One of the UK’s most promising young golfers recently made the switch to online schooling. His Mother, Stacie, and his mentor at MVA, Fabian Spiess, talk about the change and how his new school is working out alongside his golfing career...
Finlay is an aspiring young golfer and one of the UK’s most exciting new talents. Having recently competed in several international tournaments, Finlay is proving to be one to watch in the world of junior golf.
Having started playing at the age of 7, Finlay found a natural affinity for the game and became ambitious to play competitively. He began Club golf at 12 and is now working on establishing himself at an international level.
This success and aspiration meant Finlay’s golf regularly came into conflict with his school work and academic requirements. Stacie Johnson, Finlay’s mother, spoke to us about how schooling Finlay was ‘getting tougher and tougher — precisely because school itself was getting more and more important.’
Finlay made the move to Minerva’s Virtual Academy in September 2022. Prior to this, Stacie describes how there was ‘a lot of juggling — golfing, socialising and schooling’ and mentions how one of Finlay’s schools had told her and Finlay’s father that Finlay might be asked to leave if he continued to divert so much attention to his sport.
This is a story that Fabian Spiess, Elite Athlete Education Officer at MVA, is very familiar with.
‘We hear from so many sport-focused families that their children’s schools are somewhat reluctant to support their athletic careers, whether that’s a reluctance to let them be absent for training or tournaments, or a reluctance to be flexible about examination periods or extra time for catch up work. This was something I found difficult when I was younger. I Was training every day to become a professional footballer and there was so much pressure on my day to fit everything in, it was hard to keep up. Today, with innovative online schools like MVA, young athletes can have so much more flexibility, and they can study from anywhere in the world so that no matter they attend competitions, their school can go with them.'
‘His next few school years are very crucial for him,’ says Stacie. ‘But already we’re seeing things shift: with MVA he’s learning to organise himself better, and that’s helped him with his practice. He’s more focussed and he’s more aware of his own time.’
Over the past three months, Finlay has been settling in at MVA and taking full advantage of the fact that he no longer has to travel to a traditional school to study for his GCSEs.
For many young athletes and sportspeople, being able to balance school and training is no mean feat. MVA’s mixture of flexible Live Lessons and interactive self-study and regular contact with mentors and teachers has offered Finlay a different, more accommodating way of working.
‘As far as the balance goes, it's perfect for us’, Stacie says. ‘We've got the flexibility we need: he can do training in the morning, come back for Live Lessons, and if he misses them, he can watch them recorded.’
‘The work itself is also set out really well, so I can leave Finlay to it, really!’
Finlay’s organisational skills are continuing to improve too. ‘If I say to him we’ve got something on Thursday, he can plan his work in the week around it, getting stuff done in his own time.’
Socialising — another piece of the work-life-balance puzzle and a crucial element under threat for young sportspeople — has also been made easier for Finlay since he joined MVA. Stacie describes how they are no longer ‘trying to squeeze everything in’ and ‘make sacrifices’, because Finlay can plan things more easily.
‘Before, with regular school, we had to sacrifice socialising. Online school actually gives him more time to socialise in real life. Otherwise, as a young teenager, it feels like you're missing out: between studying and golf, you can feel like there’s room for nothing else. Now things are different’.
Every student is assigned a mentor when they enrol at MVA. These specially-trained teachers stick with their pupils throughout their journey through the school and offering all-round support, week in, week out. Mentors are trained to help MVA pupils develop organisation and self-study skills, as well as having complete oversight of their academic and personal development. In addition, every athlete who joins MVA also receives a sports mentor with whom they can schedule sessions to discuss their sporting career. Fabian is one of several mentors who work at MVA.
Being himself a professional sportsperson and knowing what it’s like to balance training alongside education, Fabian also founded MVA’s High Performance Club (HPC) for all the young athletes who join the school.
The HPC offers sessions in which students and mentors can discuss different aspects of what it means to be an elite sportsperson, such as learning how to deal with stress, competition, and work-life balance, amongst other things.
‘The main thing is having someone who gets it: who’s been through the same experience,’ says Fabian. ‘It’s important not to put that all on the parents, who have their own relationship with their kids.’
This resonates with Stacie. ‘It’s good he’s got someone else to talk to other than Mum and Dad!’ she says.
Solving the issues surrounding Finlay’s school-sport balance has also been benefiting his game. Stacie says he’s got more time to focus on it, and doesn’t feel the pressure of having to get home to do his homework, which allows him to focus.
‘He’s got that little bit of flexibility — “can I extend a deadline, fit in later, do it early morning?” — that helps him relax into his sport and improve it.’
Finlay is heading to Spain in the winter for training, which the family say they would never have been able to do before: issues with unauthorised absence and not being able to do the work online would have scuppered those plans.
Aspirations for a professional life can be alienating for young sportspeople. In traditional schools, their lifestyles can seem starkly contrasted with their peers. Through aspects of MVA like the High Performance Club, Finlay has found other students who share the same kind of pressures and ambitions as him.
Stacie calls it a ‘lovely community for sportspeople to get together’ and describes how it’s nice to see ‘they're on the same wavelength.’ This means, ultimately, that they can learn from each other too, as Fabian makes clear.
This doesn’t only go for the students: Stacie and her partner have described how it’s been nice to meet a fellow community of parents in the same boat as them. They also feel more a part of their son’s education as a result of the move to MVA. ‘I can see what he’s doing in his schoolwork every day — see the feedback. Before it was just one parent-teacher evening a term!’
‘It’s an all-round education with Minerva — wellbeing, mentoring, academic.’
‘At the moment he’s working with a new coach looking to get past his current peak. He wants to qualify for more international tournaments, reduce the handicap, and improve his swing.’
Finlay is also building up to his Year 11 exams, which is a crucial year academically : ‘it’s just as much about performing well in the classroom. The main thing for me is this: our students need to be enjoying themselves. We strive to create an environment in which our students can thrive academically, athletically and socially. The better environment and growth mindset we create, the better our students will perform in and out the classroom!‘