Michael Lehan competed for six years in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns before getting tapped to become a dean of students and assistant principal for the Osseo Area Schools, and then principal of Osseo Senior High School, which he guided to its first ranking as one of “The Best High Schools” in the nation by US News and World Report. In February 2022, he was named IMG Academy’s head of school, where he oversees, organizes, and grows the world-renowned school’s academic programs while assisting with various aspects of its athletic program.
Stop stealing the identity of your student athletes with tips to transform from being an athlete and a scholar, to a scholar athlete.
Reframing and reconditioning minds to avoid discrediting what is inherently brilliant in your students.
Dive in and access untapped rigor and avoid limiting opportunities.
Know the difference between windows and mirrors to avoid putting productive tension on yourself and others.
Know what necessary static and unnecessary static is to reach meaningful outcomes for your learning community.
Allow students to fail safely by building cognitive endurance to hone in on what is important.
“As educators, we wanna put a reflection of our students inside the curriculum, and give them opportunities to expand beyond what their lived experience is. A global perspective is gold.”
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Elevating The Student-Athlete Experience
Who are you really? Seriously? Who are you? I’m guessing if you answered that question, maybe you’d use the terminology that I love, like Ruckus Maker, certainly school leader. That’s a big part of your life. Maybe mom, dad, brother, sister. Maybe faith plays a part. Maybe your hobbies, interests. There’s a lot that goes into your identity. There’s also a lot that goes into our students’ identity, and especially those students who want to excel academically and through sport, through competition, but that way they relate to their identity and how they show up. It can be hard. It’s really hard these days. That’s why I’m excited to have my guest today. Michael Lehan, a former pro football player and now school leader doing some really interesting things at IMG Academy. And we’ll be unpacking that student athlete experience, which I think you’ll learn some things that you’ll wanna do on your campus and maybe even show your students some of the interesting things happening in a program called IMG Academy. Hey, this is Danny. I’m a principal development and retention expert. I’m a bestselling author. I host two of the world’s most downloaded podcasts in the world. And you are a Ruckus Maker, which means you’ve made three commitments, the commitment to your continuous growth, you’ve committed to challenging the status quo, and you’ve committed to designing the future of school now. We’ll be back with our main conversation with Michael right after some messages from our show sponsors.
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All right. Hey, Ruckus Makers, happy to be here today with Michael Lehan, who competed for six years in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, I might ask, which his favorite team is. I don’t know if I’ll answer. Before getting tapped to become a Dean of students and assistant principal for the ASEO area schools. Is that the better Way? And then principal of Aseo Senior High School, which he guided to its first ranking as one of the best high schools in the nation by US News and World Report in February of 2022. He was named as I IMG Academy’s Head of School, where he oversees, organizes and grows the world renowned school’s academic programs, while assisting with various aspects of its athletic program. Michael, welcome to this show.
Thank you so much. I’m happy to share space with you today.
I won’t ask you about Dolphins or Browns, but I will ask you about being an athlete. That’s an interesting part of your story. And I know it’s a passion of yours too, and I can only imagine. Let me just ask you what it’s like in terms of how folks that find themselves, scholars, athletes, identity, how they reconcile all of that?
Oftentimes I think that sometimes scholar athletes are subjected to societal norms. You have to be one or the other. As a young person, you might be celebrated more depending on where you grow up, depending on what your orientation is, you might very well say that, wow, you know what? Because my orientation inspires where I grew up there’s more athletes here, or because of my identity as potentially a young black male I’m a basketball player, I can’t possibly be a scholar. There’s these mental models that may begin to have to kind of reel back and begin to unpack a little bit and then bring forth this new identity. Wow, these two things can coexist at the same time. And really that’s our work here at IMG Academies to think about this totality of one being as being an athlete and being a scholar, which I would then inverse to say a scholar athlete to say That’s who you are. And, but we need to be able to lean in because, and be audacious and be unapologetic on the fact that we can be graded and succeed at two different things.Sometimes I think the identity of athletes are stolen and there’s huge press that will say, oh my goodness, this person is a scholar or has a 4.0 or going on to middle school, medical school, or whatever the case might be, because the mental model was suggested. You can’t possibly excel in academics but also excel at sport. It’s really reframing and reconditioning minds.
