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NEW COACH 411 with Rick Dorn: Judging

New Coach 411 is a monthly column designed to give new Speech and Debate Coaches the lowdown on the world of coaching. In column #27, Coach Rick Dorn puts on his judging robes.

New Coach 411 - Column #27


Hello everyone! I hope your season is going well, and in some places, you are approaching the meat of the season. This month, I will talk about an area that new coaches know little about, but they are expected to do right away. That area is judging.

Every coach is expected to judge. At invitational meets, finding judges is the single hardest thing for tournament directors to do, and frequently, the volunteer judges will leave earlier than expected, or just simply not show up. When that happens, the student and adult workers will go looking for coaches to fill in, and their favorite coaches are always the ones willing to help. It is a pain to have to judge extra rounds, and my preference would be to not do more rounds, but inevitably, I will do it every time. My logic is if I want the meet to end on time, the rounds have to be held! If rounds don’t start on time, then the entire meet will be late.

At culminating events, such as national qualifiers and state/regional meets, coaches become even more important as judges. Every coach wants their students judged by competent judges (especially at really vital meets), and coaches get used as it is understood that they will be the most qualified and fair judges a meet can find. At least hypothetically…

So let’s talk about what coaches need to do when judging. First, it’s really important that coaches be pleasant and friendly. The competitors are already hyped up or nervous, so having a cranky judge really adds to the stress in the room. It is not their fault you have been asked to judge an extra round, so taking it out on them is a really awful thing to do.

When you are judging, here are some basic tips. These will seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many of these things happen every single year.

1. Keep a pleasant expression on your face. Don’t sit and look mad, or the competitors will assume you hate their piece or their case. Please don’t do that, even if you DO hate their piece!

2. Comments should be a combination of positive feedback and ideas for improvement. Never give feedback that is harsh or mean. Find a way to word it in such a way that even the worst, least prepared competitor can come away feeling good that at least they tried!

3. Make sure the competitors and audience members are being pleasant and polite audience members. Too many judges don’t even pay attention to what the other students in the room are doing.

4. Stay off your phone! Personally, if students are using prep time in a debate, you can do some minor checking on things, but when they are competing, please don’t be texting or surfing the web.

5. Do not record students.

6. Take notes for yourself. Especially if you enjoy giving a lot of feedback, please save the bulk of it for adding to the ballots later. The tabroom will be needing your ballot back as soon as possible or the entire meet will run late.

7. Unless told otherwise, do NOT give verbal feedback in the room. This is the number one thing that will cause a meet to run late. I once had a sweet older lady who didn’t turn in her ballots and we started looking for them an hour and half later, and I was shocked to realize her round was still going!!! She was giving each competitor literally twenty minutes worth of feedback! She was on speaker 3 after an hour and a half! Please don’t do that! Coaches are notorious for wanting to do verbal feedback. If there is something you really want to tell a competitor, write it down, or even catch the student later individually.

8. Keep comments productive on the performance or case/presentation. Do NOT make comments about their appearance. Suggestions about professional clothing are okay, but saying the skirt is too short or the outfit is too revealing is problematic. Find a more respectful way to make a suggestion.

9. Do NOT be writing a novel while they are speaking. This means limiting your comments, but the competitor would rather see your eyes as much as possible. Also, debate coaches should NEVER write up arguments attacking a case while judging.

10. Allowing audience members is a tricky issue. Personally, I feel like audience members should be allowed because it is an educational activity. Audience members taking notes out of the room is inappropriate, and especially in debates. Scouting happens, but let’s be reasonable in what students take away from the round.

I am sure I am missing some common mistakes, but you get the idea. Treat students with respect, and have them treat each other with respect, and you will be fine. If you are judging a new event, ask for advice at the ballot table and if you can look up rules, that is helpful. Debates are the trickiest events to judge, but I recommend taking simple notes while judging to help you follow the flow of the arguments being made.

With experience, you will feel more comfortable judging, and if you plan to coach a while, it will be expected for you to judge a wide variety of events. Be a positive example, and the rest will fall into place.

If you have any questions or topics you would like explored, please email me at

Thanks for reading, and good luck!

Rick Dorn

Worland High School

Biography: Rick Dorn is a two diamond coach who has been teaching some kind of speech or theatre since 1992. He has been named Wyoming 3A Coach of the Year twice and has coached numerous students to national competition. He was recently honored as the 2022-2023 Communicator of the Year by the Wind River District.


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