The Role of the Coach
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
Dennis Loo competed in collegiate quiz bowl at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, where he played on a national title winning team. He later coached quiz bowl at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, and the Illinois Math and Science Academy. He offers these thoughts on the role of a coach in quiz bowl. This article is adapted from a post Dennis made on the Quiz Bowl Forum website.
I’ve taken a job that prevents me from coaching this year, but I thought this might be useful to new (and even some experienced) teams, especially ones with an inexperienced coach. I feel like this post is still a bit disorganized, but I just wanted to put it up before the high school season starts.
I helped start the team at Virginia Tech in my undergrad years, and we went from being clubbed like baby seals in our first year as a club to being a top-10 team by the 1999 season. While living in Boston, I read questions for the Harvard club for several years. After a long school hiatus, I went to the University of Virginia to get my teaching certification and played for a couple more years, being the fourth scorer on the 2014 UVA team that won both NAQT ICT and ACF Nats. Since then, I coached Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, VA for the 2015 and 2016 seasons and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy for the 2017-2019 seasons.
It may be as simple as you have to, but if you’re reading this, you’re hopefully doing it for more than a paycheck! Coaching- at least for the stipends offered in VA and IL- came out to sub-minimal wage for me. What I did like was taking a group of hungry kids and showing them how to more efficiently learn things, and that they could get good at this game.
A word of warning that really shouldn’t need to be said is that no coach should be in it as a way to burnish their own resume. Not only does it make it all about you rather than about the kids you’re coaching, quizbowl coaching obviously isn’t held in the same prestige as football or basketball coaching. Being a successful coach sure hasn’t helped me get any teaching jobs!
I think the first thing a coach has to figure out at the beginning of the year is what the players want out of playing quizbowl. If both the coach and the players want the same thing, the program will be healthy and have a much higher chance of being happy. Otherwise, there will always be tension. If the players want to make a run at a state title or qualify for national tournaments and the coach only wants to go to one tournament a year, the players will likely become resentful. If the coach wants to be competitive and the players just want to play casually, the coach may end up being abusive- don’t let this be you! I suggest that before the first general meeting of the club, the coach and the officers (or varsity team) get together and have a talk about what the team would like to accomplish this year. Having goals or an outlook for the next 2-3 years would be nice too, even if things change somewhat with each new group of officers and players.
The Most Basic Task:
If you’re a coach, you need to figure out how many tournaments your team wants to go to (this may be “as many as possible”) and then do your best to make it happen. I think a coach needs to be available to go to- at a bare minimum- most of the local tournaments in a year. By this, I mean committing several Saturday morning/afternoon blocks (morning-only tournaments count as half), and one weekend for either NAQT High School National Championship Tournament (HSNCT) or PACE National Scholastic Championship (NSC) if your team qualifies and can afford to travel.
Similarly, a coach needs to be available for afterschool practice on a regular basis. I think the bare minimum here is a 1.5 hour practice every other week. Ideally, the coach would read questions for at least half of this time. If they start losing their voice, they can let a team member read the other half of the time. Don’t worry if you stumble over foreign words and scientific terms, or take 40 minutes to get through a packet. Most people aren’t good moderators when they start out, and you’ll improve quickly.
To familiarize yourself with basic quizbowl terminology, it’s worth taking a look at http://www.pace-nsc.org/pace-quizbowl-lexicon/ even though it’s a little dated. Hopefully someone will write an updated guide to qb slang soon.
One of the main functions of being a coach is to hold institutional memory. Student-run programs can thrive for a long time with minimum faculty/staff involvement, but the issue is that great players are often not great organizers. Neither are they always good at developing younger players to replace them after graduation. I think a school can get away with poor leadership in one graduating class, but it’s vastly harder to keep going if there’s two consecutive such classes. There is a loss of culture- freshmen/sophomores have less knowledge of how to prep and study, little things about gameplay, and so on. Having a coach who can be there and active for 3+ years helps keep a certain level of stability and prevents a program from deteriorating too far.
At the high school level, becoming an average team is not at all dependent on talent. Motivation is far more important, and over three years, a team can get to the level where they’re qualifying for HSNCT on work alone. Even a small amount of talent, and that same motivated team is now making playoffs at HSNCT.
Maturity is an underrated trait. This can come in multiple forms. Mature kids are more likely to be able to craft and stick to a study plan, sure, but there’s lots of in-game effects. Being able to shake off negging is hard- two of the worst tournaments I ever played were 2013 ICT and SUBMIT. In the latter, I couldn’t shake off two dumb negs and keep buzzing, and I let several later questions that I would’ve gotten go by because I was too afraid to neg. The “keep buzzing” ethos may actually be something that teammates should encourage as well. I think there’s value in telling a kid perhaps to play a little more conservatively, but to keep on buzzing.
