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The Secret Teacher: How much young talent is wasted for want of an attentive adult to notice it early?

Chances are you’ve heard of Carlos Alcaraz but not of Emma Slevin, born within a couple of days of each other in May 2003. Now aged 20, each one has achievements that would be extraordinary over the course of any lifetime, let alone at their young ages.

Alcaraz is the current men’s Wimbledon champion. This summer, he and Novak Djokovic played in a final that lasted close to five hours and was impossible to call. At different times victory perhaps seemed within sight for one or the other but such hints were always fleeting. For much of the match all that the most experienced of tennis followers knew was that they couldn’t possibly predict with any confidence how it would end. The players’ speeches on court immediately afterwards were heartwarming in a way that truly merits the word, and they are rich in lessons on how to win humbly and lose graciously.

In his speech, Alcaraz demonstrated the fullest of admiration for Djokovic and addressed him directly to acknowledge that when Alcaraz was born Djokovic was already winning tournaments. It is the proof that when you start early enough and well enough and know who to watch, you can one day meet your own sporting idol in the final of the world’s greatest event in the sport.

In 2021 Slevin made history twice. That April she became the first Irish woman gymnast to qualify for a Senior All-Around final after registering a score of 50.432 at the European Gymnastics Championships in Basel. That competition was the first in her Paris 2024 Olympic campaign. Just six months later she also became the first Irish gymnast to qualify for the coveted All-Around finals of the World Gymnastics Championships.

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Making sacrifices consistently enough to achieve any significant goal requires a level of commitment that is hard to sustain. And yet it is the marker of those who truly reach their potential.

Like so many other young people, Slevin represents our country on the world stage in her chosen discipline. Many others again represent their county or club on pitches, tracks, courts or in the water. If there is a sport or discipline I have not alluded to, it is entirely unintentional. My whole point here is how many supremely talented young people there are here in Ireland. They may not all make global headlines but that doesn’t mean they are not to be admired. Far from it. For they are all doing something many of us spend a lifetime longing to do or wishing would happen.

Alcaraz, Slevin and the countless unnamed others are fulfilling their potential, something we all ultimately desire. Nobody at the desks in front of us gets up in the morning and sets the goal of failing at their school day. It is regrettable that many feel a sense of dread rather than hope at the prospect of going to school, but I would argue that this reflects on us more than on them.

‘There are three little words I use all the time with my students. I frequently hear them back, too’ ]

Core to our role is providing varied ways to shine in the school context, so that everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. The higher the proportion of confident students we teach, the more likely it is that we vary our approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. Put simply, if we require all 25 in a group to do something the exact same way and only value what is submitted that exact way, a huge proportion risk “failing”.

If we ask them to demonstrate specific knowledge in their own chosen way, we nurture – and demonstrably reward – the autonomy that potentially permits all 25 to succeed. This success feeds their self-belief and can be channelled into whatever it is they are passionate about and feel prepared to commit to. Subsequent successes follow.

Being the principal agent of our own learning and achievements is just one visible element in those who do well. Theirs is a self-driven, self-motivated approach, and precious energy is not wasted rebelling against parents, guardians, teachers and coaches. An additional layer of this same element is the daily decision-making and how it complements and supports the achievement they actively seek.

I have not met Alcaraz or Slevin; nor am I likely to – they are merely examples from the very visible world of sport. The prompts that follow apply to anyone pursuing any ambition. Other more specific ideas will be relevant and should be added in order for the thinking to reflect one’s own exact situation. The firm foundations on which great things are achieved are set in the most basic aspects of our days.

And our nights – time spent asleep and in front of screens is a significant factor here. Many youngsters get too little of one and too much of the other. Sound nutritional choices that strengthen us mentally and physically increase our chances of performing optimally. Sleep, nutrition and a minimum of exercise are just as relevant to preparatory sessions as to big days, whether it be for exam performances or a more public arena.

The Secret Teacher: Being back at school is wonderful - but it’s not cool to say that ]

These day-to-day decisions may come across as both obvious and easy. I’d argue that while they may be obvious to many, they are only easy for a very small minority, if indeed for anyone. Making sacrifices consistently enough to achieve any significant goal requires a level of commitment that is hard to sustain. And yet it is the marker of those who truly reach their potential.

Talent certainly plays a part as does the right support structure, and very often access to specific resources is required too. But the biggest predictor of whether someone will go the distance is whether they have a core inner drive and commitment to their chosen discipline or goal.

Alcaraz and Slevin clearly had the drive and commitment, but just as crucially there were others who spotted that they did. How much young talent is wasted for want of an attentive adult to notice it early?