Starting a Middle School Team
Establishing a new quiz bowl team will be a different process at every middle school because of variance in enrollment, student body composition, and administrative support, but the following steps are some of the most important to creating a competitive program. These steps are listed in rough chronological order.
Sign up an advisor or coach
It is essential that middle school teams have a coach who is willing to travel with them to tournaments and guide their development. Many tournaments will allow the team to be accompanied by any adult (if the coach cannot make it), but some require a school official. NAQT’s rules (as used at the MSNCT) permit the chaperone to be a parent, but local events may have different policies.
Some schools are able to pay quiz bowl coaches a stipend, and some are not. It is worth asking administrators whether such a stipend is available. Whether or not one is, team members should remember to treat their coach (and assistant coaches and involved parents) to gifts at the end of the year. Coaching is hard work and deserves to be formally recognized!
The basic duties of coaches are acquiring equipment and practice questions, running practices, registering for tournaments, driving to tournaments, assigning players to teams, guiding teams during tournaments, and coordinating fundraising. Beyond those fundamental activities, coaches will need to solve the more intricate problem of maximizing their teams’ knowledge, skill, and tournament performance.
The next step for the coach is to start finding players and getting them interested in competing. There are very few hard-and-fast rules for this process. Outstanding classwork is often correlated with quiz bowl ability, but not always. Enthusiasm and a willingness to practice and study for quiz bowl can turn an apparently poor prospect into an excellent player. Quiz bowl is a team game, so two fantastic history players will often lose to a good science player and a good literature player. Generally speaking, we encourage coaches to find a way to accommodate everybody who is interested, even if that involves running two practice rooms at once or buying a second lockout system.
Many national-caliber teams practice a total of four to six hours per week, in two or three of blocks of two or three hours each. This is a significant time commitment for all concerned, but is representative of the effort necessary to compete at the highest level. Many teams, of course, practice less often than this.
Acquire practice material
There are several different ways of acquiring practice questions. They can be purchased directly from NAQT (feel free to ask if it’s not clear what to buy) or other vendors. It’s possible that state activities associations will have questions available, maybe for free. It may also be possible to acquire the questions from non-NAQT events that have just completed; you can contact local tournament directors to see if those questions can be distributed (and what the costs might be).
NAQT also has a heavily discounted package deal for new schools that includes study materials and practice questions of different levels of difficulty.
A quiz bowl team will need a source of funding to cover equipment, practice questions, tournament registration fees, and travel/lodging for distant tournaments. Raising funds is beyond the scope of this article, but coaches should remind administrators that quiz bowl is a comparatively cheap form of competition that emphasizes knowledge, teamwork, and rapid thinking rather than athletic prowess; it is a scholastic activity that deserves to be supported!
Join the quiz bowl community
Anybody interested in starting a team should get in touch with other active and nascent programs in their area and around the country. Other coaches (and their students) will be able to provide advice on every aspect of founding and coaching a team. The most active online forum devoted to middle school quiz bowl is that of The Quizbowl Resource Center. Coaches of new teams should also e-mail their contact information to email@example.com so that they may be added to our database.
It is also a good idea to make direct contact with geographically nearby programs in order to practice with them, arrange scrimmages, or just to get a feeling for how things should be run. NAQT is happy to provide new coaches with contact information for nearby teams.
There may also be local quiz bowl leagues or conferences that a new team could join that would provide a ready-made slate of events; NAQT’s members and local coaches will be able to direct new teams toward those open to them.
Decide on what formats to play
One important thing to realize at the middle school level is that in some places, there are two related but distinct styles of academic quiz competition. In addition to the national style of quiz bowl run by NAQT, some state-specific associations sanction a form of quiz bowl that may differ from the national style.
Advantages of competing in state-specific formats often include greater administrative support and greater participation by local schools. The advantage of competing in NAQT-style events is the ability to travel to other states, including the NAQT Middle School National Championship Tournament (MSNCT), and still play the same format. The NAQT national format is also widely played in high school and college, so students that hope to continue competing will be better prepared for those levels. In addition, some players or coaches may simply prefer one format on the grounds of style, subject matter, difficulty, or cost.