When did you figure that out for yourself?
Interestingly enough, it was when I had to sit and take the ACT. I had a lot going on when I was in my K-12 years. And there came a time where I had to get a 26 or higher in order to be eligible to play because my grade point average in high school was not great. Again, just based on some of those other pieces. And many individuals are having conversations with me and saying, “Hey Michael, you’re probably gonna have to go into JUCO. You’re probably not gonna be eligible to go and play at Division one school because of your grades and depending on your scoring, you won’t be eligible. So automatically people just discredit it, what inherent potential brilliance I had at that time. I went ahead and scored higher than a 26 on the ACT and I was eligible to play. What that told me is that there was some untapped rigor that nobody allowed me to access during my K-12 experience. And then with that momentum from passing the test, from gaining access to college, I wanted to lean into that a little bit more and make sure that I always was the person telling my old story that the mental models or the biases that people carried were not going to limit what my opportunities were. I think that was my coming of age from a scholarly perspective.
That’s awesome. It sounds like you really took ownership yourself and I don’t wanna put words in your mouth, but in your K-12 experience, it wasn’t necessarily those adults saying you could do it or that they even had the expectation for you to achieve at a high level academically. Is that correct? Now you’re changing the game for a lot of students, scholars and athletes. One of the concepts I know that I find interesting and you like to talk about is this difference between windows and mirrors. What’s that all about?
Honestly our last conversation was a really nice segue into this notion of windows and mirrors. We understand what our environment is. We’re products of our own environment. As we think about a mirror. A mirror is simply just that, where are the opportunities that I see a reflection of myself if I can. We believe what we see often. And not to get too biblical, but that dates back into the Bible. In doubting Thomas, if you will. So this notion that we believe what we see, so as a young athlete in this regard, you wanna see people who will see that, that look like you, that are scholar athletes that are achieving at a high level. So that’s a mirror of myself. In this window we know that there’s always this notion of continuous growth. Where are the opportunities that we can see other people and learn from their experiences, learn from their perspectives, learn from their truths, and we can then put productive tension on ourself to grow.
we are more of a comprehensive being, have a comprehensive awareness of the world around us. One thing that’s beautiful here about IMG Academy is that we are truly a global educational entity. We have scholars from across the world. As you think about the richness of dialogue inside, inside of a classroom and what can come up from various perspectives and various troops and various lived experiences and various identities, what is the richness that happens? And then as educators, how do we facilitate that? And truly this notion of as educators, we wanna put a reflection of our students inside the curriculum, and they wanna give them opportunities to expand beyond what their lived experience is. And a global perspective is gold. And often we think about where we grew up or our lived experience, that’s the best way of doing things.
The gift of travel for me has opened my eyes like, oh, wow, there’s a lot of ways we could approach this challenge and maybe yeah, my fixed mindset or how I grew up, like that’s not the only way, nor is it often the best way. So to bring global people together at IMG or how we serve school leaders in the mastermind is a huge, huge positive. Let’s talk about IMG. You have these scholar athletes and they’re not just athletes, so how do you develop that whole person?
One of the things that I celebrate the most is really our athletic and personal development. We call it APD here. And it’s cognitive coaching. It’s mental coaching, it’s resilience, it’s endurance. Honestly, what life is and what sport is, is cognitive endurance. That’s the essence of truly what it is. To the extent in which we can provide students with the opportunity to develop positive self-talk, to create conditions in which they fail safely. We all need to be able to interact and welcome and hug and embrace adversity. And we also know that adversity looks and sounds different to many different people. So that’s why our APD staff do a tremendous job from a mental conditioning standpoint. We also wanna make sure, because we have that great product from APD, we wanna go to IMG Academy Plus, which now all of a sudden from across around the world, from app you can learn and train with some of the best minds in the business to think about how do I refine my game? But not only it does, it transcends sports and it’s more about what are the life skills that I’m learning from this? Obviously we have sport and we have school from a curriculum standpoint, we wanna make sure that we have the elements of health education, the elements of financial literacy, the name, image and likeness, kind of all these pieces that our young folks have to interact media training as well that they have to interact with. It’s really a one-stop shop to make sure that who you are as a person, how you interact with the world, what are the capacity or what elements of yourself might we be able to partner and co-create and build so that on a daily basis, your best version of self is demonstrated.
