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COACHING DEBATING. GENERAL GUIDELINES. CONTENTS. Foreword Selecting Speakers Squad Rotation Speaker Roles Setting Objectives Team Dynamics Training Logistics Structuring Training Training Stuff Warm & Fuzzy Feelings Competition Time Tips & Niceties 3 4 10 12 17 20

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coaching debating





Selecting Speakers

Squad Rotation

Speaker Roles

Setting Objectives

Team Dynamics

Training Logistics

Structuring Training

Training Stuff

Warm & Fuzzy Feelings

Competition Time

Tips & Niceties















These are general guidelines that should be of assistance to coaching at any level. However, it has been particularly drafted with the framework of Provincial Teams in mind. It addresses issues in both the Development and Open Streams.

The guide will take you from a selection panel when selecting speakers for a team, through training and then to the competitive space. There are also useful additional resources attached for training.

Vashthi Nepaul


selecting speakers



role fulfilment

The importance selectors give role fulfilment depends on the speakers.

Junior and Development speakers have often had little to no coaching, which suggests some leniency should be applied.

Senior Open speakers should be able to fulfil all the basic requirements of a role.

Discipline to stick to a role’s requirements is very important. If a speaker, even after feedback, still fails in meeting a role’s requirements, it should count against them.

While you can teach a speaker how to fulfil a role, discipline is harder to instil.

active listening

We want to select speakers who are always following and engaging with the debate.

Pay attention to which speakers are obviously paying close attention to what is being said, both by their team and the other team, and if they are also responding in kind.

The ability of the speaker to not just hear, but to also understand what the opposing team has said, is very important. These are often the speakers who will respond most fairly and clash better.

Listening to the accuracy of rebuttal, POI’s both given and received and the reply speech, will help you to identify speakers who are actively listening and comprehending.

  • Analysis is not just limited to positive matter, it applies to everything said in the debate.
  • Here we are looking for speakers who know:
    • What will win them the debate
    • How things in the debate relate to each other
    • Which points of the opposing team’s they must attack
    • How to explain their case clearly and without confusion
    • How to expand on a point so that they actually offer proof
  • Analysis is a teachable skill, but it’s difficult to teach. Also, you have no idea how quickly speakers will pick it up or if the training time you have is sufficient.
  • Hence, if you have a speaker who is obviously talented in this area, they should be a prime candidate for selection.
  • Selecting someone because they have very good style makes sense if you feel they are also trainable in the other areas.
  • Not selecting someone because they don’t have very good style makes less sense because style can be, and often is, improved on in training.
  • Good style includes but is not limited to:
    • Obvious confidence and comfort with taking the floor
    • Easy for listeners to follow
    • Appropriate humour
    • Even, measured speaking pace
    • Natural, non-distracting hand gestures
    • Appropriate tone and pitch modulation
    • Completed sentences and fewer filler or run-on words (then, like, because, also, um, ah)
  • Sometimes a speaker may just have an awful, horrible, no-good voice. In this case, selectors have to make a discreet weigh-up.

In the course of your selection process, be sure to make recommendations to speakers of what you would like them to do differently.

Inform the other selectors of what these changes were so you can all assess whether the speaker attempted to make those changes and how well they were able to do so.

Some speakers here will display their ability to learn and adapt quickly, which is something coaches value.

Furthermore, they will also display a willingness to learn and change, to accept that they may not have been doing the best job previously. This attitude is also desirable in a speaker.

squad rotation



squad rotation1

Try as far as possible not to select people directly onto teams.

Doing so is self-defeating: it’s basically saying that your training will not change any of the speakers’ abilities. This is not the case – especially because those who have not been coached before often display a very rapid growth curve, which affects what team they make

Try to move speakers around during this time, giving a lot of individual feedback.

