If we're serious about helping all individuals build their passions and fulfill their human potential, then we need to help them not just with their academics, but also focus on their health and wellness and their habits of success. A big part of that can and should be built on a foundation of fitness, which means instilling lifelong habits of fitness when they're in K–12 schools. But that means some big changes in how we think about sports, PE and more in our society. To help unpack elements of this topic, Steve Mesler, an Olympic gold medalist and the co-founder and CEO of Classroom Champions joined me, alongside Andy Rotherham, a national leader in the world of education reform, the co-founder of Bellwether Education, and a member of the Virginia Board of Education among other roles. Steve and Andy’s passions for this topic really shone through in this conversation, in which we touched on everything from the reasons why sports are beneficial to students, how the high demands and desires to be great in one thing can be counterproductive, and why it’s necessary to make sure sports are fun and not just about the competition. The conversation rolled into a lot of important and controversial places, as it touched on everything changing the youth sports culture to the role of social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools.
As always, you can listen to the podcast, watch the video below, or read the transcript if you’re a paid subscriber.
Horn: I've long said that if we're serious about helping all individuals do just that, then we need to help them not just with their academics, but also focus on their health and wellness and their habits of success. And a big part of that can and should be built on a foundation of fitness, which means instilling lifelong habits of fitness when they're in K-12 schools. But that means some big changes in how we think about sports, PE and more in our society.
So, to help us think about this topic and frankly, the broader topic of preparing students to lead successful lives, we have two incredible guests today. First, we have a first on this show, we have an Olympic gold medalist in Steve Mesler. He won Gold in the 2010 Olympics in the four-man bobsled, but he also currently serves as the co-founder and CEO of Classroom Champions, which offers an award-winning social-emotional learning curriculum in K-8 schools.
We also have my friend Andy Rotherham joining us today. Andy, of course, has been a national leader in the world of education reform, and he has served in a variety of roles, really as a bridge across the various partisan bickering and silos. He's the co-founder of Bellwether, which works to transform education systems to ensure systemically marginalized young people achieve outcomes that lead to fulfilling lives and flourishing communities. He writes the Eduwonk Blog, has been a columnist for Time, and serves on the Virginia Board of Education. You get the idea, two big deals here today. And with that, Andy, Steve, thank you so much for joining me. It's great to see you both.
Rotherham: Great to be here. This is going to be fun.
Mesler: Thanks for having us.
Horn: Yeah, you bet. I just want to dive in with a macro question for you both really to set the table, which is, in both of your views, why are sports important to young people today? Andy, why don't you go first and then Steve, you can jump in after.
Rotherham: Yeah. I mean, well, there's a couple reasons. I say there's like three, starting with a basic one. It's fun. Sports are fun. They're fun for kids, they're fun for us to watch. They bring a lot. But more importantly, there's a couple of really important things that happen with sports. One, we know kids who participate in sports and it's particularly true of girls. And I have daughters who participate in sports, have better outcomes. And some of that is obviously just the math. If you're spending time doing sports, that's time you're not spending doing other things. So it makes sense that some of the sort of behaviors we think about as being more at risk behaviors, you'd be less exposed to it just because of time. But even accounting for that, there are other things that lead to really good externalities and outcomes.
And I don't think it's surprising you see, particularly again among women, women who participate in sports achieving elsewhere in their lives at a very high level. And I think that's because of that third thing. It gives you the ability to learn how to win, how to lose, how to communicate, how to work together, all kinds of skills that are just really important out there in the workplace and in life. And it lets you get them in a very authentic way. It's not contrived, it's not made up. You're learning those things through real lessons. I mean, I'm on Steve's board at Classroom Champions and we don't want to spend the whole time talking about that. But as I segue to Steve on this question, that is part of what we do at Classroom Champions is sort of letting students see this happening in authentic ways with their mentors. Not contrived ways and made up, but in very real ways, see these kinds of things and learn from them. Steve, what would you add?
Mesler: Yeah, I mean, well first of all, wait a minute. We're not talking about Classroom Champions the entire time here?
Rotherham: The bait and switch.
Mesler: I know mean it's an incredibly important question, Michael, and I mean, I think honestly it leans back to your opening, which is thinking about how to help kids have a life that not only provides them academic opportunity, which then we know is whether you're looking to break the cycle poverty, whether you're just looking to get ahead of life or just do bigger things, that it really begins with academics. But I think the realization that it doesn't begin and end with academics is where sport comes into play. Because ultimately, what else are we all doing here? What else are we all doing here? But to live rewarding lives that we can live longer, we can live happier, we can be healthy, we can think longer, we can do all these things.
