In the POP Seat with Steve Mesler: From Olympic Gold Medalist to Classroom Champion
Photo courtesy of Steve Mesler
“In the POP Seat” is a new series spotlighting leaders and innovators in education, brought to you by BrainPOP. For our debut interview, I connected with Steve Mesler, co-founder, president, and CEO of Classroom Champions, an organization that inspires and empowers kids to embrace a growth mindset by connecting them with professional athletes who embody that spirit. Steve lives by the motto, “Most people won’t notice when you’re only operating at 80 percent, but you will.” Read on to learn more about how this bobsledder turned nonprofit executive embraces lifelong learning and pays it forward.
Name: Steve Mesler
Role & organization: Co-founder, President, and CEO, Classroom Champions
Steve, your career is absolutely fascinating: Olympic gold medalist and three-time Olympian; board member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee; and for more than a decade, founder and nonprofit education executive. What is the thread that ties it all together?
Thank you for the wonderful compliment and for inviting me to join you today! Well, obviously, only one of those jobs allows you to wear a star-spangled speed suit and helmet! Kidding aside, I’ve always sought areas of life that push my comfort level. I believe in being a lifelong learner. During each part of my journey, I’ve found myself feeling like I was out of my league at the beginning. Then, after immersing myself and really committing to the job at hand, I would realize I was able to handle things. My mindset shifted. I thought, “I can do this!” and then I focused on areas of each role where I felt I could excel.
Since I was a child, I’ve loved watching the Olympic Games on TV—especially gymnastics, swimming, and figure skating. The athletes seem superhuman in both their talent and drive. But you’re on a mission to inspire kids by making the Olympic and Paralympic athletes’ spirit tangible, encouraging the next generation to adopt the mindset of a champion in some very specific ways. Tell us about that work, the goal, and the impact you’ve seen.
Classroom Champions is the nonprofit my sister, Dr. Leigh Parise, and I founded when I was still competing. The mission of Classroom Champions is to empower children to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically through the mentorship and mindsets of world-class athletes. It’s been great. More than 200 Olympians, Paralympians, NCAA student athletes, and professional soccer, hockey, and football players have volunteered over the past decade to teach and mentor more than five million students.
When I say “teach and mentor” I really mean that. These athletes record video lessons, hold live chats with their classrooms, and interact on our private professional learning network community while in the throes of training, and in the thick of their athletic career. They’re teaching kids exactly why setting goals, staying healthy, developing leadership skills, and being a good teammate is critical for life in and out of the classroom. When kids see athletes put these skills to use, something clicks. Our goal is to help schools and out-of-school time programs provide evidence-based SEL frameworks, programs, and curriculum that produce measurable gains in academics, attendance, school climate, and various social and emotional outcomes for students. It’s been incredible to see the athlete mindset impact kids and their teachers and families!
You mentioned founding Classroom Champions with your sister, Leigh. You are both competitive athletes turned educators. How did your upbringing influence your careers and shared professional passions?
Our parents were actually teachers. It’s funny, growing up with educator parents, neither of us ever thought we’d end up going into education! My degree is in education, and Leigh taught 3rd grade in Brooklyn, then got her masters and PhD in education—so clearly our parents’ influence runs deep! I think they gave us the foundation that anything’s possible and knew how to instill that in us. When you put an Olympic gold medalist and a Ph.D. educator together, we both feel there’s not much we can’t accomplish.
You’ve written about the Olympics as “a 16-day masterclass of role modeling.” What can kids and grown-ups learn from the Games?
Yes! We can all learn so much that applies to life, work, and school. When you see these athletes compete for a moment on screen, what you don’t see is the years—rather decades—of dedication and hard work that got them to this moment.
We all know it to a degree, but I don’t think people understand how constant the training and hard work really is. Putting in 100% for a goal you want to achieve five years from now is not a natural mindset; it’s something you have to commit to each and every day. There is no instant gratification. It’s all a grind. Whether we’re watching Simone Biles take a step back when she needed to, or Katie Ledecky come back from an upset to win gold the next day, we get to watch people demonstrate every human emotion in less than two and a half weeks.
I love watching my four-year-old daughter listen to someone that just reached the dream they had since they were her age, or watch an interview after someone fell a hundredth of a second short. That’s how we want our children to see the world: They can accomplish anything. It’s going to be hard and take a long time, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but you have to have grace no matter what.
That’s been the best part of Classroom Champions during the past few tumultuous years. We get to put great people in front of kids on a regular basis: men and women of color, LGBTQ people, Indigenous people, people in wheelchairs or who are blind—and kids learn from them. We instill all types of diversity in our curriculum and provide virtual teaching partners for teachers and parents on an incredible tech-forward platform. I’m so proud of these athletes, and I’m proud that Classroom Champions found ways to get them involved at scale.
Beyond your work in schools, you often share perspectives on leadership development and team performance with executives and leaders in the making. What messages do you drive home in these forums?
I really want people to walk away from the work we do together with tools that make them stretch what they think they know about themselves in the hope of getting better. We only get to live this life once. Why wouldn’t we want to spend it being great at as many things as possible? To be humble enough to ask for criticism, hungry enough to understand there’s always better, and confident enough to know you can help others, is a gift.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have had my journey and experiences, and I feel an obligation to share what I’ve learned. I find the greatest pride and enjoyment in helping people who have, or are developing, a growth mindset—which kids are born with. Whether you’re an adult or a kid, it’s not too late to change your frame of mind!
Ilana Kurizki is VP, communications and social impact at BrainPOP.