One thing that has proven difficult as a coach is adjusting for how low of an expectation many students hold for themselves. Obviously it isn’t their fault and obviously it’s not wrong to be more reserved. This low expectation perspective manifests in many ways, most clearly by being endlessly apologetic, being unable to give speeches at all, or feeling that they have to caveat their speeches with a disclaimer that they know it won’t be good before they’ve even started. Overwhelmingly the debaters I see do this are racial or gender minorities – I imagine because the strains of high expectation are magnified by their social position. Somewhere over the course of their development, students often have internalized that they are doing something wrong if they aren’t perfect, and that they must preemptively look for forgiveness. I find this frustrating because I think it’s so wholly and completely unfair and heartbreaking that kids have this mindset. Coaches have the chance to help students raise their confidence and feel that they don’t have to be sorry, that they don’t have to be perfect, and that they are wonderfully intelligent and capable even if their speeches aren’t always top class. Below are some successful tactics I’ve employed that has helped students become more assertive about their own skills.
- Not allowing needless apologizing.
Every time one of my students makes a mistake and apologizes for it, I comment on the apology and tell them they don’t have to be sorry. Sometimes it has reached a point where I have to pause our debate work and give a lecture on competitive mindset – students who are apologizing have already conceded that they’ve failed and are likely to go into the round thinking losing thoughts rather than winning thoughts. Over time and with lectures about mindset shifts like the above, students will be much more conscious of the feeling that they have to apologize and, likely, will start to move past the instinct that they need to say sorry for things that do not require forgiveness.
A note for coaches – one example that has worked wonders for me in explaining to students that their apologizing is ill-fitting has been using tennis analogies. Imagine you show up to tennis practice, flub a forehand, and then profusely apologize to the coach. That would be silly! We have the opportunity to show kids that practice is meant for failure and growth as opposed to perfection, which is easy to forget as a debater.
- Positive Encouragement
I push my kids hard but when they do well, they get praise for it. Studies have shown time and again that positive encouragement from leaders is infinitely more productive than negative encouragement. I borrow heavily from the directing philosophy of David Lynch – it is our job as leaders to embrace those who put their trust in us and show them that we care for them and believe in them. This perspective built on love and admiration will help students far more than growth or performance tactics based on negativity.
- Using Past Performance as a Consistent Benchmark
Students often struggle to note their own growth. If it isn’t a series of trophies, it must mean they aren’t getting better. Making sure that students are cognizant of their own growth on a more incremental basis helps a lot of students grow more confident that the time and effort they are investing is paying off. One tactic I use all the time is asking students to compare their first attempt at the speech to later attempts – always, students admit that they’ve improved in that time and will likely treat themselves better in the upcoming speeches.
- Being There for Students
This one has to be navigated extremely carefully. Coaches need to do a good job of keeping the line clear between being a professional confidant and a personal confidant. More often than I would like I’ve become the first person a student will turn to in a mental health event, and it has been extremely draining. Coaches should be there for their kids, cheering them on from the sidelines, answering their messages asking for advice, and always celebrating their victories. Coaches should be able to talk through competitive mindsets that can help with mental health and the psychological strains of competition. Just having someone in your corner will make you perform so much better than those who feel that they are alone. In part it is because of encouragement, in part it is because, tacitly, competitors stop competing for themselves and instead start competing for their team, for their coach, and for the others who have supported them. Being there for kids will give them the support network that will help them when they need it most.
What is sorely missing in the lives of many students is someone who believes in them in full and is willing to accept them, imperfections and all. Coaching confidence is one of the core focuses I have and translates to growth faster than any pure tech drill ever could.