So that media training, like you’re exposing these scholar athletes, to the limelight that they’ll be in. Am I hearing you correctly? Is there also some financial training too? Because those are the stories that break my heart. A guy that goes out there does so well from a competitive perspective and financially has been rewarded for that and then loses it all. So maybe that’s a part of the curriculum too.
That’s exactly it. That’s and we’re building that out. As we think about the name, image and likeness, we’re seeing more and more students have significant dollar amounts thrown at ’em at a very young age. Thinking back about when I was in college, I was awarded a state award. I had the Pell Grant that was $3,500. You couldn’t tell me anything with that $3,500. But nowadays it’s much different. It’s much different. How can we develop financial literacy in a meaningful way where students can hold onto that over time and really monetize themselves responsibly? Responsibly. And that’s the word, because there are elements over time in sport that young people are exploited by their name, image, and like this. So how are we learning to develop their schedule so they can monetize themselves appropriately? And then once they do manage it appropriately, that’s gonna scale over time so that they’re comfortable having a meaningful living going forward.
A minute ago you were talking about an idea, like you called it cognitive endurance, and I could tell a story about what I think that means. You gave some examples too, but can you define that a little bit too? Because for the Ruckus Maker who’s gonna watch this or listen to it, I want them, and they have these scholar athletes on campus too, so I just, I wanna bridge some gaps that might be there for them. Can you define that for us first?
As I think about cognitive endurance, I really just think about the duration of time that you’re able to maintain optimal focus, optimal focus on task, optimal focus in relationships, optimal focus, goal orientation, and there’s so many distractions. Often there’s a lot of books that talk about static. What is the level of static that one has in their life? What are some opportunities to reduce that static? What is necessary static and what is unnecessary static? Knowing those people who can sing the song with either heart and those of whom that don’t, don’t have your interest in mind. So cognitive endurance is about the duration of time that you’re able to focus on the goal, focus on the outcome, be outcome oriented, and then being able to set necessary boundaries throughout that journey to make sure that your focus remains exactly what it needs to be to re reach that pinnacle and reach that meaningful outcome.
There’s a lot of great second, third results from just even having that as a strong foundation. I know you have cognitive coaches, I wanna dig into that in a second. But what is something that you teach these scholar athletes in terms of developing this cognitive endurance and ability to focus on what is most important to them?
I think it’s first and foremost we wanna start and this goes back to a question I like to ask is who are you? Who are you? What do you stand for? How do you know who you are? What do you stand for and how do you know? And to the extent in which young folks are able to answer those questions, not necessarily definitively. We grow and develop over time, but at least have an idea of how they would respond, particularly to the last one.
How do you know what you stand for? That’s a challenge. It kind of goes back on this notion that you have to ask somebody a question three times in order to get to the essence of what you’re trying to learn. And so we’ll provide folks that opportunity to, to self-discover. And then within our coaches, they’re also gonna spend a little bit of time just going through repetition, positive talk. This goes also would also consider the studies related to social media. Nowadays, the studies that look at, okay, if you post a picture and you don’t get X number of likes within a certain period of time, what that does to one psyche, what that does as far as depression and so on and so forth. Cognitive endurance and cognitive coaching is really about making sure that static is outside of your life and you can really hone in on what’s important. And our coaches do a really nice job and develop that. And we want students to be able to fail safely. I know I mentioned that before, but what are those opportunities that this is a really challenging decision to make, but I know that if I make the wrong decision, I know there’s people who will love me up and care for me and not ridicule me. And let me understand where my gap and where my blind spots were so I can move forward and be better out as a result.
Thanks for diving into that a little bit more. We’re gonna pause here for some messages from our sponsors. On the next end of our conversation, I’d love to hear more about the role of cognitive coaches on campus. Talk a little bit more about IMG Academy Plus and the importance of rest.