And again, whether you're talking about trying to help kids, whether it is in some of the communities that Classroom Champions serves in Camden, New Jersey or in rural Indiana, or whether you are talking about those maybe on the haves side of the American economy, ultimately I think sport is this demonstrable place for kids to see, just like Andy said, I mean, I'm going to echo something that Andy said, but ultimately it's demonstrable.
Kids can see it happening whether they're experiencing it themselves or not, and they're participating. Look, sports isn't for everybody. I'm okay with saying that, I'm comfortable with saying that. But the principles that sport teaches are for everybody. And when kids can see winning and losing happening, whether again on the field themselves or in others or in their role models, athletes still to this day right there with YouTube stars and TikTok stars athletes are those people. They're the only consistent role models as we've kind of transitioned from a generation that participates and watches things on television to now can find their own role models as they please on the internet. And those role models are getting thrown in their faces in a way that wasn't there when we were kids. Sports serves a purpose because again, the rules are clear. It's an opportunity to follow, agree to rules.
And we have to remember, look, I spent eight years on the board of directors of the US Olympic and Paralympic committee, and if there's one thing that I really took away from that, it's all made up. It's all made up. We all decided the line in football is out and the line in tennis is in, those are arbitrary things, but so are majority of the laws and so are the majority of the things that we do in life. And I think sport is this wonderful place where life kind of just mirrors there where we've all agreed to a set of rules, we're going to follow them and the moment somebody doesn't follow them, they either get thrown in a penalty box and they have to sit on the sidelines and be singled out in front of 20,000 people in the NHL. You're sitting in a box just by yourself because you messed up and it reflects on that.
So I think that's where, from a societal standpoint for sport, that's what I really see the value on. And again, Andy I think did a great job talking about those things that go into the sport world.
Horn: No, that makes sense. And Charles Barkley, I suppose be damned in terms of the role model comment, but I'm curious sort of how we're doing on that in terms of schools and society more broadly, because this frankly doesn't have to all be on the backs of schools, but really opportunities for the kids that want to choose. And I take your point, not everyone's going to want to do sports, but for those kids that do want to participate, how are we doing in creating those opportunities in your view? And what are we doing right and wrong?
Mesler: Yeah. No, I mean look, there's data behind this. There's my opinion, but then there's actually what the data says in this world. And the fact of the matter is that over the last 13 or so years ago, our friends over at Project Play at the Aspen Institute, Tom Farrey's and Jennifer's amazing shop over there. Their data's pretty clear. I mean participation's down from 45% in 2008 to I think 37% in 2021, that's a pretty material drop. And then over half of the kids that are participating, 58% of the kids that are participating are doing so through their community-based programming. So where are kids coming to those community based things. I live up in Calgary, Canada. I moved here to train when I was bobsledding. I was two feet wider, two feet taller back in my bobsled days. And I moved up here to train and our daughter can participate in community sport right here.
Same thing happens all over America. So I think how are we doing? We're losing them. But I think in that turn, we can maybe also see the value and what it is that we're losing. And I think the only way to turn things around is people have to see what we're losing and see what the problems are. And I think this is going to be a pretty stark one outside of the concept that, look, when all of us were in school phys ed was a much more prominent part of our days. And I think the transition from when I went to school from the eighties and nineties, you could see phys ed activity, daily activity dropped from something that was a relatively daily occurrence to a once in every five or six day allotment. And two generations later, we are in a mental health crisis. Those things are not not connected. We've increased screen time and we've decreased physical activity and we've decreased the mandate of that in our schools. To your point, it doesn't have to happen in schools, but hey look, basically 100% of kids are in schools.
Rotherham: So I guess I look at it a little differently. That was interesting and we didn't rehearse this. So that was interesting to hear from Steve because I look at it a little bit differently. I don't think we're doing great. And there's some, I mean, look, Steve mentioned the Aspen work and they're doing just fantastic work on this. I encourage everybody to check it out. One of the things in a recent study they put out it's almost $900 a year people are paying out of pocket for sports. So that right there, that's going to be inaccessible for a lot of people. And I think that's actually a low number, if you know kids-
Mesler: Did I say it wrong? It's dropped.
