The Gladstone Mentality: The Legendary Rowing Coach on Leading Yale to a Second Straight IRA Championship, in His Own Words

Yale on the podium at the 2018 IRA Regatta (Photo © Joel Furtek)

He's the winningest coach at the IRA Regatta in the modern era. He's coached multiple world champions and Olympic medalists. And, Steve Gladstone may be the only coach—in any sport—to win national championships with three different schools (four, if you include the 'de facto' titles he won with the Harvard Lightweights across four straight undefeated seasons). Here, he looks back on the 2018 season, how he approaches his work, and what drives him every day.

Bryan Kitch:
It seems like it has just been historic event after historic event. I'm just curious about the way you felt going into this season, the momentum you felt you had in the program, and maybe how your athletes maintained a hunger despite having proved a lot last year—how did they maintain that edge and want to come back for more?

Steve Gladstone:
Well, you asked a couple of questions—maybe two or three questions [laughs], but I'll start with the first one.

I rarely think in abstractions, which is to say that practices begin, and we practice. The athletes understand, and I certainly understand, that that is the essence of our work. That's what makes whatever follows in the racing season possible. But there is no abstract thinking-the practices begin, and we go to work. That's the way it is each day.

Then, the narrative unfolds, through the course of the year—as you get to the racing season, as so many coaches say, races are not won on race day.

There was no grand scheme. I never asked the question of 'how do we stay motivated.' What we do is practice, and practice with purpose. We do that each day. We bring what we have, and that's the way it works—nothing more complicated or strategic than that.

BK:
In terms of the historic nature of it—has this year's championship sunk in yet, what it means for the program, and your own career, etc?

SG:
Again, I think those kinds of thoughts will occur at some point, much later on. But what I can tell you for sure is that I was absolutely overjoyed watching this crew race through the course of the season. They were very consistent, with the exception of one race. And as the season unfolded, it became clear that they were very fast—whether that means they're going to win all their races, well, you don't know that, because they're racing other fast crews. But to answer your question directly—when they crossed the finish line, watching them, I couldn't have been more pleased. It was very satisfying.

And when it comes down to it—and most coaches will tell you this—you're most pleased for the guys in the boat, that they were able to achieve what they did. You know from your own experience that that race will be with them for the rest of their lives, and that with it there will be a sense of warmth and accomplishment when they reflect on it. So, knowing that that was unfolding-knowing that that was going to happen for them as time goes on is a wonderful feeling, from a coaching perspective.

BK:
[Laughs] Well that's a decent amount of abstract thought there, right?

SG:
[Laughs] Right, right. But mostly, when it's happening, you're just very excited for them.

BK:
So, going into the final, with the conditions the way they were—one thing that has been interesting to see is the new FISA Athletes Commission launching, and the idea of the athletes getting to select their own lanes, etc. Was there any concern about how you felt the race would unfold, or how you prepared them, given that it was going to be a 30 second longer race?

SG:
No, no—I mean, we train in headwinds, we train in tailwinds. That's just the way it is. And, what all coaches and athletes hope for is a a fair course, and fortunately that was a direct head[wind], coming straight up the course. We knew it was going to be a long race.

One of the thoughts that I had when I looked at the weather forecast—I must say that I was happy that it was going to be a headwind. I thought that neutral would be fine. I'd be a little bit more concerned in tailwind, given the people that we race that are prime competitors—they tend to go down the course at 38 & 1/2 or 39 [strokes per minute], and we don't do that, as you could see. We row about two beats, three beats lower—about a 36, and in neutral conditions probably about a 37. So I thought that headwind would work in our favor.

BK:
So, I know you're in the midst of preparing for arguably the 'biggest' race [the Harvard-Yale Regatta, which Yale would later win], but is there a moment that really stuck out to you as defining the season? Obviously, you won the grand final at IRAs, so that's got to be up there.

SG:
[Laughs] Winning the Eastern Sprints and winning the national championship, of course, but I think the way it works is whatever race is in front of you. In very simple terms, the national championship has to be the most important race of the year—[laughs] how could it be anything other than that?

BK:
[Laughs] Yes of course—there's just all that history and tradition behind the Harvard-Yale Regatta, or rather the Yale-Harvard Regatta.

SG:
Yes and I'm four square behind that—I think this four-miler is just terrific. It's the beginning of intercollegiate sport. It means an enormous amount to the Yale and Harvard alumni. And so, what can you say-that is what it is. You kind of have to hold two realities, if you will. [Laughs] But the national championship, over 2,000 meters-that's the national championship, what can you say?



One can ramble around that all you want, and right now it's all about the four-mile race. The national championships are over, the Eastern Sprints are over, the Carnegie Cup is over, and all that stuff. But what the athletes do, is they get in the boat, and they have full intention to race, whether they're Cal oarsmen, or Harvard oarsmen, or Washington oarsmen, or Yale oarsmen-that's what they do. And they want to win their races. That's their desire.

When they're getting in the boat, they're not thinking about 'I'm a national champion, or Eastern Sprints champion,' or, 'I won the Carnegie Cup.' They're not thinking about that at all. You rowed, correct?

BK:
Yes, I did.

