Today we are fortunate enough to bring you an interview with professional football freestyler and writer Steve Gray.
Steve has worked with huge brands such as Sky, Hyundai, Kia Motors, Pepsi, Chelsea FC, Leicester FC, Nissan, Barclays, EE, UEFA, Adidas and many more…
The story of how he managed to transform his passion and hobby into a successful business goes as follows…
How did you get into freestyle football? Is there an area of freestyle that you are most renowned for?
I never played for an 11 a side team or anything like that, but I was always interested in the more skilful and technical side of football. I spent a lot of time trying to emulate the tricks of the video game FIFA Street for example. Around 2008 I came across a video of a guy called Billy Wingrove who many will now know as part of the duo ‘The F2’, doing some juggling tricks with a ball which peaked my curiosity. Further down the line now familiar with the term ‘freestyle football’ and actively searching for videos of it I discovered amazing freestylers such as Nam the Man, Palle and Pawel Skora who were really pushing limits and showing what’s possible with a football. I was instantly hooked and began practicing from there.
The latter two especially, these guys were exceptionally good at an aspect of freestyle we refer to as ‘Lowers’ which to non-freestylers will look like a lot of Around The Worlds and legs flailing everywhere haha. While I don’t believe I am most renowned for any specific area of freestyle, this is certainly in my opinion my strongest suit and aspect I train the most and appreciate the most.
Can you talk us through the journey from doing freestyle football as a hobby to becoming a professional? What various ways do you earn money as a freestyler?
It really did start off as a hobby. 100% fun and enjoyment. Now just over 10 years on it has not only become the bulk of how I earn a living but also an integral part of my identity altogether. But even 10 years on I’m still super passionate about it with a similar desire when I started out. There is always room for improvement, new tricks to be learnt etc and therefore I am still somewhat in love with the training process.
Professionally, the most common way for a freestyler to earn money is through doing paid shows and events. My first one was for Swindon Town FC, I cannot remember the year actually but it was for £50 and my legs were absolute jelly but I’ll never forget it. Now the experience I have gained from these kind of shows have given me a lot more confidence that I can apply to other aspects of life.
There’s certainly a few different avenues to earn from freestyle, wherever there is a demand for entertainment, also running workshops in which you can teach freestyle football tricks to others, most notably kids, can be popular. Nowadays with the force that is social media, this is another way for freestylers to utilise their skills and be paid. So this can be advert campaigns, paid product promotions etc.
Can you tell us about some of the most notable adverts, performances etc.. that you’ve worked on as a freestyler? What are some of the companies, teams etc… that you have worked with?
There’s simply too many to be able to talk about in depth. One which I will never forget was our half time performance we did at Leicester vs Chelsea in 2017. We staged a brilliant prank to fool the crowds into thinking I was a pitch invader disrupting some other freestyler’s show before the steward (also a freestyler) pulled out a skipping rope and started skipping while keeping the ball up on his head haha. This got an unbelievable reaction, it also went bananas viral and has been seen over 4.5 million times on Facebook alone making it the most viewed freestyle football half time performance ever.
The most ridiculous freestyle job I’ve ever done is being dressed up as an old man in prosthetics for a mobile phone advert doing tricks in a shopping centre of Nottingham. A sentence which I still can’t quite register. But that is part of the beauty of the industry in that each event is different, mark my words they aren’t all good, glamourous or easy, but it’s nice to go to different places and meet different people along the way rather than turning up at the same 4 walls everyday.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of big teams, companies and brands including Sky, Hyundai, Kia Motors, Pepsi, Chelsea FC, Leicester FC, Nissan, Barclays, EE, UEFA, Adidas, Watford FC, the list goes on substantially.
Tell us about the world records that you hold? What was the feeling like when you finally broke them, can you talk us through that day?
So I officially hold one solitary world record. I won’t disclose what it was for though because I want it to stay intact! Haha. It was done with another freestyler named Ash Randall. Of course it involved a football but it was a very long endurance kind of challenge and we had to be mentally alert the whole time so to break the previous record, was a great feeling. I think we got it on our 3rd attempt of that day.
However, we had witnesses and filmed it etc but we didn’t have anyone official from Guinness World Records on the day to see it and validate it immediately, so actually I don’t think it really sunk in until I had the certificate in my hands about 5 months later after having all the footage and paperwork reviewed. It was a long process, but great achievement.
I understand you were a judge for the Official UK & Ireland Freestyle Football Championships in 2017? Tell us about that experience? What do you think the increasing popularity and standard of Freestyle Football is down to?
