The Disproportionate Power Held by Team Captains and Coaches

Athena Tian | 10/3/22

Speech and debate is an activity which is learnt from those who came before you. Skills are evolved, passed down, and shared from one generation to another. While external resources have expanded in recent years especially as a result of the online debates initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a debater’s own competitive experiences and their teammates and coaches remain their main source of learning, growth, and opportunity within the world of forensics.

It is because of this structure that competitors from smaller teams face a nearly insurmountable mountain when they face competition against their counterparts who dawn from established teams filled with experienced, national-level competitors in each event, esteemed and networked coaches, and sometimes, classes integrated into the school curriculum which pull an organized portion out of students’ day to teach speech and debate. And while it is pointless and downright insensitive to make attempts to ignore this privilege, the students who fall into the latter category face their own unique barrier: controlling, demanding, biased, and often unpresent team leaders.

Those who captain and coach speech and debate teams, whether for one event in particular or for an entire team, have earned their title through the relentless pursuit of excellence in an activity which, needless to say, requires sacrifice and commitment over significant periods of time. Missing out on countless social gatherings, cutting back on other passions, prepping debate cases instead of attending parties, late nights cramming schoolwork, financial obligations, families tailoring their planning to accommodate debate tournaments, and even attending training or competitions during summer vacation have lead captains and coaches to a position in which they are given little to no compensation for sharing their skill with their aspiring mentees. And because of the immense - and often irreplaceable - sacrifices which they have made to gain success and reputation in speech and debate, coaches and captains, otherwise known as “power figures,” within a team often feel a privilege and responsibility to exert a disproportionate and unhealthy amount of power over those who are materialistic “inferior.”

Experienced varsity team members and squad captains often talk amongst themselves by referring to younger and less experienced students as “my novices.” On the surface, this is a cute phrase which is lovingly used to refer to team-wide dynamics and hierarchy. However, the deeper reality is that the constant use of terminology such as “my novice” or “my middle schoolers” represent a deep and virtually inextinguishable tradition that is rooted within the speech and debate community.

A student, especially a novice or middle schooler’s competitive opportunity rests upon approval from the team captain, and later the coach of their team. Should the student get on the bad side of the team captain or event captain, their opportunities may be effectively relinquished until said captain graduates or ends their association with the schoolwide team, whichever occurs first. In larger teams where one coach oversees more students and delegates more responsibility to their captains, this risk runs even higher. Should a student fail to comply with all of the demands, training schedules, expectations, or even personal preferences of their event captain and coach, they lose access to the resources and coaching that their more experienced teammates provide to them, and lose respect within the eyes of the team captain and coach, while running the risk of badmouthing and rumors that spread within their team and local competitive circuit due to the profile and networking ability of their more esteemed and respected teammate.

In the long term, the coaches and captains on a team have the power to turn a novice or aspiring competitor into their possession. A possession whose life can be made inconvenient and miserable both in and out of the speech and debate scene. Captains who are given high amounts of power can coerce their novices into sacrificing their other activities or well being in order to attend training and rehearsal sessions which do not comply with their schedule. For competitions with a limited number of entries per institution, captains and coaches can continually bar a student from gaining competitive experience and opportunity, in spite of their dedication or level of competency. In interpretation events, a student may be forced to adopt a speech or topic which they feel uncomfortable performing at the demands of their “superiors.” Even more so, those who are not conventionally liked by the captain can be mandated to waste their time and energy on speeches that were planned for intentional sabotage. Derogatory language and unconstructive feedback run rampant when a captain or coach feels an exorbitant amount of power over their trainees.

Decreased competitive results. Low self-esteem. Violence. Long-term tension. Ruined friendships. Mental health battles. Dropping out of speech and debate altogether.

The consequences of menacing power dynamics and overwhelming hierarchy between teammates and classmates who spend their days in close proximity of each other are a threat not only to the well-being, safety, freedom, and equality in speech and debate, but represents the pinnacle of an entrenched value which has ruined the purpose of the activity for one too many competitors in the past, and should nothing change - will suck the joy out of speech and debate for one too many hopeful students in the future.

