up tomorrow and do the job you did today. It’s hard work that makes you successful. That may offend some people, but we find this sport because we like hard work.” – Peter Steenstra

    While working on this piece, I reached out to Steenstra again, after his athletes had left campus and returned to their homes for social distancing. “It’s been a transition,” he says, of having his athletes still be Bates rowers, albeit from all parts of the country. “But, you know, it’s letting us focus on the things that we say we always wish we had to time to focus on. Haley Eovine is leading Zoom-ga sessions for the team. She launches Zoom, has the team log on, and runs a yoga session. That’s a foundational area we’ve always wished we could do more of, so now we are.” Steenstra mentions how this strange spring season has his oars getting a fresh coat of paint and the boathouse getting the kind of attention coaches always wish they had the time for.

    “One thing hasn’t changed for us, though,” he sits back in his chair and explains. “Quiet sitting. This is something I learned from [coach] Jim Joy when I was rowing at Hobart. Quiet sitting is one of our more valuable tools.” I look at him with a puzzled look. “What we strive to do through quiet sitting is to strengthen our emotional durability. Today’s athlete is bombarded with noise and information all the time—someone’s always trying to sell them something. We end every practice with 10 minutes of quiet sitting.” Steenstra is engaged in a way that makes me think of him on a sailboat far out at sea, as if the idea he wants me to understand is a key to understanding his work. 

    “We’re lucky because we’re up here [in Maine] surrounded by fields and sky, the wind in the trees. At the end of every practice, the team will get into a giant circle on the apron in front of the boathouse and just sit—with good posture—for 10 minutes.” He shows me the apron, a typical paver-covered apron between boathouse and dock. “It’s far more valuable than even they realize. It’s usually once they’ve graduated that I’ll get an email or a phone call or a letter thanking me for that.”And so now, when the team is connected only digitally, Eovine ends each of her Zoom-ga sessions with a few minutes of quiet sitting. “We remind them that there’s great value in continuing to strengthen their emotional resolves.” Steenstra releases a bit, letting the weight drop from between his shoulder blades. “There’s nothing that we’re doing at Bates that others aren’t doing, but our approach may be different.” Different indeed: he might just turn out the lights and send you on a 4,000-meter erg piece with only your team’s compass to guide you.

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