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So you were the one voluntold to form or take over leadership of a debate club? Bless you.

I’ve been on the leadership and admin team of 4 clubs, and consulted around 20 over the last 10 years. Here are some lessons learned about four different models, and guiding thoughts on use of club time and what is healthy coaching.

Don’t Forget Leadership

Leadership and communication are inexorably tied. That’s why Toastmasters requires both leadership and public speaking manuals/activities to be a Toastmaster, and it’s why rhetoric throughout the ages was always associated with philosophy and leadership. Communication is about identification with others, and motivation for them to act.

As Leadership Training in Boy Scouts of America says, the number one skill of a leader is empathy. That’s the same for the best communicator: see clearly through the eyes of others.

Since communication is therefore a discipline, not merely a skill, its learning methods are part of the activity itself. In other words, there are two deliverables for the successful debate club: 1. The communication skills, 2. The process of the club and learning environment of those skills.

That’s why, for me, coaching is always about teaching communication and leadership at the same time. That may mean more for the coaches than the students, under different models, but the display of effective leadership is essential:

  • delegation,
  • safe place to fail,
  • transparency,
  • effective communication and facilitation,
  • non-emotional/vindictive leadership,
  • motivation to excel

Model 1: IMPACT, MD – “Startup Club”

This club was founded by myself and my mother, Betsy McPeak, near Baltimore, Maryland. We coached both speech and debate, and ran some NCFCA tournaments. In the first year, which was mostly foundational, we really just focused on teaching, teaching, and teaching.

So the model was this: excellence in teaching.

In terms of bylaws, website, oversight, all that stuff… we didn’t have any of it. Just like in the business world, sometimes I think people look at a club 5+ years in and “startup” a club with all the accoutrements because they think they’re supposed to. I’m here to tell you that your first order of business in starting a business isn’t a logo and business card, it’s doing something valuable and working with customers to put a price on it so you can predict a future brand. Same with a club… it’s not REQUIRED to spend all your time on governance at first, especially if that’s taking away from learning.

Our first year, we placed a team 3rd at NCFCA nationals. We had a great first few years and made some solid partnerships with other clubs locally and nationally.

As far as I know, the club is still in operation, though I don’t know how it is currently governed or structured.

Model 2: PHC Debate – “Leadership Program”

This was a “turnaround” situation. There were around 60 debaters on the squad when I took over as executive coach. Previous administration was roughly one person talking every week, then traveling to tournaments. We transformed this into a LEADERSHIP PROGRAM.

Create leadership roles and leadership team:

  • Coaching roles (different specialties, such as value debate, parli, a particular league, or novice vs. advanced focus)
  • Admin roles (tournament director, event managers, club/facilities managers)
  • Development roles (fundraising, scholarships)

There were initially 8 leaders identified. We had regular management training meetings (e.g. once a month) with Dr. Tallmon, where we learned about Continuous Improvement, Total Quality Management, and other leadership principles. Dr. Tallmon was a professor of rhetoric and formerly directed a majorly successful leadership program along with rhetoric (he thinks these two ideas are closely linked as well).

A key point was this: identify and mentor your possible replacements. Here we practiced habits of working yourself out of a job, whether it be through people, processes, or automations, but mostly it was people.

Sometimes we had failures, leaders learned to negotiate or trade responsibilities, but we grew and managed as a team. The legacy of mentorship and leadership had a pretty high impact on each of these people (and myself), who all were competing while leading. We did well but the leadership lessons are still something we refer to regularly. We navigated challenges like competing in three leagues, leadership turnover, funding changes, and hosting PHC’s first intercollegiate debate tournaments!

Model 3: Vector, VA – “Breakaway Club”

This wasn’t so much a startup as a pivot. While I was still in college at PHC, I was looking for a place to volunteer, and meanwhile Debbie Snyder and her family (three of whom I attended college with at least a year, as they overlapped) was a debate family from California ready to really progress in debate. There was a semi-local club, but it was one of those controlled by a single coach who got offended by outside influences and was very controlling.

So we started this other club, and a bunch of people from different clubs (including the one from the controlling person) came along. This club started with a board, of five families including the coach family (myself and my wife). There were bylaws that we followed, structured board meetings a few times a year, and so on.

