Debate coaching is a difficult job that has become even more difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last March, coaches were forced to scramble to salvage the rest of the debate season after schools and large parts of the economy were shut down. They figured out how to teach and coach and judge online, taught students to compete online, and struggled to sustain their debate programs amidst often severe budget cuts.
Now debate coaches have been forced to figure out what to do next. Some are back in in-person classrooms with inconsistent (or non-existent) masking and social distancing policies. Others are still teaching and coaching online. Some are bouncing back and forth between the two. When will in-person tournaments return? Some already have, but no one in a position of public health authority is making that decision. Coaches are mostly on their own to decide what is safe and how to continue coaching debate during an ongoing pandemic. And all of this responsibility has been added on top of their “regular” jobs as teachers or professionals in other fields.
It’s overwhelming. Anecdotally, many coaches have decided to give up on debate either temporarily or for good. Others have significantly scaled back their involvement. Coaching shortages were already a pervasive problem before the pandemic. Now, the outlook for the debate coaching profession seems grim. How many coaches will quit before the pandemic is finally “over”? How many debate programs will permanently end because they were unable to recruit and retain a committed coach?
These problems aren’t unique to debate coaching, of course. Most jobs are too hard, and the pandemic has made most jobs even harder. Indeed, many jobs are much harder than coaching debate. But that doesn’t mean that debate coaching is easy or that the coaching shortage will automatically self-correct.
In this moment of overwhelming uncertainty and stress, I have found it helpful to zoom out in order to consider the historic situation we’re in. Debate coaching has been too time-consuming, too stressful, too poorly-compensated, and too disrespected for… forever, probably.
Consider, for example, a 1965 study by Stanley Rives and Donald Klopf. They surveyed 1,107 “college speech department heads, forensic directors, and NFL (high school speech and debate) chapter sponsors” about why they believed debate coaches were quitting. Rives and Klopf were attempting to figure out how to explain the results of two earlier surveys that showed significant coaching turnover in both high school and college debate.
What did they find? Debate coaches were quitting primarily because the job was too-time consuming and too hard. They were also concerned about traveling too much, neglecting other academic duties and interests, poor compensation, non-recognition and support from administrators, age- and health-related concerns, problems with students, tournaments, and other coaches, pressure, family and home responsibilities, budget problems, and poor results.
If the same survey was repeated in 2021, I expect the results would be similar — with several pandemic-specific concerns added to the list. In some ways, it is heartening to know that the struggles coaches are enduring today are largely the same struggles they have been enduring for decades. It is also frustrating: while these problems have been well-understood since the 1960s (and probably before), very little (if anything) has been done to improve the working conditions of debate coaches.
There have been occasional efforts like The Healthy Debate Initiative, a program formed by Sherry Hall in response to the tragic deaths of several distinguished coaches in the late 2000s and early 2010s. While admirable, these initiatives have not (yet) fundamentally addressed the working conditions that have driven so many debate coaches out of the profession. Indeed, this might be impossible to achieve within the current structure of the U.S. education system (and economy writ large).
What’s my point? Like Rives and Klopf, I can’t pretend to offer a solution. I am sharing this reflection — and the full text of Rives and Klopf’s article (see below) — because it helped me process how hard the job of coaching debate has become. My hope is that it might also help others who are similarly overwhelmed by a hard job that keeps getting harder. You’re not alone.
Rives, Stanley and Donald Klopf. “Debate Coaches: Why They Quit.” Central States Speech Journal, Volume 16, Issue 1, 1965, pp. 38-40.
This article discusses the reasons 1107 college speech department heads, forensic directors, and NFL chapter sponsors believe debate coaches quit coaching.
Why do they quit? Recent studies reveal a high rate of turnover among the nation’s high school and college debate coaches. A 1962-63 survey of American Forensic Association and National Forensic League members shows: (1) 57% of the AFA and 54% of the NFL respondents have less than ten years of experience as coaches; and, (2) 28% of the former and 30% of the latter have less than five years of experience.1 A more extensive survey conducted in 1964 of the speech department chairmen of the nation’s junior colleges, colleges, and universities and of the NFL membership shows an even more rapid turnover: (1) 75% of the college and 79% of the NFL coaches have had ten or fewer years of coaching; (2) 58% of both college and high school coaches have had five or fewer years of coaching; and (3) 33% of the college and 28% of the high school coaches have had fewer than two years.2 What causes this rapid turnover?
If the reasons for quitting can be identified, perhaps the members of the speech profession may discover solutions to alleviate the causes. Stability in the coaching ranks might result. The 1964 survey of speech department heads and NFL members was conducted to find out why coaches quit after so few years of service. The survey questionnaire contained an item which requested the respondents to list reasons why they believe coaches quit. Enough space was available for each respondent to state four reasons.3 Those reasons mentioned most frequently in the survey results appear on the following page.