What does that look like too? To rest and recover, even during the school day? Learn how to successfully navigate change, shape your school’s success and empower your teams with Harvard’s certificate. In school management and leadership courses include leading change, leading school strategy and innovation, leading people, and leading learning. You could apply today at BetterLeadersBetter schools.com/harvard. As students progress through their K through 12 experience, schoolwork gets harder and more complex. Yet at the same time, students are asked to be more independent in their learning. Young people struggling with executive functioning skills will fall further and further behind. And to be honest, the pandemic only made things worse. The remedy is found in equipping students with executive functioning skills. Our friends over at Organized Binder have released a new self-paced course that will teach you how to teach executive functioning skills and set your students up for success.
Learn more at organizedbinder.com/go and set your students up for success when classrooms come alive with conversation. Teachers and students both thrive. Last year. Teachers using Teach FX increase their student talk by an average of 40%. Can an app really do that? Even trying something like embracing extra wait time to create space for student talk can feel like a risk. But with Teach FX teachers see the power of those practices in their own classroom level data. It’s like having a personal instructional coach on your phone, tablet, or laptop. Ruckus Makers can start a free pilot with your teachers by going to teachfx.com/betterleaders to learn how and get started today. And finally, just wanna let you know that we are having a live event in Denver and it’s gonna be awesome. We’re talking about a concept called the Leadership Optimization Compass. And if you would find it meaningful to surround yourself with other Ruckus Makers, we have space. Space for 56 tickets remain. And you could go to BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/denver2023. To enroll and reserve your spot. Plus we’re going whitewater rafting and that’s gonna be epic.
All right, we’re back with Michael Lehan and we were talking about so many awesome things. It’s really interesting about identity that our scholar athletes wrestle with talking about this idea of focus. You have cognitive coaches on campus, which is interesting. And I think the Ruckus Maker who watches or listens to this show, they’ll wanna know like, okay, tell me more about who these coaches are. What’s their role? How often are they interacting with students? What are they working on? But if you could give us, paint that picture. Because it’s an innovative idea and we’d love to hear more.
Yeah. So the mental performance of cognitive coaches that we have, they’ll sit there and spend time to develop tools to increase confidence, focus and resilience. They’ll also create a plan, a one-on-one plan as far as where you are struggling with, how we can help build your capacity. And then its empowerment is right. We’re not telling students it’s what we’re doing with students. This notion of co-creating because we also understand within that process ownership is critically important. So then it’s not a point in the future, well you told me this, you said no, we co-created this. And so once there were opportunities for that young person to fail or not reach their game, they were running a track meet, they wanted to PR but they fell short of it. What were you thinking about in the starting blocks? What were you thinking about as you were running? Let’s unpack what those items were and did the help move faster or was there regression there as well. The last thing I alluded to earlier was just the IMG Academy plus. It’s accessible to anybody anywhere.
So if there is interest in learning a little bit more, we certainly have that available. The coaches are dynamic, their coaches are dynamic, they have so many different skill sets. They’ve come, they’ve played, they’ve participated, they’ve stretched themselves and committed their growth to making sure that this notion of a mind gym, that’s an old book of sports psychology, but this mind gym. One of the things that they talk about there, I’m determining little I who talks about a golfer when you’re standing up in the tee box and you say, gosh, I’m not going to hit it into the fringe or into the, I’m gonna hit it right in the middle of the fairway. That small chance of not even entering a negative slot, but exactly where you wanna hit it, these are what the coaches do to help frame up conversations and be positive with oneself and graceful with oneself as well.
Makes a lot of sense. I’ve even heard in the brain, when you say I’m not gonna hit it into the rough, your brain actually hears that it has hit it into the rough, it doesn’t hear the negative version. Framing it as hitting it into the fairway makes a lot of sense. I’m curious too, I’m sure you work with the student athletes around this too, but what were the things that led up to you not getting the goal but also looking back maybe on past performance and things to celebrate? The reason I’m saying this, I’m so frustrated I had a half marathon coming up and other training was to PR for myself. I don’t know if it was something I did in the gym, but my back is jacked. I couldn’t do the race. I was really down about that for a while. But just talking to my wife and that kind of thing in preparation, I ran my fastest 10k ever the week before. I didn’t get to do the half and perform how I wanted to, but I tried to really focus on last week, I still hit like a milestone and sure you do that with the scholar athletes as well. That was a little ten second therapy session with Michael Lehan is what I wanted.
