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  • Talon Stradley

S1E8 - Teachers, Cheerleaders, Mentors

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

CONTENT WARNING: Hey everyone, before we get started, I wanted to mention that this episode briefly discusses losing a family member to Alzheimers. If you want to skip that section, it occurs just after our interview with Nirvana and you can rejoin us after the ad-break for the second half of the episode. Ok, on to the episode.

Talon: Hi, my name is Talon Stradley and this is Soapboxers, a fly-on-the-wall podcast about speech and debate. I used to competed on the Orange Coast College team and now I’m back after 2 years to document the speech and debate experience and bring it to you. Today, we’re talking about coaching! What it means, how to do it, and the impact it has on competitor’s lives. This is Soapboxers.

Talon: This whole time, we’ve been running around and learning about speech and debate from the ground up, taking a look at most of the events and seeing what it’s like to be at a tournament. But there is a whole side to this that we’ve barely touched and that’s the coaches.

Forensics coaches play a vital role in helping competitors find success in tournaments while also providing a space to grow, learn skills, and have a platform.

To help guide us through the world of coaching, I reached out to one of my old teammates, Kayla Mercure.

Kayla: Hi, my name is Kayla Mercure. My pronouns are She and They and I was a part of the OCC team. That’s how I got my start in forensics.

Kayla: So I was on the OCC team in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

Talon: Kayla was one of the returning competitors when I was on the team. A lot of the more unspoken stuff I learned from Kayla, like how to conduct yourself at a tournament or what to expect at Nationals. She competed in just about every form of individual events.

Kayla: I did prose, POI, drama, informative, persuasive, and my favorite, of course, interpreter’s theater.

Talon: The only category Kayla missed was limited prep.

Kayla: I wish I had done limited prep, I wish I had forced myself through that because I cannot think on my feet at all.

Talon: Luckily, Kayla did just fine without limited prep. She went to the state and national tournaments twice and each time she was one of the recipients of the Bovero-Tabor award, acknowledging the best speakers in the nation. Not only was she an amazing competitor, but during this time, she was also a coach.

Kayla: My friend the delightful Sal Tinajero Jr. came up to me one day and he said “I think I might have a job for you. Come work for my dad in the Santa Ana K-12 school district. Be a part of our coaching staff.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was one of the youngest coaches in the district, I was barely 18. I was so fortunate to get to be a student of coaching and then a coach of students simultaneously because each role makes you better at the other.

Talon: This is something the OCC coaches push whenever they can. If you have the opportunity to coach, judge or help run a tournament, you will become a better competitor. One of the main things I wanted to identify this episode is what is the role of a coach. I asked a few different people.

Kayla: Coaching is the equivalent to directing.

Shauhin: The role of the coach is a cheerleader, an educator, a motivator. Those are the things that I think encompass what a coach is supposed to do for their student. They’re supposed to give them confidence when the student themselves couldn’t possibly believe in themselves. You’re supposed to show them that they are capable of doing things that they didn’t think possible.

Sean: And I told them over and over and over “No, no, no. You’re wrong. You can absolutely do this. You can absolutely win at After Dinner Speaking or you can absolutely win this interpretation event. You can absolutely be a national champion.

Shauhin: And so in that way I guess you’re kind of a cheer leader. It doesn’t matter how much the team is down, the cheerleaders are still cheering on the side of the game and you are on the side of the game. You’re not in the game.

Kayla: You help breathe life into a piece that you don’t even perform.

Shauhin: You can’t do things for them. But you can encourage them. You can still try and push them as a cheerleader.

Talon: Coaches aren’t just a cheerleader. They’re also a teacher.

Shauhin: They need to tell the student how to do things. We need to teach our students how to do all of the things that they need to do in order to be competitive.

Kayla: Public speaking advice based on maybe things as simple as tone of voice or expression, but you also forge emotional connections between you and the student and the student and their subject matter. Figuring out what those motivations are and using those things to truly get your students excited.

Kayla: You teach them how to advocate. How to stand up for themselves. How to navigate space in and outside of speech.

Shauhin: The most important role that a coach has is, they’re the motivator. Each student has different motivations. Each student has different reasons for joining the speech and debate team. Different reasons for continuing on the speech and debate team. Each one has very different reasons of why they’re there.

