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Demanding expectations: Surviving and Thriving as a collegiate debate coach.

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. These educational opportunities outside of the tournament experience are time consuming and should be recognized as valued experiences. As educators, coaches need to spend time teaching. The time coaches spend dealing with budgets, travel arrangements, filling out reimbursement and authorization forms is time that cannot be spent coaching. While directing a debate team requires additional skills of organization with travel related issues and budget management, that is not the primary responsibility of the coach. The importance of institutional support for a debate program extends beyond whether travel or scholarship budgets are well funded. C oaches need the assistance of trained university support staff. The time a university trained academic department manager would take to complete a reimbursement form is likely appreciably less than a faculty member who has disciplinary training but not in-depth knowledge of the various accounting procedures of their university. A sure way for a debate coach to reach burn out quickly is when they realize they are spending large amounts of time as travel agent or accountant and less time as educator.

Reward systems also play an important role in the professional development, longevity, and physical and mental health of a debate coach. The time commitment coaching requires has traditionally resulted in release time for faculty. This time is absolutely necessary for obvious reasons: coaching and travel requires considerable time away from campus. While this idea seems simple enough to recognize, release time is essential if a faculty member is to do the other things involved in their job; namely teaching, research and service. Given that the "coin of the realm" in university life is departments' production of Student Credit Hours (S.C.H.), there is little incentive to give faculty release time for any project or program.

Another important consideration for any coach concerns the awarding of tenure. Given the general trend toward the creation of more and more part-time or limited-term, non-tenure track positions within higher education, a trend particularly acute in hiring debate positions, a potential coach must be made aware of institutional expectations. For individuals not in tenure-track positions, opportunities for salary increases or special merit consideration should be available. Debate coaches should have access to any reward system available to other faculty within the department and shutting them out will only assure a high rate of turnover in the position and frustration of efforts to develop the program.

The imperative to develop and maintain competence in using technology is another source of work for contemporary debate coaches. While coaches and educators have always had to deal with technological innovations and their impact on work practices, coaches now face very rapid changes in hardware, software, operating systems, search engines and research tools, and the additional pressure to find budgetary support to acquire and maintain all levels of technology. Voth (1997) addresses the impacts of technology on traditional advocacy and sensitizes coaches to the new imperatives of the information age. Edwards (1997) notes how technology has changed the role of tournament managers and has the potential to revolutionize the production and management of information used by debaters. This information technology revolution is both a boon and bust for coaches. The ease of access to larger volumes of information makes the production of evidence easier but it also creates additional demands on a coach to supervise the quality and integrity of the materials produced.


The task before debate coaches at the turn of the 21st century is large, but vitally important. Coaches and programs need to strike a balance between personal and professional commitments so the life of students and directors can be educational, healthy, and satisfying. While efforts such as the Cross Examination Debate Association's (CEDA) Mentoring Program and the Young Coaches Forum illustrate organizational commitments to the development of a professional cadre of coaches, there is a clear lack of participation by many within the organization and a lack of demonstrated results for the projects. The pressures to maintain the status quo with regard to travel schedules and preparation experienced by coaches and directors of research-based, policy debate programs are only likely to continue. Moreover, despite the relative youthfulness of their organizations, our colleagues in the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) or American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), face the similar harsh realit ies of intensive competition and overcrowded travel schedules. The creation of national sweepstakes and national-circuit tournament competition has raised the same issues for parliamentary coaches that policy coaches have faced for years.

Some important work has already been done that might help coaches preparing for tenure and promotion. Building from work at the 1974 National Developmental Conference at Sedalia, Dudczak and Zarefsky (1984) provided a very productive and thoughtful discussion of how Directors of Forensics may effectively articulate the contribution of their work with speech and debate within their tenure and promotion evaluation procedures. "Evaluation, therefore, should be the result not of counting contributions but of weighing their quality. Moreover, the criteria for determining whether standards are met will distinguish forensics educators from their colleagues, because of the non-traditional circumstances in which forensics educators engage in teaching, scholarship, and service" (emphasis in original) (Dudczak & Zarefsky, 1984, p. 26). In addition to providing some useful pragmatic suggestions when preparing for tenure and promotion, Dudczak and Zarfesky's discussion contains a number of useful insights into the tenure and promotion process and present some helpful ideas about pitfalls to avoid.

Another useful resource for coaches emerged from the May 1993 meeting of the American Forensic Association's (AFA) Professional Development and Support Committee at Quail Roost Lodge in North Carolina. The Policy Caucus Working Group developed a draft document, published in the winter of 1994 that outlined a number of important considerations when looking at how a Director of Forensics might fulfill the traditional tripartite standards of teaching, research and service for tenure and promotion considerations. In their conclusion, Dauber and Panetta (1994) note, "While we recognize that many different outcomes can be associated with a "successful" program, we believe that, taken in combination, the criteria suggested here will increase the likelihood that directors are aware of the standards by which their work in forensics will be evaluated, and can have some input into those standards" (p. 25). Further professional guidance comes from Leeper's (1997) discussion of tenure and post-tenure review standards. Her suggestions give directors some guidance in preparing appropriate documentation and a strategy to effectively meet institutional expectations.