All I heard was PR and resiliency. The fact that you’re running because that sounds a bit foreign to me at this point. That’s something I can’t do. Tremendous. Congratulations there.
Where do people go to check IMG out? Fill in the gaps, but what I heard is like folks can actually access these amazing people that you have on campus and get some of these tools and resources for themselves anywhere, anytime.
You can just go to IMGacademy.com and then you can toggle down to Plus and it’s IMG Academy plus coaching. Find your Coach, you’ll be able to see a couple of little snippets there. You talk about Metro performance coaching, you’ll talk about nutrition coaching as well. Just this notion of holistic wellness and understanding that being an athlete, being a young person is challenging. The goal is just to provide some resources and an outlet to make sure that young people know there’s people who care about them that wanna see their success and also that want to provide them the resources to help them be successful. That’s the goal of IMG Academy Plus.
Awesome. So definitely check out that Ruckus Makers and rest recovery is really important to performance just like focus. And I think you do some interesting things around that on campus and that might push the Ruckus Maker listening in terms of what is possible on his or her campus. Before we get to the last three questions, I ask all my guests, can you just talk about rest and recovery and what that looks like for you all?
Yeah, certainly We have some days off that we say, Hey, focus on rest and recovery. One thing that I really wanna amplify is this notion of wellness. This year in the academic center, we’re building a new campus center, but in the academic center we set aside a rule truly for wellness. You walk in there and I promise you, whenever your heartbeat is, it comes down a couple of notches. It’s just, okay, serene, it’s beautiful. It’s a space that everybody needs just to go and unwind. You go in there and you remind yourself, wow, my feet are touching the floor. I have air in my lungs, I’m present, I feel grounded. And that has everything to do about just rest and recovery is to know that you can feel yourself, feel your body in a space. And that’s ultimately the goal. Our students are busy. They work really, really hard. They travel, they do schoolwork, and they’re young people that need to, to feel themselves in this world. And that’s the opportunity for that.
Awesome, thank you for sharing that a little bit. Special shout out to, to Demetrius Ba who’s in San Ramon, California. I’ve got to visit his school and they have a pretty cool recovery sort of center, wellness center that you’re describing as well. So I just wanna give him a shout out because I love that guy. All right, the last three questions, Michael, that I love to ask my guest. First one is, if you could put a message on all school Marques, around the world for one day, what would your message be?
It’s kind of simple, but I would say something to the effect of, find a place for your eyes to land. Got it. And talk to me about building your dream school. Let’s say you’re not constrained by any resources. Your only limitation was your ability to imagine what would be the three guiding principles, building your dream school? I would first start by saying that it wouldn’t be my dream school, it would be the dream school of those who come through the doors. And I would create many, many, as many opportunities as possible to co-create, to develop, to empower them to, to think critically, act morally, and design what it needs to be. Some of the founding principles would certainly be joy, whatever that looks like. Affirmation from one to another. It’s a safe space. And then truth and it’s, people may say, well, where’s the curriculum in that? That is the curriculum. When we know how to treat one another, when we know how to hear with one another and we know how to be and share space with one another. Those are the soft skills historically speaking that are now the hard skills today. But those are the scoop, those are the skills and the virtuosities that will bring and promote you going forward.
Brilliant. We covered a lot of ground today, Michael, of everything we discussed. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
I think the one thing that I want Ruckus Makers to remember, and maybe I’ll look back to this cognitive endurance, the Ruckus Makers, and understanding that you have a broad audience here, but if you are a school leader, give yourself grace. If you’re an educator inside the classroom, give yourself grace. Know that you have the skillset set to advance the work than if you’re a parent or a young person listening. You’re doing right, you’re doing well. We affirm you at this moment. One of the things that over Covid, you talked about just kind of empathy fatigue. People experience empathy fatigue sometimes. What I would offer is that’s really cognitive endurance. Are we making the right decision? How do we know? Are we doing harm? And I believe, and this is an indigenous epistemology, that the brilliance and the answers are already within. We just need to be proximal to help that come alive within ourselves and then share outward. I encourage people to continue to press forward, to take the time, the wilderness breaks that they need cuz we have the answers, we’re acting morally and we can do well together.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@Betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders, better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at@Alienearbud, and using the hashtag #BLBS. Level Up your leadership at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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