The Hard Truths of Work-Life Balance in Debate
My Two Families
I grew up in a dysfunctional family characterized by mental illness, alcoholism, and abuse. I know, this is supposed to be about work-life balance in debate. Bear with me. It is.
When you grow up in that sort of environment, it doesn’t seem unusual to you. The way you’re raised is just the way you’re raised. Everything that happens seems perfectly normal — natural, even. It’s not until you start venturing out of your house and talking to other people that you begin to realize that what happens where you live isn’t what happens everywhere.
Debate was my second home. I started my high school’s debate team as a first year student, and I stayed in debate as a competitor and then a coach for 34 years. I could fill an article three times this size with everything debate taught me. It introduced me to the academic field of communication, which is now my career, and much more importantly it introduced me to my wife. Debate gave me good friends all across the country and all over the world, as well as the priceless opportunity to work with countless talented students.
For all of its many benefits, however, debate was sadly similar to my biological family. Like the vast majority of those in my profession, I accepted the normalcy of debate’s coaching culture. The neverending work that occupies your every waking hour and eats away at your personal life. The research that promises precious additional chances at victory if you cut just one more card, then another, and then another. The arguments that always seem better when you write them, the practice speeches and coaching sessions, the planning and budgeting, the advocacy on behalf of the program. And that’s not to mention the tournament travel, with its string of 20-hour days, bad food, caffeine, stress, endless driving, and judging.
While you’re inside that culture, this is all a matter of pride. Debate coaches make workaholics look like slackers because we know how important the activity is. We know how important the students are. We sacrifice for them, for the education we value so much, for the school, for our communities and our people. Most of us are never going to get the resources we need, that our students need, so we fill in the gaps because somebody has to or the kids suffer. Our students are worth the pain and the exhaustion and the long hours. They are worth everything.
That is a beautiful story. I used to tell that story all the time.
Allow me to tell you a different one.
The story of debate coaches and our hard-working, sacrificial heroism is a lot like the stories we tell inside abusive families. They sound fantastic right up until you tell them to anyone who isn’t from an abusive family. Like that time a neighbor’s dog bit my face when I was six and my dad spent half an hour trying to kill the dog instead of driving me to the hospital? Everyone in my family loved to hear that story. My dad was such a character. But when I told it to my new friends in college they all just stared and looked worried instead of laughing. And slowly it occurred to me that the story wasn’t funny or entertaining at all. My friends were right to react the way they did.
Debate coaches do amazing work, and our jobs are incredibly important. But if we’re going to be honest, we need to do some mental gymnastics, step outside the bubble of our own community for just a minute, and accept a few hard truths about what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been doing it, and the cost we’ve all been paying.
Truth: Sacrificing Ourselves Teaches Our Students Bad Lessons
When I became the Director of Debate at Georgia State University, I went to my college coach and mentor for advice. Melissa Wade told me a lot of things that day, but one of the things she said was that kids learn a lot more from our example than they do from anything we say to them. At the time I didn’t fully understand what she meant, but over the years I started to realize the deep wisdom of her words. I was sitting at a national tournament, and they were giving out a prestigious coaching award to a famous coach. His former debaters gave a string of speeches extolling his virtues as a coach, and many of them told stories of the sheer number of times the coach had forgotten to pick up his own child from daycare or school because he was doing something for the debaters. Everyone laughed and applauded.
Our debaters learn vastly more from what we do and how we act than they learn from what we say or the arguments we write for them. The deep lessons they take from us are the lessons they learn from our example regarding how to live life, how to treat people, what to prioritize, and so on. And when we deprioritize ourselves for debate, we are teaching our students to devalue themselves as well. When we ignore our families and our partners to focus on debate, we are teaching our students how they should treat their own families and partners. If we want to be good educators, if we want to teach our students good lessons, then we have to learn to model the kind of behavior we want them to value. If we want them to learn to be happy, healthy individuals, then we have to value ourselves enough to show them how to be happy and healthy.
Truth: We Value Winning Too Much
This may be the hardest truth for us to accept, but here it is: winning doesn’t help your debaters that much. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in competition, and winning does some really important things. Most notably, it can serve as a reward for students who work hard, and it can help students understand when they’re doing things well. Too often, however, we treat winning not as an educational tool but as the be-all and end-all of debate. Melissa Wade used to call it “the death drive to the trophy,” and I thought that was hyperbole until I started coaching teams that were regularly in the running to win tournaments. Winning is important for motivation and learning, but there’s a diminishing marginal return in terms of value to the student — yet debate culture acts as though the opposite is true. We tend to focus most of our attention and our efforts on the teams that win the most, when it’s the other teams who really need us.
We should be focusing less on winning and more on helping our students become better debaters and better people. We should be focusing on making our debate teams happy, healthy, and supportive environments where the students who come to us — often very smart but just as often very troubled and hurt — can find a safe place to grow. I was out to dinner once at a big national tournament with my group of noisy, silly, laughing students, when I looked across the restaurant and realized that a team from a much more successful school was at the same restaurant. They all sat in grim quiet at their table, no one smiling or talking to each other. The coaches looked angry and disappointed. That team won a lot more debates than we did that weekend. In fact, I think they won the tournament. But I left feeling a lot more successful.
