Ask the Expert: Owen Southgate (NYFA Sweden)

Owen Southgate is the Founder and Coach Mentor Coordinator at NYFA Sweden, previously coaching for Queens Park Rangers FC, Ipswich Town FC and St Albans City, as well as a Tutor and Mentor for the Bedfordshire and Middlesex Football Association.

1)What has led you into youth sport?

I have incredible memories through playing sport, so it was a no brainer to try and pass it on. I also recognised that sport still has a continued role in supporting my development as a person overall and that I can, via the articulation of these personal and professional experiences (through coaching), help others to harness the power sport so that they can use it to define and achieve their own potential.

To dig a bit deeper – I was ‘that’ kid who found sitting in a classroom horrendously boring, so running around and playing sport was immense fun. Considering my lack of attention in class when it came to sport, play and competition for me was an essential chance to prove myself as a significant individual. Looking back, I must have seen it as a major self-esteem trip. Sport was an environment where I found a sense of belonging.

My identity with the world was at its most visible during heat of competition, both within individual and team sports….and believe me I hated losing on both fronts! For me this was who I was, sport and play were how I sought to use my intellect in ways that I could articulate, relate and interact with the world around me, how I learned to deal with failure and came up with ways to solve the problems that faced me. I was lucky enough to have a couple of good youth coaches who understood this, but I also had those who didn’t. Either way I learnt to view these experiences as learning opportunities and for this I owe my life to sport.

So, naturally having loads of fun in sport as a child, but backed by an exceptionally strong level of typical teenage angst, I began to robustly challenge my sporting peers with demands that there must be a better way of coach. It was at this point that Bob Briggs, an incredible coach and wonderful man came forward to take the time to first nurture my skills as a coach, channelling the somewhat misdirected passion and energy towards what you would now witness today. Still super passionate but with an energy way better gauged to help enhance the development of youth sport on all fronts.  


2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

(I) The responsibilities that come from a duty of care – for me the primary reason for why you coach youth sport. It is kind of like the nucleus of an atom, the fundamental ‘why’ which initiates and binds all the necessary parts to create the perfect youth sports blueprint. If you do not have the duty of care as your central motivating force then you limit the energy, passion and competency required to really support those you work with.

The duty of care aspect fundamentally determines the fact that you are no longer the focus of attention, thus this hopefully inspires an internal point of motivation that helps you to guide others to fulfil their all-round potential.

As a coach the environment and its context are no longer what is best for you. If you are working right, then it will never be. If you hold the scenarios accountable to just you then you have failed to perceive what coaching is about.

(II) Chasing utopia – more specifically the beautiful feeling manifested in the form of performance flow; high-octane physical effort ruthlessly connecting with unrivalled application of skill execution and unrelenting dominance.

This magnificent motivating force can only be engaged by searching for more than the ‘win’. To obtain ‘flow’ requires the need to draw energy from the depths of the creative soul where every inch of effort is meticulously measured against the last moment. Was it better than before? It is at this moment that the best decisions are made; the unbelievable moments of unpredictability that will almost always eclipse the result, as it inevitably achieves them.

This is the aspect of athletic performance that continues to remain the ‘why’ for the Ronaldinhos, Ronaldos (1 and 2!) and Messis of this world, forever drawing inspiration from the pursuit of decisive perfection. The world’s best sports coaches also buy into this as the ultimate hallmark of performance leadership and human management, collating all constituent parts to achieve that utopian moment.

For those who proclaim repeated technical practice as king, I would argue that embedding creativity within the framework of youth development is way more important. Let children play games, but when they play, let them feel the passion and freedom of creativity even if action goes wrong. That’s why you are there. When it goes wrong lift them higher, praise them for the effort and encourage them to try again because when they try again, they will adjust though experience and through the realm of creativity they will confidently seek the solutions they need to succeed.    

(III) The lessons from failure – My coaching philosophy has been shaped by an acceptance that both mistakes and failure are a far better opportunity for learning than winning. You will never learn how to bounce back from failure if you never experience its impact. Winning is the easy bit, so as a coach its more important to support children to face the bigger challenges sport and life throws at you.

The trick is to create environments that encourage children to experience the act of failure as a positive notion and that there is a raft of positive aspects to search for in those crucial learning moments.    

Owen mentoring other coaches

3) What is your area of interest?

Primarily it’s the aspect of performance psychology, but more specifically focusing on the relationship between play and learning – the guiding principles surrounding meta cognition and growth mindset that are the building blocks for world class sports performance.

It is obvious that as a sports coach and athlete you will always have an innate ‘eye’ on the result of athletic performance but it’s as a youth sports coach that the promotion of a wider ‘growth’ process becomes more crucial. Without the necessary multitude of ‘strings’ to the performance bow, a Youth Sports athlete will never be able to transition fully into the role of a professional athlete.

