TGG Podcast #31: Owen Eastwood - Building the optimal environment
Written by Training Ground Guru — September 29, 2021
OWEN EASTWOOD is one of the most in-demand performance coaches in world sport.
He's worked with Harlequins Rugby, South Africa Cricket and, for the last five years, the England men's football team. In Episode #31 of the TGG Podcast he shared his insights into how to create the optimal environment for teams to thrive.
You can listen to the podcast via the player below and a read what Eastwood had to say after that.
1. What do you do?
Owen Eastwood: I call myself a performance coach. I’m not an executive coach, I’m not a life coach. My role is to help the team perform better.
My specialism is around building an optimal environment for people to compete from. The English Institute of Sport shared an insight with me once, that I’ve held onto - that 70% of behaviour is determined by whatever environment you’re in.
I still feel that is quite a useful conversation piece - that our behaviour and mindset is fundamentally affected by whatever environment we are in. To neglect that is absolutely crazy in my view.
Someone like me doesn’t just turn up and say, ‘This is how the All Blacks do it, let’s copy this.’ Everything is incredibly contextual, around who you are, the history of the club, the ownership, the personalities.
2. Connection with the tribe
When I was five, my father passed away suddenly. He was only 41. My mother was 39 and I had two brothers, 12 and 10, and my sister, who was three. Obviously it was a very shocking thing to happen and sport was an escape from the suffering.
I would get a ride into the city, Invercargill, and watch our local rugby team, Southland. We are a very small province at the bottom of the South Island, but when I was growing up we had six All Blacks in our first 15.
One year we beat Australia, the following year we beat France and I would go away from that, at 10 or 11, feeling I was part of something very special and I’ve never forgotten that. To me, that’s why purpose and the connection with the tribe is so important.
When I was 12 I also contacted my Maori tribe, because my father had been part Maori, and said, ‘What do you know about who I am?’ They wrote a beautiful letter back explaining back 25 generations of where I came from and the sense of identity of our tribe.
That was a massive factor in giving me a bit of confidence and esteem.
Belonging is a condition that humans require. It’s not just a psychological thing, it’s biological. We have a hormonal reaction in an environment where we don’t feel we belong.
We get much more anxiety, much more stress hormones; we leak energy, we leak focus, we start getting concerned about micro signalling of people and it’s hard to relax. We’re trying to fit in, but feel maybe that we’re an outsider.
These things all take away from focusing on our role and performing at our best.
It’s not just someone coming up to you and saying, ‘Hey, you belong here, happy days.’ It doesn’t quite work like that. We are looking for a story of who this team is, in order for us to feel a sense of belonging to it.
4. Working with England
I was invited to have a conversation with Dan Ashworth, Dave Reddin and Matt Crocker in 2016. I still have a huge amount of respect for the fact they would even invite someone like me to come and have a chat.
That shows a real open-mindedness and growth mindset, that they felt this was a space we could do better in and gain a competitive advantage.
I spent the first three months doing a really deep reflection on the history of the team and how the culture could be taken forward. Some players felt we didn’t really have an identity, that we just copied what France and Spain were doing.
When Gareth became the manager, he was philosophically aligned with exploring those ideas, where some managers probably wouldn’t have been, so the timing of that worked out very well.
When you have a culture and identity, you have to keep it fresh and alive. It has to be integrated into the experience. It’s one of the challenges for the coaches to bring the values into the way they coach. That’s when it really starts to resonate with the players, it’s not just something that’s talked about.
People like Ian Mitchell and Bryce Cavanagh, led by Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland, do a wonderful job around bringing that into the day-to-day environment.
5. Inductions and rituals
One thing I was surprised about with England was that there was no institutional passing down of stories. The All Blacks have very powerful and clear inductions and rituals around explaining where they come from, their ancestors, what the shirt represents, where their values come from and what they look like when they’re being lived.
Michael Owen had told me that when he was being recruited by Sir Alex Ferguson, he invited him to his house, sat him down and explained the identity story of Manchester United and what the shirt meant.
He had never heard a coach talk like that before. Those things stuck with Michael and he was curious as to why similar conversations had not happened within the England team.
That’s something we tried to move towards, trying to give the players an understanding of, ‘This is the heritage of the team, these are our anchors around our identity, these are the stories of how they’ve been lived in the past.’
We then created that space for them to imagine how they could live this themselves and leave their own legacy.
So that was the first thing we needed to do, to go back and excavate the history of the team, to go back to the 1870s, the very first team, and move through golden periods, through periods where the team struggled.
Looking at 1966 not as a trophy, but asking what was special about that team? Why were they able to overcome their adversity? What was the culture like? Rather than seeing them as icons, seeing them as fellow people who wore the shirt.
Bobby Moore is someone who personifies composure. We’ve shown the team clips of him tackling Pele in the penalty box, looking up and then putting through calmly an amazing ball that sets off an attack.
