Owen Eastwood | 'We never want anybody to leave their culture at the door'

Owen Eastwood | 'We never want anybody to leave their culture at the door'

Over the past decade, from somewhere under the radar, Cotswolds-dwelling Kiwi Owen Eastwood has become one of the worlds most in-demand performance coaches. The elite teams and organisations he has worked with include the England football team, the Scotland rugby squad, and the South African cricket teams (all men’s), as well as the Royal Ballet School, and the Command Group of NATO. Currently, he is helping Team GB prepare for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, and Gareth Southgate’s England footballers prepare for the Euros.

Now we have Eastwood’s first book, Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness, in which he sets out the thinking behind his methods of unlocking success, and how they can be adapted to different group contexts. In the process, he transcends the average “how to” sport and business psychology book, to venture into the realms of evolutionary science, personal development and philoso- phy, as he draws on notions of belonging, of shared vision and the spiritual wisdom of his ancestors.

Eastwood’s self-confessed “unorthodox” approach was quite literally bred in his bones. Born in New Zealand to a half English, half Māori father and a mother of Irish heritage, his young life was marked by his father’s early death when he was five years old. “It was very traumatic for our family, as you can imagine. But when I was a bit older I started to think properly about the fact that my father was part Māori. I’m equally proud of my different ancestral lines, but growing up watching the All Blacks rugby team doing their haka before a test match, I became conscious of how proud they were. Although it has suffered deeply from colonisation, the Māori culture has always main- tained its dignity and confidence. So it was such a visceral feeling to know that I had a connection to that culture. I just couldn’t let it go,” he tells me when we chat via Zoom in his first press interview.

Reaching out
When Eastwood was 12, he wrote to the office of Ngāi Tahu, the Māori tribe from which his father was descended, to ask about his heritage. The essence of the reply that came back was: “You belong”. “It was like a person putting their big arms around me,” recalls Eastwood. As a result of this welcome, he became deeply interested in Māori culture, and in its guiding notion of whakapapa (pronounced far-ka-pa-pa), which emphasises that every individual is part of an unbreakable chain of interlinked people, stretching both back in time to our first ancestors, and forward into the future. “Anyone can understand this ancient idea of belonging, whether you are part of a family, a school, a work team, a nation or a religion. It’s incredibly powerful,” explains Eastwood.

If this sounds a bit esoteric, bear with me as we fast- forward 30 years or so to find Eastwood working as a corporate lawyer for a big City law firm in London. One of his jobs was to represent the All Blacks rugby team whenever they toured the Northern hemisphere. “It was perfect for a Kiwi living in the UK—I got to spend time with my heroes, and got to know the coaches well.” Then, while conducting a review for Adidas of its ongoing sponsorship of the All Blacks, the then-c.e.o. of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi—also a New Zealander—asked Eastwood’s opinion of the document they had prepared. “It was 100 pages of financial and marketing speak. I said I thought it was very soulless. The point was that the All Blacks have this magic that Adidas didn’t wholly feel it was tapping into. So I suggested adding some elements of Māori ancestral wisdom that the All Blacks actively espouse, and which drive their success, and Saatchi & Saatchi said, go for it.”

The c.e.o. of Adidas was hugely receptive to Eastwood’s input. “[Adidas’] response reaffirmed what I had always thought; that there’s something emotional about this wisdom that people want to be part of. Anyway, I went back to lawyering, and then the following week, Chelsea Football Club called me and said: ‘We hear you’re an expert on team culture.’ Then a few months later, the South African cricket team approached me, and the follow- ing year I was asked to work with the Command Group of NATO. It was quite bizarre,” Eastwood recalls. But before long he was so in-demand as a performance coach that he left his law firm to work in that capacity full-time.

Reaching out
It wasn’t long before he was also approached by a publisher who believed that there was a gap in the market for a book with a more emotional narrative around team-building; Eastwood declined to write it, however. “Although I was confident in my approach, I wasn’t sure I understood the science behind what I was doing.” Then he came across the work of Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University. “We met and he told me the evolutionary story of homosapiens and how we have this hard-wired primal need for social bonding and a sense of belonging. What he said aligned so closely with the ancient wisdom I’d learned, that it made me more confident I could write a book.” Last year’s lockdown, and the postponement of both the European Football Championships and the Tokyo Olympics, finally gave him the time to do so.

Through the lens of whakapapa and other tenants of Māori wisdom, Belonging draws on numerous fascinating case studies of how teams have reaped the benefits of developing a shared sense of belonging, of legacy, and of collective purpose. They include a compelling account of how the first multi-racial South African cricket team—the Proteas—went about shaking off the poisonous legacy of the Apartheid years; and how during the last World Cup, the England football team was inspired to finally win a penalty shoot-out in their last-16 game against Colombia. The potential applications of whakapapa go well beyond sport, however. In conversation, Eastwood talks about how it might be used in the context of families and in the way we parent our children; as well as in business settings, particularly perhaps in the context of lockdown, when so many of us are living and working in isolation from colleagues.

And in the light of Eastwood’s contention that we have “lost our way when it comes to leading people”, his ideas can be extended to national governance too. He has huge respect for current New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern, because “she’s great at envisioning what we are trying to do together as a nation, something I think has been missing in most political leaders. Here in the UK, we need to have a much better sense of what it is it to be British today.” If you think this sounds a bit jingoistic, it’s worth listening to how Eastwood approaches his ongoing work in the richly diverse contexts of the England football and British Olympic teams. “We never want anybody to leave their culture at the door. To belong is to be seen, and to be accepted and respected for who you are. Then what we need to discover is: what are the values that we can all sign up to? Which are the traits that we all have respect for?”

Despite his considerable career success, Eastwood is a self-effacing operator. Search online, and you’ll discover surprisingly little, apart from some excitement about his recent engagement by the Harlequins rugby team. The publication of Belonging could change all that. And to have a book from him feels particularly appropriate given that his approach is so rooted in the notion of storytelling. “Our story is an unfolding one: we just happen to be part of one of its chapters. So it’s incumbent on us to have a clear idea about how to make things better for those who come after us,” he affirms.

Owen Eastwood talks to the South African men's cricket team on an expedition up table mountain 

Book extract 
Belonging is a wildly undervalued condition required for human performance.

When our need to belong in a team is met, our energy and focus pour into the team’s shared mission. We can lock into our role and the tasks we’re being asked to deliver. We are comfortable being vulnerable in our quest to get better. We feel secure enough to help others and point out where we could be better as a team.

We can be ourselves. We feel that we are respected and that we matter. We feel included. We can be a good teammate here. Our own identity, and that of the team happily coexist.

We are tuned into the legacy we are about to write. Whakapapa.