Speakers are often put on different teams and in different speaker roles so coaches can start to decide what their true strengths are.

speaker roles



first speakers

Clear and concise explanations

Strict adherence to structure and to the role requirements

Strict adherence to timing

Good signposting

Not easily confused or muddled by received POI’s

Opposition first speakers must also be strong at rebutting

second speakers

Analytically strong, especially proposition’s second speaker

Able to rebut the biggest issues in the debate

Strict adherence to timing

Good expansion of points

Good signposting

Evidence of flow/cohesion with first speaker’s speech

third speakers


Active listener

Analytically strong

Good expansion of points

Ability to correctly prioritise issues in the debate

Ability to effectively rebut the biggest issues in the debate

reply speakers


Strict adherence to timing

Ability to perform a weigh-up

Ability to correctly identify the clash and issues in the debate

Should be capable of ending their speech very strongly

setting objectives



team ability

While you are still rotating speakers in the squad, you will get to learn of their varying strengths and weaknesses.

If coaches are honest with themselves, not every speaker on the squad is capable of a 70 average. What is important is recognising how many very good, how many good-to-solid and how weak speakers you have.

This will give you an idea of whether, when you divide up into final teams, you will have a sliding scale of Good to Weak or if you will have two very good teams and two weak teams, for example.

You can then set goals that are appropriately matched to each team’s ability.

individual team goals

A word of caution: it is impossible to predict whether teams will achieve their goals at tournaments. There are so many factors at play: the tab, rival teams’ performances, whether your team raises or drops its game under pressure.

That’s not to say that goal setting is pointless. Goals are a great way to prepare speakers for the tournament and to focus or rally them during training.

Goals for stronger teams should always be breaking first and winning the tournament. Weaker teams should make breaking their goal. (speaker ranking and selection to SA Trials are worthy individual goals)

team dynamics




Coaches need to be acutely aware of the interpersonal relationships between speakers when selecting teams.

This is usually something you have to feel out as you go along because the two streams often do not know each other at all, within streams speakers have passing knowledge of each other and if speakers from the same school team are selected then the relationships are often complex.

Sometimes speakers who are friends just do not work well together on a team. A lack of friendship often also harms a team and hostility affects prep and team cohesion very seriously. Some speakers do work very constructively together, which should be noted.

Teams are working relationships. In each case the speaker needs to know what they are expected to contribute to that relationship.


Teams need to consider their strategy during prep.

Just because a team is made up of strong speakers does not mean that the team will be strong strategically.

Often speakers (be they good or bad strategically) often are not aware of making strategic decisions.

Coaches then must pay close attention both in debates and during prep and identify the strategically strong speakers.

Ideally each team will have at least one speaker who is strategically strong or strategically stronger.


Some speakers are good sources of knowledge. This becomes more important as the level of competition rises.

Useful knowledge for debating:current affairs, history, geography, demographics, countries of the world, economics, law.

Even if a speaker has a great general knowledge, they should also be able to successfully use it in the debate.

Speakers who share their knowledge are even better.

prep control

Speakers who are good in prep are disciplined and will: stick to the prep format, not interrupt one another, not repeat information and generally not waste prep time.

Successful preppers are also able to identify the issues in the debate early in prep.

Ideally, you want your strategically strongest speaker to be leading prep so the right issues come up in the right order.

Be careful of creating teams where everyone tries to lead prep or where no one does.

Be careful of destructive speakers who enjoy playing The Devil’s Advocate during prep.


Each team needs at least one speaker who motivates the others.

This motivation need not come in the most obvious trappings so pay careful attention to which speakers raise spirits and stir up competitiveness.

Drive will also make a speaker commit, practice, focus and learn.

Debating is, ultimately, a competitive activity so a team with the drive to win is a powerful thing.

A team with very low drive will find it harder to motivate themselves. They find it harder to bounce back after losses too.

holiday weekend

Provincial training occurs in the school holidays, over weekends or a combination of both.

The training schedule is usually determined by two factors: the availability of the Squad coaches and the availability of students.

Confirm with both of the above groups based on when the majority are available.

If you can, confirm not just one training at a time, but as far ahead as possible. Creating a training schedule would help.

Be sure to communicate the date, time and location in advance because the speakers have to notify their parents.

debating camp

Another option is to hold a debating camp.

This can be either your sole training or an addition to a holiday/weekend training schedule.

The debating camp tends to be difficult to arrange because you need to be able to afford it – it is costly to feed and house close to 40 people, especially where half of the speakers come from financially challenged homes.

If your only training option, you will have to secure days during which all Squad members and coaches are committed to attending.