Because I was injured at the time I knew I couldn’t compete in it and I was asked if I would like to be a judge for it. This was also the first time they had ever had a British person be a judge for it, usually a panel of international judges would fly in because I guess it just helps to reduce any potential bias with how well you know other freestylers, but circumstances on this occasion just enabled me the opportunity it seemed.
It was a good experience, I liked being a judge. It’s by no means easy, really tough at times but I would do it again definitely if given the opportunity. This competition also for the first time in the history of the UK and Ireland champs featured a Rookie competition which I think was certainly needed.
It’s good to have rookie competitions where possible and really see the next generation coming through but in their own light. I think the popularity is mainly down to social media, you cannot escape it now, freestyle football has become somewhat oversaturated in places where people have tried to pass off bin shots, crossbar challenges and more traditional football oriented content as being ‘Freestyle Football’.
Social media I believe has probably also played a part in the standard rising as well. It’s now easier to see what is possible with a football and therefore in particular the younger generation and new freestylers are fast tracking a lot of it and making great progress very quickly. I would say the standard in particular is increasing in countries that have a strong sense of community where freestyle is concerned and are having regular meets/competitions helps massively too.
What other projects are you involved with besides working as a Freestyler?
So one other thing that I’m spending a fair bit of time on these days is working as a writer for a media outlet called Urban Pitch. They are based in LA and like to cover lots of different topics that all have that kind of urban fashion, culture, street soccer, freestyle kind of feel to it. Most of the things I write about for them are actually related to freestyle football such as profiles and interviews with particular freestylers, freestyle event recaps and the occasional editorial.
It’s great to have a platform to write about something I have a massive interest in and be somewhat of a voice for freestylers around the world. I think it’s certainly a sport that is gaining a lot more interest and popularity as time goes on.
Having now graduated from University with a Masters Degree in Sport & Exercise Psychology, this is also something I have not ruled out persuing more in future as it does interest me greatly but not so sure the time is right or it’s a viable option right now.
Are there any people, books, or experiences that you would be willing to share with us, that have really shaped your mentality?
There’s too many stories and people who have had a positive impact on me and made me learn something useful. I try to take a bit of inspiration from everyone I meet, if you look hard enough I always believe you can find the qualities in someone or a situation.
One story would be absolutely obliterating my ankle in February 2017, I tore every ligament and lord knows how it didn’t break. The worst part was this happened literally right in the middle of me competing in a freestyle competition. Not helped by the fact it was somewhat in the middle of nowhere in Poland as well.
I had all the worst possible thoughts going through my head at the time, not to mention it was outrageously painful. It made me realise that you think you are invulnerable to these kind of things and that it won’t happen to you, but they do, and it’s down to you how you want to react.
Patience has never been my strong point but that experience definitely made me motivated to train other things while I couldn’t even walk for 5 weeks. I didn’t want to stop freestyle so found a way around it to learn new tricks that at first wouldn’t involve my ankle much or at all. It’s still not 100% now but I simply refuse to let that injury get the better of me.
Books wise, 2 that I really recommend are “Don’t sweat the small stuff” by Richard Carlson and “You can’t afford the luxury of a negative thought” by John Roger and Peter McWilliams. Those are some great thought provokers and positive mindset books right there!
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to take their passion for health and fitness, or anything else for that matter, and turn it into a successful business?
By no means is this something I would claim to be an expert in but I suppose there are a few pointers that come to mind that from my experience. Firstly I would say be yourself as much as possible, rather than what you think you should be. So by this I mean train what you want to train, post what you want to post, do what makes you happy. This way you will always play to your strengths and nobody else can do ‘you’ better than you can. Don’t get me wrong it’s very important to go out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself too, but this way you are maximising authenticity in everything you do and I think there is some value in that. I think this helps create a niche, a selling point or unique appeal about a person too.
Secondly it goes without saying you have to be focused and dedicated, and this includes making sacrifices. But one of the biggest tips I would say in today’s world especially is all about collaboration and teamwork. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help of any kind, even when things are looking kind of crap. Really essential that you surround yourself with like minded people or people that really understand your passion, lifestyle etc, because these are the people who will help get the best out of you.
What are you plans and goals for the future?
Nobody ever likes my answer to this question but my ultimate goal is just to be happy. It really is as simple as that. I’m not quite sure what that may look like but right now I am trying to see how far I can go with freestyle whilst also trying to invest in lots of other things that I feel will better myself, so for example I’m really interested in health and food and all of that right now because I feel like that will have a really meaningful impact on my future. So just to be happy, healthy and continuing to progress in freestyle is the goal!
YouTube: Steve Gray
Facebook: Stephen Gray – Football Freestyler
A huge thanks to Steve for doing this interview and sharing so much practical insight with our readership.
Look out for our next interview coming very soon…
Until then all the best