Performance coach Owen Eastwood: ancient mindset reaps timeless rewards
18 May 2023
Owen Eastwood credits a series of valuable personal connections for arming him with all he needed to become one of the most in-demand performance coaches in the world. He talks to Anthony Doesburg for Ingenio.
Whakapapa, an underpinning of Māoriness that gave a fatherless Southland boy a sense of belonging, is firing up sports teams, military commanders and ballet dancers worldwide.
Owen Eastwood has parlayed the warm embrace extended to him by Ngāi Tahu as a young boy into an in-demand international performance-coaching business.
Aged 12, at the urging of his paternal grandmother, Owen contacted the tribe after being left adrift from his heritage by the death of his Māori father. He died when Owen was five, leaving Owen and his three siblings to be raised by their mother.
When Owen wrote to Ngāi Tahu asking the question, “What do you know about who I am?”, the answer, in short, was “You belong”.
The reply welcomed him with a tribal registration number and a formal record of his Māori genealogy. And as Owen describes in his 2021 book Belonging, a “scruffy” unheaded second piece of paper listed 20 generations of his ancestors’ names.
This was his introduction to whakapapa, both his personal history and what he says is a part of “the ancient code of togetherness”.
Now 54 and living in the Cotswolds, England, with his wife and two children, Owen says he was very lucky. “Ngāi Tahu gave me a very powerful sense of the Māori part of my identity.”
By a route that took him through the law schools of the universities of Otago and Auckland and a top London law firm, he’s now preaching whakapapa at outfits as diverse as Chelsea and Manchester City football clubs, England Football, Cricket South Africa, NATO’s command group and the Royal Ballet.
The aim is to help them form winning “teams”. Although he declares he has no formal qualification, performance coaching has been Owen’s work for the past decade, sidelining his legal career.
After being raised in Southland by his widowed mother, Owen went north to the University of Otago where he did a law degree and political studies as part of a Bachelor of Arts.
“Those two things added up to an interest in employment law so when I graduated, I went to Wellington and worked in that field.
“Then – and it’s amazing how life turns on such little things – I read an article about Michael Jordan in Sports Illustrated.
“I came to a line that quoted his sports lawyer. Although I’d studied and was practising law, I’d never heard of ‘sports lawyer’ as an occupation.”
As a fan of both sport and law, he thought he’d explore further, and consulted the Wellington Yellow Pages. Two sports lawyers were listed: David Howman, who went on to head anti-doping agency WADA, and barrister and former All Black Jock Hobbs.
“New Zealand being the place it is, I cold-called them both, told them I was interested in finding out about sports law and asked if they’d sit down with me over a coffee.
“They both agreed and were warm and generous with their time.”
I was very lucky. Ngāi Tahu gave me a very powerful sense of the Māori part of my identity.
David Howman’s blunt message was that mere passion wouldn’t get Owen far. He would need to prove to people he was invested in sports law.
“He told me about the University of Auckland’s Master of Commercial Law degree, which included a sports law paper, and said with that qualification people would take me seriously.”
Owen was hesitant about giving up paid employment to return to studying and accumulating more debt. “But David Howman’s words rang in my ears.”
In 1996, he took his advice.
He has good memories of his 18 months studying in Auckland, centred on the sports law classes of Professor Owen Morgan and Associate Professor Bill Hodge’s “world-class” employment law teaching.
“Bill Hodge inspired me and took me under his wing a bit. He was interested in the fact that I wanted to amalgamate employment law and sports law, which I could do in that masters degree.”
The social side of postgraduate life was also rewarding. “After classes, we would have a coffee or a beer. I probably met more people at Auckland than Otago, which is really sociable but where people would sprint off after classes.”
He worked hard enough to get first-class honours. “I really enjoyed doing the masters and it took my life and career on a completely new trajectory.”
His first break was at the Auckland Cricket Association, which was advertising for a sports lawyer. The role allowed him to combine hands-on law work with his studies.
Next stop was London, where his newly minted credentials landed him a job at leading employment law firm Lewis Silkin, and the task of setting up a sports law department.
“I spent the next decade doing that. It was a tremendous experience, which accidentally led to me becoming a performance coach.”
Bill Hodge inspired me and took me under his wing a bit. He was interested in the fact that I wanted to amalgamate employment law and sports law.
The leap from law to coaching came about when he was doing a two-year sabbatical at Saatchi & Saatchi. In 2008, the ad agency was asked by Adidas to work on a review of its sponsorship relationship with the All Blacks, and Owen was assigned to the role. Adidas wanted an insight into the team’s culture, and it couldn’t have stumbled across a better-qualified person. Owen not only knew the All Blacks’ coaches from having been the team’s lawyer in the UK, but he was also in the midst of a personal quest to learn more about his Māori heritage and concepts such as mana and whakapapa.
“This was one of those great coincidences. At a time in my life when I’m reflecting on and learning about these ideas, I’m invited to get involved in Adidas’s review of the All Blacks.”
With the advantage that the coaches knew and trusted him, he discovered whakapapa was central to the team.
“It’s just part of the All Blacks’ normal vocabulary. These ideas happened to also be in my mind so we were talking the same language.”
Owen hasn’t stopped speaking it since.
“That’s the point where I became interested in team culture and ultimately being a performance coach.”
His technique is to create an identity story, the exercise he was engaged in on his own behalf when the Adidas assignment came along.
Owen says the good news for Kiwis on the international stage is we have “a bias towards ‘we’ over ‘me’”.
“It’s definitely in Māori culture – tribe and whānau first – but also in the British and European pioneers who came here trying to break away from the class system.”
The All Blacks have a unity of purpose that has seen them win four out of every five games they’ve played since the 1890s. As for stories, there are few to rival the one the All Blacks can tell from the 1895 Originals to the present, the key feature of which Owen says is diversity.
“From the start, the All Blacks have created a team culture that is very inclusive, and that’s been part of our strength.”