Debating camps are a more feasible option for small Provincial Squads or even just for additionally training individual teams


Irrespective of when you chose to hold training, make sure it’s somewhere not too out of the way. Unfortunately it is inevitable that some of the speakers will be travelling a fair distance, but the more central to the participants, the better.

Some Provinces arrange transport for their Development speakers and others could choose to subsidise speakers their bus or taxi fare. Enquire with your Provincial Board to see if either of these options is a possibility.

the venue

A school or university is the best option for Provincial training as they have several separate venues.

A full-sized squad of 4 Senior teams and 2 Junior teams requires 3 venues. If a 4th venue can be spared as a break room for coaches to wait/discuss in, that is even better.

One of those venues needs to be big enough to hold the entire squad for content sessions and briefings.

The briefing venue should have a board for writing on, chairs and desks.

structuring training




Try to schedule your content training sessions early in your training regime.

This will give speakers the opportunity to use the material you teach them in content sessions.

It will also mean that you do the bulk of your training in the build-up to Nationals, which is good for arriving on-form.

Make sure you cater for time to have briefs on logistical issues too.













Identify the Burden of Proof (what the team must prove to win)

List all actors (people and organisations) involved and their responses

List all major arguments or points

Relate major arguments/points to the actor analysis and the basic arguments

Select and order points

Write speeches

content training

Content training usually takes the form of seminars, with each seminar addressing a specific area.

Coaches should think about what factual information and understanding they would require from their speakers. Then structure a lesson or seminar around that subject matter area.

The lesson should include chronologically ordered facts, explanations, relevance and examples of how the information can be used in a debate.

Require that speakers write down notes and ask questions about that which they do not understand.

content training1

Examples of content areas worth training:

South Africa Overview: past & present

Law and the Legal System

Basic Economic Theory

Basic Political Theory

Electoral Models

Current Affairs issues should also be addressed as topical issues frequently surface in the topics set at tournaments.

debating training

In Debating Training, the most important thing is that speakers understand and follow the very basic technical requirements for a debate. These absolutes are:

Follow speaker roles

Always have a definition, identify the clash, and give a case split

Establish what the team must prove to win the debate

Target rebuttal at the major issues in the debate

Sign post

Take at least one POI and no more than two POIs

Do not speak under time

Do not get banged out for going over time

Relate substantive matter back to the burden

style training

Each speaker will have their own individual style. While individual style should be developed, there are certain universal style requirements.

adjudication training

Train your speakers how to adjudicate. Anyone not speaking should be made to adjudicate their teammates.

This teaches objectivity and critical thinking.

It makes speakers more aware of how they come across to an audience/adjudicators.

They also can report back as to whether what was decided in prep actually came through in the debate and whether they made strong strategic decisions.

attached resources

Attached to this Training Manual are some simple explanations around debating essentials. Please use these documents for training some of the stylistic and technical subjects.

Included is Debating Elements – additional resources for training:

The Burden of Proof

Matter Generation

Basic Arguments



individual improvement

When you give speakers feedback, individual feedback is important so listen and watch each speaker

Set each speaker individual goals relating to improvements you want to see in them

Make the feedback and goal-setting for individuals a positive rather then negative experience

Goal ideas:

Better timing

Stylistic changes

Writing down POIs

General improvement of speaker scores

team improvement
  • When you give a team feedback in training, it should not only be about the motion.
  • It is important to address issues that you find are recurring weak points in each team.
  • Things to be on the lookout for:
    • Lack of team cohesion through a team line, shared vocabulary and referencing previous team speakers
    • What is decided on in prep doesn’t make it through to the debate
    • Team members who do not understand one-another
questions answers
  • Make sure your training schedule allocates time for addressing the questions of speakers.
  • Training is the only time that most speakers will get to ask very specific questions. This requires that trainers:
    • Prepare well for the content training sessions
    • Spend a lot of time giving feedback after debates – including answering their questions
  • It is important that a trainer is able to answer questions effectively, which means that listening carefully to the question is important. Query the question until you are sure that you understand what they mean.
  • Answers which contain examples are easier for speakers to understand.
flexibility awareness

As much as you need a schedule to communicate to the speakers and to the other trainers, be prepared to have to rework it on a daily basis. Ideally things will run as you have predicted, but there are often surprise issues that require briefings, or logistical issues like getting locked out of your venues, to consider. Build buffer time into your schedule to help cater for such inevitabilities.