That said, there is no particular reason that a school shouldn’t compete in all formats available to it. NAQT encourages teams to play in its events as well as official state events and hopes that most will choose to do so. Knowledge is knowledge, and most skills and facts can be applied to any format.
There is no formal affiliation process (or affiliation fee) required to “join NAQT,” but individual tournaments will generally have registration fees. There may be such an up-front process (or fee) for competing in state-specific formats, television programs, and/or leagues. Teams should contact their state activities association and/or the television station as early as possible to find out what those costs are.
Create (and use!) an account on naqt.com
Coaches are encouraged to create an account on NAQT’s website. Accounts can be used to register for tournaments, subscribe to e-mail notifications of upcoming tournaments nearby, signing up to host tournaments, placing practice question orders, and more.
The only essential piece of equipment for playing quiz bowl is a lockout system. NAQT does not sell lockout systems, but there are a wide variety of devices available from different companies. All of them have the basic functionality of indicating which of eight (or more) players signaled first and then preventing (“locking out”) other players from signaling until the system is cleared by the moderator. That basic functionality is all that is required to compete in NAQT-style events, but some state-specific formats will require features found on only a subset of lockout systems. NAQT is happy to recommend systems based on a team’s needs and budget.
Many tournaments will provide a discount on the registration fee (of about $10) for teams that bring their own lockout system. More valuable than that, however, is the fact that it is essential for teams to practice on a real lockout system (preferably a variety of such systems) to develop the “buzzer speed” that they will need in games. Slapping the table or shouting “buzz!” may be acceptable as a temporary solution, but not having actually played with a lockout system will be a significant disadvantage.
Teams competing in NAQT events may want to acquire a clock to prepare for timed matches. However, that need not be purchased immediately, as the disadvantage from not practicing with one is not nearly as great, and smartphone timers are a passable substitute for practice purposes.
Start attending tournaments
At some point a new team will need to begin attending tournaments. Tournaments are announced regularly on the electronic forum listed above and in newsletters and on websites of state activities associations. Official NAQT events are also listed on our online schedule. Often, registering for a tournament is as simple as sending an e-mail to the tournament director. The host will generally distribute cost information, driving directions, and a brief description of the tournament’s format and style to teams that have expressed interest (and possibly to the discussion board at large). The process for registering for state-specific tournaments or televised tournaments may vary significantly from this.
Be prepared to lose games. New teams often suffer substantial defeats at the hands of experienced teams. This is only to be expected; remember that most good teams’ members have been practicing two to three times per week for over a year and have played hundreds or thousands of practice questions. However, they all started from somewhere! Improvement is usually slow and steady. Some tournaments limit their attendance to new teams or teams that didn’t win a tournament in the previous year. It might be worth traveling farther to attend such a tournament with a young team.
Many events allow schools to enter multiple teams; it is not unusual to see two, three, or four teams from a single school at some tournaments when they have an energetic organization. NAQT encourages schools and coaches to find the money and car seats to allow as many students to attend tournaments as possible.
Determine a study schedule
There are many ways to improve as a player, some of which may require work. Some teams content themselves with practicing and attending tournaments, which is fine, but nearly all nationals-caliber teams augment that with some kind of non-game, non-classwork preparation. This may be entirely voluntary, it may be guided by the coach, or it may be actively assigned and overseen by the coach. The approach to take will depend on the coach’s experience and the players’ personalities. This part of coaching, that of motivating players to achieve everything of which they are capable, is not something that can be learned from a website!
Running a tournament is a rewarding but sometimes time-consuming and occasionally frustrating process that is great for raising funds and publicizing your club. Directing tournaments is beyond the scope of this article as it doesn’t really pertain to new teams, except as a warning that small, young teams should think twice before committing to hosting an event if they are not absolutely clear on what that entails.
NAQT’s members love to talk about quiz bowl and are delighted when new teams join the circuit. New teams with questions about anything pertaining to quiz bowl should feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.