Reimagining Jesus as an Ivy League track and cross-country coach

Hannah Chappell-Dick, who does just that at Brown University, is this week’s guest on ‘A Matter of Faith’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — If Jesus coached women’s track and cross country at an Ivy League university, what would that look like?

“It’s kind of a crazy question,” Hannah Chappell-Dick, the women’s cross country and assistant track coach at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said this week during the “A Matter of Faith” podcast, which can be heard here beginning at the 37th minute. “Obviously I fall far short of that standard, but it’s one of those things where you constantly have to challenge yourself.”

“To me, that mostly means being someone who’s a supportive, safe space for the athletes to come to,” Chappell-Dick told podcast hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong. “From the top to the bottom of my roster, I try to see people for who they are rather than just what their performance is. … When it comes down to it, athletes thrive in an environment where they feel safe. I don’t mean just in a safe space, but a space where they aren’t afraid to fail because they know the support from their coach and from their teammates is going to be unconditional.”

“I feel that is the message Jesus would have as a track coach. He was busy doing much more important things,” Chappell-Dick said, “but yes, that’s my answer.”

Chappell-Dick was responding to these listener questions: “How does faith inform your coaching with athletes at some of the highest levels of competition? Also, how do you walk the line between encouraging and pushing your athletes, while making sure they are being taken care of physically and mentally?”

Chappell-Dick grew up in the Mennonite tradition and is a 2016 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “We very much focus on the works, the countercultural way that Jesus approaches the world,” she said of her Mennonite faith. “In the national discourse surrounding Christianity, that’s something that’s nontraditional, in my experience. … If being a Christian isn’t making you a better person here on this Earth, then why are you taking the time to practice your faith?”

Hannah Chappell-Dick

Athletes attending Ivy League universities can feel pressure both in both the classroom and the stadium. “Sometimes it’s by parents or communities or guidance counselors who saw potential in them, or even just themselves,” Chappell-Dick said. “It can be really crushing, that kind of pressure. I view the value of participating on a college track team as learning how to handle pressure in a more healthy way, figuring out that the pressure is there but it’s actually an opportunity, a gift for me to use this potential I’ve been given. … If a coach and a team can approach it in a healthy way, it’s an awesome training ground for handling pressure in other areas of your life.”

“In my short stint in sports, I played football. That’s just what you did where I’m from,” Catoe said. “I was a lineman, and I remember a coach always told me when we were made to run, he would say, ‘Lee, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.’ He was a very spiritual person. … It was something I thought about because I kept hearing in church that faith is like a marathon. … I wonder about that analogy. You are a track and cross-country coach. What kind of training might be an analogy to faith?”

In response, Chappell-Dick said that typically when people hear she’s a runner and a track coach, they ask her one of two questions: “What’s your fastest mile time?” or “Did you run a marathon?” The answer to that second question is a definite no, she said, because Chappell-Dick focused on shorter races when competing. “But I do feel the marathon analogy is applicable to people who aren’t in the running world,” she said. “I love that it’s entered the pop culture because that’s exactly what anything good in life is like. It’s like training for a marathon in the sense of delayed gratification and learning how to take care of yourself.”

If the first mile of your marathon is the fastest mile you’ve ever clocked, “obviously you are not going to finish if you are exhausted in mile 1,” she said. “Anytime you’re approaching the expectations the world has set out for you, you have to think about the long term when it comes to self-care, and also when it comes to putting in the work. Both of those things can be true, and you have to find that balance. It’s one of the biggest challenges to being an adult, in my opinion — learning how to balance fighting the good fight and taking time for yourself to sit back and just be.”

“Faith is a good way to do both those things,” she said. “On the one hand, it can challenge you to be better and live for something bigger than yourself, and on the other hand it can remind you to take some time for prayer and meditation, tapping into that spiritual side.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Doong, who also ran cross country and track while in college, said running for him at times can be “a spiritual experience.” But “for some folks, there’s no way to comprehend how exercise could be spiritual. I was wondering,” he asked Chappell-Dick, “when you are working with athletes trying to push themselves, how do you encourage them to find that balance so they’re also taking care of themselves mentally?”

It’s perhaps half of her job “trying to help people find that line for themselves,” Chappell-Dick replied. “When you’re seeking high performance, you have to push that envelope a little. … The reality is at some point you can go too far and it happens really quickly. The thing I’ve been leaning into, especially since Covid, is there’s a lot of latent trauma on my team, and it looks different for different people. Some people lost loved ones, and some people had really serious traumatic experiences. For others, it was low-level anxiety that added up after a while.”

Chappell-Dick said she tries to help athletes become “more intuitive about how their body is feeling and trusting the signs that their body is giving them.”

“We’re not a society that encourages feeling big emotions like anger or frustration or sadness or loneliness,” she said. “These are things we’re asked to hide away and not experience and not have any kind of cathartic outlet for it. For me, what that means is helping the women on my team become more intuitive with the way their body is feeling and realize what exactly it is that they need. Do they need a hard run to work it out of their system? Or do they need a nap, to just go home and be done with practice for today? I try to create that rapport where they feel like they can tell me what they need and I can believe them.”

“My experience of running is that it clears you out, in a good way,” she said. “We’re full of emotions that we have no way to process. This is a way I can physically process those emotions.” Others have different outlets, she noted.

Catoe asked: What do you say to people who might want to get into running as a spiritual practice?

“My best advice is there’s absolutely no shame in walking,” Chappell-Dick responded. There’s value to beginning by alternating one minute of running with a minute of walking.

“I feel like we live in a society that’s all go all the time,” she said. “But from a physiological standpoint, what’s healthiest for you is the distance covered, not the time you covered it in.”

“It’s a fun pursuit for anyone of any age, but that’s absolutely not the only benefit to running,” Chappell-Dick said. “Any kind of forward motion is going to bring more joy and more meditation to life, and I recommend it for anybody.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. The podcast is produced by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice. Hear the recordings here.

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