Factors that Make a Great Debater 6: Being Coachable


I wasn’t originally going to list this one, as its something I have written about a lot, but in talking with people at tournaments since this list began the overwhelming feedback from coaches seems to be we need to revisit this issue.


Good debaters are coachable.


Now, what exactly it means to be “coachable” is certainly open to dispute. For some it means you can engage in a civil back and forth about potential arguments before the round, that seems to be the middle ground. For some it means that prior to a debate you are completely self sufficient, taking care of tasks like putting the 1NC together , handling disclosure etc. On the other extreme you then have students who basically wait to be told what to say, what to put in the doc, and agonize over every minute question from which disad to read to which of five different economic collapse impact cards to read.


Now, it may at first glance seem like the last category is the most “coachable”- since they are listening THE MOST. For some this may be the ideal scenario- no fighting with students over what to read, just pure dictatorship. For me personally, the “they take care of it all” scenario is ideal with the caveat that hopefully they are able to take care of it because they have already absorbed enough info to make the right choices- not because they just know to put wipeout in the 1NC. More than likely though the middle ground is where most students/coaches find themselves, with varying degrees of reasonableness.


Let’s first look at a student’s role/behavior in this interaction.


  1. Understand that, in all but a very small percentage of times, your coaches have your best interest at heart. Now, you may have a different opinion of your best interest- see previous articles about the desire for short term results. For the most part though, coaches are giving you advice for a reason other than “lets screw with this kid- it will be so funny”. Oddly, most students completely fail to grasp this. They get defensive, argumentative, and in general adopt an attitude that runs contrary to the goal of debate success. Ask any coach and they can give you a laundry list of pre round arguments that debaters decided to turn into the Alamo-anytime you are getting that heated about something with a coach you need to step back and try and figure out why you are arguing this point so heatedly. 99/100 the source isn’t a real “strategy” dispute, its insecurity. The thing about your coach is you have spent a decent amount of time with them, you are familiar with them and that gives you a certain license to go nuts on them in a way you don’t feel comfortable going nuts on your opponent or judge (for the most part). No matter who your coach is or how much esteem the rest of the debate community holds them in, they are always a joker to you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing- it would be weird to hold them up to be some sort of divine guru. Most people, however, take it too far in the opposite direction. They tend to remember the times coaches were (in their opinion) wrong, and not remember the countless times they were right. While many factors enter into your pre- round state of mind, for most coaches who have been doing this for a decade or more they generally don’t have a long list of concerns like ego (obvious exceptions) that go into their advice. Part of being coachable means recognizing that oftentimes your coach will have a better, more objective read on the situation than you do. That doesn’t mean you have to follow their advice, but it does generally mean its worth listening to.
  2. Forest from the trees- debaters have to focus on a lot of minutia in any given debate: what link cards to read, what impact calculus to focus on, how much time to spend on theory. Oftentimes these decisions are shaped by larger, meta level concerns. Coaches are generally much better at the latter, while debaters who are in the heat of it are much better at the former. One thing I’ve been paying attention to lately is the way students always want “more”. More off case, more on case, more links, more turns case. Coaches generally are always preaching the opposite- less is more. This is a crucial meta level distinction, and as a debater it behooves you to understand where it comes from. Coaches, generally, have to judge. Judging can be fun, but it can oftentimes be crappy, thankless, and end with all participants angry at you. Judges want nothing more than for one side to be “better” and to make the round a clear decision in their favor. Now, for many students reading that bit they probably think something like “oh they want someone to drop a disad, MOAR OFF!”. Most judges, however, don’t want to see debates where its just a contest to not drop things. They want to see intelligence, topic knowledge, strategy, and choice all executed together. For them, an in depth debate on elections with lots of clash is much better than someone dropping the disad. That doesn’t mean that the victor can’t be clear- there are tons of things you can do to more clearly “win” the elections disad. Those things are setting up evidence comparisons, debating warrants, making choices about what arguments to emphasize with your limited time etc. Going for less, winning it conclusively, and winning that the thing you won decides the debate is what judges want to see- it makes their RFD easy to explain, and if the other team wants to argue then the judge can point to arguments on the flow that defeat their objections. No one wants to argue with debaters after a round where both sides read 50 pieces of shitty evidence, everyone dropped everything, and debate was generally poor. The messier a debate round is the more the judge will have to decide on things not present in the debate to decide (like evidence quality when no comparisons are made by debaters), this opens them up to getting post rounded-which no one wants.
  3. Frame games- debaters are often arguing about different frames of reference from coaches. Things I hear from debaters before round are like “well they’ll drop it” or “they suck anyway” etc. These are almost always the justification for doing something bad: they suck, so its ok that our argument also sucks. This is classic debater vs coach frame difference: debaters debate down to their opponents, or generally want to. Coaches generally want you to debate your best, consistently. There are a ton of reasons for this disparity (debating down is generally easier/requires less pre-round effort, coaches generally don’t do the effort they just assign it to students etc). From a coach perspective this is a no brainer- why make an inferior argument when you could make a better one? Students generally don’t understand that practice becomes habit- if you keep making the bad argument, it becomes your fall back and you will keep trying it when facing teams it has no shot of defeating. In a student’s mind they are making a pragmatic, situation specific decision. The problem is that this assessment relies on a great deal of self-deception- is it really a one time thing? You probably wouldn’t find yourself in this predicament if it was. Students generally operate from a triage mentality- yes this may be a problem, but its not life threatening and can be addressed later. Slap a band aid on there and get back in the game. To a coach taking a long view, in order to execute quality argument X you are going to need to practice, and you might lose while practicing it. Its better to get that loss out of the way early, rather than later. To a student, any loss is an existential risk and must be avoided at all cost.


Now lets look at the coach position


  1. Damn, kids today, awful amiright?



No but seriously, for those coaches who find themselves in a lot of these arguments, here is my best list of concise advice


  1. Be the bigger person. When someone really digs their heels in you have to remember that there is a point of diminishing marginal returns where arguing until total surrender won’t actually help in anyway, and can often be quite counterproductive. There comes a point where you need to let them sink or swim, so when they finally say “ok I’ve listened to your 25 objections about doing X… so lets do it anyway because reasons?” you have to just say “ok”. Obviously there is more you can do- not give them team files, not let them travel to tournaments, etc- but no one really wants to do that, so at a certain point the only move left in the arsenal is letting them fail. Hopefully later on they come around and give it another think, but if not that isn’t the end of the world either.
  2. Don’t argue with the peanut gallery. One of the rules I have always had since I started coaching is I am more than willing to argue with you, the student I’m coaching, but no one else. Any appeal to some other authority ( a friend, a lab leader, another judge etc) and the convo is over. If you can’t explain the argument in a way other than “XYZ said” than you don’t have a strong justification for the argument. Inform students of this rule in advance.
  3. Don’t argue about evidence – either quality, its highlighting, or how much should be read. There is nothing that annoys coaches more than when they spend a month or two researching issue X, and then students who spent most of that time playing Dva in overwatch are just like “Well this card sucks” . Some amount of anger at such behavior I can certainly see from a variety of viewpoints being justified, but the point is- what is this accomplishing? Basically nothing. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them understand that the card called 1NC is the best one and should be read.

One response to “Factors that Make a Great Debater 6: Being Coachable

  1. I’m browsing on mobile. It would be nice if these posts had tags so I could.navigate easily. Instead, they’re apparently uncategorized. 😦

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