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Support for Beginning Speech and Debate Coaches

By Treva Dayton on October 05, 2016 hst

All beginning coaches, whether they coach a sport or a performing arts activity, need good support to reach their highest potential and become their most effective. This is especially true for coaches of speech
and debate, due to the myriad of events they must master and the many other responsibilities they must assume.

Educators who coach high school athletics are usually part of an athletic department, with numerous other colleagues to provide guidance and support, and an athletic director who oversees codes of conduct, schedules, travel, budgets, and resource requests and allotments. A coach assigned a sport in which he or she has little or no experience generally has someone on staff who can help them learn what they need to get started and assist them as they gain expertise.

This type of support system is often not available for speech and debate coaches, who especially in smaller schools may find themselves the sole coach for competitive speech and debate events. Those who begin with extensive personal experience in competitive events frequently find they still must learn to coach contests that are new to them. And novice coaches who are fortunate enough to share the load with another colleague or small staff still need assistance in mastering the administrative elements of such a position. They will be responsible for students during travel and time away from campus, developing an effective practice schedule, choosing the best resources and understanding budget processes and constraints.

Administrative Support

Administrators must ensure that these beginning coaches receive the appropriate in-service and one-on-one instruction to handle student safety, scheduling, budgeting and transportation issues. Training may also be needed in developing squad rules and expectations if they are not already established, and working with parent or booster groups.

Principals or activities directors can provide access to the appropriate speech and debate rules manuals for their state, and see that critical eligibility issues are clearly understood and enforced. Some NFHS member state associations administer high school performing arts activities as well as athletics, while in other states such activities are governed by separate organizations. A coach’s thorough knowledge of the
rules for speech and debate competition will reduce the possibility of participating students being disqualified or ranked lower because of a rules infraction.

Administrative financial support is critical to a successful speech and debate program. In addition to travel expenses, entry fees and necessary resources, funds for novice coaches to attend local and state conferences or workshops is crucial. Just as athletic coaches, speech and debate coaches can reap enormous benefits by attending these events and learning from experts and experienced professionals in
the field.

National Support

National organizations also provide services and resources for speech and debate activities across the country. The NFHS administers the national policy debate topic selection process, and cohosts the topic selection meeting each summer with rotating state hosts. Any coach can register, attend and participate. The Forensic Quarterly, published and sold annually by the NFHS, is a valuable resource for both beginning debaters and debate coaches, and several other speech or debate booklets and materials are available for purchase or free online.

Coaches who become members of the NFHS Speech, Debate and Theatre Association receive additional benefits, including insurance coverage and a subscription to this magazine. See the NFHS website to join and for additional information and useful links to other resources.

The National Speech and Debate Association (formerly the National Forensic League), is the oldest speech and debate honor society in the nation, and also provides member schools and coaches with invaluable resources. The NSDA website contains useful free information for beginning coaches, and members have access to much more, including videos of performance rounds, webinars and other professional development opportunities, the ability to track student performance and achievements automatically, and access to their district tournament series with the chance to qualify for the national tournament. The NSDA, with active participation in all 50 states, has enrolled more than one million members since it was established in 1925.

The National Debate Coaches Association (NDCA) is another organization that provides support for speech and debate coaches of all levels of experience. The NDCA vision is to provide opportunities for high school coaches to strengthen their abilities in order to provide stronger learning environments for their students. Support includes sharing best practices in coaching and teaching, fostering curriculum development, coaching resources, professional development opportunities, and more. For more information see its website.

A web search will reveal additional national organizations with useful resources, as well as the many universities that host summer camps or clinics for high school speech and debate students, as well as coaches.

Individual Support

Beginning coaches, of course, must take personal responsibility for improving their knowledge and skills, and developing a network of colleagues is essential. Novice coaches will find that others in their local area are more than willing to share information, ideas and strategies with a newcomer. Ask any successful coach the best way to learn, and the vast majority will say that learning from colleagues with more experience is invaluable.

While a few states have developed mentoring systems that pair new coaches with experienced ones, most novice coaches will have to develop these contacts and other learning strategies on their own. A novice coach should consider:


• Introducing himself or herself to other coaches whenever possible, letting people he or she is a beginner but eager to learn.
• Asking questions and listening carefully. Local coaches can give insight into local tournament schedules and which competitions provide the best experience for students, and what they consider the most valuable print resources, websites, blogs, etc.
• Volunteering to work a local tournament to learn the process and meet new colleagues.
• Observing rounds whenever possible. Seeing is not the same as doing, but this can be an excellent way to learn whatmakes any individual competitor successful and what techniques or style diminish the chances of success of others.
• Attending meetings or clinics provided for speech and debate coaches.

Combining effective administrative, national and individual training and support can prevent unnecessary problems, relieve stress on beginning coaches, and reduce staff turnover. Such support leads to more effective coaching and program administration, and results in more valuable and enjoyable learning experiences for participating students.