Rotherham: Yeah, yeah. No, it's dropped, I know it's happening around the country. I worry that we're actually de-emphasizing rec sports in favor of competitive sports. And so for example, Chili Davis, the baseball player, he's talked about how it's become so specialized, he's not sure he would've been a baseball player now, and you're seeing this in a number of sports. I remember with my girls, a well-intentioned parent with older kids took us aside when they were playing soccer and was like, "Hey, if you're really serious about them succeeding in soccer at a high level, playing varsity, be able to play really competitive, travel. Here are the kinds of things you need to be doing with them now." Clinics, labs, specialized coaching, my girls were seven at the time. And we were like, they don't even know how much they like soccer. And they've both been very successful in sports, but neither of them actually in soccer, they found their way to other sports.
So what I worry about Michael a lot is we're losing that emphasis on sort of sports for fun, sports for rec. Kids stop playing when the funnel gets more narrow. And so if they're not making varsity, and they're on track for that, they stop playing if they're not JV. You see that funnel, and I don't want to romanticize it, but if you spend time in Europe, I'm always struck, even when you just talk to people in a lot of European countries, they don't ask you, do you play sports? They ask you do you do sport? What sport do you do? And that's not just a contrivance of language, it's a different thing. We think of play and competition and so forth, they think of doing as moving and doing those things and being active. And I think there's a reason you see in Europe, many more people playing sports much later into their lives than you see here.
And so to Steve's point earlier about the important health outcomes and so forth, we should want to get as many kids as possible playing. So we'll have as many adults as possible still moving and doing things. And I just don't think we're doing a great job. And one thing maybe we can talk about here is that relationship, school sports, community sports, do we need to be rethinking that just as a basic access, equity, inclusion kind of question?
Mesler: Yeah, no, and sorry Mike, I'll hop in. Because I think Andy is, again, having lived in a foreign country for 20 years now and yet Classroom Champions works across the US system and across the Canadian system, I have this really interesting opportunity to look at both sides and then again, being part of the US pipeline, I did junior Olympics from 10 or 11 years old. I got an NCAA scholarship and then I went to three Olympics and then I sit on the board. So I personally have had the entire lifecycle of doing multiple sports as a youth, excelling in one that I found after my first sport and then moving through the entire system and then wind up overseeing the system in that way. And I think that there's one thing that the US has a completely different viewpoint of than the rest of the world.
And that is to what Andy said, there is our viewpoint of the value of sport. It is intuitive in Canada that sport for young people is good. It's intuitive in Europe, that's sport for young people is good. In America it's like, well, I don't want my, they're going to try to go to the NFL where they're trying to go to the NBA. We have this viewpoint that participation in sport has an end goal, which is success at these higher levels in a lot of ways. And it's permeated through and kind of corrupted, to Andy's point, they're trying to get them at seven years old. They're trying to get them into clinics and all these things because Andy's goal must be to get them a college scholar scholarship. That must be the goal if he's having a seven-year old participate in sports.
And I see it now on the other end of Andy in some ways, I've got a five and a half year old and an almost one-year-old. So I'm thinking about these things a lot. And it is, how do you change that? I don't if you could think about changing the culture in America on that one, but how can we change? We change. And I think that's where schools do come into play because you do have systemic opportunities there that you can influence in that way.
Horn: And that sort of gets where my head goes, which is, so I've got eight-year-old girls, they're super into gymnastics. I can see the funnel already starting and frankly it's kind of crazy from what I've read about the research around not trying to specialize. And then to your point, we sort of have this PE which frankly I was in Montgomery County growing up. They had already moved PE to once a week I think, back in the 1980s. But you sort of see this steady decline of a focus on participation in movement and that just be active. And I guess in terms of this participation conversation, two of the books that I've read that have really influenced my thinking over the past decade are both by David Epstein and Steve, you reminded me that you're in one of them, The Sport Gene and Range, of course.
And one of my takeaways from the research there was even for those that do want to star in that sport or want that college scholarship because this is their "way in" or whatever else it is, frankly, maybe even especially for those individuals that they ought to play lots of different sports and not specialized too early. And David sent this great newsletter out about this moment with Serena Williams in the front row where he was presenting the research and being like, well, she was the consummate tennis player from early on. And she was like, no, you're right. I learned to throw football. I did all these other activities.
And to your point, Steve, I mean your own personal journey, I think you were a decathlete in college for the Florida Gators, so you obviously were doing a lot of different things. How do we get that narrative out there, maybe? Maybe that's the question. How do we change the narrative so people recognize just doing is a really important thing right now in a lot of different fields and then we'll let the chips sort of fall where they maybe over time, but not have that immediate transactional obsession upfront.
Mesler: Upfront. I mean, I think it's a great question, Andy. I mean what do you think from a school's or from a community communications standpoint?
