Michael Keppen, President Thrive Project for America – Making America’s Youth More Resilient

Welcome to Business Innovators Magazine where my guest today is Michael Keppen. Michael is a dynamic leader and creative professional with an extensive military career in the Naval Aviation and Human Resources communities. He is also President of Thrive Project for America whose mission is to educate, develop, and empower young men and women to reach their full potential by building their character, self-esteem, and mindset. Thrive offers a unique education experience for youth ages 11 through 18 because it is taught by former military personnel and Navy SEALs to help them develop elite mindsets (attitude) that will help them succeed in life.

Thrive’s leaders have taken their military training and experience, combined it with research on emotional intelligence and youth development, and created a program to help kids develop the right mindset to achieve their goals and persevere through stress. They want to ensure that America’s next generation is confident, competent, and more resilient. Simply put, they are building a foundation upon which youth can thrive.

 

Phil:

Welcome Michael. Because we don’t have a lot of time and a lot to cover today, let’s dig in right away. Your organization’s Thrive Project for America offers a unique educational experience for youths, ages eleven through eighteen. It’s unique because it’s taught by military personnel and former Navy SEALS, to help youths develop elite mindsets to help them succeed in life. My first question is why is mindset so important?

 

Michael:

I think it’s important mainly for the fact that I think it’s something that’s lacking in a lot of children these days. The struggles that they face or the mistakes that they may make, both in school or out of school, causes them to face failure, but not necessarily bounce back from that. I think the mind in and of itself is really what controls the rest of our body. If you don’t have it upstairs, as they say, anything below the neck line is not really going to work. It doesn’t necessarily have to equate to physical performance on a sports field, or performance in the classroom, or in a board room, but it really starts to kind of encapsulate who you are as a person. How you think, how you act, ultimately will drive your performance.

 

Phil:

Great. How do you create an environment to help deliver that message? Because if they aren’t getting it in a classroom or perhaps they aren’t getting home, how are you going break through that wall and help them develop that mindset?

 

Michael:

We’ve based our training in the military, and we’ve seen this time and time again with recruits that come into the Navy, with fellow SEALS that are coming through BUDS training that’s out in San Diego, fellow combat aviators, we’ve all seen it where the guys and gals that come into a program really don’t know what they’re getting into. They’ve maybe read a book, they’ve seen a movie, they want to be a SEAL, but once they get into that environment, they’re stressed, and they’re tired, and they’re overwhelmed with these obstacles.

 

 

With our experience going through those different sorts of situations, and then coming back as master training specialists and instructors, we’ve learned how to craft that atmosphere so that it’s rewarding, it’s upfront, it’s in your face. The way we’ve crafted that environment is based on those experiences, but it’s not meant to be a boot camp, or a SEAL type of environment where it’s a lot of yelling. It is a lot of physical, intense movement. It’s focused on youth and how do they get through a standard day and the stressful situations that they come up with? How can they push themselves mentally and prepare it so that they can be successful?

 

Phil:

Okay. Now, in my experience with the program, which was with Lake Zurich Lacrosse, there’s both a physical component to what you do and a mental. Why is it important to have both?

 

Michael:

I think the physical piece is the reinforcement activity, and it is by far one of the easiest ways to put your body and yourself physically into a stressful situation. It’s hard to replicate a mentally stressful situation, where it may be a timed test, it’s a studying for an ACT, it’s applying for college. Compounding all of those mentally stressful events is somewhat difficult to do in a short amount of time. A physical activity, where it’s demanding of your body is easily replicated, in large scale, in a short amount of time.

 

 

The reason why we’ve combined an academic classroom and then a reinforcement is to first give those students, those players, those kids the right tools that they can remember, they can learn, concepts that they can figure out for their own specific situation, how to adapt, and then how to overcome. Then, give them an opportunity, out in the field or in the gym, to practice what they just learned in a physical way.

 

Phil:

You mentioned putting them in a state of stress as an important for the learning process. Why is stress needed?

 

Michael:

I think it’s needed because we want to see how we will operate under fire, if you will. To use a military analogy is, we train and we train and we train, but until we’re tested, we don’t know if our training actually works or not. If you just you sit and you read a book, or you sit and read and try to study a language, but you never speak that language, then you don’t really know if all of that training that you’ve done in the classroom, or in a simulator, or in a gym, or a weight room, actually has helped you.

 

 

We incorporate the classroom and the physical piece together because it provides that immediate response and that immediate reinforcement to what they just learned in the classroom. It provides that mechanism to either light that fire that’s inside of them, turn that light switch on, provide that “aha” moment, like, “Okay, I get it. I can see exactly what he just told me in the classroom, and I’m going through this physical event now. I see the relationship. I get it. This applies to me and my life in this way.”

