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Survey Details how Speech and Debate Bolsters Students’ Confidence

By Dr. J. Scott Baker, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin | Wednesday, September 21, 2016 9:37 AM

Regina Wells Jennings teaches at Jersey Village High School in Houston.  Colin Malinak teaches at Saint Mary’s Hall in San Antonio.  Both Regina and Colin are young speech and debate coaches with a bright future leading their students in forensic competitions.  They are both exceptional coaches as well as human beings.  I know — I helped coach them in high school.

I don’t say this to take any credit in their success. Their accomplishments are about them, not anyone else.  I say this to provide two specific examples of former teens, unsure of their individuality and ability, who became leaders by finding their voice in interscholastic speech and debate activities.  Regina and Colin are not alone.

Through a 2015 national survey of speech and debate coaches, educators address multiple concepts regarding student development through participation; one of those issues is student confidence.  Texas coaches discuss benefits of confidence using terms such as “voice,” “ambition,” “self-advocacy” and “willingness to try new things.” Texas coaches reflect on how their students’ confidence grew through speech and debate experiences, just as it did for Regina and Colin.  

Speech educators explain that for students “with increased self-confidence comes the ability to think big, to have the ambition to do new things,” and to find “comfort with self-advocacy in high-stakes life events.”  Additionally, “they learn how to carry themselves with confidence,” have a “willingness to try new things” and are “better prepared to operate in society.”  One coach offers, “when a kid who didn't think they were worth anything, advances for the first time in an event they have worked so hard on, and I see their face when they see their name on an elimination round posting, that makes everything, all the hours, worthwhile.” 

This “lifetime of confidence” gives “students a voice and allows them to express themselves where they might not be able to do otherwise.” A coach explains, “I think all coaches' joy comes from watching that awkward freshman who can't look anyone in the eye become a champion.”  This success and confidence offers the potential for a “life-changing experience.”  Another coach adds, “When I see students go from being paralyzed with fear at the thought of giving a speech to actually getting up in front of a class and delivering their ideas and exploring their voice, it's extremely satisfying to watch.”  Additionally, a coach elaborates, “one of my proudest moments was seeing a kid that wouldn't talk to me in the hallway become a UIL State qualifier and an NFL [NSDA] National qualifier in the span of one year. Then seeing that student go on to do forensics in college and now become a teacher, using communication skills every day through the Teach for America program.”  This is why coaches become so passionate when discussing their program.

Additionally, coaches showcase specific, personal reasons confidence is so important to them, too.  “I coach because this activity changed my life for the better. Speech and debate taught me to use a voice I didn't know I had in a time when I really needed to discover who I was. If I can give that gift to one student, I will have lived my life in a way that I believe is deserving of respect,” explains one coach. Another states, “I wanted to work in a rural district to help foster an interest in an activity that many don't know exists. I love the idea of helping students find a voice they didn't know they had.”  “And, in the small rural setting,” elaborates another coach, “it gives them an opportunity to see and experience a world that they would never experience through other activities.”

“Students developing their voices so that they may become self-actualized adults who are able to skillfully advocate for themselves, their needs, their families, their communities” is a recurring reason why coaches are so passionate about their programs.  Coaches know “high school is a difficult time for students, especially those that may be lacking in whatever is the social currency of the moment.  Speech and debate naturally instills confidence in students.” It gives students “more confidence in college-level classes where debate, discussion, and presentation are expected.”  Furthermore, “so often, students don't feel empowered because they don't think they have anything to say.  Speech and debate allows them to research, think, form opinions, play devil's advocate and interact with other students, coaches and the community as a whole.”

  One experienced coach elaborates on their greatest experience as a coach:

  • … They [students] gave testimonies of being more outgoing, being able to stand up for themselves, having confidence, making life-long friends, being able to open up to their parents about difficult issues, and one spoke on the fact that she would have committed suicide if not for the confidence and support she received through speech and debate. These things are built by other extracurricular activities and clubs, but the focus on communication, self and believing in yourself is unparalleled in debate.

Texas coaches clearly understand how speech and debate participation instills confidence into students, and these educators know this self-advocacy can make all the difference in the world for students learning how to maneuver in today’s world. 

As educators, when we struggle with travel expenses, scheduling conflicts and time management in our hectic daily routines, we must focus on what these programs bring to students, like Regina and Colin, who grow up and become leaders within our own community.  Providing an avenue for developing confidence is a major reason why interscholastic programs, such as speech and debate, are so vital to student success.

(Baker is a former speech and debate coach at Cypress Creek High School.)