Rotherham: Well, I'm struck when you talk to people who have succeeded at a high level and with one of the things with my work is you sometimes get to interact with folks who have succeeded in professional in baseball or in hockey or whatever. And one of the things they uniformly are like, don't specialize young, do different. This idea that you have to specialize is almost like a bias of people who didn't succeed at a high level. I remember I did a session last year at the bar conference with Nicole Hensley who's the goalie for the women's Olympic hockey team in Kelly Pannek who's a forward. And this issue came up and I remember, I think it was Kelly Pannek who was just like, your kid should play any sport that's going to make them happy in high school because if they're good enough to go at that sort of D1 and highly competitive level, they're going to be good enough whether they're playing two sports or one sports, this idea that you need to focus them and specialize if they're that at that level of being an athlete, which again, most kids aren't.
So one of the big things is helping people understand these funnels are incredibly narrow and everybody thinks... The most important thing you should make sure is happening is that your kid is having fun, they're enjoying moving, they're creating lifelong relationships with sports and physical activity because the odds of them competing at that level are extremely slim and even slimmer after that. And so you just see that again and again, somebody I don't know, but know of Justin Williams, former NHL player with the Caps, the Kings, he's won the Stanley Cup, he runs a highly regarded hockey camp up in Canada and every day he has the kids doing a different sport, just expose them to them. So one day you're going to learn about these different sports besides hockey and it's a hockey camp and I think a lot of people think you're going to a hockey camp run by somebody like that it's going to be hockey 24/7, but he's really into this idea, learn to do other stuff.
And I just think as a parent, and I know Steve's experiencing this, you got to expose your kids to lots of stuff because how are they going to find out what they like or don't like? If all you do is one sport, your kid might be a great tennis player and they're never going to discover that passion that that's actually what they love, not whatever sport you have them doing. So I think it's a little bit, it would be helpful if more people in those positions kind of communicate that they didn't necessarily get where they got because they just did one thing again and again. They did sort of do different things. They followed some of the stuff that David talks about in those books.
Horn: Steve, what's your take?
Mesler: I mean, I'm of two minds on this one, and look, we talked about this sport pipeline a lot.
Rotherham: You need to take a break in a second to take his kids un-tape their right hand from behind their back.
Mesler: Exactly. All of those things. All of those things. I'm of two minds. We talked about the sport pipeline a lot at the Olympic Committee, Olympic Paralympic Committee for sure. But ultimately I'm here and there. Look, I'm 44, which means my story of how I became successful, in my day there wasn't a hyper sports specialization. So I can't necessarily tell you that your kid can do what I did if they take my path because the people they were competing against weren't hyper specialized. If I had to hyper specialized against kids in other sports and I wasn't hyper specialized and they were, would my physical attributes be able to overcome?
I'm definitely of the mindset, which is, look, if your kid kid is good enough to get a college scholarship, they're probably going to have a really good opportunity whether you specialize them or not. It's the ones that are on the fringes. It's hedging your bets. It's the ones who maybe, look, my kid is always going to have to go against. And she, I'm seeing it already in the ski hill. Yeah, she did good, but her dad was an Olympic gold medalist. So she already has this, it's thing that she can't help, that she can't control that she has theoretically good genetics for sport in that way. I mean, my sister got the brains in our family.
So I think that's the thing is there's this generational emphasis. I can't tell you in a hyper specialized world whether a generalized approach to sport success is going to work today. And I love Range. Look, I was a decathlete. I lead my organization with a decathlete mindset. The thing is, if your kid is, I don't know if they're in a hyper skill sport and you don't have necessarily the jumps and the speed to them, is that going to help them? Probably. Do I think that is what is best for kids overall? Absolutely not. Do I think that is what is best from a sport participation standpoint? Absolutely not. But I do take exception.
Rotherham: What does that mean? You might be right. I'm not disputing the point because you may well be right that the level of specialization means everybody has to, but from an equity standpoint, that's a pretty daunting, if that's true because the costs of these things, even just the camp I mentioned a minute ago, all this stuff is staggering and just out of reach for a lot of parents. And so different sports have different challenges around inclusion, diversity. If you are right, we need to rethink how we're creating those opportunities at the municipal and school level or we're never going to have a level playing field.
Mesler: No, I agree mean absolutely. Yes, there are sports like track and field, there are some other, let's call them pure. You're fast. Yes, you can get a little bit faster, but you're fast. I was the fastest kid on the soccer team. That's how my dad got me into track. But I think Andy, maybe one of the answers has to be, we have to think about, I don't know if we can change the momentum of this. What are you going to do tell private coaches to make less money and try to do that? I think the horse is out of the barn on this one. It's really hard to put it back in. If I'm a parent and I have the opportunity to give my child more training and more coaching and pay for better things, who as a parent isn't going to try to do that in a lot of standpoints?
