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Managing the Uncertainty: Tips for Debaters and Coaches During Covid-19

Author: Marge Strong

I’m sure we are all sick of hearing about these “uncertain times,” not just because it’s an annoying phrase, but also because uncertainty isn’t fun. No one, outside of watching an amazing suspense movie, seeks out this type of insecurity. We want to know what’s coming next and when. What tournaments are happening this year? What tournaments, if any, will be in person? Will my school be allowed to travel? When will I see my debate friends in person again? These are all sources of anxiety swirling through our heads.

Uncertainty explained

First, what is uncertainty? It is a state of mind or stemming from the inability to predict the future, or incompatibility between two ideas, experiences, and/or behaviors, or a situation with no clear outcome or interpretation (Kagan, 1972). If covid weren’t uncertain enough (when do we stop wearing masks without looking like we don’t believe in the pandemic????), debate makes returning to normalcy even more complicated. In person travel won’t come back all at once, and for the most part, the administration, not the team, makes the decisions and rules.

Tips for everyone:

Keep an open mind, and learn about evolving conditions:

For many, the natural response to uncertainty is to rigidly cling to the known. While comforting in the moment, this tends to lead to overly simplified choices that are sub-optimal. Embracing the unknown without judgement and leaving time to research options before setting a path is essential to getting the best situation possible. Knowing how we naturally respond to uncertainty can help us calibrate our responses to it. For example, hybrid tournaments might seem confusing and anxiety inducing, but without them debate will be divided into schools that can travel and those that can’t. Taking the time to learn how hybrid tournaments run will result in debaters debating more, which is the goal.

Focus on the positive:

There are a lot of negatives right now – I won’t lie about that. But there are some positives to reflect on too. There is more time to spend with family, to learn new hobbies, establish a new fashion item – the mask, or to just slow down and relax. High school is so fast paced, and I am personally happy that e-learning has led to shorter school days for the students. The point of this isn’t to say that everything is fine, but instead to remind you to look for joy in life.

Set a routine:

Part of why the pandemic is so rough on us is that it disrupted so much of our life. Re-establishing schedule where possible will seriously improve your mental health. Knowing there is the certainty of your morning cup of tea and book is a nice distraction from the lack of certainty in the rest of your life. More importantly, setting your own rules might help keep your parents from making their own.

Stay connected to debate and other activities:

Keep in touch with your teachers and debate coach, so that you have a working relationship with them, but more importantly remember that school is your primary social circle. Keep up with friends who you can’t travel to see over zoom (I know, we are all fatigued), plan in person or virtual game nights with your debate team, or other cheesy activities. It may seem cringey, but the happiness chemicals in your brain will thank you later. Isolation breeds depression and anxiety, which is not fun.

Tips for coaches and teachers:

Make time for honest discussions with careful language:

Teens are sick of being left in the dark. Be honest about what information you have, while avoiding panicking/getting too angry about rules. If the team isn’t allowed to travel, the students are going to find out eventually – its best to let them know the outcome sooner, so that they can prepare themselves for reality. Rather than putting tough conversations off, center them on what the team has in its control. For example, if the students aren’t allowed to travel for debate, discussions can center on how to debate from school/home. This not only lets you feel like you have more solutions, but it also prevents “what-if” thinking that breeds anxiety.

Normalize accepting frustration as resolvable:

Discuss tech (or other debate) issues you are having with your students and how you resolve them. Take the time to practice evolving tech with the students so you can be on the ground floor for issues and solutions to them. There should be hybrid practice debates if you anticipate participating in hybrid tournaments.

Don’t forget teambuilding:

We are missing so much from in person debate. The community feel is smaller than ever as we coach kids we have never seen in person. Regularly scheduled team activities like among usmost likely totrivia, and others maintain the friendships that come from the debate team. This is especially important for introducing novices/JV debaters to the older members of the team who have debated in person with each other before.


Kagan, J. (1972). Motives and development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22(1), 51-66. doi:10.1037/h0032356

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