Tips for Improving

Charles Dees, a member of North Kansas City's 2007 and 2008 Class 4 MSHSAA state champion teams, 2008 NAQT Missouri Qualifier champion team, and top 20 teams at three national tournaments, offers these tips for improving as a player, coach, and team.

Improving Individually

Focus on pyramidal questions. Pyramidal questions contain multiple academically important clues arranged in descending difficulty, with the idea being that the most knowledgeable teams are rewarded by being able to buzz in first. The major benefit of pyramidal questions is that they are usually full of useful clues about whatever it is that makes the topics important. A lot of players have complained before about how pyramidal questions are too hard, but the reality is that quality pyramidal quizbowl allows for much faster improvement because a lot more often it will zone in on appropriate topics and teach players things they can use to get earlier buzzes in the future. To me, pyramidal questions are a win-win scenario, since lots of teams that are good at speed are bad at pyramidal stuff, but lots of good pyramidal teams are also good at speed sets. In any case, the knowledge they promote will be much more fulfilling to the motivated player.

Read old packets. If you just read one ACF Fall packet a day, in a semester your playing skills will be far beyond what you could have ever expected. Even if you start out not knowing many of the answers, that is just a passing phase. You can get even better if you write down and research answers that you don't know about and take note of recurring middle clues. See the links page for a complete list of sites with free practice questions.

Write questions. Writing clue dense, six-line tossups on subjects that come up repeatedly in high school will force you to research potential clues that may come up when a question about a topic is asked. The synthesis of research and writing it usually is a successful method to fill in gaps more easily, since the associations you form will be stronger. I would consider organizing your team to submit a freelance college packet once a semester to continually refine your question writing skills. The ACF website has very good guides to writing questions.

Listen to quizbowl match recordings. This allows you to hear questions in action and you can listen to what very good teams do on those questions. The HSNCT podcasts do that well, but the Quizbowl Cast is also very educational, since it covers both PACE Nationals and various college tournaments.

Pay attention to the world around you. Simply paying attention in class, reading books, paying attention to questions in tournaments, and just paying attention to the world around you in general will lead you to answering more questions than you might expect. I have earned a bunch of points just for paying attention to what tour guides said when visiting a major location like Key West. Tons of stuff in quizbowl involves books; it is definitely worthwhile to read some books and check out plot summaries for works that you are not going to read (and then if you like what you see, read those too!)

Become a specialist. Probably the biggest advice I can give teams is to turn players into specialists. It can be great to have a player who knows a lot of things in general, but the one-man team is much more frustrating than a team where multiple people have some categories locked down really deep, because then the burden of winning is spread around, and more people can learn more things so the team can lock down more questions per game. I definitely recommend someone who wants to learn more on a particular category read through the ACFDB, since it filters lots of tossups by categories.

Become involved in college tournaments. A lot of top high school teams go to college tournaments so that they get to see even better teams on even harder questions and learn from the experience. There are MSHSAA rules that restrict participation in these tournaments; however, I would definitely consider staffing local college tournaments. The other thing is that there are lots of "open tournaments" that are currently not against rules to attend because they aren't eligibility specific as long as you don't play as your school. (You can find out about upcoming college tournaments on the Quizbowl Resource Center forums.)

Regularly visit the quizbowl message boards. The Missouri Academic Competition Message Board is a good resource for tournament announcements and discussions related to quizbowl in Missouri. The Quizbowl Resource Center forum is essentially the only hub for everyone in quizbowl throughout the world and has threads that cover pretty much everything in quizbowl, from announcements to discussions about high school and college quizbowl, to pop culture talk. Regularly visiting these forums is a great way to meet other players and learn even more things you can do to improve as a player and a team.

Coaching Effectively

Remember that your students are the competitors, not you. Your team's performance is not something that should be part of personal drama. I have observed a number of outrageous things like coaches moaning and hitting desks whenever their players miss a question. Getting angry at your players for not knowing everything seems to me like a fast track to burning out students and making them not want to learn things just for the sake of learning and becoming personally motivated to do better.

Let your students play and enjoy the game. Frivolously exploiting the rules to give your team a slight advantage, such as lodging an excessive number of protests, is simply a fast track to frustrating everyone involved and giving yourself a bad reputation, but even more it's usually a symptom of some larger problem. Now don't get me wrong, protesting when you think something in a game has gone wrong is a very good thing and should be done, but not protesting just for the sake of upsetting things.

