What I Learned About Mentoring Over Winter Break by: Wyatt Eichholz

One of the things they told me when I went off to college was that finals would be stressful. They were. What they didn’t tell me was that after you finish your first semester final exams, Christmas break can seem incredibly boring. As it happened, I made it home for break while my siblings were still in the thick of their own midterms. For almost two school weeks, I had little to do except sit around and keep myself occupied while by brother and sisters studied and prepared for their tests. Perhaps it was out of boredom, then, that I agreed to a rather unique arrangement one Thursday last week.

This story actually begins all the way back at a Lasting Impact! Camp I helped to run this past summer. One twelve-year-old novice in particular appeared to enjoy the camp a lot and participated enthusiastically in the activities, but he had trouble grasping the technical details of debate. At the end of the camp, he told me he still didn’t have a clue how to debate, even though he had a ton of fun at the camp.

About three months later, I visited my club during the first week of my Christmas break. I was reassured to find that this student was still involved in debate, and in fact was quite enthusiastic about it, even though he still claimed not to know anything at all. When he learned that his partner would not be at club the next week, but that I would be around, he hatched an idea. That evening I found a message in my inbox; it was a 1AC from that novice proposing that I partner with him for next week’s rounds. He presented his harms, plan, and advantages, and even thought to include a note on funding: a bag of Swedish Fish if I agreed.

Of course, I agreed.

The student was ecstatic, if what his mom told us is to be believed. I met with him over Google Hangouts a couple of times in the intervening week and was briefed on the case we would be debating. The meeting turned into a free coaching session when I started explaining parts of his case that he didn’t quite understand. (He was astonished when I told him that I did, in fact, read all twenty-seven pages of his sourcebook backup. I don’t think he had made it all the way through it himself.) Save a brief scare when the student fell ill and almost dropped out himself, everything was lining up for him to have the most fun debate of his life.

When the day finally came around, the student was as enthusiastic as ever. He didn’t show it by being too excited, but you could tell he was happy to debate with me. During the round, he did a fine job with his speeches, but he seemed more to enjoy strategizing back at the table with me. He’d bounce ideas off of me and I’d encourage him to give them a try. I used the opportunity to guide his strategic thinking a bit and he caught on quickly. Over the two rounds debated, he had a great time and demonstrated some strong reasoning and skill. My mom (his debate coach) said that I made his season by spending the afternoon debating with him.

Actually, agreeing to come back and debate as an alumnus put me in another interesting situation: I had the chance to debate against my youngest sister. Because of the age gap between us, her novice year came one season after I graduated, so I never would have debated against her during my regular competitive career. There was also no reason for me to stage a practice debate round with my siblings outside of regular competition, so in other words, this opportunity to debate against my sister was entirely a one-off and will likely never happen again.

But this opportunity allowed me to see just how talented she was even as a novice and to witness how much potential she has as a competitor. Prior to this, I had only seen a sliver of her debate preparation. I heard stories from my family about how see was scared to tears before her first round, and I saw firsthand how she wrestled with research at home. In fact, I had become quite annoyed at having to hold her hand through researching and formatting evidence for her assignments. Seeing only the behind-the-scenes of her debate career, I had begun to lose faith in her abilities.

Getting to debate her in a round showed me just how wrong I was in my judgements. As it turned out, her own partner was unable to debate at the last minute, so my sister had to “maverick” as a novice. Even still, she kept her cool and debated skillfully. She demonstrated not only a firm understanding of the basics but also a grasp of some of the higher-level debate techniques that she had picked up from watching my brother and I debate. She may have cried before other rounds, but this time she handled a stressful debate round with calmness and clarity. I was blown away to see how much of a punch she could pack.

I would say that the day taught me at least two important lessons about being a coach. First, I learned that it doesn’t take much for young students to look up to you like you are a hero. I know that I revered some of the exceptional students in the league when I first joined, and it would make my day whenever they took the time to interact with me. By paying that forward and investing in the younger generation as they look up to you, all students have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the next wave of rising competitors. This doesn’t take too much effort, but it does require intentionality on your part. As experienced competitors in the league, you have to be aware of the influence you wield and the example you set.

The second thing I learned was never to discount someone’s potential because of what you see at a first glance. Students can and will always surprise you. As a coach or mentor in any capacity, you therefore must always be willing to drop your initial judgements if and when they become willing to learn. I think that coachability is a more important factor in this regard than raw talent, for you cannot always force a talented but unmotivated student to progress, but you can always help a willing and coachable student improve.

We don’t tend to think of it as much when we look at the cookie-cutter educational institutions all around us, but I think that so much of the human experience consists of passing wisdom and knowledge from tutor to student; in transferrings skill and experience from master to apprentice. It was true for the ancient Greek philosophers, it was true for the Jedi Order, and it’s true for speakers and debaters as well. Public speaking is an art best passed on from coach to competitor, and by taking the time to mentor the next generation of competitors, one leaves a legacy stronger than anything a box of medals and trophies can offer.

I am excited to introduce you to Wyatt Eichholz, one of our newest Lasting Impact! Interns and Coaches. He competed for five years and is uplifting and an encouragement to all! He primarily competed in TP and Limited Prep, although I still recall a speech about fountain pens and an LD tournament. If you are looking for a mentor, consider Wyatt. Check out all of our fantastic coaches HERE.