Truth: We Are Promoting Our Own Toxicity
The sorts of expectations that have grown up around coaching — that we allow to continue to exist — promote a culture that endangers students, coaches, and the activity itself. There are intense pressures on everyone who coaches to stop doing the things that give them balance and perspective, and which allow them to make good decisions. And when we value people who set aside personal happiness and healthy partnerships in pursuit of debate success, we too often end up hiring people who derive all their pleasure from within debate. The dangers of putting deeply unsatisfied, unbalanced adults who have lost the support they need to make healthy decisions together with large populations of vulnerable young people should be obvious. We are already a community with a long history of failing to protect our students and report bad behavior by coaches.
We simply cannot make debate a hostile place to people who want to have happy families and rich lives outside the activity if we want debate to be safe, healthy, and sustainable. We need to incentivize and reward reasonable work boundaries for coaches, and we need to value life modeling as much or more than competitive success when we hire people.
Truth: Personal Sacrifice Can’t Overcome Systemic Inequality
In college I debated at Emory, a well-resourced program with a storied history. As a graduate student, I coached at Wake Forest University and the University of Georgia, two more schools with proud histories and strong resources. But my high school program was small and funded by the students, and the college program I directed for 15 years had the smallest budget in the district for most of the time I was there, and those experiences are what structures my understanding of debate. As a director, many of my students came from poor backgrounds and schools with little debate experience. I loved coaching those students, and I wouldn’t have traded them for any other debaters, but I often lamented my inability to give them what students from richer programs had. I know what it’s like to be the only coach on one side of an elimination round when the other team has six. When you care for your students, it feels like you’re always letting them down no matter how hard you work.
I now understand two things, though. The first is that it’s impossible for one coach to do the work of six, unless those six are incredibly lazy — and they never are. Better funded programs will always have the edge because they are better funded. That doesn’t mean poorer programs always lose. Being forced to be scrappy can make you really creative. But it does mean that coaches who try to balance resource inequity by destroying their own lives are living a lie. The second thing I now understand is that the most important work I did for my students didn’t involve destroying my life. It was showing up, and it was showing them that it was possible to work hard but also value themselves and their loved ones.
What Is to be Done?
I love debate, and I am immensely proud of the time I spent coaching. I want debate coaches everywhere and at all levels to succeed, I want students to have great experiences as debaters, and I want the activity to grow and flourish. For all that to happen, though, coaches in general need to start doing things differently when it comes to work-life balance. To be fair, some coaches are already doing things very differently, and I hope they spread the word. For those who are still stuck in the old mindset, however, I have a few suggestions.
First – and this will be the hardest thing for most of you — accept your own limitations and have some humility about your own importance. You are not good to anyone if you destroy your own life and become a terrible, unhappy, desperate version of yourself. You deserve happiness. And your students are shockingly capable without your constant attention. The ones who aren’t won’t benefit from that attention anyway.
Second, be intentional about drawing some boundaries around your personal life, and then enforce those boundaries. There should be days where you don’t stay late, or days when you leave early. There are weekends when you should not work on debate at all. You should announce those boundaries so your students know what to expect, and you should explain that you are taking time off to have a life, to spend time with your partner or your family or just your dog. Let them see you leave to do things for yourself and your loved ones.
Third, take seriously the idea that you need a life outside of debate. That means hobbies that aren’t debate-related, taking the time to build relationships outside the activity if you don’t already have them, and doing some non-debate work (even if it doesn’t immediate contribute to your current career).
Fourth, understand that you don’t have to be a debate coach forever. There’s this notion in debate that you’re not a real coach unless you’re a lifer, but debate coaches come in all shapes, sizes, and career durations. If you don’t want to be a coach forever, cultivate your post-debate career with the same intensity you’d give to tournament preparation. Honestly, you should do that even if you do think you’re going to be a coach forever. Things change.
Fifth, value winning less and learning and character building more. Teach your more experienced debaters to coach your less experienced ones, and make that as much of an expectation as research or argument construction. Give your time to the students who need help, not just the ones who are most likely to win, and teach everyone self-reliance. If you’re someone who makes hiring decisions, hire people whose careers demonstrate a concern for students more than a concern for tournament success. Vet applicants extensively for how they treat students and whether they might have a history of abuse or improper behavior.
Finally, if you’re one of those lucky coaches whose program is well-funded, share the wealth. Work to lower expectations for coaches in general, help out new and underfunded programs (there are many creative ways to do this that don’t involve money), and assist folks who need help advocating for more resources. Teach your own parent organization to value your work as a force for good in the community. Too often, well-funded programs help create the work-life balance problems I’m talking about. If we’re going to change things, we’re going to need some leadership from you too.
It’s easy to dismiss all this when you’re in the middle of things, when you’re going crazy prepping for the next tournament or rushing to the next practice debate. By all means, do what you need to do. One of the great things debate teaches us is to work really hard when we need to. The problem is that we’ve created a culture in which anything less than maximum effort all the time is seen as unacceptable. We owe ourselves and most especially our students a better culture than that.
Dr. Joe Bellon is a Senior Lecturer in Communication at Georgia State University. He served as the Director of Debate at GSU from 2001 to 2015, during which time he set school records for participation, national rankings, national tournament success, and number of teams qualified for the National Debate Tournament. He is the primary author of The Policy Debate Manual, which has introduced tens of thousands of novice debaters to the activity.