Students attending schools that provide them with competitive debate opportunities are fortunate. Those that are provided with access not only to debate but also to instruction from a professional debate coach are even more fortunate. But having a coach is not enough: students need to make the most of their interactions with coaches to truly reap the benefits that they can provide.
Previous installments in this series discussed general strategies for improving at debate and specific suggestions for developing a personal debate curriculum. This time, the focus shifts from out-of-the-classroom improvements to tangible ways that students can better utilize the expertise of their coaches inside the classroom. For those fortunate enough to have access to a professional debate coach, the following ten tips will help students maximize the value of their interactions with them.
1. Coaches should not be treated like Wikipedia.
This is first on the list for a reason: there are few things more frustrating for a debate coach than to be bombarded with questions that could easily have been answered by a quick internet search. The cardinal rule for debaters should be to never ask a question of a coach if the answer could be found independently. If the information being sought is accessible from another source, students need to demonstrate intellectual self-sufficiency and seek it out for themselves. Not only does this allow coaches to spend more time teaching and less time informing, it also results in superior comprehension for the student.
Instead of asking her coach “What does the Badiou critique say?,” for example, an enterprising debater should consult a summer institute backfile, read the Badiou entry on Wikipedia, and conduct a few basic Google searches until she feels that she has at least a cursory understanding of the argument. Only after this initial investigation occurs should the student consider asking her coach for further information.
2. Ask coaches for confirmation, not an introduction.
If a student enters a conversation with their coach with no background on the topic being discussed, chances are good that they will get very little out of the interaction. Using the previous example, a student that asks their coach “What does the Badiou critique say?” might get a fantastic answer from their coach, but they will not have the background knowledge necessary to make sense of it. If, on the other hand, the same student describes their understanding of the Badiou critique to their coach (after having done the background reading described above) and asks for confirmation that they are on the right track, the subsequent conversation can be profoundly productive.
This lesson can be applied not just to questions about arguments but to all interactions with coaches. If a student is struggling with his 1AR speeches, for example, he should not go to his coach and ask “What can I do to improve my 1ARs?”—this will elicit only general suggestions that are unlikely to stick. Instead, the student should review their flows and judge comments, discuss their 1AR strengths and weaknesses with their partner, read any available materials about the 1AR, and produce a self-assessment that identifies a set of specific pathways for improvement. Once this assessment has been generated, the student can share it with his coach and ask for targeted feedback. Perhaps the coach will disagree with the self-assessment. Perhaps they will have additional suggestions about ways for the student to improve. Or perhaps they will agree fully with the student’s gameplan. Regardless, the student will reap the benefits of a more accurate, thoughtful, and productive interaction with their coach.
The bottom line is that discussions with coaches should serve as opportunities for students to confirm and build upon what they already know about a given subject. When students rely on coaches to introduce new material rather than confirm and improve existing knowledge, they significantly decrease the value of their interactions.
3. Discuss the process being undertaken, not just the result.
Students that are struggling with an assignment or skill improvement often come to their coaches seeking assistance: “I can’t find any cards on this!” or “I don’t understand this!”, they assert impatiently. The first thing a coach does in response, inevitably, is ask the student to calm down and explain what they have done so far. The student’s response then dictates whether the interaction will be productive or not: if a clear and complete explanation of the work they’ve done so far is provided, the coach can usually provide helpful feedback that will allow the student to right the ship.
In many cases, however, it becomes immediately clear that the student hasn’t really thought things through and is just venting to the coach rather than genuinely asking for help. This kind of interaction is a waste of time for both the debater and the coach.
If a student is genuinely “stuck” and needs help, she should come to her coach ready to discuss the process that she has been undertaking and not just the result. Working on a hegemony update assignment and having trouble finding recent evidence? Instead of telling a coach that she “couldn’t find anything” and pleading for help, she should explain to the coach what searches she has done (including what search terms and what search engines and databases she used), what kinds of articles she is finding, and why those articles aren’t yielding the cards that she is hoping to cut. Given that knowledge, the coach can provide specific feedback regarding search terms, databases, and expectations that can help the student get over the hump. The feedback that the student receives in this interaction is also substantially more valuable: it will help not only with the current assignment but also with all future assignments.
4. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking them.
Many students seem to think that asking questions demonstrates commitment to debate and will win the admiration of the coach. While this is true to a degree, the quality of the questions a student asks is much more important than the quantity. Students that constantly bombard their coaches with questions about a laundry list of subjects can quickly become perceived more as irritating than passionate. A coach’s time is a valuable and finite resource for the students on a debate team: it is in the best interests of the entire squad for coaching interactions to be as productive as possible. In many cases, that means cutting out the “fluff” questions and getting down to business.
5. Plan interactions with coaches in advance.
In order to make the most of one’s interactions with a coach, it is helpful to come prepared with an agenda. What do you want to discuss with your coach? What information does he or she need to answer your questions? What is the most important issue you want to discuss? If the coach is pressed for time, what issues can be tabled until a later date?
Coaches are generous with their time and want to help their students improve. At the same time, students need to show initiative and help their coaches provide efficient and effective instruction. While many interactions with coaches will be guided by the coach, students should make sure that they are prepared to set the agenda when coaches provide opportunities for open discussions. Want to redo a rebuttal? Come prepared not just to deliver it but also with the information the coach needs to provide targeted feedback about the areas in which you are seeking to improve. Want to discuss the negative strategy you are preparing against your rival school? Come prepared not just to tell the coach what arguments you’re cutting but also with the 1AC outline, notes about the strengths and weaknesses of your strategy, and specific questions about ways to improve it.
The preparation that occurs before a student-coach interaction largely determines whether it is productive or not.