Those are practical traits; when we wear the shirt we inherit those traits and those ancestors become much more real and practical, rather than superheroes.
I met with England players back to the 1950s. I went to Jimmy Armfield’s house in Blackpool and spent an afternoon with him, asking what it was like at the 58, 62, 66 World Cups.
The players love those stories being brought back. In that conversation with Jimmy, that amazing situation where he was captain of the team between the 62 and 66 World Cups. In the 62 World Cup he was in the world XI, so he was the natural captain of the 66 team.
In the last First Division game of the 65 season, he got quite a bad injury and was out for a period of time and only came back for the warm-up games. Alf Ramsey selected him but said you’re not going to start and Bobby Moore will continue to captain the side.
As the tournament turned out, he was dressed for every single game but didn’t get one minute of play. He did get a winner’s medal but didn’t take the field. I asked how he dealt with that and he said, ‘On any given day, someone has to make a sacrifice.’ He said, 'That was our ethos and it would have been completely indulgent and selfish to have had my head down, feeling sorry for myself. That was just not the culture of the team.'
That was something we brought back to the team and said, ‘This is something from our heritage, our history, that we can reconnect with and live.’ It’s those practical things we’re looking for, not just, 'We’re a great team.’ I think that’s all BS. It’s much more practical - ‘This is what’s special and different about us and should inspire us to try and create our own story.’
Gareth Southgate has done a wonderful job of giving the players a sense of, ‘Let’s write our own chapter now.’
6. Evolving the culture
With the South Africa cricket team in 2010, we created this ‘Protea fire’ culture anchored around three key traits we really valued. The team had an amazing run - for four years they were the world number one Test nation, other than for one month.
Then they lost the World Cup semi final in 2015 and were so gutted that a lot of the senior players lost a bit of motivation and energy and the team slipped down to number seven in the world.
In 2016, I was invited to come back in and we wanted to reconnect with what this culture actually was. When I went in, I had a mindset of, ‘What we need to do is reconnect everyone back to what that old identity was and it’ll be happy days.’
But the first thing I needed to do - and the coaches needed to do - was actually shut up and listen to the players explain what it meant to them to wear the shirt. Something powerful that came out from the young guys was that they felt the team was too defensive and cautious and they wanted to play a much more aggressive, proactive style.
They equated that to the identity of the nation and how South Africa was emerging with more energy, to be more assertive. The whole culture and identity was shifted around. The senior players understood that and the coaches bought into it.
The key thing is to make it as inclusive as possible, so it’s not one version of who we are, that we are taking multiple perspectives.
So part of the heritage story for England is Viv Anderson being the first black full international senior men’s player for England, and also Laurie Cunningham, who a year before had played for the Under-21s and was the first black player to score a goal for them when they beat Scotland 1-0.
He was an epic character in his own right, very talented and flamboyant. He went to Real Madrid from West Brom and was tragically killed in a car accident in Spain. For a lot of players in this England team he was someone they could look to.
They like his swagger, his courage in going to Spain and putting himself in the spotlight. He was a pioneer who created history, but there is also a lot of emotion around the fact his life was taken too young.
7. Lessons from Harlequins
I came in in December (2020), just to work with the Board and reflect on the bigger picture. I wasn’t working with the team, the players themselves.
I had conversations during the season with the coaching staff after the Head Coach departed. When I think about Harlequins a few things jump to mind. The first was about empowering players.
They were towards the bottom of the table when they lost the Head Coach, who was a good person and the players cared about, and they could have gone one of two ways. They could have tanked, particularly when relegation was suspended last season.
Or they could have decided, 'Actually we have an opportunity to play in a different way, with a bit of freedom, because nobody’s expecting very much of us. Why don’t we just commit to each other and go for it?’ And that’s what they did.
With Harlequins the coaching team came in and simplified everything. They shortened practices, shortened meetings; asked the players for their views and the player bought into it and started to take ownership of it. Most importantly on the field, they were driving it.
Harlequins is I think the fourth oldest rugby club in the world and from the early days they attracted these really attacking backs in particular. One of their pioneers founders was Adrian Stoop, captain of England and Quins, who believed in playing with a lot more width and pace in the early 1900s.
That has never left them and they still have that mindset, that fundamentally we are an attacking team and live having a licence to be unpredictable. Independent of the work I was doing around defining some of this stuff, the coaches and players started to reconnect with what the authentic Quins identity was.
They loved that. Who doesn’t? How many kids play in the backyard and just want to defend? We like to have the ball, do something with it and score. So you’re tapping into something that’s just there.
They conceded so many more tries than you’re allowed to statistically to be a champion team but they managed to do it. The mindset was, ‘Whatever we concede, we’ll score more.’
I do think the way we play matters and so does the way the fans feel about it.