Try to stick to the schedule unless for good reason. A good reason for letting everyone have ten minutes to chat and stretch their legs may be that you have noticed that the speakers are no longer following a training session.

If a lot of people are restless: not watching you while you speak, not taking notes, starting to yawn, fidget or talk to one another, then call a break. Regroup once you’re more likely to have their attention.


Training is hard work; so is learning debating. For your sake and those of the speakers, try to make training as much fun as you possibly can.

Debating is a social activity so give everyone time to socialise with fellow speakers and the trainers/coaches alike.

It’s not a bad a idea to try to have a few running jokes of your own to liven up a training or feedback session.

Also, let some of the more humorous and engaging speakers have the floor for a few minutes from time to time.

If you have the time, try some games and films with a debating slant.

training stuff




Each child should get two books.

One book is for writing their speeches in, so they can look back and improve.

The other book is for writing down debating and content training – this book becomes worthwhile for taking along to tournaments.

(Exam pads are discouraged because they lose their previous speeches.)

the internet

The internet is not necessary for debating training, but it is useful.

If you have all speakers in an email list, it’s simple to send them links to articles or debating websites.

Local news websites are a good source for South African current affairs.

The internet is particularly useful for researching prepped debates as speakers know what to search for.

Decent sources for debaters are: &


Reading the newspaper definitely boosts general knowledge and current affairs knowledge.

Speakers can read the major news sites off their phones, making newspaper accessible in virtual format.

If you are dealing with severely disadvantaged speakers, a good idea is to ask newspaper companies for back issues of their papers. This has worked in the past.

It is also relatively inexpensive if you ask one team member to get a newspaper one week, and then a different person each week. Each speaker would only have to bring one newspaper to share for the entire length of training.


Try to train near a source of food. Teenagers need sustenance and diversion – a walk to the shops is a good break.

If you have speakers from poorer backgrounds, try to put aside some of your Provincial training budget for their lunch. Ask your Provincial Board if this is possible.

For major training days, debating has in the past teamed up with temples, churches and NGOs to feed development speakers. It may be worth investigating.

warm fuzzy feelings



rallying point

Have a rallying point established at the very beginning of training. However contrived and silly that focus may seem at the onset, it grows in importance as the speakers get closer and closer to the tournament deadline.

Rallying points like: a set goal, a set quality of your squad, a set opposition to destroy are all good potentials.

Rallying points shape the common language of the squad and gives even strangers something to share.

Rallying points are good motivators. They can be used in trainings to lift spirits, have a quick laugh and get the speakers to focus anew.

volume control

For all that they’re the cream of the crop, teenagers are a little savage. Like all children, they get significantly louder in a group. In content sessions, for example, there will be 30 noisemakers to one coach. Holding the floor can be difficult.

It is advisable that you have a strategy for getting them to be quiet quickly or you’ll waste a lot of time.

Don’t be afraid to be harsh, call on distracted speakers by name or simply stop the training until everyone is silent.

With younger kids, a special ‘code word’ that essentially means ‘be quiet and look at me’ is also still novel enough to work.

personality clashes
  • It’s unfortunate but it happens; not everyone can be friends. There are three types of personality clash: the mutual kind that will go away with continued exposure to one another, the mutual kind that will get worse with continued exposure to one another and the one sided kind when you have a ‘problem speaker’ personality wise.
  • First, be very clear which you’re dealing with.
    • For the first type, tell speakers you’re trusting them to resolve the issue.
    • For the second kind, try not to put the antagonistic speakers on the same team – it would be a disaster for prep.
    • For the third kind, pull aside the speaker causing others grief and have a frank talk about teamwork, perception, attitude and maturity. Hopefully they will undertake to make adjustments themselves or come to you with any underlying issues. This can get messy and unpleasant but there’s no avoiding that when you coach.

The better training goes, the more your speakers will improve as technical debaters. Any improvements that they feel they have made then spills over into their confidence.

Confidence is necessary if you want a speaker to engage in prep, engage in the debate, control the floor and have stylistically strong and convincing speeches.

