Florida prep school IMG Academy finds ways to employ ‘distance learning’ for sports as well as schoolwork

Editor’s note: IMG Academy is a private boarding school that specializes in training boys and girls in a wide variety of sports, including basketball, tennis, baseball and football. It grew from the original Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which helped produce Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi.

As with most every U.S. secondary school, IMG Academy saw its winter sports season end abruptly short of the finish line and its spring sports season concluded after barely a start. It also has been forced to turn its academic lessons into online “distance learning.”

By its very nature, though, IMG takes a different approach to sports. So even though its seasons were over once campuses were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to continue coaching the academy’s athletes did not.

Now basketball camp director at IMG Academy, Victoria Sun was a sportswriter for a decade in California, Las Vegas and Cincinnati. She used her journalist training and unique insight into the IMG program to explain the unusual way IMG is handling the shutdown in this piece for Sporting News.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Every day at 4 p.m., IMG Academy girls varsity basketball coach Jennifer Sepielli jumps on a FaceTime call with her team.

Regardless of the distance and time zones that separate them, the players are all in. They are a close team but, for the moment, not geographically.

Mathilde Sorenson joins from Denmark, Laurie Calixte dials in from Quebec. Mara Ochoa Contreras calls from Mexico. Shae Mercer hops on from Texas. It’s the next-best thing to physically being together in the gym, with being together in the gym not an option because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I just think it keeps them connected,” said Sepielli, in her fifth season at IMG. “It has kept them together, given them some sense of normal life.

“I know they’ve all been excited for the daily FaceTime call just to be able to see each other again in a group. The thing about being on a team, nothing replaces that connection with your teammates.”

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For more than a month, most of the students at IMG Academy have been separated since the coronavirus became a global pandemic and schools were forced to make drastic changes. During spring break, parents were notified that students would not be allowed to return to campus and the school transitioned to an academic distance learning platform that started March 30.

As the teachers began preparing online lessons, the athletic department recognized the need to keep coaches and players active during this unprecedented time of social distancing and flattening the curve. So each of IMG Academy’s eight sports directors were tasked with creating a sports distance-learning curriculum for their coaches to deliver through the online app CoachNow.

In less than two weeks, IMG Academy Director of Basketball Brian Nash consulted with his staff and coaches to produce basketball content for all 14 of the school’s basketball teams. It was a natural progression for the sports-centric boarding school that attracts student-athletes from all over the world.

“We had to put together a detailed curriculum in a short amount of time in order to help the kids continue their personal, individual, mental and basketball growth,” said Nash, in his fourth year at IMG. “We feel like at IMG Academy we are trendsetters, and this is something we could do that nobody else would provide for their student-athletes. That’s why we felt it was really important.”

Every Sunday through Thursday, the coaches post a video on the CoachNow app about topics including zone offense, playmaking, and attacking pressure defense. Early on the videos focused on team concepts before shifting to individual improvement. To keep the players engaged, many coaches have gotten creative by incorporating college and NBA clips and filming themselves in their homes using stuffed animals and other props to demonstrate plays.

The student-athletes are asked to respond to questions or submit a video response related to the concept the following day. Within the coaches’ post is a video from Nash or IMG Academy Basketball Technical Director Mike Gillian; there are optional workouts for those who can get on a court and modified versions for those who can’t.

To mimic the programming the players would receive at school, IMG’s Strength and Conditioning staff provide the student-athletes optional workouts they can perform at home while the Athletic and Personal Development staff provides videos about nutrition, mental health, and leadership. Additionally, notable former IMG Academy players and other supporters of IMG, including broadcaster Dick Vitale and Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, have contributed motivational videos that have been shared.

“From a basketball learning aspect, the film clips are great,” said Morgan Hough, one of two seniors on Sepielli’s team. “It gets me thinking about the game in different ways, even though it’s not the same as being on the court.

“We’re definitely doing more film study and getting more information than ever before.”

The innovative and interactive basketball curriculum program was initially supposed to last until April 20 but will remain in effect until the end of the school year. Because of stay-at-home mandates, worldwide travel restrictions and safety concerns, a group of about 10 players have remained in their dorms while approximately 160 other players in the basketball program have been required to stay off campus.

Moussa Diabate, ranked in the top 20 of the class of 2021 by several recruiting services, chose not to return home to Paris for spring break so that he could work out at school. Every morning, the 6-10 junior spends about an hour on ball-handling, takes between 500 to 1,000 shots and then participates in a workout with Middle School Blue coach Jesse Edwards. With people all over the world confined to their homes, Diabate has found comfort in the gym.

“I’m glad and thankful for it,” Diabate said. “It sounds weird, but it’s like we’re the chosen ones because we’re the only ones who can have access to the gym right now. So I just think it’s a great opportunity to get better.”

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Edwards, a former IMG Academy player and graduate, enjoys being able still to coach Diabate and the other players on campus while he can’t be with his own team, which finished the season 30-0. Edwards conducts workouts via Zoom so his players can participate when possible. To keep his team together, they have online PlayStation battles and use FaceTime and Snapchat regularly.

“I miss everything,” said Edwards, who is in his seventh season at IMG. “The interaction piece, face-to-face time, physically being able to see them put work in and get better.

“The family piece, seeing them laugh and joke around with each other.”

Edwards’ players have been very receptive to the online curriculum and often request that he send them more film to digest. He believes the basketball online distance learning program has been the most beneficial for the players in his age group and helped increase their understanding of the game.

“Now they have to actually think, use their mind and their basketball IQ is going to get better,” Edwards said. “As eighth-graders, breaking down film, my kids are definitely going to be ahead of the curve.”

Identifying a positive takeaway from this uncertain time has been difficult for others. The onset of COVID-19 robbed IMG Academy’s boys National Team of the opportunity to defend its GEICO Nationals High School championship and high school seniors the chance to experience traditional activities including prom, senior skip day, and graduation ceremonies.

Under normal circumstances this time of the year, practices would be focused on individual skill development, strength training, and preparing for AAU or showcase events.

National Team head coach Sean McAloon laments that the season ended so abruptly and he didn’t get to finish helping his seniors prepare for their collegiate careers. Jaden Springer is headed for the University of Tennessee, Mark Williams is bound for Duke, Matthew Murrell is going to Ole Miss, and Zach Edey signed with Purdue.

“I hope that the kids have gotten that love and passion for the game that they should have for not being able to do things they love to do,” McAloon said. “Out of all of this, I hope they’ve regained and understood how much they love basketball.

“I’ve never wanted to be in the gym so bad, so I’m hoping they understand how special it is being able to get in the gym and work out with your teammates.”

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