New debate coach Joe Uhler provides a winning mentality

Aro Majumder

With three coaching changes in the last three years, debate has seen a time filled with transitions creating a conundrum for the program. With the need for stability high on radar, the acquisition of Joe Uhler was welcomed with grateful arms after Jon Watson left to pursue a career in theatre arts.

“He’s going to drive us to be better,” officer senior Vinay Maruri said. “He’s brought professionalism to the program that we have lacked significantly since 2009, and he’s going to create an actual debate team structure.”

The decision to come to Westlake from Anderson High School was not a particularly hard one for Uhler, and he jumped at the opportunity to bring Westlake back to glory.

“[Jon Watson, the previous coach] told me that he was concerned about the students that would be continuing on with the speech and debate program,” Uhler said. “He wanted to make sure that they got someone who knew what they were doing and could look out for them in the speech and debate world. When I first started coaching speech and debate, Westlake was by far the best program in Austin and the State of Texas and I realized that there was a tremendous amount of potential here. Additionally, my wife and I both wanted to move south.”

Uhler’s record at Anderson speaks for itself; 13 years of coaching that encompassed finishing top ten in sweepstakes four straight years from 2010-2013 as well as earning Coach of the Year honors at the Tournament of Champions for extemporaneous speaking. He will look to emulate that success here starting with small steps.

“Our short term goals include finishing in the top three in sweepstakes of a local tournament, and considering how competitive the Austin area is in speech and debate, I think that would be a good goal to achieve,” Uhler said. “One of the things I encouraged at Anderson was a sense of community and a sense of togetherness that we all improve together. It’s not about the individual results; at the end of the day it’s about the team results. Individuals have a responsibility to the team to perform at their best and prepare themselves to the fullest extent.”

Although valuable, short term success only paves the way to the ultimate goal occurring much further down the line.

“In terms of talent and potential, I think Westlake could become one of the top five teams in the state and one of the best teams in the nation,” Uhler said. “That’ll take time but it is definitely possible.”

Success does not come easily nor without sacrifices. To become the best, hard-work and perseverance are paramount requirements, and Uhler’s path to success makes it clear that there needs to be full buy-in from the debaters.

“To me, being on the team means competing as much as you can under your schedule,” Uhler said. “I think more students need to stay after school to practice and more students need to be focused in class and working as hard as they can to improve themselves or we won’t get better.”

With one tournament under their belts, there are many positives and negatives to take away. Doing well at tournaments has been a large focal point. It’s the most concrete way to judge growth, and although they are not at the level they wish to be by the end of the season, early improvements are a good sign going forward.

“Every student went to a round in which they weren’t competing to learn more about their event and students went to their teammates’ rounds and supported them which is important to me,” Uhler said. “In terms of results I think we can do better. We didn’t finish in the top three and I think if we have more people competing and more time to practice, I don’t see any reason as to why we can’t get into the top three.”
Debate teaches lessons far beyond how to win tournaments and make strong arguments.

“Speech and Debate is an incredibly valuable experience for a student,” Uhler said. “It builds so much confidence and it helps students in more ways than just winning trophies. It’s about helping you improve on writing essays, it’s about helping you improve the ability to speak in front of a group of complete strangers confidently, it’s about cooperation and working together. I think there are a lot of intangible skills students can acquire. Also, it’s a very open-minded community where differences are completely accepted and there’s not a whole lot of ill-will or negativity.”

While coaches strive to provide the best environment for their team, at the end of the day it’s up to the members to embrace these goals. The team’s response reflects the exceptional job done by Uhler in motivating his squad.

“He’s brought in a system that was previously non-existent,” Vinay said. “Before the debate program was just a bunch of us signing up to go to tournaments and that’s it. For example, in the previous two years we had no after-school practice debates whatsoever. Now, just in this year, I’ve done more practice debates than in my previous two years of debate. He brought in not only the vigor to the program that we need, but he’s pushing us to get better.”