8. Dispelling the myth of the genius coach
One of the narratives that’s interesting is the idea of the genius manager. In football there’s far too much of this. There’s some interesting research around this recently on parenting. In some ways the punchline is this: it’s not about being a genius parent, it’s about avoiding doing dumb things and screwing them up.
You don’t have to be brilliant, better than every other parent, better than every other coach, but don’t do things that can screw a team up. Things that can screw a team up are things like distrust, people not trusting each other because of the way it’s been set up or behaviours; when people aren’t clear on the gameplan and their role within it; things like wild mood swings and inconsistent behaviour from leaders, where you come in each day not knowing what the hell the environment is going to be.
People thrive when there’s a consistency and composure around the environment. One of the things about Gareth’s leadership is he genuinely sees it as a player’s game. He is there to facilitate them achieving what their potential might be. It’s not about him. He’s not the hero of it, the players are the heroes of it.
I think sometimes people get that a bit wrong, that players are pieces in a chess game that you move around and the manager is the real hero of it. His humility and experiences tell him something different.
When we’re in an environment and think the leader cares about us and will put us before themselves, we have a different hormonal state than if we have doubts and think they’re in it for themselves first of all and could put us under the bus if things go wrong. That makes a massive difference.
A big word is alignment. It’s not just a matter of a coach or even the players saying, 'We’re going to play this particular style, let’s go for it.' It has to be aligned with the ownership, the Board, with the executives, with the performance staff: everyone has to be on the same page.
Fundamentally, that was what I was asked to do at Quins - to help redefine who they were and how they wanted to go about things, but to make sure everybody across the organisation from the Board down bought into this. Then the coach is in a much better position. If we lose a couple of games in a row they’re not under threat, because this is the way we’re doing things and everybody has signed off on it.
If there is a disconnection then we’ve got major problems and it’s not sustainable.
A team I was involved in was playing ok, but had lost three games in a row and ended up outside that play-off bubble. There was still a quarter of the season to go and they were playing in the way that had been signed off on and doing everything on a day-to-day basis that was in the performance plan.
But the owner just lost patience and started to make comments to the media, around 'must-win games'. He then started talking about how the manager’s contract expires at the end of the season and it’s something the club is going to have to think deeply about. Which is unbelievably unhelpful and just created a sense of distrust from the manager.
The owner then had a very heavy conversation with the CEO, saying, ‘We need to win the next game, I don’t care how.’ Then, what happens? People come into the club and the CEO and manager are in the room on a Monday morning with the door shut and people can feel the tension around that.
This becomes a contagion of stress, anxiety, distrust, because now we’re under pressure to do something different. So in the coaches’ meeting, the coach starts saying, 'We need to tighten up, not make any mistakes, change our gameplan, be tougher on these players.' So we start changing the way we’re doing things, even though this is the way we got in the play-off picture in the first place.
The training session takes place after that and the players can feel the body language, the stress, the tension. They tighten up as well; these are hormonal, biological facts.
By the owner’s behaviour, in the 24-hour cycle, the whole mindset and organisation of the team and the way it is being led has changed and the team gets thumped that week, loses the next two and misses the play-offs.
That’s an example where alignment, being calm through the ups and downs of competition is so important. Sometimes it’s something fans don’t see or understand but it’s a really key component of high performance.
I’ve had a few experiences now working directly with owners. Often you can become very wealthy and maybe even a billionaire by doing things in a very linear way - 'We do one, two, three well and we make a whole lot of money' - that factory production kind of mindset.
Football is much more complicated than that, because there are so many things outside our control - a competitor that’s trying to undermine us, the weather, refereeing - and in that type of environment we need a lot of cohesion in our group.
That’s something some owners have to go on a bit of a journey on to understand: this is not a normal working situation, this is more complex and fragile in some ways, so culture makes a big, big difference when it comes to sports teams, maybe more than in business.
10. Creating long-term value
If we can only plan a week or two weeks ahead and someone might get changed in a fundamental role, I wouldn’t work in an environment like that, because I couldn’t see I would add any value. Any help I tried to give would be blown up before the season was halfway through.
If we are having short-term disappointment it’s not enjoyable, but you have to be able to handle that and not get too downcast by it. My question is always, 'Are we still tracking in the direction of what we’ve set to achieve in the next four years or so?’ If we are, even if we’re having some setbacks, it’s ok.
If you’re a coach, which I am, your focus on helping people get better over time and achieve whatever mission they set for themselves. Whenever I’m working with a team, we’re generally thinking about a two, three, four-year vision of what we are trying to achieve, because how do you plan for success unless you can do that?
I had messages after the Euros saying, 'Hope you’re ok, must have been gutted,' but I didn't feel like that at all. That is a team that has progressed quite incredibly under Gareth, is able to compete with anyone on any given day in big tournaments, has created so much history. It's a young team that competes hard. What's not to like about that?