Talon: That last point, guiding students both in and outside of competition, is probably one of the more important roles of a coach. Speech and debate thrives when people bring their honest selves to the table and talk about something that they’re passionate about. Maybe this is a topic they have been passionate about for a long time, maybe they discovered it while on the team, but there is a certain amount of vulnerability that occurs when you stand up and say “I am passionate about this topic.” The coaches see that. The coaches help you find that passion and cultivate it. While that sometimes starts and stops at competition, other times it branches out to more general life skills. At that first tournament, we saw a couple of moments like this where conversations about the tournament turned into careers, majors, and futures.

Shauhin: Go find one that you’re — that is actually interesting to you. Go find one that’s interesting to you. Do you really want to be a lawyer or do you want to appease your middle eastern parents? Cuz if I asked myself that question when I was nineteen: Do I really want to be a lawyer or do I just want my parents off my back? The answer probably would’ve been I want my parents off my back. Probably. If I was really honest with myself.

Talon: Remember Jinno and the Flowers for Brown Boys? That was made possible due to the support and guidance of speech and debate coaches. Kayla is pursuing her masters in large part due to her experience with coaches. She wants to run a team just like them one day.

Kayla: Yes, I would love to be a Director of Forensics! I know I’m aiming high for a twenty-two year old. Specifically at Orange Coast College, that’s the dream. Like Shauhin, like the incredible Sherana Polk when you and I were on the team, like my uncle years ago. For now, once I get my masters degree, I’m going to be applying to teach at any college with a speech team so that I can get more college level coaching under my belt. But all I know is that I’m in it. Forensics changed everything for me and I’m ready to go change everything for someone else.

Talon: And Kayla has changed everything for someone else, even as a younger coach. One of her former students, Nirvana, is now competing on the OCC speech and debate team.

Nirvana: Ok, so I love Kayla so much. I was having a mental breakdown over my OO. I was losing it and she was like “It’s ok. Don’t worry. You’re great.” || It as also before covid. I was absolutely stressed and she was like “It’s ok. I’ve been there.” And she helped calm me down. I have an inferiority complex, a very, very bad inferiority complex. And she was like “No, you can go to Nationals probably. This is a really good script.” It’s insane cuz I didn’t have much coaching until junior year. So, she was like so supportive. Without her I don’t think I would be as confident in myself.

Talon: Coaching is about growth, connection, and self-reflection, all while discussing some of the most difficult topics of our time. You’ve heard about the impact that can have on both students and coaches. But, how do you get to that point? After the break, we’ll see how coaching works at OCC and I’ll even try my hand at it.

Talon: First things first, what are you interested in working on?

Talon: That’s coming up next on Soapboxers.

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Talon: Welcome back. During the first half of the episode we learned what it means to be a coach and the impact it can have on students. Now? It’s time to see what coaching looks like, and how you do it. Back to help us through it is Kayla Mercure.

Kayla: Coaching frequently looks like a one on one meeting with a student, whether in person or over zoom.

Talon: There are many different approaches to coaching depending on where the student is at.

Shauhin: A great coach will walk into two coaching sessions with very different styles based on the student that’s in front of them.

Talon: At the beginning of the semester, students are brand new and you have to help guide them in those first few steps. What event do you want to run? What topic are you covering? What experience do you have in public speaking or performing? Where do you start? This is the kind of meeting we’re about to see with Vittoria, a new student to the team, and Hannah, one of the coaches.

Vittoria: I was looking into the different types of speeches or debates and I thought that informative speaking… I really liked that one.

Hannah: Cool! That’s awesome. Have you taken a public speaking class before?

Vittoria: I’ve never taken it and also I’m an international student. I’m Italian. So, it’s just to get better also. But I did take English 100 and 101 and I saw that I really liked working on something and then informing others about it.

Hannah: That’s awesome! Ok, cool. So Informative speaking. So, I’m going to ask you to start looking for topics and kind of see if there are any informative topics that are interesting for you.

Vittoria: In regards to what thing?

