A Coach vs A Guru

I have a lot of coaching interactions that go like this


me: they are going to say x, so you can say A, B, or C

debater: ok but which one

me: well that depends on these factors, you will have to decide

debater:… but which one



I’m not trying to be edgy, I thin this kind of exchange gets at fundamentally what I think a coach should be doing: guiding.


Let’s take a step back for a second: why do you NEED a coach? I don’t mean “why is a coach helpful”, I mean why do you NEED one?


Example: do you NEED a coach to cut your politics file? No, you could do it yourself. Maybe they will do a better job because they have more time or are more experienced, but you don’t NEED them for that.


So what DO you need a coach for? Basically coaches exist to illuminate blindspots. Some of you have taken drivers ed, others probably haven’t-see this. By blindspot I mean something that you are incapable of seeing given your location- i.e. something is obscuring your view, and your coach who is in a different position can therefore see it better/more clearly. Clarity is a good example, many people think they are being clear but it is hard for them to tell since they know what they are saying, its easier for an outside observer to comment on.


So while a coach can do all the mundane debate tasks like

-cut or highlight cards

-write blocks

-go get you a drink


this is not really what a coach is for in my opinion. Now, someone could retort

Image result for that's just like your opinion man


But what I have been trying to explain above is to point out that this isn’t just an opinion in the sense of preference but that it has a logic to it. Imagine you are a top professional athlete- what is your coach doing? They are focusing on a lot of big picture things- making sure the team functions well together- but when they are dealing with you as a player they are reviewing your performance and trying to help you improve by critiquing what you have done in the past.


I say all this because on 2019 students seem to think a coach is one of two things

  1. Someone who tells you word for word what to say
  2. Someone who tells you everything is fine and you should keep doing what you are doing


In this post I would like to deal with number 1, which I will call the “guru”. Now, if you ask a student why they want a Guru they will give you a few answers


  1. x person is smarter/better than I am, ergo they should make all the decisions
  2. I am insecure about my abilities, so it is comforting to have someone make decisions for me


So I would like to “line by line” these if you will


AT: X person is smarter


  1. Yes, and you need to learn- just repeating what someone tells you is not learning. You need to understand WHY they are telling you to say these things. Yes, this can be part of a conversation in the vein of “say these exact things, here is why” but usually after the “say these things” part students stop listening. Its the debate equivalent of “cramming” for a test. So instead of leading with say x, you need to lead with the reasoning and try and help the student come to the conclusion themselves (the basics of the Socratic method). Many debaters have their career success capped because they early on learn to think of debate as a model where their coach is a teleprompter telling them what to say and they are the empty shell political candidate who just says those things. This can achieve some success, but if other people figure it out its easy to throw a curve ball in there which brings me to point 2
  2. Situational specifics matter- your coach can’t be updating what you are supposed to say as the debate progress. This means that advice they gave you before the round, that might have been excellent then, can now become much less good or even counterproductive. I can think of many 2ACs where a pre round block was read that didn’t account for subtle (like swapping out a card) or not so subtle (like reversing the direction of a politics disad) where the 2AC went on autopilot and lost the round. Many “small schools” now try and game the system by reading only one type of argument like a single K or a single process cp- this is not the way you beat juggernaut teams. Having been both at a HS of 1 team, and at Emory the largest college program I have seen this from both sides. The way you beat big schools is by presenting a front that seems the same as everything else and then catching them with a twist because they have gotten too used to coasting. By adding a twist you can turn their advantage, pre round coaching/prep against them. In LD small schools often have this EXACTLY backwards- they rely on theory like RVIS. But in the last 20 years the RVI has not developed or changed as an argument form, its the same 3-4 things. So most “big” schools have had that blocked out for a decade or more. This is now becoming the case with a lot of generic ks like cap or pessimism- while there was a period where the aff was very far behind on them they now are doing much better.
  3. Short term vs long term- what is your goal in debate? Do you want to win a random round 3 at a local tournament, or do you want to win a ship? Because these two goals often conflict- the short, easy path (the dark side of the force) prevents you from learning skills needed to succeed at the top. Sometimes in debate we have things that are training wheels like the impact calc formula of “the disad outweighs and turns the case ABCD”. The newest form of training wheel is 2AC case overviews that restate the 1AC and give prescripted impact calculus. Younger kids need these because they can’t improv that off the top of their head, so they help.  But once you get to a certain level they stop helping and start hurting. In a debate I judged this weekend the affirmative had a scripted set of impact calc arguments about warming that were well thought out and reasonable. The problem is that when the neg was doing their impact calc they were NOT reasonable, they made 4 or 5 completely outrageous claims. When the aff read their impact OV, or more accurately when they wrote it, they had not anticipated the negative making such ridiculous arguments so their block DID NOT include answers to them. So even though they had their own set of “good” arguments, reading them resulted in dropping a lot of bad arguments the other side made. This debater, without that block, could have easily (based on skill they showed in the round) defeated these neg impact calc arguments but they were locked in/path dependent on their written overview. One job of a coach is to let debaters know when this previously helpful thing, long scripted sections of the speech, moves from being helpful to harmful.

AT: I am insecure about my abilities


  1. What is your plan for becoming “more secure” in your abilities? Every time a debater gives me a line that is like “eh i just need a little help more and then I will be more independent in the future” my response is HOW? What are you going to do or change about what you do to become more independent? There is rarely an answer. Going out on your won is scary, but that fear won’t just go away. Only after you go on your own a bit and see its not that bad will you start getting more comfortable with things. This is one reason a lot of heavy handed coaching with young debaters is particularly dangerous- the longer you wait to start taking risks the scarier taking a risk seems. Debaters basically internalize the logic of presumption and think “eh, im doing alright now, its not so bad and so I won’t take the scary risk of changing it up”. This is why frequently students from small /less established programs grow up to be the best debaters in college- they have the risk taking mentality developed PRIOR to getting a good coach. Established programs often work the opposite way- coaches who are used to working with stubborn high school seniors take the same top down approach with young students and those young students never get a chance to fail on their own. You then see that “established” program decline over time because one of the things that made them good- robust novice/younger debate- has been replaced with mechanical/programmatic novice debate.  Those novice students are “doing better” but they aren’t learning as much.
  2. Start with practice rounds- if you really are too anxious/scared at a tournament to try and change it up, then this is what you should be doing at practice or at camp. Coaches shouldn’t become Harrison Ford in Enders game, but similarly they shouldn’t be spoon feeding kids all the time. Even if you think before the finals of the Glenbrooks your coach writing a block to an argument you’ve never heard of from college debate is fine, what about the 99% that constitutes every other round? This relates back to a worrying trend I have noticed: debaters don’t want to debate. This happens both at camp and during the year- people will show up for practice debates and say “I’m not ready”. I don’t know where this came from- no one is ever “ready” for a debate because it isn’t a binary: you can be more or less prepared but either way you debate. If in your head you can only debate if XYZ conditions have been met prior that is a very damaging belief system because INEVITABLY you can’t control every round and so there WILL be debates where those conditions are not met.



So to sum up my case

  1. A “guru” approach is not effective because debate rounds are complex, and your coach can’t possibly know and plan for all potential arguments. Debaters need to develop these skills on their own
  2. Developing these skills is delayed the more you defer to a coach/older debater etc and let them make these decisions for you
  3. the longer you delay the more likely it is you will never develop these skills because taking risks keeps getting more and more scary












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