This club met for two hours once a week (team policy debate) and eventually added on speech and LD, which met at different times. Team policy was the heart of this club. While I was head coach, over the years I tried to promote students to leadership roles (just like at PHC) while also bringing in many guests, such as Dr. Farris to teach on CX, many topic experts, and other college debaters.

We won the regional championships (and I think every NCFCA qualifier in the region) for 4 years straight, qualified 4–6 teams to nationals each year, and typically broke 4–5 teams at nationals each year. That was, in my opinion, largely a result of the dedicated students we had at the time. Again, you may recognize these names: Dan Pugh, Lydia Bode, Peter Voell, Zach Voell, Chloe Bozarth (now Snyder), Anna and Sarah Snyder. These folks all took on progressive leadership roles over three years, to the point where we had an incredible team captain, delegated research responsibilities, and student-led training. Overall, the educational part of club was really going well.

There was also some grave drama, that had to be handled by the board and I was glad they were there. But the process of handling that drama really tore apart the board and few of the members speak to each other anymore. In addition, I made some mistakes by treating new students as if they were as dedicated to debate as the original students of the club, and was too hard or even offensive to some of them (think Russian gymnastics coach). I wish I had known myself better at that time to identify a “less serious” educational leader and structure – it’s extremely challenging for a club to operate as a single entity when it has a few sizeable cohorts with completely different educational goals and commitment levels.

So while this club was wildly successful at placing SOME of its students into the top levels of competition, teaching them leadership skills, and helping the educational community at large, it didn’t fully adapt to the needs of its newer members.

Because the club was good, we also had to manage this issue: perception by other clubs and folks. Our answer was this: complete openness, and no club protect. We shared research, shared cases, I coached opponents of my teams in outrounds at tournaments, students were encouraged to do that as well, clubs were invited to all our special events, and ALL debaters were held to a high standard of encouragement and training to people who did not have the same coaching access. By and large, this principle went really well, though some people always had a chip on their shoulder. The club’s leaders, students, and coaches all really believed in helping everyone. Our two guiding principles were: 1) Learn and Grow, and 2) Challenge Ourselves. That’s why these debaters really are known for their research: they challenged themselves to succeed with completely open cases and research.

Model 4: APEX, FL – “Professional Coaching”

APEX also adopted the two key principles I insist on whenever I coach somewhere: 1) Learn and Grow, and 2) Self-Challenge. These principles mean that when there is a potential contradiction of one of these values, for some competitive reason, we forego it. Just like Vector, we said no club protect (in fact, we said “this is not a club; you should participate in another club if you want”).

This organization had no formal board, but was organized and run by a small group of parents in Florida and myself. Gary Downing and I set most of the policies and agendas.

Our first year, Ryan Collins (now a coach) won NCFCA TP Nationals, and we’ve had top-ranked parli debaters and LDers on speechranks several times (you may not know it… b/c “APEX” was rarely used as a club name; people competed under other clubs, or ridiculous names like “Han Solo + Utility Vest”).

We tried a few times to start leadership initiatives with the students inside of this group, but it ended up that leadership learning was primarily on behalf of the coaches since we had 3–6 coaches in attendance every time we met (for a whole day on Saturdays for TP/LD and a half day for parli on Fridays, optional). So the primary leadership learning was the leaders, who I’d consider Jr. Coaches / emerging leaders in most cases, and some of whom came from APEX or Vector.

The “all day Saturday once a month” intensiveness is a GREAT model for education. Because debate education always struggles with the tension between teaching and coaching (honestly most clubs spend 80% of time or more teaching, rather than coaching), the all-day model is really great for providing a schedule to both teach and practice without pressure. I highly recommend this model.

As with Vector, we experienced different levels of commitment, but I think we were far more effective at welcoming and celebrating those differences. The people who most “need” communications training aren’t the ones who are already great at it, and a healthy club recognizes and invests in the less serious or less talented.

Use of Club Time

A little less talk and a lot more action. People take notes and even parrot back what they’re supposed to do, but actually experiencing the patterns of success is a completely different story. More and more I try to just get students to where they’re debating, then stop/start them, tell them to go back and do it right (in the moment! not in a debriefing), and teach snippets of debate principles during those moments. No, you won’t say “everything you planned,” but each thing you say will be more valuable and targeted.


(This drives me crazy about tournaments too, and I have a hot opinion, so feel free to ignore me. When I run a tournament, the “announcements” 45 minutes at the start is all handled in an email beforehand that takes 10 minutes to read: where are the bathrooms, what happens if/then, be nice to the facility, and here are key points about the schedule.)

