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The power to persuade

No rugby, basketball, soccer or cricket. The pandemic has wrought havoc on GPS competition. But while playing fields across the state have lain dormant, Joeys debaters have been busy arguing their point in vigorously contested Zoom encounters with other schools.

For boys stuck in lockdown, it has been a shot in the arm. Physically distanced from school mates, debating has given them a much-needed dose of team sport and competitive engagement.

In the final debate of the recently completed GPS competition, the College Firsts team defeated Riverview. It was particularly satisfying for first speaker Xavier Leaver (Y11), who gained representative selection in the GPS Seconds. 

A boarder from the Upper Hunter town of Denman, Xavier has debated since Year 7. Although a keen follower of the  College’s excellent exercise program, he misses playing sport and socialising with his mates. Debating has helped fill the void.

“It’s been great,” he says. “You see all your friends on Zoom for a chat before we start training. It’s a competition I can compete well in because (laughs) my rugby career isn’t going anywhere.”

Talking shop: (Clockwise from top left) Bernard Lund (Y12), Xavier Leaver (Y11) and Finan Maher(Y10) discuss tactics on Zoom with coach Finnegan Waugh (2017).

Training runs for two-and-a-half hours on Wednesday. It covers feedback from the previous debate, theory, hypotheticals such as how you might defend a freedom of speech point and a practice match.

Home GPS debates are usually held in the Br Michael Naughtin Theatre on a Friday evening. To comply with Covid restrictions, Zoom has become the new venue for inter-school competition. Ordinarily, team members pass on written or verbal ideas and tips to each other during the debate but on Zoom it has to be done via keyboard though group chat.

A bigger challenge is speaking to a screen full of faces in little squares and trying to read facial expressions.

“There’s no doubt a real environment is better,” Xavier says. “If I say something and the adjudicator starts nodding, I will reinforce what I’m saying because I can see it’s been met with approval. But when I’m on Zoom it’s not easy to see people’s reactions.”

Alongside Matthew Toomey (2017), Finnegan Waugh (2017) is Joeys First team coach. A veteran College debater now in the fourth year of a mathematics and computer science degree, Finnegan says the way Xavier and his teammates – Bernard Lund (Y12), Finan Maher (Y10) and Ben Price (Y11) – have dealt with the complexities of Zoom debating has been inspiring. “What people enjoy about debating is the camaraderie and the feeling you’re working in a team against the opposition.

“When you’re talking to a computer it can lose a lot of that and feel stale and impersonal, so we’ve encouraged the boys to look straight into the webcam so that you’re looking directly at people rather than at the screen.

“Being able to clearly tell people what you think is really useful in work situations, relationships and all facets of life.”

Finnegan Waugh, FIRSTS DEBATING COACH

“We’ve been lucky this year the boys have been really motivated and enthusiastic and happy to adapt to the changes forced by the pandemic.”

One of the reasons why debating is so healthy at Joeys is the Old Boy culture of coaching and support. New recruits are coached by College graduates who have debated at the school and in many cases already know the boys they are coaching. It is this cycle of giving back that keeps standards high. Old Boys’ attachment to the school ensures extra effort is made to prepare boys for competition.

This dedication to the cause was on display during the match against Riverview. All season, Finnegan and Matthew have been encouraging their charges to think outside the box and go beyond the most obvious line of argument. The subject for debate – that a wealth tax should be imposed on billionaires and the money distributed to international organisations such as the UN –  had instant appeal for the affirmative. It’s hard to counter the proposition that the mega-rich should give to the poor. 

Arguing for the negative, Joeys didn’t dispute that point, instead they contended that these organisations were incapable of handing out money effectively because of political bias and corruption, leading to even worse outcomes. It was a sophisticated line of attack that won them the night.

“Over the season they got more nuanced in dealing with political issues,” Finnegan says. “They showed how they’d developed their thinking by not going for the most obvious approach.”

As first speaker, Xavier had to introduce and articulate the points and issues his teammates would pursue later. It’s a role he enjoys. He is full of praise for his coaches’ technical prowess and capacity to motivate.

Arguing the point: Joeys coach Finnegan Waugh (2017) said the Firsts became more nuanced in their debating style as the GPS season progressed.

“After a speech Finnegan will give really thoughtful feedback. For example, there might be three things I need to work on such as timing, being more coherent and integrating my rebuttal.”

Finnegan was impressed by Xavier’s development throughout the year, and in particular, his ability to convey a real sense of authenticity. “Sometimes when you are making points it is more important to have conviction in the way you are delivering them. He was good at making you believe the things he was saying – even if he didn’t really believe them.”

Which of course, is part of the appeal of debating: it forces speakers to enunciate ideas they would not normally agree with, thereby increasing their sense of empathy.

Xavier says debating has helped with his studies.

“It’s handy in essay writing, especially subjects like history, where you have to give a point of view and say why you think it’s true. It helps you form better arguments, and in class discussions you can contribute more”

Finnegan agrees. He firmly believes debating is an important life skill that has benefits across the board.

“Being able to clearly and persuasively tell people what you think is really useful in work situations, relationships and all facets of life.”

Xavier’s ultimate goal is to study commerce/law at Sydney University. The synergies between debating and law will stand him in good stead. Next year, he will be one of the most senior members of Joeys Firsts squad. He is looking forward to the challenge. 

“It’s fun coming up with ideas and thinking about things,” he laughs. “And I don’t think I’ve lost an argument to my parents in a long time!”