Hannah: It could be on anything you want. As long as it’s a little bit more current or something that people aren’t as familiar with. Just because we want to keep the audiences engaged and it’s not a topic that people are necessarily hearing all the time and already know a lot about. So, one way you can do that is you can always think about things you’re interested in. So if there is anything that you are interested or passionate about that you want to inform people on or teach people about, since informative is really just about imparting knowledge. Teaching people a certain skill set or teaching people about something they might not know a lot about. Another thing you could do is just go through the news and see what are some current events that are happening right now and just—

Vittoria: Sorry. It’s just my notebook.

Hannah: No no no, yeah. For sure.

Talon: Hannah goes through this talk just trying to gauge where Vittoria is at and get her started. If Vittoria wants to do an Informative speech, then she’s going to need a topic. While the coaching sessions themselves are important, they're a little more like guard rails, helping to make sure people are on the right track. At OCC, the coaching sessions are typically only 15 minutes and while you can sign up for as many as you want, there still needs to be a lot of work done in between sessions. Vittoria’s homework is to find a topic and articles. Which she brings to their meeting a week later.

As the year moves on, however, the focus turns from constructing pieces to developing them. Here the student meets with the coach…

Kayla: …Where they perform bits and pieces at a time. When you interrupt them and try new things, that’s called stop and go coaching.

Talon: Kind of like how you may rehearse a play focusing on one scene at a time. When people know their scripts a little better, they can move on to full run-throughs.

Kayla: Sometimes I like to do full performance coaching for students who are further along in the the process or group coaching where you give pointers to one student who is performing in front of everyone.

Talon: By performing the whole piece and then giving feedback, you’re able to identify and improve any larger, general aspects of the speech. Here, Sean gives Noealla feedback on her newly written Persuasion piece.

Sean: Yeah, I have one major note and that is just a thing to be thinking about as you move into the memorization phase which is the knee-jerk reaction tone for persuasion tends to be angry and there’s a reason for that. Right? Because it feels like this is an injustice and it needs to stop. The problem is, when the tone is angry, I feel lectured and I feel like I’m the problem and so I tune out as opposed to listen. If I’m criticized, I’m going to get defensive as an audience person. As opposed to— as an audience person? Is that the way we’re… as an aundiance person?

Jimmy: Member of the audience.

Sean: Yeah, and so you don’t want your audience to get defensive and so I think the tone needs to be pleading, not anger.

Noella: More empathy.

Sean: Which is a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important one. And so it’s come with me. Help me. Please, I need you to help me. I need you to understand this.

Jimmy: We should be angry together.

Sean: Yeah, exactly. A lot more ‘we’ mentality as opposed to this is—

Noella: Disgrace!

Sean: This is injustice! And you need to fix it! Right? Like, we’re gonna shut down completely. It’s a subtle tonal difference but it’s an important one.

Talon: One of the last common methods is group coaching. This has a lot of benefits. The student practicing get’s to feel what it’s like to have an actual audience. Other students get to see a new piece and learn from the feedback given. Other students can also offer their own feedback, giving perspectives you might never have seen before. This method is also efficient. At the workshop before the first tournament, Shauhin used group coaching to teach everyone at once about first impressions and walking up to perform.

Shauhin: And as I was saying I was like man, I’m gonna have to say this like 25 times. It’d be great if I could just address everyone at once just to talk about how to be in the top three versus the bottom three before you start speaking. So one of the things that, at least I think, great performers do is they are in control of their audience from the moment their name is called. Right? If I’m sitting there are a competitor and Christian calls my name…

Christian: Shaw A13.

Shauhin: Yeah, you’ll clap. Go ahead.


Shauhin: You’ll notice, I took my sweet ass time. Right? I was not rushed. I was not hurried. I wasn’t doing anything other than: Hey, I’m gonna perform only when I am ready to perform and not a second earlier. Oh, were you writing something? That’s cool. Imma wait. Oh, were you just walking in? That’s totally fine, come on in! Sit down. We can wait for you. I’m in no rush to perform. Why? Who’s in a rush to perform?

Students: Nervous people.

Shauhin: People are nervous. Who else?

Students: Unprepared.

Shauhin: Yeah, right? Why? Why are you in a rush to perform if you are unprepared?

David: Cuz you want to get it done.

Shauhin: You want to get it done.

