Stephen Gray – OK mum see ya later, I’m going out to freestyle!
Freestyle football – passion for years
10 years – would you withstand so much with one passion? This is a very long time and people who are related to their interest for so many years have a lot of experience and great knowledge about the subject. The man with whom you can see the interview in a moment can be associated with the Urban Pitch portal. LFN participants can associate him – this year he took a high place and showed us truly phenomenal side. Welcome the representative of Great Britain – Stephen Gray! Certainly this is one of the longest interviews on this website, which is especially worth reading – Stephen says about his beginnings or what would have happened if he entered the time machine!
How did you like your stay in Poland in Lubasz?
Well it was a lot better than last time ending up in that hospital I can tell you that! Haha. It was great to return to Lubasz because as strange a place as it might seem to me, it does really typify a lot of what freestyle is about.
It’s a great competition and I was made to feel very welcomed and looked after by the organisers and came away with plenty more good memories.
I wanted to return because I kind of felt like I had unfinished business and that my first time there was just overshadowed by injury. I was satisfied with how I did in the competition this time around, I achieved my goal, but equally as important, it was just nice to be around many other freestylers in that environment again. Whether that is competing, training, chilling, it was just pleasant to do it all with these guys and meet new freestylers too in the process.
Do you remember the first month after starting with freestyle football? What did the first trainings look like?
It was very carefree. When I started freestyle I had 2 friends from my year as well in school who also got into it, we all lived within about 2 mins walking distance from each other so trained as much as we could at a nearby basketball court.
After school we would often train until it was too dark to see the ball. On weekends sometimes we were out training for as much as 6-7 hours with a short trip to the local newsagents in between. Always bought a Coke zero and a Mars bar before we resumed training haha.
It was always fun. Never too serious. But it was still like “OK mum see ya later I’m going out to freestyle now!” so the intention was there, I was consciously aware I was making a decision to go out and use my time to work on freestyle football.
Even the ‘bad’ sessions were enjoyable just because we naturally had that balance of being able to take the piss out of each other whilst also encouraging each other during trainings. The 3 of us were constantly getting our ideas from freestyle videos too but there wasn’t as much of it like there is now.
There was no real specific structure to the trainings. The best thing I could do after about 1 month of serious freestyle training was probably AATW (out).
How did your school friends react to this at the beginning of your career with freestyle football?
It was a mix of “wow that’s cool” and “what the hell is the point of that?”. Whether it was praised or not it soon became a pivotal feature of my identity and people labelled me as the kid that did tricks with a football haha.
I did start putting a few videos up on YouTube as well where the intended target audience was other freestylers. This did attract some unwanted attention and cynicism from peers though in school. I think if someone were to do it now though where freestyle is more readily recognised then they probably wouldn’t quite the reactions I got.
What approach did freestyle young players have 8 years ago, and how has it changed when looking at today’s times?
Obviously social media wasn’t as prevalent or used how it is today, the younger generation (that makes me sound so old when I say that haha) are influenced and motivated by it a lot more I think now.
In my opinion, a lot of younger freestylers these days will have a tendency to compare themselves to others in terms of freestyle level while also seek likes, followers and instant gratification from various online outlets.
Back then there was a lot more emphasis on fun I think. I also think there was a lot more respect for the ‘iconic’ freestyle pioneers from that time than what there is now towards those same people. I’m talking about the likes of Palle, Skora, FX, Azun, Rocco, Nam The Man, John Farnworth etc who are/were all amazing in their own right.
I was aware of but never on the Beyond Football Forum myself. I know for a fact there was a lot more in depth discussion and analysis of what people were posting rather than just blind generic praise as we see on many platforms now. So back then freestylers were certainly aware of how their tricks and videos would be dissected ie whether they were clean or not.
You enter to the time machine and meet yourself in 2009 – what would you like to convey to you then what would help you in faster and better development as a feeestyler?
First of all I would tell myself to get a different haircut haha.
Then I would say go vegan. Well, 2009 me probably wouldn’t have even known what that term meant so that would be a long conversation involving some graphic documentaries and studies but he’d thank me for it in the long run I’m sure. Cut out all the junk food too. Lord knows I didn’t need to eat that many jaffa cakes haha.