To enable the best chance of success the coach must be prepared to recognise what a growth mindset can present for the youth athlete during their development. If the individual is open to the wide range of learning opportunities found in Sport and play, then they have more chance of achieving their intended goals, both on and off the pitch.

It’s even more rewarding for me when the growth mindset ‘light bulb’ flickers on within the youth athlete, as it’s at this juncture that they are most aware of themselves, the opportunities they have and the challenges that face them. Its also when the youth athlete is most open to assimilating the attributes vital for getting over the line such as grit and resilience (G&R). These Key Performance Indicators that are way more important within the youth development framework than the X and O’s as without G&R, the tactical application will fail.

I love exploring the crazy world of the divergency, creativity and human potential, as it’s a challenge to explore as a coach, it also really pushes my limits.

It is my belief that learning how to LEARN through play can categorically unlock the perception and realisation of human potential. Once the mind is open to this self-discovery paradigm, the limits for human performance can pushed to extraordinary lengths with amazing, positive consequence. Within the context of athletic performance this means embracing the fact that as a coach you should always attempt to nurture a learning environment ecologically high in positive human activity. In doing this, the next step is to wilfully accept that organised chaos is an incredible teacher for those who must learn to adapt! The only constraints you must consider within youth sports development are the competition principles and the duty of care (wellbeing) you have towards those who are participating. 

The scary thing is that at this critical juncture young people are often convergently intercepted by the realms of perceived, external realities i.e the Coach/Society/Culture/Nurture.


4) How do you think this area applies to youth athletes?

It applies to youth athletes through the unique lens of identity and all the reasons why an individual wants to compete. The one thing to always consider is that through the aspect of divergence in play, the individual youth athlete has unbridled scope to explore themselves through the action – output – reflection paradigm. This means that even the realms of physicality can be seemly stretched to fit the requirement of perception and interpretation. Young children, especially when they engage with the world, often view through a veil of untainted curiosity in which anything is possible. Once the ‘thought’ experiment has been acted out then it is down to instinct to conclude if they have been successful in their action.   


5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

This wasn’t really advice in verbal sense but instead a three-month lesson formed from a period of complete silence from an old coach that I once played for! The silence was a clever approach by him to highlight that he had complete trust in my aptitude to both adapt and self-motivate. When I questioned his lack of interest (though I was constantly selected) he very simply said, “I don’t need to speak to you to get the best out of you……you do that yourself”. It made me feel ten feet tall but also indicated that nothing is more powerful than the presence of directed motivation. You can do anything if you have the will and to have the will you truly have to own yourself.   

Isn’t it amazing to consider that a coach didn’t have to say anything in order to get the best out of someone? I suppose at a fundamental level coaches will always need players, but players don’t often need coaches.           

Owen at work for NYFA with Qviding FIF in Sweden!

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?

Firstly – never ever give up on pursuing your passions. Never. Just ask Bruno Mars and Elmo!

Secondly – It would be more of a statement of intention such as, “How do you really want to be remembered by those you serve?”

Beyond this I would advise all coaches always try and reverse engineer your ‘legacy’ factor and take a deep interest in reflecting upon the purest details. I could have said goals, but for me legacy indicates a higher plane of thinking and is clearly what the best coaches in the world both fully comprehend and proactively chase. Egos are everywhere but in the context of sport the purest sense of ego is almost always Immortalised through the application of excellence, impact and memory. Those who commit to a life of greatness often live way beyond their years no matter how big or small the act.   


7) Can you recommend any resources for youth sport coaches?

For me it is very simple, other people. It is extremely important to engage other coaches to become Mentors…..never be too proud or ignorant to believe you already know everything. Mentoring is single best way to access the stuff you need to be a better coach and it usually comes through the most organic moments; challenged debate and considered reflection. For me the best resources lie deep within the mind of those who have been there or have ideas to how to get there, do not refute anything that could be positive. Mentoring has been vital for my development and understanding of the game, learning and life.

Also try search and download cerebrally (communicate the traditional way) good old-fashioned information from the very old and the very young! It helps enormously when planning sessions! Nursing/residential homes often have plenty of seats to sit in for you to discover loads of top knowledge. As for accessing the amazing human resource that is a child, firstly please don’t go and stand outside school to engage conversations……it might look bad! Do try your best to creatively interactive with your players in a way that gets them to teach you. Try to think outside of the box to get inspired, Lego for example is a superb resource and leveller with children. Through the eyes of a child most things are possible, so obtaining this view will increase your chances of learning new things and being a better coach.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

My work alongside a group of wonderful people way smarter than me, can be found at www.nyfasweden.se and at NYFA Sweden on Facebook and Instagram.

Many thanks to Owen for giving up his time, experience and expertise!

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.

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