How to Improve a Team (For Coaches)

This is a brief introduction to setting up a successful quizbowl program targeted at coaches. If you’re a student or parent interested in starting a team at your school, see our general guide to starting a quizbowl team. If you’ve already read this and want more advice on coaching, see our post on Coaching Efficiently to maximize your time spent on quizbowl.

I want to begin by emphasizing the importance of having a dedicated coach for a quizbowl 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 begin by thanking you for your hard work on behalf of your students.

So how can a quizbowl coach better prepare his or her team? Here are five major points, in order of most-important to least-important:

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 (see point #5), 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 that you create will end up doing much of the heavy lifting of motivating and teaching your students for you. So how do you build a successful quizbowl program?

a. Make Time and Space for a Team. Spread the word about your quizbowl program by establishing a clear time and space for it meet regularly to practice. Students need to know where to go and when to play quizbowl. 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 quizbowl club exists and practices year-round on say, Mondays and Thursdays in Room 314 after school, helps immensely by providing a specific place and time for students.

Start practices as early as you can during the school year rather than wait too long–the longer you wait, the more likely potential quizbowl recruits will get involved in other activities. Some coaches also run practices or group study 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 for your team to come together and work. If you ensure that practices are well-run, enjoyable, and productive, students will be more likely to choose that over other possible activities.

b. Building an Institutional Reputation. You probably have somewhat of a de facto hierarchy of clubs and activities at your school–maybe the Model UN team has a case full of shiny gavels or the marching band always gets all the AP students 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 put it at the top. Winning trophies and doing well at tournaments helps, but overall professionalism and persistence will build up your club’s reputation over time.

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. Parents want their students to be involved in established, fulfilling activities. Students want to be involved with something that’s fun and successful. Fortunately, quizbowl is inherently a pretty fun activity for most academically interested students, so encourage your current players to bring friends.

Other aspects of professionalism include adding a team website (and updating it!) and keeping your community as well as your school informed about your team. Contacting your administrators and/or local reporters about your team if you have a solid placement or achievement 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.

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. Making a strong recruiting push 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 school-wide announcements for a whole week, ask other teachers to talk up your team to their students, go to activity fairs (ideally with a buzzer set!), etc. Once you start getting players to show up, 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 at his school 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, especially if you only have one coach. Bigger teams are, however, good both for arguing for more funding and for hosting larger tournaments. You don’t need to have all your students necessarily dedicated to playing either; some can just help out when needed and show up to practice. Attrition will always happen too, so even if your initial club interest meeting at the start of the year is huge, it might not stay that way over time. If you do have a surfeit of interested players, you may want to institute some form of tryouts, though in general I would discourage that unless you reach absolute limits (like numbers of seats available in a classroom). Quizbowl should be a fun and welcoming environment for all students to come and learn new things; so long as a student is dedicated to improving and not disrupting other players, it usually makes sense to keep them.

Middle schools, which usually have fewer activities in general, are a great recruiting ground as well for high school coaches. Contact 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 recruited a team, what do you do with them?

– 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 if you are preparing to host tournaments and need readers). This seems small, but it’s important to getting practices started on time. It can also be helpful, if you have a single dominant player, to pull that player out to read more often and/or to have them work on studying privately to give other players a chance to buzz more often on occasion.
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. Notebooks are a good tangible indication of interest in quizbowl and invaluable for improvement.
3. Pick out the question packets to be read at practice that 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 a tournament using, say, the Harvard Fall Tournament, read old Harvard Fall Tournament questions. Using quizDB to select some specific subject categories for extra review might also work–categories that are small at the high school level like philosophy and anthropology would be good candidates for a focused practice.
4. Minimize distractions. It’s fine for players to go off on brief discussions during practice, especially if they are relevant. But if a player (or non-player in the classroom) is being disruptive or distracting other players, you should intervene.

Mix it up. 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. Try different combinations of players and variations on practice strategies. One strategy to help deal with one dominant player at practices might be to require that player to try buzzing on the first two lines of every tossup (or, alternately, restricting that player to only buzz after the “For Ten Points”). Experiment with your players and see what works best for them to motivate them to show up to practice, write things down, and learn more.

If you have a large team (10+ students), 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 of time 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 in quizbowl tournaments 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. A quizbowl team that only players one or two tournaments a year is not likely to be very successful. Generally, we’d recommend at least 4-5 weekend tournaments a year plus whatever local competitions you might have (if you do attend 4-5 weekend events, you’ll likely see your placement at your local competitions improve significantly!).

– 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 get 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, there are some tips that can be useful in certain scenarios. Much of in-game coaching comes down to two broad categories: 1) keeping emotions in check and 2) 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, and responding to adversity with positivity 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 (and their teammates) can step in to help correct. The worst kind of in-game coaching is yelling at 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 as well.

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 only 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 fairly close game, don’t be afraid to protest something that seems wrong in the question or in the accepted answer. Familiarize yourself with the rules as much as possible to make sure you’re not lodging a frivolous protest; usually, this comes down to the acceptability of a given answer, so look at the correctness guidelines in the rules for each format very carefully.

In pyramidal 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.

Have any additional questions for us about coaching? Feel free to get in touch with us at or @paquizbowl