Preparation and Procrastination
Two schools in our district traditionally hold novice tournaments the last two weeks of October. The first of those tournaments was held this past week-end. Each school has decided the interests of the local debate community are better served by having the novices debate the November topics, even though it is still October. It gives the first-timers little time to prepare; barely two weeks, but the varsity debaters should be working on the same cases, so they can benefit from the varsity lead, or so one would think. In fact, my varsity teams are pretty much masters at procrastination. Being on varsity for some, means they have enough experience to know exactly how long it takes to research, write cases, and get ready and some have figured out how to compress that into a two-week time frame. Not that they aren't working. They are "researching" and have no problem showing you their collections of files and cards. But generally speaking, many will not start to compile a case until the last minute, no matter how much they are encouraged, pushed or cajoled. Indeed, for many, debate is just one of several activities and may not be the most important. Granted, for me that thought is borderline outrageous, but I have learned as the years go by there is only so much "leading to water" one can do before the horse begins to buck and rear.
Debate? Yeah Right!
As coaches, we know (and the varsity supposedly knows) the best way to prepare a case is to debate it and that means time must be allocated in practice so the cases can be run, and the coach can watch and offer critiques. Nevertheless, that never goes as smoothly as we like. Our team is not really big and this year it is smaller than it has been in some time. Making debates actually happen in practice can be much more difficult than any of us would like. Sometimes, one member of a team is present but the other is not and quite often one never knows who will show up, due to band, cross country, wrestling, volley ball, choir, college visits, S.A.T. and A.C.T tests and all manner of extra-curricular events. Sometimes, two debaters that can potentially go head-to-head in practice both have just the Aff or just the Neg case prepared so we can't debate. As a coach, we understand how important it is to know who will be absent from practices on certain days so activities can be planned accordingly. But students don't seem to have the same sense of priorities such that when they do remember to let you know of absences in advance, there is a mistaken tendency to believe you are actually impressing them with the importance of proper scheduling and time-management. That false sense of accomplishment rarely holds through the following week.
The Varsity Beast
In our district, beginning in November, the novices will be thrust into the shark infested waters of varsity debate. There is no such thing as a novice or junior varsity tournament around here, so first-timers are forced to go toe-to-toe with experienced debaters. Generally speaking, it works out well since the two, prior novice tournaments tend to condition most of the first-timers pretty well. Our novice policy debaters are not as lucky. Unfortunately, their first tournament is a slug-fest, sponsored by a regional university populated by teams hoping to pre-qualify for the state tournament. The novice tournaments represent a chance to lick their wounds and realize, everything the coach said was true after-all.
As it turns out, there is a far worse situation than throwing novices into a varsity debate and that is putting them up against a varsity debater from their own team during practice. This seems to be a particularly troubling scenario in which the varsity students feel it their duty to shred and otherwise destroy novice debaters. Varsity team-mates are viewed as beasts in the first place. They use unfamiliar language, they exude confidence, and they can unleash a devastating verbal torrent, unrehearsed for what must seem like hours on a single breath of air. I think varsity debaters tend to function under the creed that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger so they are doing the novice kid a favor by burying them alive. Additionally, some varsity debaters harbor a certain sense of resentment they must "lower" themselves to debate a novice as they feel they reap little benefit from the encounter. Not all of them beat up novices, but it happens. It is my job as a coach to watch for unnecessary roughness. It is easy to spot, when novice enthusiasm turns to a kind of fear which says, "oh no, I am going to be humiliated in front of my peers". Then it's time to intervene on behalf of the least experienced and turn it into a learning experience.
Debate in the "Real" World
I will say, in my years of judging debate in the "real" world, which I still thoroughly love to do, I have rarely seen a varsity team shred a novice from another school. It happens occasionally, but a remarkable quality of most varsity debaters is adaptation. They seem to naturally adjust themselves not only according to the judges they face but also in response to their level of competition. In a kind of instinctive act of energy conservation, the varsity debater, tends to reduce her intensity to a level necessary to match the skills of the novice plus some incremental amount sufficient to ensure victory. As a coach and judge its a beautiful thing to recognize. The varsity team moves on, the novice teams emerge with a sense of respect rather than fear and respect encourages emulation.
Respect for the Novice
I have a particular sensitivity to the needs of the least experienced debaters. What they must do in such a short period is remarkable, much like a young child who in a very short space of time, develops the skills to read and write, novice debaters must quickly develop skill sets which only a few weeks before were totally alien to them. We then dress them up, so to speak, and herd them into these novice events, unprepared, anxious, wide-eyed and fearful and force them to adhere to orderly standards of behavior demanded by traditions and rules they have not yet comprehended. Finally, it ends, and on the bus ride home one senses a transformation, of sorts. They have become members of a community and partaken of a tradition, while not fully comprehended, it is one that imparts a real since of unique accomplishment. I think it is easy in the zeal to develop the varsity strategy for the season to overlook the remarkable effort exerted by these first-timers. So, I urge you my fellow coaches, let's give the novices our utmost respect and attention.
So It Begins...
Our first novice tournament is now done and this week we are prepping for the next as we continue to encourage, push and cajole our varsity members into completing their cases and doing practice rounds. And so it begins, a yearly cycle which starts anew each autumn and I'm grateful to be a part of it.