While he lives in the United Kingdom, Owen Eastwood has never forgotten his roots. An elite performance coach who has worked with such diverse organisations as the England football team, the Royal Ballet School and the Command Group of Nato, the Māori concept of whakapapa is at the heart of the Cotswold-based author's debut book, Belonging. Subtitled "The Ancient Code of Togetherness", it explores how that powerful spiritual belief resonates with many different societies from across the globe.
"Whakapapa is a beautifully expressed idea from Māori that captures a universal idea around belonging," he says. "I've spoken about it in places like Africa, America, Europe and Japan, and all around the world people nod their heads and identify with it."
Hailing from Otatara, near Invercargill, Eastwood was first introduced to whakapapa at the age of 12 after writing to Ngāi Tahu. "My father died when I was 5 and that created an obvious gap in my life and in my identity," he explains. "I was on a mission to repair that breakage and to link to the heritage he had, which was part-Māori/part-English."
Replying with a covering letter that simply stated, "You belong," Ngāi Tahu's response included a document detailing Eastwood's genealogy, listing 25 generations from his late father to Paikea, the mythical Whale Rider whose son Tahupotiki was the founder of Ngāi Tahu. "The word 'whakapapa' was written at the top of the page, and it really intrigued me," says Eastwood. "I spent many years trying to understand it, and what I learnt was that the idea of whakapapa applies when you feel a part of any community or group of people. It's how we not only understand the people who came before us and the moment we're in right now but also those who come after us, and in a very natural, organic way, it became central to the work I do with teams as a performance coach."
Initially working in London as an employment and sports lawyer, Eastwood moved into performance coaching around 2008 after being asked by Saatchi & Saatchi's then chief executive Kevin Roberts to talk to the All Blacks about their team culture for a project for Adidas. This led to approaches from Chelsea FC and the Proteas.
"They came to me through word of mouth and were both keen to go on a bit of a journey around team culture," he says. "They asked me if I could help them even though I was completely unqualified, so I started to work outside the law and in that performance coaching space."
Eastwood believes that his outsider status has been an important part of his success. "These ideas are powerful and they're not something you pick up out of a textbook," he says. "That's partly why I was motivated to write the book, because I wanted to share them with as many people as possible."
Admitting that "it's been quite incredible timing", Eastwood believes that the global pandemic has made Belonging even more relevant. "The book has come out during a period in human history when people have never felt so disconnected," he says. "And what's happening now - certainly in the UK and US – is that people are transitioning back to working together but they don't just want to carry on as they were before and are putting more value on connection. So there's going to be quite a revolution in workplace culture, which is going to be a hybrid between physically being together and time away."
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Belonging was released just before the recent European Football Championships, which were postponed a year because of Covid-19, resulting in an upsurge in interest due to Eastwood's involvement with England, whose players were all given copies of the book when they arrived in camp for the tournament.
"Having lived here for quite a while and being part-English myself, that shirt and what it represents has real meaning to me," he says. "When I first got involved with England about five years ago, it was like a lot of sports teams and businesses in that the conversations were overwhelmingly about tactics, strategy and outcome. There wasn't the same amount of time invested in actually thinking about our environment and the experience we're all having. We're a diverse group of people, who come from different clubs, backgrounds and even religions, so what's our shared idea when we're together? I try to create a space to articulate those things and that becomes the foundation of the culture you build out from."
Despite the positive reception to Belonging, Eastwood has no plans for any sequels. "I'm not a writer, I'm a coach, who I'm sure will only write one book," he says. "But it's been nice to see these New Zealand ideas getting a much wider audience than they might otherwise have had."
Belonging, by Owen Eastwood (Hachette, $38), is out now.