Eighty-year-old athletics coach Lance Smith started using te reo late in life, but says it’s been a game changer. (Photo supplied)

At 80, athletics coach Lance Smith (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Mutunga) has spent half his life coaching young Kiwi athletes. But it was only recently that he made a decision to start using te reo Māori in his work.

Here, he tells Siena Yates how a book he chanced on in the airport opened his eyes to the power of te reo, and its ability to capture the values he upholds in his coaching career.


For 40 years, I’ve had certain philosophies that have underpinned my coaching, but it’s only now that I recognise them as Māori values.

Things like mana, iwi, whakapapa and rangatiratanga.

While te reo classes might be overflowing now, I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s when the reo was being beaten out of a generation of speakers. So when I first started coaching in the 1980s, I didn’t have the right language to express the principles and values that have always guided me. They were expressed in European terms.

For example, my idea of good leadership has been described using various models such as CARE (Create, Advance, Represent and Embed) and SDT (the Self-Determination Theory of motivation). But, actually, all of them could be summed up much more accurately by one Māori word: rangatiratanga.

It comes from the words “raranga”, to weave, and “tira”, which means group. So rangatiratanga is about taking all the different strands — the squad members, the coach, our ideas, goals, strengths and weaknesses — and weaving them together for the good of the team. That’s the essence of leadership: allowing or promoting an environment where good ideas can come from anywhere, without any hierarchy.

In the same way that an ancestor like Te Rauparaha would ask opinions of all the other people within the tribe, I don’t dictate to the kids. I lead them based on what I think is right — based on my experience in the field. But I also listen to what they think, feel, want and need. And that’s a philosophy that I think is akin to the tribal structure within Māori society.

I was inspired to make these changes after reading Owen Eastwood’s book Belonging. I just happened to pick it up in the airport one day, but it resonated so much — especially what he wrote about his Ngāi Tahu whakapapa.

He wrote about how we have all these streams of whakapapa — whether it’s Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Toa, English or Irish — that all merge together to create a powerful river. And it struck me: “Isn’t that the essence of what a team is?”

So that’s another term I’ve adopted. Whakapapa is also about the traditions, strengths and heritage that shape what we are today, and the knowledge that’s passed down from older squad members to newer ones. This is something I tell the kids: “You stand on the shoulders of those who come before you. In time, others will stand on your shoulders. Will your shoulders be strong enough?”

This is also where mana comes in — and the idea that the mana of an individual adds to the mana of the group. That’s why I maintain that a squad member’s success is everyone’s success. Because, even if you never win a medal, your encouragement, training, and camaraderie supports those who do. So their mana is your mana too. Likewise, because everyone has mana, everyone has something to contribute, and value to add, so everyone gets a say in how we do things.

The book which inspired Lance to understand the kaupapa Māori behind his coaching methods. (Image supplied)

So now, when we look at what we do, and how we act, train, and compete, it’s through the lens of upholding the mana and the whakapapa of the squad, and everyone in it.

I’m not doing anything differently, but I think just rephrasing things like this has really helped the kids to understand where I’m coming from. They know that my job isn’t to tell them what to do or to give them all the answers. It’s to help them get to where they want to be.

That’s the reason I coach. I started doing athletics in my late 30s, and I quickly came to love it. But I wasn’t brilliant at it. However, I later found that I could help other people become brilliant at it. It started with my daughter, Amanda Kahe, asking for advice and soon after, another runner asked and it all just carried on from there. It turned out that I got just as much out of helping other athletes as doing it myself.

That was reaffirmed when, about six years ago, I developed a neurological disorder called CIPD (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy) which affects the body’s nerves and means that I can’t run at all. But, in a way, coaching keeps me running even when I can’t, because I can still help people succeed in this sport that I love.

For a lot of coaches, coaching is their career. It’s something they do for the money, the trips, or the glory, rather than what they can put back into the sport. Whereas (and maybe it’s an age thing), I think most of the coaches in my generation are in it because we love the sport and want to help the athletes and the sport progress.

I’m one of the few coaches at this level who doesn’t charge the athletes, simply because I would rather coach and create friends, than clients. Plus, it’s very difficult for me to take money from a kid who is desperately trying to get to university or is trying to compete overseas.

We recently had one of our squad members, Connor Gilliland, represent New Zealand at the Oceania Athletics Championships in Fiji. That was a big trip, which he and his family had to fund themselves. So how am I going to tell a kid to give me money, knowing that it could mean they wouldn’t get to do something like that?

That’s why I’ve never made money out of this. If anything, it actually costs me money. I spent my working life in advertising and did coaching on the side. Now that I’m retired, I just focus on coaching. If I can help someone get a free education or go overseas, then that’s more than enough satisfaction.

It also comes back to some of those Māori ideas, like mana and whakapapa.

While these are values I’ve always held and encouraged, now that I’ve made a point of expressing them in Māori terms, using Māori words, it’s crystallised my attitude towards coaching.

It’s never been about success, medals or titles. It’s about this: How can I honour and add to the mana of these kids? And what can I add to the whakapapa of this sport that I love so much? That, to me, is a much better way of expressing those values, where I’m coming from, and why we do things the way we do.

In 2019, Lance (left) was the inaugural winner of the Arthur Eustace Award for Coaching. (Photo supplied)

Lance Smith (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Toa) was born in Wellington and raised in Taumaranui. A former athlete himself, Lance first began coaching while he was an advertising copywriter in Auckland, before retiring to Invercargill in 2002. He took a course in Australia that gave him the IAAF Elite Coach qualification, and has taken numerous New Zealand courses to further his coaching knowledge. Lance has had athletes represent New Zealand internationally, and he has received athletic scholarships to universities in the US. In 2019, he received the inaugural Arthur Eustace Award for Coaching, the premier coaching award for Athletics New Zealand.

As told to Siena Yates and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund

E-Tangata, 2024

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