‘Brick-by-brick’: Chapman cross-country’s motto of improvement

The Chapman men’s and women’s cross-country teams rely on a philosophy that focuses on short-term tasks to achieve a long-term goal, a mindset developed by head coach DeAndra’e Woods after watching an interview with actor Will Smith. Photo courtesy of Larry Newman

After the pistol has sounded, after the starting line is crossed, the process of running a cross-country race appears like a blur of arms, legs and beading sweat. Yet in reality, each movement is calculated and precise, a series of short bursts that coalesce into one continuous motion. Step-by-step.

“Brick-by-brick.” This is the newfound motto for the Chapman University men’s and women’s cross-country teams. It signifies small steps to success, the steps taken both leading up to a race and the steps taken within the race itself. It is a philosophy that serves to create manageable goals from overwhelming tasks.

“It means starting with a solid base,” said sophomore runner Jose Guerrero. “Doing the little things to build our program.”

Players are buying in and the results are showing. Cross-country’s recent showing at the Pomona-Pitzer Invitational saw the men’s team place sixth and women’s team seventh in a field of nine teams. That might not sound like much, but the top five finishers on the Chapman women’s team set a new program record for fastest average time.

Brick-by-brick. One piece at a time, building up from a foundation, a promise of improvement. This is too specific a saying to simply materialize out of thin air – it came in a moment of inspiration. The motto was first planted in head coach DeAndra’e Woods’ mind when he watched an interview featuring none other than actor Will Smith.

“Him, his father and his brother were rebuilding a wall,” Woods said of Smith’s story. “It would take a long time, it’d be hard, but his dad told him that if you lay one brick as perfectly as you can each time, then you have the best wall you can possibly make.”

Woods referred to the mantra as a way to make Herculean tasks seem more attainable. He likened the mindset to earning a degree: for some, pursuing a Bachelor’s seems intimidating because it takes an incredible amount of work and the payoff is in the distant future. However, if one instead focuses on what is available to control in that very moment, the gradual step-by-step successes inspire confidence to get that degree.

“Sometimes people struggle with the end result,” Woods said, alluding to a desire for instant improvement.

“In our society nowadays, we see people on social media posting about the end result, but we don’t know about the grind that it took to get there.”

This grind, in the context of the brick-by-brick mindset, can mean different things to different members of the team. For Guerrero, this mentality manifests itself through community and assisting the younger runners if they struggle.

This season, freshmen make up over 80 percent of the team and they’re appreciative of the more experienced runners helping them get started. Freshman Wolfgang Sakamaki credits returning team members like Guerrero with helping him succeed early on this season.

“Jose leads everybody well and he keeps everybody in check. He gives me a lot of racing strategy and it really helps,” Sakamaki said. “It’s like that brotherhood type of thing. He’s always there if I need someone to help me out.”

Woods has noticed that as his runners have begun to buy into this shared philosophy, their changed attitudes have led to an increase in both effort and excitement within the program. Despite a last-place finish in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last season, the team has shown their competitive nature against conference opponents already in 2019.

“We have very talented athletes. Everyone comes in with the mindset, ‘I want to do the best I can,’” Woods said. “That’s why the success has come early on the cross-country side, and we hope that the success carries over to track too.”