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...