It's much like training for a boxing match, University of Nevada, Reno Debate Team Coach Phil Sharp said of preparing for a national debate final.
"Mastering debate involves a lot of being knocked down and getting back up," Sharp, forensics director in the College of Liberal Arts, said. "Before nationals, training involves a lot of intellectual sparring. Sometimes your coaches are the ones who knock you down, sometimes they are picking you up, dusting you off and determining if you know what just hit you. Having the heart to get on your feet and ask for more is the hardest part."
Sharp has taken the University debate team to the National Parliamentary Debate Association finals all seven years he has headed the program. During his first season, he coached the University's Max Alderman and David Pena to an unprecedented first place at both of the national tournaments in 2009, the NPDA and the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence. Last year, the University's Nevada Debate Union, part of the Department of Communication Studies, was selected by the Associated Students of the University of Nevada as the Outstanding Club of the Year, and two of the top debate team members were selected as the Outstanding Club Leaders of the Year, for both the men and women's categories. To top the season, the squad captured the 2014 Season Sweepstakes Championship Title, ranking first out of 189 schools.
"It's great to have such a vibrant debate region full of committed coaches and passionate students," Sharp said. "The work they do now pays off in both the short and the long term. Debate is about more than winning and losing. It's about building character, maturity, work ethic, teamwork and numerous other skills you will need in life."
This year, prior to the national tournament, the squad of 16 members - collectively - out of 187 schools nationwide, was ranked No. 20 in the nation during the regular season. After four days of elimination rounds against 53 schools, held in Kansas City, Kan., the squad was recognized as holding 10th place at the NPDA tournament.
"Every win counted and these debaters should be applauded for their effort," Sharp said. "This season has been a pleasure to work with each of them and it was exciting to see the effort and passion they showed during the tournament; I hope the trip to Kansas proved educational and fun. A great job to all the members of the team who contributed throughout the year."
And just what kind of commitment does it take to debate? Students dedicate many hours and days to practice and competitions year round, beginning with debate camps during summer, four-hour weekly meetings/practices during the academic year to hone their skills, nine regional competitions - 27 competition days - plus nationals, a weekend-long prep session before nationals, a public debate in the spring, year-end gatherings and volunteer judging at local high school competitions.
"It's always a treat as a coach when students approach you, outline their goals and commit to making it happen."
The squad's top duo, Cory Nims, Reno High School graduate, University senior and team captain, and sophomore Grace Miller, a Santa Rosa Junior College transfer student, finished the preliminary rounds in Kansas with a 6-2 record and eighth seed in a field of 153 teams. Losing in the round of 32, they finish the NPDA tournament tied for 17th place.
For his performance at the national tournament, Nims was recognized as the 11th speaker out of 306.
"Getting into the top 20 is a remarkable accomplishment for any debater," Sharp said.
"It has been a goal of mine to end in the top 20 speakers since my freshmen year attending nationals," Nims said. "And that moment felt like a validation of all of the work I have done over the last eight years of my debate career. Debate has pushed me to be a better person, it has made me question how I see the world and most of all, debate has given me a family within my team."
Miller and Nims will step back into the ring with 67 of the top ranked teams in the nation at the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence Invitation at William Jewell College in Missouri March 20, with their biggest fan in tow.
"These two have done nothing but eat, sleep and breathe debate for the last six weeks," Sharp said. "It's been grueling and challenging."
"Grace and I have spent countless hours working together writing arguments, reading and more often than not, disagreeing with each other," Nims said. "While it has been an exhausting experience, I would do it again in a second. This national tournament has been an emotional experience for me. The people I have met through debate are some of the best people I know and I love and respect each of them more than I could ever explain."
And to congratulate the Nevada Debate Team in good parliamentary debate fashion, knock on a table to applaud their season-long effort.
Catch the University team in action during the Nevada Debate Union's annual public debate, free and open to the community, on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22. The environmentally themed debate begins at 6 p.m. in the Joe Crowley Student Union Theatre.