BRADENTON, Fla. - IMG Academy baseball program Director Ken Bolek isn't cocky, he's convinced. And with the impressive results of the various IMG training schools - one-of-a-kind training and teaching centers - why shouldn't he be?
"There is nothing like this anywhere," he said. "No other place has our facilities, our instructors or our success."
Bolek is one of eight directors that represent the different specialized branches of the private boarding school set on 400 acres of property on the Gulf Coast in Central Florida. The other training schools are the Leadbetter Golf Academy, Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Madden Football Academy, Basketball, Soccer, Softball, and Lacrosse Academy as well as the Athletic & Personal Development program.
Bolek, who has been at the school for over 15 years, has seen IMG grow into what it is today. Its facilities include:
- A 7,000 yard 18-hole golf course plus double-sided driving range;
- 35 outdoor U.S Open-grade hard courts equipped with video equipment, four indoor U.S Open-grade hard courts, 16 green clay and a red clay tennis court;
- 13 full-size professional soccer fields;
- three full-sized baseball fields, four infield diamonds, 15 practice pitching mounds, 12 batting cage stations (five of which have ProBatter PX2 machines);
- two full-size indoor basketball courts;
- two football-only fields;
- two lacrosse-only fields;
- a 10,000 square-foot weight room;
- a four-lane track (two lanes composite and two lands rubber).
And still with plans to expand.
It also houses one of the most extensive off-the field training programs an athlete can find.
"For an old school guy like me, it is rewarding," Bolek said. "We have been pushing hard the last couple of years to make improvements and it will be great for everyone."
He also has taken the time to stop and smell the roses.
"We are the largest sports academy in the world," he said. "That is fantastic and should be celebrated."
Bolek, however, is quick to note that IMG does not follow the old Soviet sports academy blueprint.
The IMG Academy baseball program is classified as an Associate Member of the Florida High School Athletics Association but plays an Independent schedule. The ramifications of that choice is that IMG is not bound by district games but can not play for a state title.
Because of the lack guaranteed games and the programs elite reputation, IMG often must take games wherever it can get them - and that includes tournaments.
Like it or not.
"We struggle to get games," Bolek said. "It is good and bad. We aren't bound by a percent of games in the state or in a district, but we also have a tough time filling our schedule.
"And we do not like to take too many tournaments or trips because it affects the kids in the classroom."
This season, the IMG team did participate in a tournament: The Hard Nine National Classic in Anaheim, California.
The team was accompanied by a teacher and the players were expected to be focused on schoolwork.
"They do not mess around with school here," Bonilla said. "It is emphasized."
It is emphasized as much as anything else at the school.
"We have the best," Bolek said. "Our pitching coach is a former pitcher. He teaches pitching, not base running. Our weightlifting guy trained athletes in weight lifting; he is not our speed and agility coach. Our teachers are the same. They are not math majors teaching English. IMG will always be exclusive because there are a small percentage of people to prescribe to our specific needs. If we are to hold our kids to a set of standards, we have to hold ourselves to that same set."
"What folks still need to know is that the great majority of our graduates will not make a living as a professional athlete and we teach much more than just athletics here," he said. "We prepare kids with life skills that will help make them a better person."
The Total Athlete Approach was developed by the Athletic & Personal Development program and breaks down into three schools of thought with eight total development techniques.
Athletic body management, physical conditioning, vision training, nutrition, mental conditioning, communication skills, life skills and college preparation and placement are all part of the curriculum.
All of that is in addition to the school load each must maintain within the IMG Academy School.
The communications skill curriculum for the students, developed by a company called Game On, was founded by Steve Shenbaum to aid professional athletes. It is now based out of IMG Academy.
Blair Bloomston, the associate director of Game On, thinks this expanded approach helps the kids not only make friends, but helps the teens find themselves through the process.
"We have kids from all over the globe here," she said. "It not only helps them cross over the sport-specific barriers, it allows them to open up to others and themselves."
The Game On model uses role-playing, improvising and other techniques to help with interpersonal communication as well as media relations.
"There is a boisterous, vivacious eight (on a scale to 10) inside of all of us," she said. "There is also a quiet and professional three. We try to help people feel comfortable with both."
Game On also emphasizes that being comfortable in your own skin is more important than being what the media may want you to be.
"Sometimes other media training will create a paradox," she said. "We want each person to build their own brand and make sure it is consistent. Being caught in a lie is one of the worst things that can happen when dealing with the media."
A current member of the IMG Academy baseball program, Brandon Bonilla, is fighting public perception as he grows into a potential major league baseball player.
His father, Bobby, was a polarizing player in the late 1980's and early 90's. The younger Bonilla was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in Round No. 33 of the MLB Rule IV Draft.
Brandon says that his experience at IMG has been amazing.
"It is much different [than Greenwich (Conn.) High]," Bonilla said. "I am blessed to be here. To be in a focused school for three hours a day, get hands on baseball training from former professionals and all of the other benefits that are here is wonderful."
His teammate Alfredo Escalara, a thirdbaseman, says his experience has been night-and-day compared to where he grew up in Puerto Rico.
"We didn't even have fields there," Escalara said. "Here we have perfectly manicured fields. It is perfect."
Escalara, is a Florida State commit despite not starting on the varsity team at IMG, said that the disadvantages of a boarding school are far offset by the Academies' benefits.
"Once you are on campus, you are on campus," he said, although he lives off campus with his parents. "But my parents knew if I stayed home I could not achieve my goals. I was 11 and playing with 15 year-olds. Here I am surrounded by good athletes and get training by the best."
Part of surrounding the players with the best comes down to the philosophy of the school.
"We don't accept everyone," Bolek said. "Our screening process is simple. We want to know the goals and objectives of the family and the player before we take the next step. From there, we will do an evaluation and a projection and share that with the families. If the two do not align, then this is likely not the place for them."
With nearly 1,000 students on campus, IMG Academy are not for everyone.
"We only deal with reality here," Bolek said. "If a family thinks their kid will come here get an education and sign a pro contract, but we do not see that ceiling for them, we communicate that very clearly. I'd say that 98 percent of our families come in knowing that they are paying for a professional learning experience to help their children become professionals. And that doesn't mean professional athletes that means professionals."
Getting in is difficult.
"We have a system, a process, an environment that has been tested and proven effective," Bolek said. "At some point we will have to ask how big is big, but until then we will take the folks who come here for the right reasons. If people think that they can get in and just make their own way through without being a part of the big picture then they will find out they are wrong."
The most important part of all will happen once you are on campus.
"People think that just because we pay the tuition here that it makes us better," Bonilla said. "Those people are wrong. We have so much more work to do once we are here than they would believe."