Don't become apathetic to your team. Not caring to let your students become good is as much a disservice as pushing them too hard. I understand getting occasionally frustrated, or being too busy to be able to take your team everywhere, but when it hits the point where you are not doing anything for your students, it's probably time to find a new coach. Something that could help this problem might be to track down an assistant coach who could take your team to events when you are busy or help run practices. That can allow a lot of a load being taken off your back to go to everything.

A truly great coach can figure out how to continually excite and motivate their students to want to learn more. The environment that to me seems like the most conducive to this is just to read a lot of pyramidal packets in practice so that players are used to this from the get-go and are not terrified by the long questions or anything like that. The other big component to me is to try and go to as many tournaments in your area, especially pyramidal tournaments, as possible.

Regularly visit the quizbowl message boards. The Missouri Academic Competition Message Board is a good resource for tournament announcements and discussions related to quizbowl in Missouri. The Quizbowl Resource Center forum is essentially the only hub for everyone in quizbowl throughout the world and has threads that cover pretty much everything in quizbowl, from announcements to discussions about high school and college quizbowl, to pop culture talk. Regularly visiting these forums is a great way to meet players and other coaches, learn about tournaments in your area, and learn more about quizbowl in other parts of the country.

Holding Effective Practices

Practice at least twice a week. In my experience, the minimum amount of time having practice in order to be effective is twice a week for two hours each. If you can run even more practice than this, then more power to your team. North Kansas City routinely ran practice every day from 2:30 until whenever I left, which often would be 5:30, so it all really depends on a mix of how much you are willing to spend on it, and how much the players will actually show up.

Focus on playing packets of pyramidal questions. I recommend spending most or all of practice reading pyramidal packets. It is worthwhile to shift around some depending on upcoming tournaments (for instance, if MSHSAA districts is coming up, maybe throw in a packet by the districts/state writer just to see what they play like, or if you are preparing for nationals it would be worthwhile to ramp up the difficulty), but on the whole, it is definitely recommended to practice on NAQT Invitational Series sets, HSAPQ sets (free!), other independent sets (free!), or low level college sets (free!), especially for your new teams.

Point out topics that come up frequently or your players miss frequently. For instance, it might be worthwhile to look up major works of art during practice. The other thing practice can be good for too is figuring out a plan of attack for how to improve (like, find what subjects your team is weak at, then try to change that). However, there is only so much of this you can do, and I really think the most important part of the practicing equation will just be to read a lot of questions. You might try occasionally splitting up into random teams just to simulate a game.

Have relaxed practices. In my experience the best kind of practice was fairly relaxed. At NKC we were pretty uninhibited to talk about whatever popped up in our head, and we do that some too even in college, so I think making practice an enjoyable social part of the day along with having it be educational is going to do a lot to get kids to keep coming back.

Attending Tournaments

Attend as many tournaments as possible. Simply attending more tournaments is an easy way to improve.

Take overnight trips to distant tournaments. If you have a team that wants to, and you have the time and finances, I would definitely recommend looking into taking your team to overnight tournaments that are really good. Ones that would be worth traveling to include anything hosted at the University of Illinois, and the fall tournament at Vanderbilt was always the most fun, competitive regular season tournament I made it to in high school.

Qualify for and attend a national tournament. If your team qualifies for either NAQT HSNCT or PACE NSC, I 100% recommend taking your bid. These two tournaments are well written, very competitive tournaments that are lots of fun. Most MOQBA certified tournaments are qualifiers for HSNCT and/or NSC.

Take multiple teams to tournaments. Don't shy away from taking your less-experienced players as B and C teams just because you know they might lose a lot of games. Exposing younger players to Varsity-level tournaments is what produces future powerhouse players; many national powers year in and year out bring lots of players to tournaments so that the young ones have more opportunity to grow. Don't be afraid of taking "JV" level players to varsity tournaments; just be sure to make it clear to them what they are getting into.

Put extra players on additional teams instead of using them as alternates. In my experience, the best teams spend all year as a cohesive unit, and using alternates splits up the flow of a match. Playing together makes it more of a team building activity, and solves a lot of problems with getting a team together. This also gives your younger players more playing time.

Host a Tournament

If you are having a problem with finances, the absolute best way to produce the funds for this is to run a tournament. I would definitely recommend hosting an NAQT, HSAPQ, or house written tournament. Hosting a tournament should be enough to raise the money for a full season's worth of quizbowl, if not, then hosting 2 would cover it.

The Missouri Quizbowl Alliance is willing to provide any assistance you might need in the planning and execution of your tournament. See the MOQBA Events page for more information about running an MOQBA certified event.