Wednesday, August 29, 2007

to the new coaches...

This year will be the first debate season in 10 years in which I won't be coaching.

It is kind of weird not to be doing debate, but it is also very nice. An amazing person at BNCC took over the program this year, because he has a passion for debate and doesn't want to see the program end. He has plenty of coaching experience, so this post isn't directed to him....

This post is for all of the first-year coaches.

If you do your job right, coaching debate isn't the same as doing debate. In fact, it is quite different.

Instead of making your own arguments, you are helping others to craft their own. It is your job to keep yourself out of their round and to help them express themselves. The last thing you want to do is to make a 'mini-me debater' out of any of them. You need to resist the urge to spend preparation time giving dictation -- because that isn't teaching, it is just talking. That is hard.

Being a senior debater probably put you into leadership and mentor positions, but it didn't require you to do the hard parts of coaching. An important part of coaching is telling a debater they made a mistake, that they aren't ready or that they've generally screwed themselves over. Equally difficult is to challenge debaters to do better without crushing them or pumping their egos. Both of these things are equally hard.

If you were a good debater, you were in high-pressure rounds. You know how to handle them and can give some good advise. What is hard about coaching debate is turning around a team that isn't winning. Encouraging students who have yet to win a round is probably the most important thing you can do. That is hard.

I'm sure that as a debater you were a good, responsible member of your squad. You had a hand in communicating the squad's substance use rules/norms and you probably took care of more than your share of intoxicated debaters. What is hard about coaching is the increased level of responsibility you have. You ARE the person in charge when you go on the road. Your duty is to make good travel decisions ALL THE TIME. This means that you are on-duty 24/7 when you are with your team. You don't get time off to get drunk with your pals, you don't have times when someone else is on-duty and you can kick back. You are the one who needs to be sober enough to drive to the hospital if necessary. That is hard.

As a good debater, I'm sure you had friends on other squads. Understand that your status has changed. Those friends are your friends, but they are also competitors. They'll be competing against your students and trying to sway your ballots. Those competitors probably haven't forgotten every time you beat them, so they may or may not be your friend... The thing is, you can't judge your friends and your new debater-friendships will be different. That is ok -- make the transition to hanging with your coach friends. They'll be an invaluable resource for you -- people who can help you out hard choices on the road, who will encourage you in many parts of your life and who are your peers... so you can really be friends with them. Making this change is hard, but worthwhile.

As a good debater, I'm sure you had friends on your squad. The hard part about the transition some of you are making is that you are now expected to coach your friends. To them, you are on the other side now -- you are a coach, and thus no longer connected to the student grapevine, but -- you are still YOU (and they all thought they could be or ARE better than you) so, why should they take your advise? There is no good way around this problem... much better coaches than you have tried to solve it and failed. Don't plan to work with your school's "top team" as more than a friend -- for real coaching work, focus on the freshmen on the squad. Giving up the vicarious win isn't easy, but it is worth it....

Some of you will be starting at a new school -- either as a coach or a grad student. The challenges of moving and adjusting to a new school and unfamiliar squad culture can be quite a challenge. If you are a typical debater, you'll want to rush this part. Don't do it. Take your time -- make sure you communicate your new squad loyalty... but hang back a bit in terms of fitting in. Each squad has a different feel and every year's personnel changes morph the squad culture as well. It isn't easy to hang back, but investing that time now will let you see how things shake out later, and it is worth it...

And overall, enjoy your time coaching. There is nothing quite like it... and, say hello to my coaching pals when you see them. I'll miss you all and I promise not to get bored on my weekends off :).

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