Talon: After talking to the whole group, Shauhin has each student practice walking up and starting their speech. They all learned the same thing, they got to see each other learn it, and they had fun while doing it.

Sometimes, coaches may use a bit of a combination of approaches. Do you remember last episode how Shauhin pulled Nina aside during the interview to practice her Prose? Well, after she performed it, they decided to revise her intro, the part where you drop character and explain why you chose that piece.

Shauhin: We need to clean up the language in the intro. Can you do the intro real quick? Talon: Nina’s piece is about a woman who had many of her reproductive organs removed as a precaution against a fatal genetic disease. The piece talks a lot about the character’s own relationship with gender and womanhood. Initially, the intro spoke about how one’s femininity is tied to their reproductive organs and the ability to birth a child. But, that’s not really the case. Being a woman is not defined by your reproductive organs. At its core, this piece is about the dichotomy of a person’s body and a person’s gender identity. It’s a nuanced topic, especially when the piece itself is about a cis-woman questioning her womanhood after having some of these organs removed. This is where multiple perspectives can help. In a circumstance like this, it can be crucial to have someone who has different relationship with gender than anyone else in the room.

Shauhin: And, you know what? Grab River. Hi friend, we’re gonna have you help us with an intro. You ok with that?

River: Yeah.

Shauhin: K. Cool. Do your intro.

River: Should I sit?

Shauhin: Mhm.

Talon: After performing the intro, they all work together to fix it.

River: So what if in that first sentence you bring the societal expectations in there so you’re not saying that women are being defined by their reproductive organs. You’re saying society has regularly tried to define women by their reproductive organs.

Shauhin: That’s it.

Nina: Ok so that would be the second — So femininity is defined as having the qualities considered to be typical of a woman.

Shauhin: Society regularly places felinity and women’s qualities as equals. Or as…

River: Uh, society has regularly deemed women’s stereotypical qualities inherently feminine.

Shauhin: Society…

River: That’s too many words.

Shauhin: Yeah, let’s clean it up. That’s ok.

Talon: Here we saw all three coaching methods kind of rolled up into one. First, Nina performed her full piece and received feedback. Then, Shauhin took a stop and go approach to the intro. Finally, they brought in River for a bit of a group coaching session to benefit from the variety of perspectives that provides.

A while back, at the start of the season, Shauhin suggested that I try coaching for an episode. The OCC team will periodically have old team members or coaches come back to do guest coaching slots and he suggested that I post a few. And I did! But before leaping into that, I wanted to get some advice from some of the coaches and people we’ve heard from this episode. I asked them, what advice do they have for my first coaching session?

Hannah: Oh my gosh… Um… I would say let the student do the majority of the talking. I think sometimes when people first start coaching they feel like they need to talk a lot and they need to establish credibility or take control of the appointment. I think it’s nice to see what is the student coming to you for. Right? Checking in. What are you trying to get out of this? Are you trying to get better at delivery? Do you need help with writing? Let them come to you so then you could guide them appropriately for their needs.

Shauhin: I would say listen man. Go into your appointment with the student and try to make the student better and that’s it. Keep it simple. You don’t have to fix everything, you just have to fix what you can in a half hour. And what I mean by that is pick the thing that you did well while you were competing and make sure that they’re good at that thing.

Kayla: Be yourself, Talon. As your listeners know from your other episodes, and I’m saying this with Shauhin in mind, students respond well to coaches who are unapologetically themselves. I’ve worked with coaches who are really performative all of the time and that can alienate students because they feel pressured to match that.

Talon: Alright, I got my advice. It’s time to try it out! I posted a couple coaching slots before the team meeting one week and someone signed up. It was a student named Natalie who had a prose piece they were performing at a tournament that same weekend. I started out with Hannah’s advice to see what the student was hoping to get from this coaching session.

Talon (Coaching): First things first, what are you interested in working on?

Natalie: So I was just informed by Alissia— Allisa. She wants to pick a new piece for me.

Talon (Coaching): Ok.

Natalie: But this weekend I’m obviously just going to stick with the one I’ve been doing.

Talon (Coaching): Sure.

Natalie: I just wanna improve… I want to add some cool body — Like, this last tournament I saw a really good purposeful movement.

