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Future of Higher Education

How Boarding School Athletes Came Together Over the Past Year

Photo: Courtesy of IMG Academy

If there was one thing the students at IMG Athletic Academy knew, it was that this year was going to be different than any other year of school they’d yet experienced. 

A boarding school focused on athletics, the students at IMG already experience high school a little differently than most students in their age group. And when the pandemic hit, while their peers across the country started online virtual learning from their family living rooms, IMG students were adapting to a whole new way of living — moving in pods, wearing masks, staying on campus, and spending more time away from family. 

Ties that bond

Speaking to Coach Bobby Acosta and junior football player Tyler Booker, both agreed that, in some ways, the challenges of the pandemic made them stronger as a team and as players. One way in which a boarding school may have been an advantage over students learning via Zoom is that rather than feeling isolated from their peers, IMG students created even stronger bonds. Though maybe not at first.

“The best way to describe it was really awkward,” Booker said. In previous years, they would have been allowed to go off campus for food, or to spend time with friends outside of school or in the hallways. But the school’s new pandemic “podding system,” which limited student interactions to just those in their “pod,” actually wound up facilitating closer relationships. 

“Somehow us not being around each other made our chemistry even stronger,” Booker said. “So when we were allowed to be, we really took advantage.” 

He says dinner time was actually one of his favorite parts of the season, because that was one of the few times everyone could see each other in one spot. He noted how important good chemistry was because “no great football team has bad chemistry.”

“I feel like our relationship was much stronger with COVID, because we had that circumstance, because we actually had to get to know each other,” he said. All the students had to be away from their families, but Booker said his teammates became his “brothers.”

Skill development

Coach Acosta said the kids weren’t the only ones learning new skills from this experience, as he and the other instructors had to learn how to communicate through Zoom and maintain social distancing. 

“It actually made us a better football team because it allowed coaches to break down the little pieces of teaching and put it back together, and a lot of the kids to learn better because it was a smaller learning environment,” he said.

One memory of the team coming together stands out for Acosta. There was a big game coming up, and he felt like the team culture just wasn’t there yet, and they were down a young player who had been injured in a recent car accident. 

“That game was nothing to do about playing football. It was all about us,” he said. “Putting all of our hard work, our brothers that we’ve gained, and the Zoom meetings that we had.” 

Acostsa says that’s when Booker really stood up as a leader, and led the rest of the team in prayer. 

“This group of guys are special, and we could conquer this pandemic and all the other stuff that we’re going through because we have special kids here, and, you know, the sky’s the limit,” Acosta said.

Booker also remembers a time when the team faced a challenge and came together as a group, when they found out a star player wouldn’t be able to play with them because of some family issues. 

“Then we looked to our quarterback, and the whole team went up to him, gave him a hug and said, ‘We got you. You’re our god now, you’re our leader. We believe in you, we trust you,’” he said.

Luckily, the team’s new quarterback was up to it, and led the team to a championship season. 

If one thing is totally clear, it’s that Coach Acosta couldn’t be more proud of the kids he coached. 

“I’m like, ‘This is a memory that we’re gonna have for the rest of our lives,’” Acosta said. “And, you know, and one day Booker is gonna have kids and a beautiful family, and he’s gonna instill what he learned today into those kids. And those kids are gonna be powerful young people in our society.”

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