Academy Footballer - Jakub
This article was originally written by Minerva's Virtual Academy for Premier Sports Network under the title "What English Football Academies Could Learn from Europe About the Benefit of Virtual Schooling for Young Players"
Juggling schoolwork with football training is a thankless task for many U16 academy prospects in the UK, but youngsters at a forward-thinking training centre in Spain are breaking the mould by attending virtual schools rather than physical ones, eliminating the need to leave their club, practicing harder and for longer, getting better exam results, and are on their way to becoming an entirely new breed of footballer.
Two years ago, a young Slovakian footballer was sitting at home, frustrated. The first national lockdown had closed all the sports facilities in his hometown of Bratislava. Desperate for a way to keep playing, Jakub Strapek, then 14 years old, undertook a remarkable journey, leaving his family and travelling thousands of miles to Spain to live and train every day at one of the only football academies in Europe that was still open.
Marcet Football Academy, a renowned youth academy at the feet of the Collserola hills in Barcelona, attracts young talent from across Europe and the US. Marcet is known for its smart, pedagogical approach to training. Ball-skills and fitness are important, but to produce "intelligent footballers with human values and future employability”, Marcet teaches them ‘metacognition’, the ability to self-develop as they grow, along with mental resilience and composure - crucial attributes for today’s highly pressurised game.
The catch? All U16 international arrivals like Jakub who live at Marcet full-time still need to find time to continue their academic education at school. It’s a balance every young player has to face, juggling training time with lessons and exams. When Jakub arrived in a completely new city and country, this was problematic, as his mother explains.
‘As Jakub had training every day in the morning and then at 2:30 in the afternoon, it was very difficult for him to find a school so that he could continue with the British curriculum. [Traditional] Schools are not flexible.’
On his first day at Marcet, Jakub moved into a dormitory with players of his own age. As friendships struck up, he discovered his bunkmates had unearthed a unique, unlikely solution. By tracking down institutions that offered school-style educations over the internet, they were attending school and taking classes 'online', often in their own native languages. Miraculously, this meant they didn’t have to leave the Marcet grounds, never missed a single training session, and could divide their new luxury of time more effectively between studying and football.
Virtual schools are rapidly growing in popularity. Removing the barrier of the traditional school day means students are free to complete their assignments at their own pace, wherever they want, be that in the football club environment, on a train, at a regional competition, or at home. Most online schools blend e-learning provisions with live lessons and offer a surprisingly high standard of education. Additionally, with no fixed premise, virtual schools are immune to unforeseen closure. On his arrival in the winter of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Jakub found his peers engaged in online lessons all around the Marcet complex, even when millions of school children around the world were being sent home.
A week or so after his arrival, Jakub enrolled at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, a London-based online school whose pupils currently learn from over 15 different countries around the world. The school offered Jakub a full GCSE programme, entirely online, with live lessons, personal mentoring, weekly virtual assemblies, after-school clubs, and the chance to make friends with its existing students, a diverse pupil body made up of talented teenagers and Olympic hopefuls, all at the top of their respective games in fencing, horse-riding, swimming, musical theatre, and ballet.
One year on, Jack Child, Deputy Head at Minerva’s Virtual Academy and Jakub's personal mentor said, ‘Online learning is perfect for aspiring athletes like Jakub, and he's no exception, as evidenced by his top exam results, some of which were taken a year early last year. For a young player determined to make the most of his chance and develop his intelligence, the setup couldn’t be better.’
What does this mean for Jakub’s development as a footballer?
Football is evolving, but the message from top clubs is clear. If players can't think creatively, analyse, adapt, communicate, learn complex tactics, they’ll be overlooked. This also applies to candidates who haven’t developed good personal skills as Jack at Minerva is keen to emphasise.
‘We want to help pupils like Jakub not just do well academically, because clubs are looking for that now, but also we want to help them become confident characters and good all-round people. Both will help no end in their careers, on and off the pitch. We’re in a unique position because unlike normal schools we also have a dedicated one on one mentoring team to work with Jakub alongside Marcet in a non-academic capacity, enabling him to focus on and manifest his goals as a sportsperson as well as get fantastic grades.’
‘Jakub has high ambitions,’ says his mother. ‘His parents are both former national athletes. Jakub’s Dad played football and I was a synchronized swimmer at the Olympics. We understand the importance of a strong education.’
Like his pioneering peers, Jakub’s ambition is to play for one of the world's top clubs. So far, the flexibility given to him by his school to fit work around his training schedule has helped him keep up a very high standard of grades. This means he’s also kept the door open to university and possible sports scholarships.
As for the young footballers at Marcet in general, only one thing matters. They’re out there on the pitch every single day, including weekends. Virtual schooling has given them the freedom to spend more time where it counts, in the Marcet complex, benefitting 24/7 from their winning philosophy. Jakub and his friends will continue on their path undisturbed and unworried by rival players at other academies across Europe, constantly improving their football, intellect, and character, transforming themselves into prospects for the future that will be impossible to ignore.