How to Improve a Team (for Coaches)

This is an all-too-brief introduction to some of the weightier elements of setting up a successful quizbowl program targeted at coaches. If you’re completely new to quizbowl and coaching, see our guide to starting a quizbowl team. If you’re a player interested in improving, see our other post on How to Improve as a Player.

Before we get into the specifics, I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of having a dedicated coach for a team. Teams without a dedicated coach are often ephemeral in the long run and even in the short-run probably will not reach their full potential. We really can’t have quizbowl without coaches, and I want to pre-emptively thank you for your hard work on behalf of your students.

Most of the time, coaches of any kind of academic competition team want their team to do well. But they may not understand exactly how to do that, especially outside of better-known local formats and competitions. All coaches likely have a busy schedule with family, work, and personal issues to juggle along with quizbowl. So how can a busy coach (who may be sponsoring other activities at the same time) better prepare his or her team without making quizbowl an undue burden? Here are the five major points, with an emphasis on the first:

1. Focus on Building a Program, not just a Team
2. Run Efficient Practices
3. Play quizbowl as much as possible
4. Track Your Team’s Progress
5. Understand the Limited Role of In-Game Coaching

Focus on Building a Program, not a Team. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Shouldn’t a coach by definition focus on, well, coaching during matches?  There is a role for in-game coaching in quizbowl, but the primary role for a quizbowl coach is to put in place the conditions that will allow your players to succeed. If you set things up right, the program culture that you create will end up doing much of the heavy lifting for you and ease your burden. So how do you build a successful quizbowl program?

a. Making Time and Space for a Team. Getting word out about your program starts with having time and space for it meet. Simply making it known within your school (and having that info available on the school website, in the school handbook, on your board, on your classroom door, etc.) that your club practices year-round on say, Mondays and Thursdays after school helps immensely. Start practices as early as you can during the school year rather than wait–the longer you wait, the more likely potential quizbowl recruits will get involved in other activities. Some coaches also run practices or studying during activity periods (if you have an activity schedule), during lunches, or during homerooms. Whatever works for you and your schedule is the best, but the key is to provide as much time and space as possible. If you’re enthusiastic about lots of practices, then your students will be too.

b. Building an Institutional Reputation. You probably have somewhat of a loose hierarchy of clubs and activities at your school now–maybe the Model UN team has a case full of shiny gavels or the marching band has every single AP student also in it or the robotics team is always getting in the local press for their achievements. If quizbowl isn’t high up there now, your task is to make it so. Winning trophies and doing well as tournaments helps, but overall professionalism is the real key.

Your audience is not just the administrators who control the purse-strings of school funding, but also the parents of current and even prospective students. Students want to be involved with something that’s fun and successful–and fortunately, quizbowl is inherently a pretty fun activity for most academically interested students, so encourage your current players to bring friends (I will get into running practices with players of different abilities below). Quizbowl may not necessarily have the cachet that other activities have right now, but you can make it so.

Other aspects of professionalism include adding a team website (and updating it!). Contacting local reporters about your team if you have a solid placement at a tournament is always a good idea. Keeping track of the trophies you win and making sure that the school reports what you win on their website, twitter, facebook, etc is helpful.  If you ensure that practices as well-run, enjoyable, and productive, students will be more likely to choose that over other possible activities.

c. Attracting Players. Building up a strong reputation within your school is helpful, but it’s also up to a coach to get players to join the team. Strong recruiting at the start of the year is a good idea that will pay off later on throughout the year. Get your practices and start-of-year interest meeting up on the announcements for a whole week, ask other teachers to talk up your team to their students, go to activity fairs and make sure you have more than a piece of notebook paper, etc. etc. Once you start getting players, ask them to bring their friends or if they know of other people interested. You can get creative here.  One coach I know emails all teachers and asks them to name their most intellectually curious students. He then sends letters to the students and their parents “inviting” them to be on the quizbowl team. Who could resist such an official and flattering invitation?

I would estimate that 20-30 regular practice attendees for a team would be about as big as one could reasonably get. Bigger teams are good both for arguing for more funding and for hosting larger tournaments, but you don’t need to have all the students necessarily dedicated to playing, just helping out when needed. Attrition will always happen, so just roll with it. You want to see the students who have stick-with-it-ness that they’ll need to study for quizbowl. I have not found that formal requirements of showing up to X practices a month are that helpful–students are busy and if they have track practice on Monday, it’s going to be hard to not lose them then. You should, however, show that you noticed–if a player is missing when they normally come, check in on them to find out what’s up.

Middle schools, which usually have fewer activities in general, are a great recruiting ground as well. Find your feeder middle schools and start talking to the admins or teachers there for interest in starting up a team. Middle school quizbowl is usually less intense than high school quizbowl in terms of fewer tournaments a year (2-3 a year seems to be about normal), but just the mere exposure to the set-up of quizbowl and gaining buzzer confidence can be huge. Thus, when those players become freshmen, they’ll be familiar with the set-up and you can start focusing on having them learn the material.


Now that you have done outreach and recruited a team, what do you do with them when you have their attention?