6. Be open to constructive criticism.
Debate is one of the most challenging activities in which a high school student can participate. It is also, by nature, adversarial: one’s arguments are consistently assaulted from all sides and one’s performance is constantly evaluated in comparison to one’s peers. The role of a debate coach, in many cases, is to identify the flaws in a student’s arguments and performance so as to facilitate improvement. This can create an uncomfortable environment if students take criticism too personally. In response to perceived hostility, it is easy for students to either lash out in anger or retreat into frustration and despair. Obviously, neither response is productive: it is impossible to improve as a debater without accepting the criticism of others—and especially one’s coaches.
When interacting with a coach, it is imperative that students accept constructive criticism. Students (and coaches) need to always remember that criticism of an argument or speech is not criticism of a person. When coaches point out flaws in a debater’s research or speaking, they are not criticizing that person’s character or integrity. Quite the opposite, in fact: the reason that the coach is taking the time to constructively criticize the student’s performance is because they respect the student and want them to improve.
7. Be willing to defend your opinions.
While being open to criticism is essential, students also need to demonstrate a willingness to defend their opinions—even when doing so challenges a coach. One of the crucial attributes of debate that makes it such an educational activity is that it forces students to defend their arguments. While students can “agree to disagree” after the conclusion of a contest round, the process of preparation and debate requires them to take a stance on a public policy controversy and defend it. Competition provides both a carrot and a stick: students work hard in order to reap the glory of a win and to avoid the disappointment of a loss. At the same time, the back-and-forth that occurs during a contest round—and the preparation that leads up to it—sheds a bright light on the issues being discussed and often clarifies issues that might otherwise remain opaque.
The same principle applies to interactions between debaters and coaches: the back-and-forth of a discussion helps both parties identify the core controversy and each side’s competing positions more clearly and with more comprehensive knowledge. Indeed, walking through an argument that is likely to come up in a debate is one of the most effective ways to prepare for it; coaches often play devil’s advocate for exactly this reason.
Convinced that the counterplan you’ve prepared can effectively overcome the weakness your coach has identified? Say so — and explain why. At the same time, be willing to acknowledge that improvements might need to be made in light of your coach’s criticism. After all, your opponents are likely to raise the same arguments in a debate that your coach did at practice.
Always be respectful and keep an open mind, but students should not be afraid to stick to their guns and defend their opinions. The end result of this kind of spirited interaction will be better arguments and a more prepared debate team.
8. Take notes and reference previous interactions.
If being treated like Wikipedia is a debate coach’s biggest pet peeve, being asked the same question more than once is number two on that list. Students that repeatedly ask the same question or fail to incorporate the same feedback are perceived by their coach as disrespectful and lazy—and for good reason. If a coach takes the time to answer a question or provide feedback, the least that they can expect in exchange is that the student listens and attempts to make the suggested improvements. Whether or not the student succeeds in mastering the new concept or implementing the suggested change is secondary: the coach’s primary concern is with whether the student tried to do so.
The best way for a student to avoid this situation is to take notes whenever they interact with their coaches. Discuss an assignment? Write down the feedback that was provided so that it can be incorporated into future projects. Give a rebuttal redo? Keep track of speeches delivered and comments received so specific details can be referenced during future redos. Review a 2AC block? Make the suggested changes immediately and keep a log so that improvements can be integrated into subsequent blocks.
The next time that a student works with a coach, he can then make reference to their previous interactions. This improves the quality of the feedback that a coach provides and communicates to them that the student is serious, committed, and respectful of their time. The effort required to maintain this kind of written record is minimal but the potential payoff is huge.
9. Know the appropriate time and place.
Most debate coaches are overworked and underpaid. In addition to coaching, there is a lot of “behind the scenes” work that needs to be done to administer a debate program that students rarely see. Given the amount of responsibility placed on their shoulders, it is understandable that debate coaches sometimes just need some space.
Some students recognize this; others do not. Those that do tend to become their coach’s favorites. Those that do not tend to give their coaches grey hair and migraines. The goal of every debater should be to fall into the former category and not the latter.
How can you tell if your coach is in a bad mood or busy with other responsibilities? Pay attention and empathize with their situation. Did he or she just get back from a tournament the night before? Do you know that they have dozens of essays to grade? Were they more irritable than usual during practice? If so, give them some space and don’t choose that time to ask for extra help or to do an additional redo speech. While many coaches have trouble saying no and are willing to stay late to work with dedicated students, the overall health of a student-coach relationship will improve if students know when not to press the issue.
An important part of a debate coach’s job is to tailor their expectations of students to particular situations and times of the year. The week before finals? Practices and assignments are minimal. A student is struggling in History class? Their travel schedule is pared back so they have more time to study and work on an important paper. A student is feeling sick? They are excused from practice.
This kind of accommodation is not just good for team morale. It is also common human decency. Students that know when to push for more feedback and more help and when to lay low will ultimately have more productive and rewarding relationships with their coaches.
10. Demonstrate passion and respect.
Above all, coaches enjoy working with students that are passionate about debate and committed to doing what it takes to improve. The best way for a debater to earn the respect of their coach is to work hard, demonstrate respect for coaches and teammates, and put in the extra effort necessary to succeed.
For most coaches, there is nothing more rewarding than a long practice session with a group of students that share a passion for debate and are working hard as a team to improve. Not all students are destined to become excellent debaters; thankfully, excellence is by no means necessary for a student to earn the appreciation of their coach.
Smile, show up with a good attitude, work hard, help out your teammates, and say “thank you”. If you do, you’ll have a productive relationship with your coach and a wonderful experience in debate.
What about students that lack access to professional coaching? In the next installment of this series, suggestions will be provided for improving student interactions with judges. Until then, many of the tips discussed in this article can be applied to a student’s interactions with judges, lab leaders, and even coaches of other schools.