Some typical comments quoted from the respondents’ remarks for each of the major reasons stated above describe these reasons more vividly:
Time: too much time devoted; [end page 38] lack of time to prepare students adequately; too much time required; too much Saturday and evening time necessary; no time for professional development.
Overwork and fatigue: too much work; too great a teaching load; not enough faculty assistance; overloaded classes; tired; too much paperwork; tired of extra duty; exhaustion; weariness; worn out; teaching load the same as for those who don’t coach; coaches wear out; “tired blood.”
Travel: every weekend on the road; away from home too much; no travel funds; too many trips; lack of physical stamina to withstand every weekend on the road.
Other academic duties and interests: change of professional interests; desire for academic advancement; increased graduate teaching; assignments to other duties; advanced into administration; desire for further education.
Disinterest: not interested in forensics; forced to coach to get a job; lost desire to coach; bored; know nothing of debate; faculty apathy to forensics discouraging; not trained to coach.
Poor compensation: too little pay; work as hard as athletic coaches for less pay; no additional compensation for extra time; insufficient pay for long hours; better salaries in other fields.
Non-recognition and support: no credit for work; lack of academic recognition or respect; not enough administrative support; lack of school and community backing; no cooperation from principal; department head interested only in his specialty; dean opposes forensics.
Teaching and research: advancement depends on research; desire to teach; wish to teach and do research; trained to teach.
Age and health: forensics requires youthful coaches; ulcers; poor health from hectic schedule; too old to coach.
Tournament problems: emphasis on winning; bad judging; too many tournaments; overstress on competition; poorly managed tournaments; unequal competition; transportation problems to tournaments.
Student problems: students lack time; irresponsibility; too few or too many students; lack of interest [end page 39] or ability; student management obnoxious.
Pressure: nervous strain; tension and pressure; too much pressure from community; cut-throat competition and pressure to win.
Family and home responsibilities: personal demands of family; interference with home and private life; no time to raise family; no social life.
Budget problems: have to beg student governments for money; not enough money to function properly; need to raise funds always; eternal bickering over money; coach is fund-raiser, not a coach or teacher.
Problems with other coaches: unethical coaching; politics; lack of ethical uniformity; back-room collusion among coaches.
Poor results: lack of success; can’t win.
Similarities and differences between the high school and college rankings appear:
1. Both groups rank “time” and “overwork and fatigue” as the two principal reasons for quitting.
2. “Travel” ranked third by college coaches and eighth by the high school ones, possibly because the college coaches typically travel greater distances.
3. “Other academic duties and interests” and “teaching and research” are more important to the college coaches. Perhaps this points up the differences in academic emphases between the college and high school teacher.
4. “Disinterest” looms high among college coaches. From the questionnaire comments, apparently many new instructors with little or no forensic training are assigned coaching responsibilities against their better judgment. The suspicion is that department heads unload coaching chores on newcomers without permitting them much choice in the matter.
5. High school coaches, the results show, are more sensitive to low salaries than their college counterparts. Differences in pay between the two groups exist: under $5000—college 5%, NFL 15% ; $5000-$7000—college 27%, NFL 37%; over $7000—college 68%, NFL 48%. But differences in educational background may account for the salary differential: highest earned degree—Ph.D.: college 38%, NFL 2%; M.A.: college 58%, NFL 64%; B.A.: college 2%, NFL 34%.4
6. Reasons related to school and community relationships (“non-recognition and support,” “student problems,” and “pressure”) are more vital to high school coaches than to college coaches. High school coaches, more so than college coaches, work in smaller schools which draw their student population and alumni support from the immediate neighborhood. Perhaps, as a consequence, they have closer contact with school and community leaders and are more sensitive to their leaders’ interest or lack of interest than college coaches.
These seem to be the major causes for the rapid turnover in forensic coaches. While the purpose here is not to offer remedies, a need to find solutions exists if the coaching profession is to acquire and retain competent coaches.
Stanley Rives (Ph.D., Northwestern University, 1963) is Associate Professor of Speech, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois; Donald Klopf (Ph.D., University of Washington, 1958) is Associate Professor of Speech, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii.
1. See Donald Klopf and James McCroskey, “A Study of Certain Characteristics of NFL Chapter Sponsors,” NFL Rostrum, XXXVIII (February, 1964), 5-7, for the NFL results of this study.
2. This survey was requested by the American Forensic Association at its August, 1963, Denver Convention. The survey results were based on responses from 1107 college speech department heads, directors of forensics, and NFL chapter faculty sponsors. The details may be obtained from the writers.
3. The item states: “In your opinion, what are the most important reasons coaches retire from active coaching?” The reasons cited by the respondents were categorized arbitrarily by the writers. The categories are intended primarily to satisfy the practical needs of result reporting and, as a consequence, some unavoidable overlapping may occur. Various reasons may have better fitted into different categories or several categories. The writers assume the responsibility for the placement.
4. Klopf and McCroskey, ibid.