Nov 12, 2008

advice for a do-it-all debate coach

Today's letter comes from a colleague who's run into a problem I'm sure many experienced debate coaches have seen before: what to do with the students who won't take your advice.
Dear Jim,

I'm a former high school CX debater turned high school LD coach, which has been a big challenge for me. In addition to adjusting to the differences in events and regional styles, my biggest challenge is coming from the education side of the activity. Most of my debaters are just starting out and while some of them are excited about the experience, none of them have been especially receptive to the help and encouragement I've been providing. They seem to do very little non-workshop work in researching the topic or writing cases, and they don't seem to take the resources I offer them (including your blog). On top of it all, I've been trying to break them out of predictable case ideas for the past few weeks but they're still clinging to the familiar.

I've tried giving them resources, suggesting readings, and offering to buy research products. In fact, I've written blocks for them and a highly competitive sample case. They don't reject any of it on principle (doing their own work would be a perfectly good reason to do their own work, after all), but they just don't go for it.

So tell me, how do you get a horse to drink when it's already been lead to water?
First, I applaud your commitment to your students, and admire your humility and willingness to learn from others.

Second, I'm not the world's leading expert on LD coaching, and I don't know if I have all the facts I need to make a sound judgment. Nevertheless, here are some key questions I have for any coach in this situation.

What is your philosophy of debate coaching?
I teach my novices a three-tiered approach to the activity: motivation, purpose, results.
  1. Motivation should come from enjoying the activity and having the will to succeed.
  2. Purpose encompasses learning--the event, the philosophies encountered, the skills in rhetoric, critical thinking, and oration--and the pursuit of truth.
  3. Results come from motivation and purpose. If you have the joy and the will, and take the time and invest the energy and effort to learn, you'll achieve the results you desire. That may mean winning, or it just may mean the satisfaction that arises from the activity.
What is the purpose of competition?
Thus, I tell my students, when they're starting out, to first have fun, second, learn all they can about the activity, and third, let the winning follow. I take excess pressure off of them, and off of myself. Competition, especially in the early tournaments, is the highest form of practice. They will have their ideas tested in unexpected ways, and will learn a hundred times what they might take away from class or after-school practice.

Are you willing to let them make mistakes and fail on their own?
Competition is also the fastest route to a "teachable moment." Telling someone that they need to branch out and explore unorthodox case ideas is only so effective; letting them go 1-5 at a tournament as their stock arguments are preempted and destroyed is a lesson that really sticks. Consider this a coach's "strategic retreat." You absorb a few losses--some tears, a glum ride home--in order to win the war. Console your sullen competitors, but don't say I-told-you-so until the next practice, when they're going to ask you what they can do to improve.

Paradoxically, by doing so much for them, you may be holding them back. Take a risk. Let them fail. If they don't, enjoy the pleasant, and genuine, surprise. If they do, support them. They won't want to fail again.

Any other coaches or competitors out there want to weigh in?


TeacherRefPoet said...

Jim--you nailed it.

When they reject your resources, etc., you might point out that the opposition is likely doing that research, the same way that the basketball coach has kids envision their rivals on the other side of town running those two extra suicides. Then, when they've fallen short, say that they've been outworked.

The kind of kid who thinks he/she is too smart to take a coach's advice is the kind of kid who WILL respond to losing. And the response to that kid should be different from the response to the kid who has worked hard, but came up short. It's not "I told you so," but "You've been outworked. Let's not lose for that reason ever again."

Andrew Bailey said...

When I first started doing CX in high school my coach insisted that our new squad spend a lot of time watching a few national-quality teams from the region. The experience was inspiring, seeing what high-level debate could be like. This gave me something to aim for even while I stumbled about in novice for a while.

Captain Princess said...

Here's two that might work: encourage students to practice excessively and have them talk to their opponents at tournaments. Not necessarily about cases and arguments directly, but just bond with opponents.