Genuinely I went for a very long time feeling invincible from the food/drink I was consuming thinking it didn’t affect my fs but during university my perceptions changed massively and I felt I needed to improve my diet expecting it to improve my freestyle in turn.
Then lastly I would put my hands on his shoulders look him dead in the eye and scream:
TRAIN YOUR WEAK FOOT FOOL!
I’m very much paying the price for that now but hey, it is what it is.
Is there any misconception that exists among freestylers and is not true?
One that I really want to discuss is travelling with a ball on a plane. I’ve heard so many crazy stories and troubles about this common protocol for freestylers haha. But the part I am still not sure of is “does the ball have to be deflated? If so how much? Can it actually explode? That only applies to hand luggage not hold luggage?”
I’ve heard many conflicting opinions about this and would love for one person just to be a ‘black swan’ and disprove any theories by confirming that they have had their matchball burst at 10,000 feet high and therefore we should deflate them hahaha
You’ve been doing freestyle football for 10 years – have you had moments of boredom, no further motivation?
Boredom? yes. But I don’t think there’s ever been a point where I’ve ever had absolute ZERO motivation.
During my masters degree in Sport & Exercise Psychology, one thing I learnt about was addiction, more specifically in a sport/exercise context. And it became clear to me that I fulfilled all the criteria to be deemed systemically ‘addicted’ to freestyle. Like if I did one of their tests they would have said yep, you are addicted to your sport.
And therefore the reason I say that is because the feelings of guilt from not training when I could/should train were very real to me. There is always room for improvement and there has always been an underlying feeling of motivation otherwise it would not phase me when I go for prolonged periods without training, but it does.
Whenever I’ve been injured and am really restricted in what I can train, I always try to look at it as a blessing disguise no matter how boring, tedious and morally deflating it might be that I can’t do more than 2 weak foot ATW or that my sits aren’t clean haha.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to do freestyle all the time, and I think having other outlets and avenues in life are so so important. They also indirectly benefit freestyle. So taking a break and finding other hobbies or interests is essential for a good mindset I feel.
Even now after 10 years though, I still have loads of ideas for tricks, combos etc floating around in my head constantly in vivid visualisations. I also still get a huge buzz out of landing new things (even small) and also enjoy the process of seeing improvement even in small things.
But also I really love to entertain and perform too with freestyle, putting smiles or inspiring others is something that freestylers can do with ease, often without realising. While all these feelings are present I find it hard to imagine me not doing freestyle.
Could you say something about Urban Pitch – how did it all start?
Well it’s thanks to Caitlyn Schrepfer that one. She being a regular at their place and had even wrote an article or two as well for them I think, recommended me to them when they were after someone who could write more about freestyle related stories/topics.
They needed someone with good knowledge of the sport and also good writing skills. I didn’t have much experience in writing other than just trying to write weekly articles on Medium on various topics that were on my mind. One of which did go bananas viral (“Why I went vegetarian”) but I was by no means a writer.
I had a trial with Urban Pitch and yeah, the rest is history. Since then I’ve enjoyed having this platform to cover a variety of things in freestyle as well as some articles outside of freestyle too.
I didn’t create the site. Urban Pitch is the media outlet and sister company of Urban Futsal LA. I am a regular contributor for them and part of a great team of writers and people. All of whom I think are on the other side of the pond though living in Los Angeles.
It’s not just a case of I can write whatever I want. The ideas I pitch to them have to have a good, valid angle and be relevant to the Urban Pitch theme of football, street football, freestyle, urban fashion, culture, sports etc. Editorials where I can just empty my thoughts onto paper though are nice I must admit, I tend to have a lot to say about stuff haha.
Hopefully I continue writing and be a useful asset to the freestyle community and the Urban Pitch team.
Is the year 2021 – how will freestyle look then?
6 year olds from South America will be doing 3 rev combos.
Nah I just hope we don’t become even more slaves to our phones haha, but alas I fear everything will have a very digital influence. So for example, I wouldn’t be surprised if freestyle all kind of integrated to a single (best engaging/performing) platform.
The tricks are just going to get bigger and better no question. Limits are within us right? I think we will also have some radical changes in terms of judging competitions. I think there’s too much unrest from people about the current methods and therefore something new and potentially more mathematical and objective will be trialled.
I think a lot more people will be familiar with freestyle as it continues to grow in popularity, even though we will never be rid of the idiots asking if we can do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke haha.
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