 

Phil:

Maybe it would help if you would describe the kind of an experience, specific description, of what someone would go through with the training? Maybe even highlight what might be a typical aha moment during that training?

 

Michael:

Okay. Well, right now, we’re a brand new 501C3, so we’ve got a couple of programs under our belt, both of which were different. The first one that we did was a traditional, after school program, which was middle schoolers, grades six through eight, ages eleven to fourteen. Some of their teachers and their principal were even involved in the program. The academic concepts for that after school program and the program we did with the Lake Zurich Lacrosse Team, very similar academic concepts. Some of the analogies are the example of the applications in those classroom settings were different, because they were two different age groups. The difference between those were the physical activities.

 

 

We thought with our board and some of our instructors said, “We can do more with a high school varsity sports team physically than we could with an eleven-year-old sixth grader who may not have any sort of physical prowess whatsoever.” The after-school program, the experience that we gave them was thirty minutes of class, followed by an hour and a half of team-building activities, which did include some physical fitness, but it was all based around a team approach. Utilizing a slosh tube, or what would mimic a telephone pole, if you will, from Navy SEAL training, to get from point A to B doing push-ups, or something like that. Land navigation was another activity that we did with the middle schoolers, which utilized a compass, outdoors, and a map. It was analogous to a moral compass, and what we would need in life to navigate from situation to situation in life.

 

 

The Lake Zurich Lacrosse program was meant to be a vigorous work out. It was something that we knew that we could test them at a higher level than we could the middle schoolers. At this point in growing our program, we’re refining what that looks like. We’re refining what our product market fit is. Is it going to be just an after-school program? Are we just going to focus on sports teams? We’re getting better and better based on the feedback that we receive doing that. To date, we’ve received a lot of great feedback from both different types of training sessions. The after-school program, the teachers that were involved, the principal that were involved, and even some of the kids took the time and provided a lot of good comments. It wasn’t one line statements, it was paragraphs of, “We believe in your program. We think it fits the need for a middle school. Here’s how we would tweak it for future programs.”

 

 

The Lake Zurich Lacrosse Program, the athletes loved it. Immediate feedback, immediate relation to what they were doing in sport, but also in life. Right now, we’re taking all that feedback, we’re looking at ourselves. We’re self-assessing, and assessing the program, and figuring out how can we do more? How can we do it better, and where do we go next?

 

Phil:

Is there any highlight or aha moment that you can recall from one of the sessions that says, “Wow. This is really what we’re trying to get to?”

 

Michael:

I think you mean from the players’ perspective or my perspective?

 

Phil:

Yeah, from observation of a player, because that’s your ultimate measuring tool is how do we impact these players, these students?

 

Michael:

Sure. Well, I think that a lot of them had said that the experience had taught them perseverance and self-awareness, with everything that you needed as an athlete. They found it inspiring. They found it difficult. They were out of their comfort zone. Part of the point is that if we continue to operate in our comfort zone, and we don’t test ourselves, then we’re never going to get better. We focused on identifying the players by group, and whether junior varsity or varsity, and over the course of a few exercises, pinpointed those that could do more, and then we tested them harder than some of the other kids in the group.

 

 

It comes down to their attitude and effort. That’s what we kind of preach in the program, is those two things are the only things you can control, and through the physical fitness, showing that a positive attitude, and a hundred percent of effort will allow them to become more resilient. A lot of the kids took it seriously. They focused on what the instructors were saying. They tried everything and they tried to the best of their ability. Some wanted to quit. Literally, the first lap they took around the park, several of them came up to me and said, “I want to stop. I’m done.” It wasn’t because they were in pain, it was just because they hit their wall, and whatever that wall was, but they kept going, and they kept pushing that wall, and they kept overcoming those obstacles. At the end of the event, they realized that because they convinced themselves mentally, and controlled that aspect of their mind, that they could overcome that, and basically increase the amount of effort that they were putting out.

 

Phil:

That’s powerful when people get that insight and awareness and they say, “Wow. I can do more.” The question to ask, this is very powerful stuff, there’s a huge marketplace of people that need this. How did you decide to take on this venture?

 

Michael:

Being in the military, being at the Navy’s boot camp, we started to notice that the kids coming into our gates, our doors, all suffered from a very similar issue. Though we were putting them into a highly stressful, high up-tempo, military environment, it was kind of a slow burn. It wasn’t throwing an egg right into boiling water. It was a slow boil, but they were still cracking under pressure and they were quitting. Specifically, with the Navy SEAL recruits, we kind of coined the term that we were producing stronger quitters. We note that boot camp in and of itself is truly a microcosm of the rest of society. It’s the Navy’s only boot camp. Forty-thousand recruits come through here a year, and they come from all over the country and literally all over the world, which is a source of citizenship for the foreign nationals that come through and decide to serve the Navy, or in the Navy.