These documents can help dealing with institutional reward and support systems. The former most directly by providing a productive framework to explain to departmental and university promotion committees what coaching debate involves. With regard to the latter, the materials outlined above can help a new or current coach frame their need for support. Debate coaches are not hired to be bookkeepers or travel agents. Regardless of the source of financial support for a program, the department that hires a debate coach should work to ensure they have appropriate administrative support. The dedication of staff time to the coach in support of the team's activities is integral to the competitive success of the program and the personal and professional success of the coach. As with promotion and tenure considerations, the debate coach should not be given any less opportunity or access than other faculty. In fact, given the unique burdens involved with coaching an academic debate program, it is vitally important that d epartments give clear feedback and support to their coach. If a coach is expected to operate without appropriate administrative staff support, the coach must be compensated for in other ways such as release time. Otherwise, the coach is left in the virtually untenable position of not having sufficient resources or time to do their job effectively.

Difficult choices have to be made by coaches with regard to the team's travel schedule. Resource limitations, whether budgetary or in terms of assistance in coaching and judging, will preclude a program from traveling to every tournament, every weekend of the competitive season. The decision on an annual schedule should reflect the priorities of the coach(es) and students. Just because coaches could travel teams every weekend in the spring term does not mean they should. During an earlier discussion of tournament formats and professional priorities on the debate LISTSERV's, Arizona State University (Srader, 1997) and Harvard University (Perkins, 1997) both declared their intent to not travel to tournaments prior to October 1. In the competitive arena of academic debate, there is likely an opportunity cost to forgoing competition early in the year. Given the competitive impulses of academic debate and institutional demands to demonstrate success, coaches may err by making the 'excellent the enemy of the good.' However, at least two programs publicly acknowledged the potential down side of a shortened season and argued that 'less is more' for themselves and their programs.

More research needs to be done on the status and professional development of collegiate debate coaches. Following the lead of Hunt (1987) and Murphy (1992), research should continue on the nature of and trends in academic debate to help current and potential coaches, academic departments and administrators understand the needs and expectations of collegiate debate programs. Efforts by CEDA committees and project teams to develop recruiting materials, program supporting documents, public relations and media materials provide a great service to new and long-time directors. The national debate organizations, CEDA, NDT, NEDA, and NPDA, should continue developing and collecting professional resources to help coaches. Model tenure and promotion documents should be assembled and retained by the organizations to help coaches prepare their document packets. Activity justifications and rubrics provide important documentation to help coaches effectively frame the varieties of work done everyday.

Finally, departments must be aware of the social, as well as professional demands, placed on debate coaches. Given the amount of time debate coaches are away from the campus, there may be an inclination by departments to exclude or exempt a coach from participation in governance matters. The physical estrangement many debate coaches feel from their campus and departments can be compounded by social and emotional abandonment by other faculty. Departments' commitment to their debate coaches must be manifest in a variety of ways. Bellas (1999) research on the subject of "emotional labor" of college professors highlights an important area of research into the needs of faculty beyond mere infrastructure or financial compensation. Debate coaches assume unique roles and responsibilities with their students. Coaches assume more responsibility for attending to the intellectual, emotional, personal and social development of students given the considerable time spent advising, teaching, sharing meals and traveling with competitors. The emotional energy coaches extend to their debaters can take a negative toll on their personal and professional lives. Moreover, the burden may be higher still for women engaged in the coaching profession. As Bellas (1999) and Steinberg and Figart (1999) point out, reward systems are traditionally set up along gendered lines and women assume a disproportionate share of emotional labor in the workplace. Why should we expect academic debate coaches' experiences to be any different? Given the relatively small percentage of women coaches at all levels, the impact is likely considerably higher than many people realize. Isolation on the job, whether emotional or physical, is one of the surest paths to dissatisfaction and burnout for any faculty member.

While academic debate will continue to thrive in the foreseeable future, the forecast for coaches does not seem as bright. While many of the pressures outlined here are perennial concerns for coaches, some structural pressures are more acute today than in the past. Parson's (1997) observation that less than 18% of the nearly 70 coaches he helped train while Director of Forensics at the University of Kansas are still coaching is a sobering reminder of the ability of individual coaches to endure the pressures of their profession. Whether coming from within or without, the pressures facing debate coaches create tension in one's personal and professional lives. The need for clear and convincing personal and professional support for debate coaches is genuine. Finally, I would like to offer a hopeful postscript to my initial observation. While I feared for the health of my chosen profession given the lack of tenured or tenure-track coaches at the breakfast banquet, it is important to recognize that every weekend ma ny coaches opt to stay home with families and relax or work at home, attend to research and scholarship or just recuperate from the past week's travel. Coaches are entitled to each and every one of these occasions and they are vitally important to maintaining balance and prosperity within their professional and personal life. It is time to recognize and support those decisions.

(*.) Kelly M. McDonald is an Assistant Instructional Professional and Director of Forensics in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University.


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Perkins, D. (1997, June 25). Re: Shortened season. Available at

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Voth, B. E. (1997). Information age consciousness: Technological challenges to traditional advocacy. In J. Klumpp, Argumentation in a Time of Change: Definitions, Frameworks, and Critiques: Proceedings of the Tenth NCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation (pp. 394-398). Annandale, VA: National Communication Association.
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Author:McDonald, Kelly M.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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