I'm again 50/50 on how that is actually good for my child's development. When you talk about Europe, Europe has this overwhelming gymnastics space to their physical education programs, Europeans dominate Americans in general up until the junior ranks. What happens at the junior ranks, that U19 rank right after that, our NCAA system kicks in. So they have a wonderful foundation in gymnastics. Our kids do gymnastics 100%. That during the pandemic was painful. We have a tall gangly five and a half year old. So I really wanted her gymnastics and she missed a year, year and a half with that up here for sure. But they have the gymnastics base and then our demographics as well as our NCAA system kind of take over once that gymnastics foundation leaves and slightly better coaching at the youth age group level.
But then ultimately on the other side of it just becomes maybe we need to think about where we invest differently. Do we need to think about our philanthropy or our investments going towards programs like in Canada have something called KidSport, which pays for the fees for kids to compete. And I think that may be a more direct injection, better angle than trying to change the system and the mentality that is hyper american competitiveness, which benefits our society in a lot of ways, but from a haves and have-nots it clearly,
Rotherham: Well, you definitely can't bottle it up. And we're seeing out in the broader political landscape, what happens when you try to achieve equity by modeling up opportunity. People don't like that obviously. And you can't tell the coaches in a market economy to charge less. I think it's that third thing you just talked about. It reminds me a lot of the SAT, the affluent are always going to give their kids support on the SAT. We knew this. And so the strategy wasn't to attack them or try to get them to stop doing it was how do we start to have good SAT prep available for all kids to try to level. You're never going to completely level the playing field, that's life in a liberal democracy, but you can definitely shrink those gaps substantially. And I think the same thing here. How do you provide those kinds of skill?
And just from the beginning, those kinds of exposure, again, the kids see sports that they may not be aware of, their families may not be aware of just to make sure they're aware of just the broad range of things that you can do.
Horn: Well, and that strikes me as where schools can play a role and PE is to have a more gymnastic foundation and more exploratory with regularity of getting to sample lots of sports. So to your point, it's almost like a nudge as opposed to a, "thou out stop this behavior" sort of attitude as well as having these more equitable leagues that where the fees are paid for or covered for those who can't. I guess the question is how do we start to move that in schools? Because you know this Andy, reading and math has crowded out social studies and science for goodness sake in elementary school, which turns out to be critical for reading. But forget about that for a moment because we're so sort of hyper concerned about some of these things. How do we reverse these?
Rotherham: Yeah, well this is a classic. Look, schools have low capacity to react to these challenges. People crowded out other subjects, but if you're going to teach reading what exactly are the kids reading? That is how you should be teaching social studies. It's part of how you should be teaching science. So the curriculum narrowing to the extent it happened was the wrong way to actually, if you were serious about wanting to raise your test scores, it was the wrong way to do it in the first place. I think it's the same thing here. We know kids need to move around more than they do, and American kids move around less. It's good for them to be outside, it's good for them to be taking breaks. And we sort of limit those. We still have a lot of places where they take away your ability to move around as a punishment.
So if you act up, you lose the ability to go out for recess, when in fact the reason you're acting up may be because you need to be out there doing some of the stuff you do during recess. So I think it's achievable, Michael. It's one of these things schools need to actually look at what works, what does the research show potentially challenge some biases around some of these things and make sure kids are moving and doing these things. And again, you look again in some other countries, kids are just outside much more, they're much more active walking during the school day. These things, these habits and behaviors that you want. There's just a lot of inertia here and we don't do them.
Horn: Steve, I want to go to you on this because you said you want to bring in Classroom Champions and is it a conversation about Classroom Champions? This the opportunity, and just to hit a few controversial topics in this right, social emotional learning is its own hot button issue right now in the United States. You all at Classroom Champions are saying these are critical life skills for people to be successful, whether it's through sports or otherwise. And you've created this curriculum. I'm curious just talking about that, how do you define social emotional learning? What does it consist of what isn't included in SEL and how you approach that because you're obviously working with schools to help make sure that they embed this for kids?
Mesler: Yeah, no, I mean, thank you. And I think before I even jump into Classroom Champions, I think it's to talk about the role of sport and how can we help not change, but how can we help people lean into it? And I think ultimately look at Classroom Champions. We have our countries in the world's best Olympians, Paralympians, NCAA, pro-athletes. They are in the midst of their careers, not the gray haired has-beens like me telling my story. And I say that both in jest and in reality, which is when you're in the moment of something, you are never more clear of what you need to do to succeed. As I look back, I can say maybe I didn't need to be so serious. Maybe I didn't need to not have a drink on a Tuesday night randomly. Maybe I needed to not. But in the moment you couldn't have wavered me for that.
