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School for Pros

An academy in Florida is turning out tomorrow’s sports superstars—and giving also-rans another chance.
Chip Litherland

Aspiring opera singers attend Juilliard. Entrepreneurs in training go to the Wharton School. And if your kid wants to be the next sports phenom, you may need to send him or her to IMG Academy, a sports school operated by the global sports and media company IMG. I visited the campus to explore the method that’s helped the school send more than 60% of its graduates to Division I colleges—2% straight to the pro leagues. Instantly I wished I were 14 again.

Situated in Bradenton, FL, the pre-K-through-grade-12 boarding school began as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Bought by IMG in 1987, it has since expanded to provide coaching in eight different sports while educating nearly 1,000 kids. Some 98% of Academy grads go on to attend college (including high-end schools like Harvard) and 57% of them receive athletic scholarships (compared with 2% of high school students nationwide). Half the students go to class in the morning and work out in the evening; the other half follow the opposite schedule.

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To get a sense of the training IMG offers, I join a group of slightly older athletes—NFL hopefuls—for a standard combine prep workout. All IMG athletes begin workouts with a dynamic warmup—performing movements similar to what you’d make in sports or in training to prepare the body. My group hits some jumping-jack variations, followed by footwork drills and hip and shoulder openers lasting about 15 minutes. The weight training always focuses on imbalances.

“Most athletes want to work the mirror muscles,” says Scott Gadeken, head of physical conditioning, “but it’s the back of the body where the power comes from. We spend a lot of time on the hamstrings, glutes, and [scapulae].” Our weight workout begins with bench presses done with bands looped around the ends of the bar to build explosive power. If you don’t accelerate the bar to lockout, the bands will slingshot it down onto your chest—as if the threat of losing face in front of a group of elite football players weren’t incentive enough.

We pair up the bench press with a cable row to keep balance between the chest and back and then go on to a series of grouped exercises— two or more lifts for different areas of the body, with little or no rest in between. For my group, this includes dumbbell curls to presses followed by lat pulldowns and, later, shoulder and ab moves followed by a quad stretch. The session takes just under an hour. 

“Moving quickly builds up work capacity,” Gadeken explains. “When we’re resting one body part, we might do some corrective work for another. If we’re training legs, we might do scapular stuff while [the legs are] resting. We get more done in a shorter amount of time.” Afterward, I catch up with one of my training partners, Chris Manno, 28, a wide receiver and kick returner who’s done stints with the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers. He’s preparing for regional combines in hopes of making another pro team.

“From what I’ve heard from other people who’ve gone to other training camps,” he says, “their day is over by 1:30. We do a lot more. [Here,]they make sure my diet is right, and my recovery.” At IMG, students often have the opportunity to train alongside professional athletes like Manno and others who spend time at the Academy to prepare for the upcoming season or rehab an injury. “If I’m a 14-year-old kid and I see Cam Newton next to me on the lifting platform, I see what can be accomplished,” says Gadeken.

For both students and pros, the Academy offers performance-boosting accoutrements too numerous to list, including a physical therapy center, classes on mental toughness, and even vision training.


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