Confidence comes from being good. Hence, a speaker whose coach does not tell them they are doing well, will always lack confidence.

Be sure to build up your speakers when they do the things you want to see in debates.

work ethic
  • No one wants to spend their free time coaching if you’re having to put in more work than the speakers. Make sure that they know as much.
  • Outline your rules around work ethic early so expectations are set as to what sort of behaviour and engagement you are expecting.
  • Also tell speakers what work and responsibilities coaches are undertaking so they understand it is a mutual endeavour.
  • Work Ethic applies to:
    • reading current affairs and material you set
    • attendance and time keeping
    • paying attention etc.
competition time



away from home

Keep an ear to the ground. Some speakers are hard to handle away from home, either because they are difficult to control or because they require a lot of support. Be prepared to have to deal with both.

For some of the Development speakers, this may be their first trip away from home or without family. Be sure to be available to talk with if they are unsure of how anything works.

Make sure you check that your kids with special dietary requirements are being catered for.

Pack band aids, painkillers and lozenges at the very least – they’ll need them.

Know where their dormitories are in case of emergency. Have their phone numbers stored on your phone.

speaker combos

After all the practice at training, you should have a good idea of who are your strongest speakers in each team, who will speak all or most rounds, and who will speak only twice.

This is not likely to change unless a speaker’s form drastically changes during the actual competition.

You may have found that you also have a good idea of whom will be your break side for opposition and for proposition.

In the actual tournament, stand with your team. When you hear each draw, tell them which team speaker combination you want them to speak in.

Remember that every speaker in a team must speak a minimum of twice or you will not qualify to break.


Encourage your speakers to seek feedback from adjudicators after every round. Tell them to bring the feedback to you, so you can tell them which of the adjudicator’s suggestions you want them to follow up on.

Do not let them change too drastically based on feedback; it’s likely to compromise their speeches. However, they should be ready to engage with adjudicators on areas for improvements and should try to improve in subsequent rounds.

Point out who the selectors are to your team, so that they can be sure to get their feedback and input.

As a team coach, you should also speak to some of the adjudicators who have viewed your team and try to extract more useful information to take back to your team.

pressure motivation

Nationals can be an exciting but stressful experience for competitive speakers.

Try to not put too much pressure on your teams. They would have set their goals back in training and will be well aware of them.

Instead, keep them informed and focussed on simple things like when they did well, what is planned for that evening, when the next round begins. Help them to be sure of themselves and their surroundings.

Do not leave them alone too much to socialise.

Keep yourself and them upbeat.

tips niceties



financial constraints

Be aware that some speakers will have severe financial constraints.

Don’t assume that only Development speakers have financial constraints.

Try as much as possible to keep your training sessions within a high gain : low cost ratio.

Everyone brings their own stationery and lunch. Sometimes you can also secure lunch and transport funding for the Development speakers.

If you can approach funders or your local and provincial boards for assistance then please do so – just bear in mind that there are also the costs of Nationals to consider later on.

team uniforms

Try to decide on a simple uniform well ahead of time. This gives speakers and parents time to prepare.

It is best to select a uniform from common items of clothing that all speakers will be able to secure.

Nationals is fairly lax on uniforms so feel free to be creative with traditional uniforms.

Some speakers may have additional requirements of team uniforms. For example: some girls may have to wear pants or headscarves. It is not unreasonable to ask if they could co-ordinate the colours of such items to the uniform.

Please bear in mind the temperature and weather wherever Nationals is occurring.


Try as far as possible to give parents logistical details early. Calculate costs and schedule trainings ahead of time, so that parents can be provided with such information upfront.

Make yourself available to chat to parents, as you are going to be taking their child away and they need to be assured of your general competence and responsibility.

It is also a good idea to tell speakers that their parents are welcome to call trainers with their questions or issues. Encourage speakers to give their parents your mobile number.


Please do approach the South African Schools Debating Board for any questions regarding Provincials, Selection, Training/Coaching and the National Schools Debating Championships.

We will try to answer your questions or refer you to someone who better can.

The SASDB is committed to the further development of Debating as a school sport, including the development of coaches and trainers.

the end



Additional Material Compiled by Vashthi Nepaul and Brandon Almeida