Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Coaching The Girl

The Girl, who is eleven, has her first debate tournament on Saturday.

I’m as excited as she is.

I was never any kind of athlete.  The only sport I understand in any significant way is baseball, and even there, my understanding is more from a spectator’s perspective than a player’s.  For years, The Boy and The Girl have played sports coached by other kids’ parents.  I feel guilty every single time there’s a call for coaches and I don’t answer, but I never felt like I could.  

Finally, with debate, there’s something I understand.  This, I can do.

Helping a child learn debate is harder, in some ways, for the lack of role models. The Republican presidential debates were closer to performance art than to anything resembling an exchange of ideas.  The Democratic one was less embarrassing, but still offered little in the way of substantive disagreement.  Compare that to baseball, where televised games are usually played at a high level.  I’ve watched games with TB and pointed out when a pickoff move was particularly good, or where a fielder positioned himself to anticipate a ball.  But I’ve kept TG away from televised debates, to prevent her having to unlearn some pretty awful habits.

TG has been given four topics, but she won’t know which side she’s supposed to argue until fifteen minutes before each match.  That means preparing arguments for both sides.  For an eleven-year-old, the concept of arguing the side you don’t believe is a bit abstract.  I suggested that she think of it like chess: your moves are more effective when you anticipate your opponent’s moves.  If you can jump between sides of a chess board in your head, you can do the same with positions in an argument.  She remained skeptical.  

“But how can I say something if I don’t believe it?”

“Well, that’s how it’s like a game.”

“But I don’t want the bad side to win!”

Clearly, a different approach was in order.

“Think of it like acting.  The guy who plays Voldemort isn’t really a villain, but if he didn’t play the villain, there’d be no story.  And the scarier he is, the better the story. If you’re on the wrong side, you’re playing Voldemort.”

She liked that better.  But the discussion of acting led quickly to a discussion of stage fright.

“You’ve given speeches before.  Don’t you get nervous?”

“Of course!  But with practice, it gets easier to manage.”

“I’ve heard it helps if you picture the audience in their underwear.  Do you do that?”

(laugh) “No.  It would be distracting, and kind of rude.”

“So what do you do?”

“I just think of it as talking to myself in front of people.  They just happen to be there.  That way I don’t get overwhelmed.”

“That works?”

“It works for me.  And I’ve heard you talk to yourself sometimes.  You get some good rants going.  Just do it out loud in front of people.”

“That’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

She brightened up at that.  It seemed doable.

I don’t care much about whether she wins, but I’m hoping she keeps her composure and makes the points she wants to make.  Debate may be out of fashion, but the ability to see both sides of a question, to keep your composure in front of an audience, and to use evidence and reasoning to make a point will serve her well.  There are worse things.

Saturday morning.  This must be how basketball Dads feel...

Excellent, excellent advice. The only thing I would add is that you need to be incredibly creative, looking for the argument or case that no one in their right mind would come up with. And when she gets to the level where you do cross-ex, study the Sophists and the "when did you stop beating up old people" type of questions.

Our HS debate team made a major breakthrough when our coach flipped the teams, and we went on to win our conference and challenge (but lose to) one of the top teams in the state. You need finely tuned "negative" skills to negate the attacks on the affirmative case, and there is no better defense than a well-planned counter offensive. It also helped that, for both halves of the team, we knew our own standard plans of attack better than the ones who were going to be attacked. We knew what we would do, and were ready for it.

Tell her to think of the challenge of arguing against her preferred position as a way to find holes in that case and shore it up against a counter-attack.

Debate is about analyzing your own argument as much as it is about analyzing your opponents argument. You have to find the weaknesses in your own argument, and that is harder to do when you "believe" in it than when you don't.
Oh, and one other thing. One year our topic was viewed as one where one side had a natural advantage because it was OBVIOUS that X was the correct view. So that side was lazy and easily beaten when they rolled out a common, but poorly founded, argument. If she and her friends all think that one side of a particular topic is the "right" one, that side could ultimately be the easiest to beat if you are prepared. And, as I said above, if you know what attack it might make it vulnerable, you can win on the "good" side as well.

There is nothing quite like winning both sides of an argument!
She's doing the same basic kind of debate I coached in college..

Making good notes is essential.. That way she won't miss arguments.

Watching her time allocation is hard, but necessary.

As for you, you need to decide if you're going to watch her speak or not... It's nerve wracking band some debaters don't want their families and coaches watching.
Loved debate in HS, loved debate in college, and did a little coaching (in college) as well). I think CCPhysicist has hit the true long-term benefit of debate. It teaches you to think critically about your own beliefs, to realize that you cannot defend them well unless you have a clear idea of where their weaknesses lie.

I also think it's essential not to take it as a matter of life-and-death. There are things people do to win debate tournaments (abusive behavior) that one need not learn.

Also, I hope the judges have moved away from essentially counting the amount of "evidence" one quotes and are paying more attention to logic and rhetorical skills. (Back when I was last involved, things had devolved into "evidence wars.")
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?