Talon (Coaching): Ok.

Natalie: Like, some girl was pretending to take out tissue paper from the book acting like it’s a present. There was so many different things that I want to try to add some before the tournament. So yeah, just improving it.

Talon (Coaching): Ok, so you said you are taking this one this upcoming weekend. After that you are going to change the piece though, right?

Natalie: Yes.

Talon (Coaching): Ok, so then I’m also going to look for those moments but focusing more on, I guess like, the theory or intent behind so that you can develop those skills and then bring it to the next piece and look for those moments.

Talon: This was an approach I was pretty comfortable with. Shauhin mentioned to pick something that I feel I did well. Back when I was on the team, I was also heavily involved in the theater program at OCC, specifically as a student director. I had spent lots of time learning how to get performers to identify key moments and put themselves in a space. I felt that this would be something that would help this performance, but also give her something to look for in her next piece as well. She performed her piece and then we moved in to the feedback.

Talon(Coaching): This is, again getting a little bit grander, but answer as many questions as you can about the character that you are portraying. I wouldn’t necessarily do it for this one because, again, you’ve got like five days, but after that with your next piece, write down how do they walk? How old are they? What is their hair color? What is their eye color? Where did they go to school at? Where did they grow up? How many friends did they have in their childhood? How many friends do they have now? Any little bit of detail that you can think, think about it and make those choice and you’re going to feel that kind of infuse itself into the speech. That’s gonna make it a lot easier to make those moments and those decisions and those movements and those characterizations. Right? Like, the candy bar. Ok, what candy bar was placed on her desk?

Natalie: A Godiva bar.

Talon (Coaching): Ok, does she like those?

Natalie: Yeah, sure.

Talon (Coaching): Ok, so she likes them but are those her favorite?

Natalie: Yeah, but maybe she thought it was a little overdone. Like, you could’ve just gotten me a Hershey bar. You didn’t need to do the expensive one.

Talon (Coaching): Yeah, so there you go. That right there. Just by being specific, looking at the thing, now we have a concrete—

Natalie: Like, a real feeling behind that and that’s what you put into it. I just felt that too. That was just my interpretation, I am literally going to infuse that with the line I give.

Talon: All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the coaching session. Was it a perfect session? Am I an expert coach? No. Did I talk a bit too much? Probably. But did I listen to where Natalie was at and what she wanted to improve? Did I focus on aspects that I did well as a performer? Was I unabashedly myself? Yeah, I think so. And look, I’m not saying there’s a correlation here or that I am responsible for this, but that tournament that happened the weekend after the coaching session? Natalie got second place so maybe I am a master coach after all.

Talon: Next week we are taking another break for Thanksgiving. I will be up in Idaho visiting my grandparents in their new house and seeing all my cousins. We’ll be back on November 30th to really dive into the big elephant in the room: Covid-19. How did forensics handle it? What precautions are we taking now? And how exactly does an online tournament work? That’ll be next time on Soapboxers.

Talon: Soapboxers is produced by myself, Talon Stradley, and mixed by Chris Moore. Our Executive Producer is Shauhin Davari. Our theme music was created by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our podcast art was designed by the delightful, Rhiannon White. Other music in the episode was provided by Special thanks to our sponsors, Hired Judge and the Professional Speech and Debate Association. An extra special thanks to Clark Moore, John Farkas, Fuzzy, Ben Steidl, Aaron McGuire, Ali Beheshti, John Lewellen, and of course, my mom, for their support on Kickstarter. If you want to join these saints in the fiscal support of the show, you can visit us at where we have recurring and one time donation options. Check it out to get ad-free episodes, buttons, and shout-outs.

If you want to stay up to date on the show you can follow us on Instagram at SoapboxersPod. We’re also on Twitter and TikTok.

Soapboxers is a production of Newtons Dark Room, a podcast studio set to explore imagination through antiquated audio dramas and non-fiction expeditions. For more information visit

Sean: Whoever wrote the— the children are not… um…

Noella: Property, they’re a priority.

Sean: They’re not property they should be a priority. That’s a brilliantly written line, whoever wrote that.

Jimmy: Was that you Sean!

Sean: I don’t know, someone did! So yeah, it sounds great.

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