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NEW COACH 411 with Rick Dorn: Student Advice for Coaches - Handling Political Differences

New Coach 411 is a monthly column designed to give new Speech and Debate Coaches the lowdown on the world of coaching. In column 31, Coach Rick Dorn looks at student advice for coaches about being accepting of differing political perspectives.

New Coach 411 - Column 31

April 2024 Article

Student Advice for Coaches: Handling Political Differences

This month’s column continues with advice from students. The students brought up an interesting topic this month: politics!

My students suggested that if you want a debate team to be fully representational to the country, then political beliefs should be allowed to be diverse.  This seems logical, but it can be difficult in practice.

Speech and Debate is about welcoming different viewpoints and yet we sometimes struggle with it.  It doesn’t help that the political climate today is particularly divided and contentious.  Still, it’s worth the effort.

In this activity, we teach students to consider different sides of arguments. That entails looking at contentious issues and particularly on the debate side, it means being able to make arguments from both sides of the topic. All of this connects with the political circumstances surrounding the topic.  Inevitably, people choose a side to personally agree with.  So how do you make people welcome from across the spectrum?  That’s the trick.

In practice we will frequently discuss topics related to current debate topics, or extemp topics, or congressional bills.  The key is to be respectful to all.  You will have to allow disagreements, and the participants need to follow respectful language expectations.  Mocking or insulting should never be allowed.  Treat points of contention as areas to agree to disagree and work to find areas of compromise.  I do something similar in discussions with my government classes.  It isn’t easy.  I have my own opinions, and I have to watch my own expression or wording.  This is a good idea for anyone working in public education today.  I’m not as successful at this as I’d like, and sometimes I have to apologize for something I’ve said.  That’s a good method for building the relationships on your team anyway.

The biggest difficulty is that all need to be welcome.  Chances are good you will have gay or transgender kids on your team.  They deserve a safe place as much as anyone else.  Your job as coach means treating all with respect.  Your other students need to be respectful to each other, even if they disagree with each other.  If students are being ugly to each other in any way, then you need to pull the problem students aside and tactfully have that discussion.  If it continues, you may need to include administration or parents in the discussion.  I try to handle issues in house, but sometimes that’s not good enough.

Be very careful.  Your words can be distorted or taken out of context.  Having an atmosphere of mutual respect goes a long way to working to sort out differences.  Don’t expect an immediate turnaround.  It’s a gradual process for the team and for yourself.  Good luck!

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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