“I just love the environment here,” says Moe Harkless, an Orlando Magic forward and former first round NBA Draft pick training at IMG Academy in Bradenton. “Everyone here works really hard and I feel like there is no better place to be to train. It’s also great to have [other pros on campus] working just as hard as you are, and doing the same things you are. It’s cool to be here working with a lot of other guys.” While most people usually watch the action from the stands or a couch, big time sports tends to be a simplified, hyped and deceivingly superficial thrill of victories and agony of defeats. From the cheap seats, sports is mostly about the excitement, the scores, the wins and losses, the cheering and the booing. The discipline of training, years of effort, practice and prep time are not nearly as noticeable.

Maria Sharapova in her quarter final win over Ekaterina Makarova at the 2013 Australian Open.

TENNIS PLAYER KEI NISHIKORI.

Aside from the talent, skill, guts, strength, conditioning and determination, what does it take to be a good sport? Few know better than the passionate professionals on the sprawling, 450 pristine-acre campus of IMG Academy, the private athletic training institute for youth, high school, collegiate and professional athletes of all ages. Staff members at IMG are revved and proud, not only about the high-profile IMG success stories like NFL All Star and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, No. 2-ranked Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharapova or Kei Nishikori, the only male Japanese tennis pro ever ranked inside the top 10, and scorecards filled with many other IMG grads.

Maria Sharapova in her quarter final win over Ekaterina Makarova at the 2013 Australian Open.

CAROLINA PANTHERS QUARTERBACK CAM NEWTON.

“We devote a strong focus to the mental aspects of sports,” explains David Hesse, IMG’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic director of Athletic and Personal Development. “Our performance coaches concentrate on the technical, the tactical, the physical and the mental.” The Academy attracts more than 12,000 athletes from 80 countries every year. The yearbooks, record books and trophy cabinets deserve bragging rights that IMG has an impressive track record of having trained good sports including 131 All Stars, 63 MVPs, 22 World Champions, five National Title winners, two Heisman Trophy winners, 889 Tournament winners, 107 Major Champions and 11 Olympic Medal winners. Whether it’s full-time school-age students doing IMG’s standard half-day school, half-day sports or the endless summer schedules of IMG’s sport camps and clinics, including adults enrolled to fine tune their private sport skills and techniques, the sprawling sport Academy is a special school. As in most schools, students have good days, bad days, tough days and I’d-rather-stay-home days. At IMG, it’s never dull or wasted days. It’s certainly not your father’s curriculum! Sure, in the classrooms it’s math, literature, physics, language and composition, statistics, history and sciences. Outside it’s baseball, tennis, golf, basketball, football, lacrosse, track and field, soccer, football—and practice. In the classrooms, the training facilities and outside on the fields, the courts, the tracks, the diamonds and the putting greens, there is heavy emphasis on a balance of academic, athletic and personal achievement. And with many of the graduates becoming top players in their sport of choice, the system seems to be working.

“I came to IMG Academy when I was 14 to be one of the best athletes in the world. Since then I’ve reached the top-five and won nine singles titles,” says Nishikori, currently ranked as a No. 4 tennis player with the Association of Tennis Players and the first Asian-born male to reach a Grand Slam final. “No matter what you play, IMG Academy can help you to be one of the best athletes.” So are the routine adrenaline rants, the grunting, huffing and taunting to break intense concentration. “Coping strategies are crucial facets of mental strategy,” says Hesse. “They help the students a lot when it comes to training, preparation as well as performance. It’s no secret that emotions play a significant role in sports and success is never a straight line. Making mistakes is part of the learning process.” It’s also among the various reasons that make IMG different kind of school. Mental training is a must. It’s part of what makes the IMG approach so special. It’s about pushing the mind as hard as the body. Consistent with the intensity of rah-rah passions and the quirky, psyched-up rituals of sports, the IMG mantra sparks students with an almost evangelical, pre-game chant: “Become a champion of the game and a leader for life!”

“Mental conditioning and character development are important components of everything we teach and how we teach it,” says Dr. Taryn Morgan, the Academy’s assistant director of Athletic and Personal Development. “In sports, and in most aspects of life, it’s about achieving a high performance mindset. Regardless the sport, coachability is one of the key aspects of what we aim for. Being respectful, doing your best and a willingness to learn. Adaptability is vital, because, especially in sports, things are rarely perfect.” Hesse agrees with this crucial must-have for sport students. “It’s normal that students are anxious to get out there and play the sport of their choice. But it comes down to the individual’s willingness to take direction and learn. It may sound like a cliché but students are individuals. An eight-year-old approaches learning differently than a 19-year-old. But age is really not a factor. It’s attitude!” The Academy’s teachers and coaches are committed to expose IMG students to not only school and sport basics, but the special and indispensable intangibles that are key components of the unique IMG learning curves. “Students learn about a positive attitude, composure, managing emotions, consistency, time management and developing habits and routines. Learning how to control the controllables is so important,” Morgan emphasizes. “Whether it’s on the golf course, the basketball or tennis court, running a sprint, passing for a touchdown, working at an office job or getting together with friends. The only thing you can really control is you.