I had a drink once every four weeks on a Saturday night at the end of training cycles. There was never a casual Wednesday evening cocktail. But ultimately, if we can lean into those attributes and lean into that and look at sport as a cultural phenomenon today, sport is probably, and I'll say this without the data behind me, probably the one thing in our society that got politicized and snapped back in the last five years, basically nothing else has. You name me another thing, another piece of our society and culture that got politicized and then isn't just in whichever corner, if it landed on the right or if it landed on the left, it's just stayed there. Sport came back, they stopped kneeling, they did whatever they "made amends" to the people that they were offending on that side. And now literally, I just saw last week, 94 of the top 100 broadcasts in America, the things we watch together, the things you come into work the next day and go, "Hey, did you see that?" It used to be friends in Seinfeld and sport and this and that.
Now it's 94 broadcasts out of 100 were sport. And by the way, one that wasn't sport was also the Academy Awards. So competition. So when you think about the meritocracy, sport is a pure meritocracy. It truly is. And when you think about it Americans hunger for that. So there's still a societal need for a societal need for that. And there's places where we need to change those inputs. But ultimately Americans still watch sport because they're watching something that has a winner and a loser and they can watch it happen in front of them. So when it comes to how do we at Classroom Champions view SEL is we view these things as the things that sport brings kids and things that brings all to watch the inspiration, the hope, the stick to it-ness, the grit, the perseverance, all those things are previously black box skills.
"That Michael works hard, he's a hard worker." "Andy has a lot of grit." No, these are skills. These are skills that at some point somebody put a value on that either the self or somebody else and then taught them and then they worked on those skills. But for some reason it's been this black box where you come out of high school and you come out of college and you come out of any postgraduate work, whatever it is, and no one taught you these things explicitly. You were supposed to implicitly learn it. And did you learn those things or not? I couldn't tell you at Classroom Champions other than some of our higher education folks. I couldn't tell you exactly what everybody's degrees were, but I can tell you their personality. I could tell you what their stick to it-ness is, their conscientiousness, those things. And these, again, they're skills. So at Classroom champions we view SEL in that way.
We view them as, I don't love the word "life skills", but they are, it's just too broad. We view it as they are skills that do help with goal setting, perseverance, critical thinking, decision making, tenacity, teamwork. Our curriculum aligns with Castles five basics of SEL, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making, rolling them all off. We align with that. But ultimately, how do you help schools use sport as a neutral place, apolitical place that everybody, whether you like sports or not, you are fascinated by them in general. You are fascinated by the people who do them. How do we use these people as a keystone for that and then bring an SEL program around it.
And that's the way we look at it. And I worry that we see sport as this separate thing in society. And I think sport has the opportunity to help build positive culture in so many ways. And we've seen the data on that at Classroom Champions. So I'll stop myself there. This is an area of where SEL, the politics of it all, the way that society still views sport are just this really, really big flashpoint for us.
Horn: Andy, I'd love your take on this because obviously Virginia has been no stranger to the debates over this question, but I really like the way Steve just phrased it as sport can cut through that and I don't know parents who don't want their kids to grow up with a sense of perseverance and a mindset of working hard leads to success when we get at that level. I don't know parents that disagree with those sorts of things. So is this sort of the way to cut through all this?
Rotherham: Well, yeah, I mean I would extrapolate from it. Classroom Champions is great, obviously as I said, I'm on the board. I don't think we're the only way to cut through it. I think the problem, and Steve didn't talked about the politics, the problem is right now, SEL's become one of these terms, it's impossible to define. Lots of things are flying under that flag and there has, and we should be honest about it, there's been an effort in some quarters to use SEL as a way to smuggle political ideas into classrooms in a way that I think parents are like, wait, that's not what I signed up for. So I think one of the most important things the SEL community needs to do is come up with, and especially the particular providers, come up with what they're talking about. I mean you listen to Steve can give you a very specific answer when we talk about SEL, the skills and so forth and what we're talking about.
And that they need to be willing to stand behind those definitions so we can start to have some clear lines in terms of what is these things around ethical behavior, good life skills like tenacity and grit, things like compassion and understanding and so forth. And then where does it morph into more political content that in a pluralistic society need to be very careful about having in the public schools. So I think that's the most important thing. And look, I mean you mentioned Virginia, so I'll just say one, a lot of the stuff that's flared up in Virginia and elsewhere, it's not organized curriculum. It's teachers freelancing because they're not being supported. And so they're being told by their school district to and make sure that they're talking about equity and equity's not even very clearly defined or make sure that they're talking about challenges of racism in society.