 

 

The reason why we decided to start it is we wanted to fix a problem before it got to our doors. We knew that these kids had just left home, they just left their high schools and their buddies, and they were no different. Nothing had changed in the bus ride or the plane ride over to Great Lakes. They were still the same way they were a few days ago. It’s only after that boot camp experience, where they have started to develop a new personality, new behavior, and they become that young man or woman that their parents see on graduation day. We wanted to start changing it right away, but we said, “To do that, we need to develop a program to go back into the communities and reach these kids in middle school or high school.”

 

 

In the very beginning of Thrive, one of our board members is a licensed clinical counselor, and we asked him his professional opinion based on his education and research, at what point in that age range do you think these concepts academically would be understandable? Then physically, what could we do at a middle school level or a high school level that would properly reinforce those? He theorized that sixth grade is a good age to focus on, sixth through twelfth grade. Then, basically that gives them an idea that after high school, that’s truly when life starts. They’re working their way up to that, but graduation for a lot of kids, and becoming an adult, that’s a very critical point in their life.

 

 

We wanted to start in sixth grade, lay that foundation, and then as kids went through the program, whether it was one time or multiple times, as we continue to build Thrive, we’ll do succession type programs. Once they graduate or, “finish the program,” bring them back into the fold as mentors, as Thrive mentors for younger guys and gals that are just starting it. Back to the original question, how did we decide to start it? It was based on our experience at boot camp, and noticing that the smartest, the fastest recruits that wanted to be Navy SEALS were quitting.

 

 

They were quitting on themselves for no other reason but a lack of mindset. They wanted to be a Navy SEAL for however long, and the first time that they were in a stressful environment, whether they were performing more than what they could think of physically, or they were being yelled at by an instructor, they quit. They rung the bell, as we say. We wanted to stop it, so we wanted to figure out why are these kids attriting and quitting from the program? Ultimately, we wanted to fix it because we saw it as a larger issue in society, not just within the Navy.

 

Phil:

Okay, I agree that there is a societal problem that you’re trying to address. Any program that is associated with the military may have some misconceptions around it. I was wondering if you’d share what you’ve experienced in terms of clarifying what the program is and isn’t based on the background coming from the military standpoint?

 

Michael:

I think the first thing when people see that it’s a program that was founded and started by military veterans, and specifically Navy SEALS, is our program is a boot camp. It’s meant to break people down and to build them up and reinforce tough, physical fitness. That can’t be farther from the truth. We’re not trying to make elite athletes; we’re trying to rebuild a mindset in these kids so that they can succeed in life with whatever they want to do. It’s a skill set. It’s kind of interesting, we’re not doing arts and crafts and stuff like that, or teaching these kids how to code, or play an instrument, or run faster. We’re teaching them how to think and how to think properly and get through stressful situations that will come up later in life.

 

 

Building that foundation is something that people don’t understand right away. They don’t understand the concept of a growth or a fixed mindset. They see it with the Navy SEAL and military physical fitness, and they think it’s a boot camp. Again, our goal is not to belittle somebody or to break them down, it’s to just start building that confidence and competency within them. Doing it as young as eleven is really cool.

 

Phil:

Yeah, I guess that really is a formative age, where they’re starting to build that mindset of capacity and capability. What can I become? Taking off the limitations can be very, very empowering and very, very powerful. If someone were to want to get more information about your program, about Thrive Project for America, where would they go?

 

Michael:

I think the easiest place is ThrivePA.org. Our contact information is on there. You can read a little bit more about who we are as individuals, why we started the program, and what our mission and vision is for Thrive. Right now, we’re starting out. We can use whatever support, whether it’s time, talent, or treasure. As a 501C3, we execute our mission based on what we call the friends of Thrive, and those corporations, those individual donors that believe in us, believe in our mission to build confident and competent youth. ThrivePA.org is our website. I recommend everybody going on there and reading up. If they want to ask questions, there’s a, “Contact Us,” page, and we’ll get those emails straight to us.

 

Phil:

Well that’s great. Again, I’m a strong believer in the program and the concepts and the values it’s built on. Michael, I’d like to thank you very much for sharing your insights about Thrive Project for America. I hope you have a great day, and looking forward to talking to you.

 

Michael:

All right, I appreciate it. Thanks for your time, Phil. It was great.

 

Phil:

Okay.

 

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Phil Faris

Phil Faris is a Best-Selling Author, business consultant, radio host for Never Too Late for Fitness Radio, and contributing writer for Business Innovators Magazine covering Influencers, Innovators, and Trendsetters in Business, Health, Fitness, and Leadership.