That’s an analogy… at a club, don’t spend the first 15 minutes making announcements that can be made via email, to more targeted audiences (e.g. parents), and so on. Your time is valuable.


Even if you’re going to make a few lame announcements, always, always, always start with a “hook” – speaking 101 stuff. It’s amazing to me how boring most of the books on rhetoric and communication are. You’ve got to exemplify what you’re teaching! And one of the most important ways to do that is a strong opener, and strong conclusion, to any day or meeting. Doesn’t have to be you speaking, but it really needs to happen.

Evidence Rings

My recommendation is let the students run this, but provide the accountability. If there’s a parent willing to participate in the research facilitation, then that’s awesome, you should empower them to do so!

The key principle of evidence rings is this: be consistent. Students need rhythm and no exceptions. That doesn’t mean “be difficult” and it doesn’t mean “be equal.” I’m ok with novices producing 2 briefs in a year. I’m ok with a warning, , penalty policy or a zero strikes and you’re out policy. Just communicate clearly and follow through.

Need help running an evidence ring? At Vector the students used to help other clubs nationwide to run their evidence rings. It’s easy to find someone willing to help in this way.

Coaching Issues

Some people are living vicariously, some are making a business out of it, some are trapped in a pastime paradise, and some are true volunteers. Whatever the reason, make sure coaches are in it for acceptably “right” reasons: focused on developing the students into more effective, disciplined, wiser people.

Engaging in the World of Ideas. A surprising amount of coaches are “my way or the highway” coaches, tell people not to share/discuss ideas, don’t want students receiving any other coaching, don’t allow students to try or consider certain types of arguments, and so on. These coaches are limiting development, which is a combination of experience and consideration. It’s contradictory to the very thing we’re practicing: debate.

Debate is all about WHY, and WHY is tasted and it’s rational, not a rulebook. That’s why I let my debaters try ridiculous things and help COACH them afterwards to see and commit to a better path, encourage them to seek opinions of other coaches, staff camps with diverse coaches that disagree on key issues, and point to the broader world of ideas. Accept nothing less.

The ultimate goal of debate coaching should be a student/adult who actively self-educates, is self-capable, and mentors others. Controlling minds will not achieve the outcome desired. Instead, push people to broaden their perspective, consider both sides, taste and see, and in the end have a WHY behind their opinions.

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 1.58.59 PMFor you: Here are some internal instructions for Ethos Coaches, on key coaching principles. You will find the first third useful.

No Experience. Having a club is better than not having one. Sometimes the “coach” is really a newbie parent one week ahead. That’s great! It’s not impossible. Just don’t let the debate world intimidate you: the language they use is an utterly foolish construct. The concepts of debate work every day in business, politics, and normal conversations, and if someone teaches you otherwise they’re making the activity less valuable.

You should reach into the community and compare lesson plans and resources to others, consider a few mentoring calls from experienced coaches, and think about pointing your students in effective directions.

But most of all, you should TRY IT. I teach adults to debate all the time (at Leadership Institute, Toastmasters, and the daring few who participate in our camps instead of gabbing in the back). It’s not just for kids… the first time my mom debated (at IMPACT), she wrote two words on her flow and badgered a girl in CX – it made her understand the debater’s point of view so much better and become a better coach. Get a partner, and participate in debate rounds – don’t just watch.

Conclusion: There is no Try, only Do

Just as we say “debate is more caught than taught” to students, the same is true of running a club. The time you spend together will be valuable as long as you’re trying to make it valuable, even if it’s not “the best” it could possibly be. Adopt a continuous improvement mindset, take a deep breath, and just go for it doing the best you can.

There’s a strong educational community around debate, and tons of resources (like all the free videos and blogs here at Ethos, and elsewhere). You can do it!


Isaiah_McPeak-squareIsaiah McPeak co-founded Ethos in 2005, and has since then been an educator by night and entrepreneur by day. He has coached CEOs, keynote speakers, politicians, and students to deliver inspiring presentations and speeches, using classical rhetoric and modern communications techniques. In Debate, Isaiah is a 5x Coach of National Champs (college and high school), former PHC head debate coach, and 5x top 5 nationally ranked debater in various formats, competing in: moot court, team value, team policy, LD-policy, LD-value, and parli.




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