SG:
Ok, well you can reference your own experience. Where did you row?

BK:
I rowed at UCLA, and then at the New York Athletic Club, and later London Rowing Club in the UK.

SG:
So, you understand. I mean, you get on the line, and you're racing. And I don't think that you're thinking about 'this race is more important'—whatever you're racing, that's the most important thing.

When you're going through the season, it's the Albert Cup, and you're racing Brown. You're not thinking, 'Well, the Albert Cup's not that important, it's really about the Carnegie Cup'—no, you're putting it all on the line, and you're going for it. That's the case in every oarsman's season. And that's how it is for the coaches as well.

This week, it's all about prep for the four-miler.

When the season's all said and done, then maybe you can talk about well this race was more important, or that race was more important—and if you look at the reality of it and one race is called a national championship, and everybody's there, and it's over 2,000 meters…right?

I mean, do the Patriots want to win the Super Bowl? [Laughs]

BK:
Right. It's not about being the AFC Champions.

SG:
Right, so what do you think? Does that answer those questions?

BK:
Yes, I think you're right—as you say, there's a little bit of syncretism going on, where you have to believe that what's right in front of you is the most important thing, but at the end of the day, you're national champions.

SG:
Right. But circling back to your earlier questions, where you were asking if there were a grand strategy-the answer to that is no, I don't have a grand strategy. We begin practicing whenever practice begins, and we go to work on whatever we know we need to work on. And the guys have a good time doing it.

There are always issues, you're always making adjustments technically to what you're doing. That's really the essence of what we do. The racing reflects the practices.

BK:
That actually ties in to the last thing I was going to ask you, which has to do with the idea that it seems like you have the ability to repeat your previous success seemingly anywhere. But I think given what you're saying, keeping a simple focus, and a tight approach, the process stays the same.

SG:
It's not easy to implement. But the concept is simple. As you recall, in your rowing years. You drive to practice, or run to practice, whatever the case may be, and you get in the boat, and the practice is just that-you're practicing, and looking to improve on all levels. And the people around you are doing that.

You can have a really, really enjoyable time doing that. It's not unpleasant. Quite the contrary. Then you get out of the boat, you shower, and off you go.

Of course, from time to time, from a coaching perspective, you do want to get the team together and talk about objectives and so forth, as a reminder. Sometimes the athletes need that, and sometimes they don't. But you just move it forward one step at a time.

Clearly you do have to have people who do love what they do, in order to perform at a very high level. And then they have to learn, through practice, and through failure, how to approach racing—so that on race day, it's just another day at the office. We're not making adjustments to who we're playing. You know through practice what the best way to get your boat from point A to point B is, so you don't go, 'Oh my God we're racing Washington who row at 38 strokes a minute down the course, so we'd better row at 38 down the course.

No, you do what you do. And at the end of the day, you take what you get.

Keeping it simple, keeping it straightforward, is the way you're going to get the best result. And, of course, you have to have people who are ambitious, cooperative people, who don't get upset if they're not in a particular seat at a particular time, or who can take a loss without feeling like we have to restructure everything we're doing because we take a loss-at Crew Classic, we were dusted by California. So, we go forward. We go home, and we go to practice.

BK:
I won't keep you too much longer…

SG:
That's all right.

BK:
For me, I was in college from '01-'05—that's when I was introduced to rowing. I remember watching "All For One," and I grew up in the sport with you as this major college rowing coaching figure. You've been doing it for so long. I feel like you've got a personal intensity that radiates through your program and that immediately communicates to everyone involved. Is that just natural? Is it something where, you feel like that, and maybe someday you won't, and that will be the day you decide to retire?

SG:
[Laughs] Thank you for the compliment. That's flattering and I appreciate it. I've always found the work really, really engaging. At times, like right now, I'm friggin' exhausted [laughs], but exhausted in a good way. And I know that that's a kind of a superficial comment to make, but the process is something that I find enormously engaging—every aspect of it. I mean, not the bureaucratic stuff. But every aspect of working with the oarsmen—every aspect of it—I find really engaging, really satisfying, really challenging. There are days when you don't sleep at night, when there are issues going on and you're ruminating on how to deal with those issues. I suppose when times are very difficult, you think 'Oh my God, how much longer am I going to do this.' But when all is said and done, it's enormously satisfying.

Any coach can create a narrative—it's self-serving in some ways—that yes, I really love this, and it's personally satisfying, but also that I think, or hope, that it is really having a positive influence on their lives after they stop rowing. In other words, the passage, somehow the preparation for racing, will inform their lives in a positive way. That's the way you think about it when you're being reflective. Most of the time you're just so fully engaged that there really is no reflection, you're just working.

The bottom line is, I feel tremendously grateful that I've had the opportunity to do what I do. I feel very, very grateful and very happy that early on in my life I found a place to be that I thought was very engaging, that I loved doing. I think that's lucky.

It's not unique, I'm sure there are many other people in my position [laughs], but nonetheless, I'm very happy that I found it-or it found me.

Thanks very much to Steve Gladstone for taking the time, and congratulations to Yale on back-to-back national championships (the 12th and 13th IRA titles for Gladstone, putting him just one behind all-time leader Charles Courtney). 

-RR

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