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There are two types of soccer coaches:

  1. Those who try to CONTROL your every action, as if the athletes are at the end of a joystick. Move here, do this, do that, go there, dribble now, pass now, strike it!
  2. Those who help you OWN your own decisions, as if only you know in the given moment the best combination of risk/reward, likelihood to succeed, strengths of those around you, strength of opponent, strategy, and your own abilities.

If you’ve played soccer for long, you know that it is a game of technique and strategy, not pure athleticism. I’ve been training with one of the country’s top soccer coaches, to improve my own coaching. His signature line is “why would we practice a fluid game with a static scenario.”

It means standing there passing back and forth between two people to “learn to pass” isn’t really “learning the game” of soccer. There’s always pressure, movement, imperfection, and judgment. While skill is necessary to begin with baby steps, rapidly moving to the areas of judgment and a scenario is the key to practicing the game.

I like soccer because debate is like soccer. Unlike football, where you prepare certain strategies (let’s call them “rules”) and execute these rules against other rules – as the primary method of gameplay – in soccer you might find any player in any position at any time. If you commit to a rule, someone will punish you for it – so you have to keep adapting.

Here are a couple debate coaching principles that mirror soccer. You want to establish Organized Chaos, if you want to be a coach and not merely a teacher.

Soccer Analogy

When my U7 girls walk in for practice, I don’t lecture them or really even talk to them at all. I say “here are the boundaries – dribble the ball through as many gates as you can find” and get everyone moving. They’re going this way and that, dodging other people, and getting lots of time on the ball.

From there, I pause one athlete and correct or improve something, then put them back into the mix. And we build up from there. It’s chaos with a plan, and I know roughly what we’ll accomplish but not precisely what we’ll learn – it’s discoverable on-site and more relevant to the athletes to work with what’s really happening and feel the improvement.

Applied to Debate

1. Start Quickly. We all know a “hook” is supposed to start a speech. But the majority of debate clubs I know of start with a boring list of announcements, then a whole lot of talking. What about starting with “here’s a challenge, now TRY YOUR SKILL.” Just get things moving.

2. Taste Success. Too often, coaches lecture – they become teachers rather than coaches. And 9 of 10 things they say are assented to theoretically, but the debaters aren’t able to execute, and don’t really get a chance to. Far better to have someone start cross-examining, then throw in one coaching point at a time and make the person start over until they get it right. If you don’t get through all 25 things you want to say about CX that night, no big deal – the 5-8 you got through will stick.

3. Experienced. When you see someone try to implement four-point refutation, or run their first counterplan, it’s not going to be pretty early on! They say it takes about six times communicating something before it’s clear. Too many debaters give up on a certain argument because they only ever try it one time. Let four or five students achieve the same thing before moving to a new topic.

4. Individualized. The strengths and weaknesses of each person become apparent when you see them try to apply. By watching and then pausing a student and tweaking ONE thing, you’ll help that student get to the next level – a “personal best” or “new record” if you will. In theory, a lecture is efficient. In practice, identifying the “best next step” for each individual is more important.

5. Learning is Learning. Some days we get through my lesson plans, and beyond. Other days, we only get 30% of the way through. At Ethos debate camps I regularly receive feedback like this: “at X other camp, we didn’t stay on this topic long enough to really let it sink in – because ‘we’ve got to get through this to get to the next thing’. Thanks for digging in deep.” Of course we didn’t cover everything, but what we did stuck. It’s the difference between a textbook surveying World War II, and reading “To Hell and Back” and “Ghost Soldiers.” Sure, you can convey information, but going deep creates real change. As long as we’re learning, learning is good, so let’s keep doing it rather than “moving on.”

6. Rules Don’t Win. Debate is about WHY. It’s a thinking activity. Providing lists of things to do or say doesn’t foment thinking, and is too often presented without even the rationale of why one ought to do this or that. Students OWN critical thinking in debate when respected enough to accept or reject the coach’s opinions, and get out there and test the idea. I hear of coaches “banning” certain arguments all the time. If it’s a poor argument, let the debater experience it! Who knows, perhaps the debater will surprise you too – that happens to me every year.

If anyone is struggling with their coaching, I regularly Skype call or chat to help folks improve their club experience. Please contact me if you need help! isaiah.mcpeak@ethosdebate.com

Let’s keep the lessons in debate fluid, to match the ever-changing world of ideas and unpredictable life scenarios where critical thinking and communication don’t fit in a box, but unfold in myriad ways.

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