Run Efficient and Effective Practices. One of the biggest problems with many teams seems to be that practices are not productive and, as such, few players benefit from them or take them seriously. Lackadaisical practices often translate into lackadaisical teams. One thing you can do is challenge your players to not waste time–say, see how fast they can get the buzzer system set up at the start of practice or get organized to start playing questions (15 minutes is too long!).

As a coach, there are only a few things that you need to do at practice:
1. Make sure it’s clear who’s reading each day to avoid endless buck-passing (you should rotate and have people give positive feedback, especially so as you prepare to host tournaments and need readers your players will all be ready).
2. Encourage–if not require–every player to bring a notebook and write down clues they found interesting, questions in their subjects that they missed, etc.
3. Pick out the question packets to be readthat help correct weaknesses or prepare your teams for upcoming tournaments. The week before an NAQT event, you should probably practice on NAQT questions. The week before an HSAPQ event, you should run HSAPQ questions. Using to select some specific subject categories for extra review might also work–categories that are small at the high school level but not normally taught much in schools like philosophy and anthropology would be good candidates for a focused practice.

Practices shouldn’t necessarily be constant barrages of tossups and bonuses. Don’t be afraid to let players look up things they missed during practice–it’s more valuable for them to learn what a painting looks like rather continuing to miss clues for it because they’re trying to buzz on something they haven’t seen.

You may want to think about dividing practices into JV and Varsity practices. Say, JV practices on Tuesday (or in an assistant coach’s room, if you are fortunate enough to have one), Varsity on Monday and Thursday. This not only helps ensure that every player practices with a buzzer in his/her hand, but also allows for newer players to get a feel for playing without being overwhelmed by the more experienced players. If you only have a small window for practices, it’s probably better to have the less-experienced players on the buzzers more often and have the experienced players sit out for part of practice and work on studying/writing questions/reading. Everyone in quizbowl can benefit from practicing on the buzzer, but at some points the more advanced varsity players may benefit more from using practice time to make notes of old questions and look things up rather than play on the buzzer.

– Play Quizbowl as Much as Possible. Your students need the experience of actually competing to help build up their knowledge base, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and learn to mesh well as a team. They can play their local format (whether it’s at your local IU, your local county league, your local TV station, etc.), but they need to also be playing at invitational tournaments on pyramidal questions in and around the state as much as possible. Pyramidal questions will help your players learn more material; though you may have to modify some of your in-game buzzing decisions for local formats, the knowledge base will carry over anywhere. They’re also what’s now used at the PSAC state championship.

Track Your Team’s Progress. At tournaments and in practices, keep track (or have your students keep track) of tossups that go dead and bonus parts that got missed by categories (you can also get your players to do this on their own in their notebooks or during practice and then have you compile the data). Did they just miss “De Toqueville” for the third time that year at that last tournament? If so, some remedial Democracy in America studying may be due. Are they not getting more than a 10 on painting bonuses? Some visual arts studying may be in order. Tracking can be a good motivation for your students–they may not realize what they keep on missing–and it is useful for you so you can figure out what kinds of questions you should be using at practice and what specific tasks you might need to assign your players. A google docs spreadsheet that everyone can access might be helpful here.

In-Game Coaching. Though in-game coaching is only a small part of your coaching responsibilities, it can be useful in some cases.

Much of in-game coaching comes down to two broad categories–keeping emotions in check and paying attention to what’s going on rule-wise. Keeping emotions and egos in check will depend on the unique mix of students that you have on a team. Channeling rivalries into productive and friendly contests, keeping intimidating players or coaches from intimidating your other players, etc. are all important things both within games and outside of games for coaches to work on. Furthermore, you should be alert to drop-offs in motivation during a tournament. Is one of your players seemingly “giving up” and negging too much? Is another getting frustrated and visibly upset? Is someone falling asleep at the buzzer (it happens!)? This is where you can come in either with a time-out, a brief chat at halftime, or a friendly one-on-one talk after a match. This aspect requires some strong emotional IQ on the part of the coach, so make sure that you figure out what works with your players and what their tendencies might be that you can step in to help correct. The worst kind of in-game coaching is haranguing your players. I’ve seen teams on the verge of tears during time-outs as the coach yells at them. Don’t do that. Be positive and keep your own emotions in check.

The other big part of in-game coaching is dealing with protests and the rules. You should not be afraid to fight for your team IF you have a valid reason. Protest things that could matter–if you’re being totally blown out, it’s probably not a good idea to keep lodging protests. But in a close game, don’t be afraid to protest something that seems wrong in the question or in the accepted answer. You should take this on yourself moreso than your players–it’s better for you to focus on this rather having your team worry about it. In good quizbowl formats, hopefully you won’t have to worry about protests as much, but they can and will happen. Be polite in all your dealings with moderators and the other coaches, but don’t be afraid to note the rules. For instance, if the other team buzzed in, completed a full word of an incorrect answer, then changed to another answer, the moderator must accept the first completed word as the answer (this is something even top college players often still don’t realize!). Know the rules, know what kinds of things you can protest, and always be polite when sticking up for your team.

That’s it for now. Feel free to reply to this post with your own questions or comments on how you’ve approached coaching.

-Chris Chiego


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