For youngsters who are starting out in the activity and sacrificing other opportunities and experiences to do so, communicating the message that their more experienced teammates are inherently and unconditionally superior figures who must be obeyed and respected at all times and at all costs echoes a sentiment with which many debaters begrudgingly force themselves to participate in the activity and balance it with their other responsibilities despite a lack of desire or passion, despite unreasonable levels of sacrifice and even despite harm to their well being. This sentiment is the one that determines the worth and dignity of a person on the basis of their competitiveachievements - or lack thereof. While it is only natural and motivational to take pride in the accomplishments of oneself and take inspiration from the accomplishments of others, a person deserves respect and autonomy regardless of how impressive their resume is in a particular field of interest. Allowing mentors and figures of power to disrespect their students is instilling the complete opposite.

Even more dangerous as a prospect is that while it was prevoiusly mentioned that speech and debate is an activity in which one learns primarily from those who come before them, overly controlling and unjust team leaders are not only breeding novices who fear and dread the community surrounding speech and debate - but novices who will someday impose the same appalling tactics on their own next generation. As such a system of motivation and coaching is all they have ever seen and ultimately what brought them success, the next generation of debaters is cultivated to believe that results should come at the expense of fun, fairness, freedom, friendship, decency, respect, and one’s well-being. This chain is seen far too often in sports, when students of abusive coaches retire and immediately begin imposing their coaches outdated and insensible methods on younger competitors. When the highly filtered group of competitors who survive such damaging methods and achieve success only to perpetuate the unhealthy training mechanisms that have been glorified to them as the sole path to success and self-worth, other coaches, peers, and parents feel the need to adopt such practices in hopes of reaching the same success. With such close networking between schools on the local, statewide, and national circuits in the modern era as well as the sharing of debate resources and transfer of students, coaches, and judges alike between different schools and levels of competition ranging from middle school to collegiate leagues, it only takes the glorification of one tyrant to irreversibly worsen the already-existent epidemic of disrespectful and dictatorial captains and coaches in speech and debate teams.

But how can this epidemic be halted before it turns into a full-blown pandemic which ruins speech and debate for every novice who crosses paths with this wholehearted and community-building activity in the future?

Firstly, while captains and coaches hold a high level of responsibility and respect in the world of speech and debate, there are those who have more power and must utilize that power to keep checks on the appropriateness of captains’ and coaches’ conduct. School administrators should give warnings, call off the activity, or, in extreme cases, fire a teacher and suspend a student should evidence arise of their unjust use of power. Parents of students must also prioritize their child’s well being over their success in any competitive activity by pulling them out of environments which are toxic and damaging to their well being, as well as reporting and following up on concerns to school administrators and others in power.

Additionally, captains and coaches must keep checks and balances on each other. While varsity members within a team inherently hold more power than their novice counterparts and have more familiar relationships with their coaches and captains, they must also assume a level of responsibility for “their” novices. Should varsity members, assistant coaches, squad captains, or any figure who assumes a relatively high position in the supposed hierarchy on a team notice misconduct or inequitable behavior from other captain, they must address that concern with the captain/coach and in cases where a student may be in direct harm’s way, report their wrongdoing to administrators and other authoritative figures in their reach and ensuring that action is taken to deprive that figure of their power or contact with the relevant peers.

Lastly, while tolerance of unhealthy power dynamics and misuses of authority within school-wide teams often originate from a need to gain the maximal resources and opportunities that a student desires in order to reach their ambitions in competitive forensics, competitors themselves can avoid overreliance on their school captains and coaches by seeking external sources of learning which do not require constant contact and direction from their older classmates and teachers. Free debate camps such as Space City Camp or the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative Camps offer wonderful opportunities for aspiring competitors to explore different competitive events, styles, and techniques while networking with others who share their interest and skill level. More experienced competitors are often willing to teach and give advice to their less well-versed peers should the aforementioned students grasp opportunities to reach out and express a desire for help at tournaments, particularly higher-level and national-circuit competitions. Making friendships at various online and in-person competitions give rise to friendships which can alert competitors of accessible and useful opportunities and resources without sole reliance on teammates and coaches within the school.

All in all, utilizing resources to the best of one’s ability not only enhances their own competitive experience and decreases the likelihood of being trapped in a toxic power dynamic with their captains and coaches - it also significantly decreases the likelihood that they will one day become a toxic captain or coach themselves, while increasing the likelihood that the environment and community surrounding speech and debate can be a safe, fun, and opportunistic one for all.