Then they're just told to go figure that out. And just like airplanes, you don't hear about all the ones that take off and land fine, but you do hear about the ones that don't and it doesn't take many where teachers cross lines, they may be well-intentioned but they downloaded something off of Pinterest or whatever it is, parents are upset about, that winds up on social media and the average parent doesn't know that that's something that some teachers freelancing, they just think, well that's the curriculum, that's what the schools are doing now. And it just raises the temperature. And so not just Classroom Champions, but lots of these providers across a range of things, teachers just need support and they need to be helped to take on different topics. You don't wake up in the morning knowing how to do this stuff. And we've done a really poor job supporting teachers on this stuff and in the process have done a real disservice to them.
Mesler: Yeah, and I think if I can echo what Andy's saying and build on that, which is ultimately from the politics side of things, I think Andy mentioned it and touched on it. Look, there's been people in the SEL leadership world who have, I remember as the social justice two summers ago happened where SEL was going to be a Trojan horse for social justice. We can't have Trojan horses in education. We can't. First and foremost period, whatever it is, yes, social skills and emotional skills are the basis for understanding each other and working with each other and doing those things so it can support kids and society's views and how we tackle our issues from a social justice standpoint, yes, but to view SEL as the mechanism as a Trojan horse that there was a time when everybody started just dumping and it's still happening.
Everybody's just dumping. If it's not math, science, history, et cetera, it's SEL. That's incorrect. Including mental health. Mental health is something you need reactive clinical professional people to support mental health. Look, I competed in the Olympic Games with six teammates. Two of them have taken their lives, I have spoken on this. I have worked with our performance teams at the Olympic committee on how to help athletes from these standpoints. SEL, we've seen it, we're seeing it in Monroe County schools that we support in southern Florida where they have, looking at our mentorship plus program, which is our higher level of our social-emotional learning curriculum or a higher level on top of that where you actually get matched with an Olympian or a Paralympian for an entire year and they communicate with the classrooms or at the schools that they're worked with and they're seeing improvements in mental health. But that's from a proactive SEL standpoint.
So I think what we have to really understand is call it SEL, call it whatever. We have to have proactive places in schools that we are teaching kids these skills to not just to cope but to thrive. And part of the coping skills are if you understand that people that are team USA Olympians are dealing with anxiety but perseverance through it, it makes your own struggles better and easier. But then we certainly need, and we're doing a better job reacting. You're seeing schools putting in counselors and social workers and other things like that. Not as much as we need, but we're doing a good job reacting to the trauma that our kids have gone through from an evidence-based trauma standpoint. But we're doing a lousy job continuing to Andy's point, you have math teachers, science teachers who are trained in those things who are now being "made" or asked to support the social emotional development of children and they're just not equipped. They don't have the tools in place. So I think that that is a big thing that we got to solve that quick.
Rotherham: And it's playing out against a really tough political backdrop. We should just name it, Michael, where essentially, not to overgeneralize too much, but you basically have a situation where you've got some folks on the right, far right who really are snowflakes about this stuff. You mentioned racism and they fall to pieces. And then you've got some folks on the left who they think a particular political view of the world is so self-evident that it should be taught to every kid. And those things are just colliding in really counterproductive ways. And most people are in the middle. They don't subscribe to either of those viewpoints and they're just getting sort of buffeted along for the ride. And we need more leaders to be willing to speak up and where necessary call BS on both sides so that we can have a more reasoned conversation.
Because the tragedy will be if some of what we're talking about with SEL, some of the things Steve's talking about here, and again, this is broader than just Classroom Champions, but the folks who are doing this work well if this kind of gets washed out in a backlash or people lose trust, and that'll be really unfortunate because there's a lot of really good important work.
And as you said earlier, Michael, most people, they want their kids to learn these skills. They want them to learn ideas like tenacity and how to solve problems, how to work with others. That's one of the reasons they send them to public schools in the first place.
Mesler: And let's not forget, reading is a goal. Learning to read is a goal. There are steps to that. We kind of skip over that with kids. We tell them to set a goal, we tell them to set a goal for an A, but then we kind of miss and skip over the fundamentals of how a goal works, which is that you will have short-term goals and medium-term goals, long-term goals. And oh, by the way, many of your short-term goals won't happen. So how do you adjust and how do you insert perseverance to do that? So I mean the data is incredibly clear when you're talking about double-digit percentage increases in academic performance with quality SEL style programs that are in there that are offering solutions and providing these skills to kids.
