Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Demanding Expectations: Surviving and Thriving as a Collegiate Debate Coach

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Demanding Expectations: Surviving and Thriving as a Collegiate Debate Coach

Article excerpt

Kelly M. McDonald (*)

In the last year of my graduate program at the University of Kansas, I had occasion to look closely at the crowd assembled for the awards breakfast on the last day of competition at the Donn W. Parson Heart of America tournament. I was set back by the observation that, as I prepared to begin my career as a tenure track faculty member and debate coach, there were less than a dozen tenured or tenure track, active directors in the room. While a simple accounting of one tournament's coaches does not necessarily support larger trends or conclusions about the health of debate coaching as a profession, I argue that the few active tenure-track coaches is a harbinger of deeper, structural concerns about the health and sustainability of the profession. In short, the structure of collegiate debate tournaments and the pressures placed on directors has necessarily created an unsustainable cycle that threatens the physical and mental well being of coaches and undermines the long-term health of the activity of collegiate de bate. The following outlines some problems and pitfalls faced by coaches and some suggestions to address them.


One of the most obvious areas of concern for any coach concerns the annual travel schedule. First, one has to figure out where to travel given the dynamics of the team in terms of experience, interest and preparation. Second, one has to balance resources to make the travel schedule a reality. While every coach faces these decisions, a third and more difficult decision concerns how long their program's season will last. Reviewing the most recent issue of the AFA Newsletter reveals debate tournaments begin as early as the first weekend in September and extend for two weeks after the national championship tournaments (June 1999, p. 18-42). Arguably, one of the greatest sources of stress on a coach is travel. The fatigue that comes from long flights or drives, judging and coaching is compounded by the social and emotional impact of time away from partners, family and friends.

Beyond deciding when to begin and end the travel season, which each year gets longer and filled with additional tournament options, a coach must decide on the type of tournament to support. Coaches are faced with deciding to attend regional or national tournaments and debate-only or full-service (offering debate and individual events) tournaments. While the organization and goals of individual debate programs drives the resolution of these considerations, they are more difficult if one directs a program that competes in individual events and different types of debate. Furthermore, the importance of presenting measurable success to one's administration leads programs to attend tournaments with larger numbers of elimination rounds to earn additional points for the national sweepstakes calculation. The dominance of some 'super-sized' tournaments such as Wake Forest, Northwestern, West Georgia, and the Heart of America are testament to the attraction of tournaments that are well managed but also offer competitive advantages to many teams with the large number of sweepstakes points available. The effect of these tournaments size has been to draw away competition from regional tournaments. The net effect is a downward spiral in the number of competitors in all divisions at regional tournaments. Higher travel costs and greater commitments of time necessary to travel and compete in these larger, national-circuit tournaments are opportunity costs for coaches and students in time away from teaching, scholarship and personal and professional engagements.

The role of systems of support and reward cannot be overlooked when considering the life of a debate coach. Making a commitment to being a debate coach is a special commitment to being an educator in and outside of the classroom. Time spent with students listening to practice rounds or working on speaking or refutation drills is invaluable time for debater's development. …

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