On Instilling Belief:
Perhaps the most difficult task for a coach is instilling belief. A team can go from terrible to average in a surprisingly short amount of time with a moderate amount of work. The coach’s objective is to first get their kids to believe that improvement is possible, and then to believe that the coach and players can collaborate to put together a study plan to achieve that improvement.
It helps a great deal for coaches (and teams) to be at a school that has won a state or played in a national tournament before, even if it was a couple decades ago. Kids can at least see that other people in their situation have been able to achieve great success.
Even so, it can be frustratingly difficult to get kids to believe. The spring of 2016, TJ A had reached the point where they had at least a 1 in 3 chance of beating any other team in the country in a single game. I told them that they shouldn’t be afraid of any team. Despite beating a top-4 team three consecutive times at the nationals-prep BMAD tournament, they still didn’t truly believe they could play with anybody on even terms.
The psychological hump that teams must get over before winning a championship is real. They need to stop being afraid to play any team, or else they’re handicapping themselves before the first tossup is even read.
Ideally, players will be keeping each other accountable. A coach can help with that if the players express a desire to get good and contend at a state/national level. I told my kids that if all they wanted to do was play casually, I wouldn’t bug them to study. But if they wanted to try to contend, I’d regularly ask them whether they’ve put in their work for the day/week yet.
An experienced coach can also help a team put together a study plan to ensure proper coverage of all major areas. If the program is already successful to the point of being HSNCT playoff regulars with two seniors and two juniors on the A team, my general advice for specialization is as follows: Freshmen read and study whatever they want. They might not even know what really interests them yet, so there’s little point in shoehorning them into a niche. The key thing is just to get them into the habit of reading and studying. Sophomores should begin to pick an area to start focusing on but continue to concentrate on building general skills. Near the end of the year, they should know what they need to do to get on the A team so you can help them put together a summer regimen. Juniors should have at least one specialist area, but if they can cover that, they should be encouraged to branch out and claim more sections of the canon. Seniors should study whatever is necessary to ensure a strong end to their HS career.
I highly recommend Matt Weiner’s “How to Study for Quizbowl” presentation. It is especially useful for new coaches, as it is nearly plug-and-play. [You can find Matt Weiner's presentation and Dennis Loo's annotations to apply to high school quiz bowl on this post on the quiz bowl forum. -ColinM]
On Timed Play:
Time-based play is unusual in quizbowl, and is limited mostly to HSNCT, SCT, ICT, and prep tournaments for those championships. Rehearsing playing on the clock is useful for the two weeks before HSNCT. If you have a veteran team that can handle it, try playing practice scenarios for when you’re down by 65 points with one minute left, or down by 100 with two minutes left. This trains your experienced players to know when they should “pass out” a bonus to save time- perhaps the easiest example of this is if your team is down by 50 and gets a tossup with 15 seconds left to cut the margin to 40. There is no way to actually answer the bonus parts without running out of time, so your team must pass the bonus out in order to get one more tossup/bonus cycle in.
Calling a time-out is one of the few places where a coach can add value in-game. I prefer to avoid calling timeouts for things like “momentum”- your team will need to learn how to play when behind. Similarly, they need to develop the mental resilience to stay in the game instead of requiring the coach to call a timeout to calm them down. This allows the coach to save the timeout for when it’s needed- for specific in-game situations regarding the score and the time or number of tossups left. You’re keeping score anyways; that timeout will let you tell your players what subject(s) are most likely to come up in those last few tossups.
As a reminder, it is very common for a team to have an issue with believing in themselves. Don’t quit when down by 150 and there’s 4 questions left. Yes, your team might only have a 1% chance of getting the last four and doing well enough on the bonuses to win or force overtime. But a coach who’s been around the game for a few years has probably seen it happen before.
If there’s interest, I might write more later on keeping a proper level of aggression when buzzing, the value of a power tossup and why just collecting the 10 may sometimes be better than going for power (more applicable in college though), and tie it back in with “Being a Fourth Player” for players new to the A team.
Players will neg. Accept it. If a player never negs while still getting at least a tossup a game, it almost certainly means they’re not buzzing in often enough. In general, having a TU/neg ratio of 15+ usually indicates excessive timidity while a neg ratio under 3 usually indicates overaggression.
Similarly, there are “good” negs and “bad” negs. A good neg is a reasonable answer given what had been read up to that point, and enough information has been given to put up a solid guess. A bad neg would be something like a question starting “In the upper left of this painting...” and a player buzzing in and answering with the name of the artist. Your goal is to train your team to avoid making bad negs- ones that result from inattention or frustration.
This boils down to “don’t be an ass”. You want to win, and given that tiebreakers are often points per game within the bracket or points per bonus, nobody will blame you for running up the score. However, this also means you should win gracefully. Don’t lodge a protest when up by 500 points and the game has been locked up. Don’t taunt the other team. This includes things like grumbling about a clue being stock after you first-line something. Few things demoralize a new team more than being destroyed 700-10 while the winning team is complaining every other question that it was a “stock clue” or that the question was too easy.