And I think that's the mind-blowing thing for us, which is sometimes I step back and go, man, how did we have education around this long where we just skipped over a few pretty darn important parts of life, let alone let alone learning? And I think there's where the opportunity for people like you to really help get the word out is like how do we help? And to Andy's point, we need leaders who are willing to be there. And I think that's a really hard place considering the politics around it right now.
Horn: But I love this conversation the way you've both framed all of this. And I guess that gets to the last point I just want to ask you both on as we wrap up here. It occurs to me we could go for a while, there's a lot of topics, but just focus on that, which is, you mentioned Steve, how you reach a goal, executive function skills, things of that nature that you're just not born with, it turns out. You need to learn. And so as we talk about resetting the place of sports and participation and building these skills in our youth and so forth, and you all have both, I think eloquently laid out the goal as we think about that one next step, maybe let's take the sports arena of resetting that in American society and one thing that ought to happen. What's that first step in your mind that we ought to be doing? Steve, you want to go first and Andy you get last word?
Mesler: Yeah, happy to. What's the first step? I think first step would be we need to find some places of agreement. Traditional problem solving 101, right? Conflict solving 101. We got to find some agreement. And again, I believe in the power sport, I believe in and in so many ways outside of we go back to the beginning of the conversation, which is what else we all do in here but trying to enjoy our lives and be healthy and pass that on to our kids. Given that, so I think coming to a place within, I think the schools are a key... Clearly the schools are a key to our society is where all of our children go at one point or another for extended periods of time in their life. So I think find a place of agreement. Sport could be one of those places where having sport influence, being an influence could be one of those places.
And if it is from a sport standpoint, then I think we've got to get together. We've got to get our major leagues together. And I think there's a huge opportunity there. Our professional and NCAA systems don't quite understand the power they can have in turning around our schools. And if they did, and that's what I'm trying to spend a lot of time, both from Classroom Champions perspective and a personal perspective, is showing them, look, NBA, NLF, MLS, NHL, MLB, NCAA, Women's National Women's Soccer League, WNBA, let's get all of you guys together in a room. Let's get the 50 state chief superintendents organization and the council of great city schools in a room, and let's talk about how can sport in a systematic way support the needs of the system.
And I think there's a huge opportunity to do that. So Michael, I think those two things, let's come to an agreement and find some agreements on how to move forward, if sport's one of those things, there is a giant hunger from the leagues, the teams and the players and the athletes to do something meaningful. And I think that's how sport can really make a difference in that way because that's where we aggregate everybody. You can get in sport more so than the arts, more so than in music and other places, you have places where you can get eight people in a room and you can speak for thousands of role models that our kids know and believe in a way that is more powerful and more systemic than anywhere else.
Rotherham: Yeah, I don't have anything to add. I thought that what Steve said, so that I'll just go in a slightly different direction and you said one thing I'll give two. Number one is gender equity in sports. I think we still have such a long way to go. And you were saying, Michael, you've got daughters, you're going to see this as they grow up in ways big and small, how girls sports are just second class citizens just across the board in all kinds of ways. Obvious in terms of access to facilities and time in weight rooms and in ways subtle in terms of the messages that are sent. And girls sports are great, they're exciting, and we need to build a culture like that. And it's exasperating when you go to high schools where the football team might be mediocre or the men's basketball team and the women's basketball team's great and it's barely supported and they're actually doing the winning or the volleyball team or whatever it is.
So I think that's a big culture shift where we still have a lot of work to do and in terms of a more inclusive society is really important. And then the second thing would just be, we've got to have a broader frame on this. We anchor off of elite sports. We love elite sports. Most people, the closest they're ever going to get to elite sports is the stands and we should be more open about that. And that's how you build a culture of kids continuing to play and so forth. And I think elite sports are great, they're exciting, but if you want people to just develop a love for sports and so forth, we need to broaden the frame.
And if you look at most of our most sort of fractious issues, whether it's toxicity in youth sports or issues around transgender athletes, it's all anchored on these really elite sports. When in fact, at a more broad level, these things aren't actually sort of huge issues. It's always on these places where it becomes zero-sum and we just need a broader frame if we want people to keep moving and so forth and not think sports are something you do until you're not good enough at some level, and then you stop rather than something you do in your life and as a part of your life.
Horn: Really well said. Steve, Andy, thanks for helping us unpack this topic and appreciate you all joining us in the future of education. We'll be back next time.