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Debate Camp Tournaments: We’re Talking About Practice

Author: Carly Watson

With debate camps moving online this summer in response to coronavirus, it’s provided an opportunity to think through why we do things the way we do. Lectures are an hour? Is that because there’s an hour worth of content or because we’d reserved the lecture hall for an hour and that was the time to fill? Tournaments are on the weekends? Is that best for students learning virtually or is it a relic of being able to get more classroom space? In rethinking a lot of the whys about how debate camp works it got me thinking about something that I think should be a widely adopted change at summer debate camps: practice tournaments shouldn’t be run like a “competitive” tournament

I’m sure you’re already outraged and thinking, “competition is the point” – stick with me for a second. What do I mean when I say it shouldn’t be competitive? Institute tournaments should reduce the competitive pressure to any extent possible by reiterating to students that the tournaments are for practice, tournaments should be paired to allow parity in competition over power-matching, and camps should consider not announcing winners and losers. In line with this, debate coaches need to move past the idea that camp tournaments are a valuable marker of students’ ability for the upcoming season. I’ll explain each of these ideas in more detail in a moment.

Let’s think about why institutes have camp tournaments. They allow students to:

  1. Practice having more debates in a day similar to a “tournament day” during the season
  2. Work on receiving constructive criticism
  3. Get iterations against opponents to practice in full debates

There’s absolutely no argument that in order to fulfill objective (1) that the tournament needs to be “competitive” or announce winners and losers. You can build tournament-stamina with iterations alone.

As it relates to objectives (2) and (3) there is an argument that traditional power-matching and “competition” is counterproductive to the goals. Students learn more from rounds where there is near parity between competitors. In a six round tournament, if a team receives presets with a large skill disparity, it’s a disservice to both teams. The more experienced team has lost the opportunity to practice advanced skills they’ve learned at camp and the less experienced team has likely gotten blown out of the water without being able to practice much of what they’ve been working on at camp. That subsequently erodes the objective for constructive criticism because they’re much more likely to get feedback like “the 2AC shouldn’t drop a disad” or “make sure the neg block answers the straight turned disad correctly” instead of targeted feedback based on where they are based on experience. There’s also an argument that students who are overly focused on wins and losses will be less able to listen to the debate-specific feedback that they’re getting from judges in order to improve. In time-limited post-rounds, spending 5 minutes talking about the decision is 5 minutes those students aren’t getting specific feedback about how to improve their skills.

So let’s take each of the recommendations one at a time:

Reduce competitive pressure – No debate camp to my knowledge thinks that files should be allowed in the tournament without opposing answers. That already cedes the premise that these rounds are for practice – they’re intended to allow students to practice what they’ve learned at camp. In line with this, camps should encourage students to engage in debates with clash, create disclosure practices that maximize parity, and continue to emphasize to students that these tournaments are meant for practice.

Tournaments should be paired for parity – The rationale for this was discussed in detail earlier but it’s strongly suggested that tournaments should abandon traditional power-matching and pair pre-sets to allow parity.

Don’t announce winners and losers – There’s clearly an upside in announcing winners and losers – after all, being able to win and lose is also a skill that students at summer camps are learning. That said, there are also downsides. As mentioned, it creates distractions for students when they could otherwise be practicing. There’s also potentially a middle ground; for example, at the SDI we do one practice “tournament” without decisions and one tournament with decisions announced.

There are additional benefits to reducing competitive pressure at camp tournaments. It takes stress off of students from needing to perform, it makes it more likely to encourage “good” debates with clash instead of students flocking to files with poor responses, it creates an environment that is more likely to build community, and allows students to focus on skills development. If you’ve always wanted to practice going for conditionality, there’s no better time than at camp. That’s only true if the students feel like it’s truly for practice.

Over the years, people have reacted angrily when the SDI hasn’t announced decisions or said that the tournaments are only for practice. The four primary objections are:

First, students need to practice “true” tournament settings. I’m mildly persuaded by the goal here – obviously we want students to feel like what it will feel like at an in-season tournament. That said, students are competitive in debates even when it’s only for practice. Some of the most intense (in a good way) debates that I’ve judged over the years are intra-lab practice debates where there was no decision announced.

There’s also a large inconsistency here with how camp tournaments are run in other ways. We all agree evidence should be balanced if it’s going to be used in camp tournaments – that’s to create good clash and parity. There’s no one saying, “well you should practice how it feels at a tournament to be unprepared so…good luck without answers.” Once we agree that there are some things we can do to make debate camp tournaments better, we should be willing to consider also making them less competitive.

Second, there is value in receiving a “decision” in order to see how judges evaluate debates. I’m optimistic that judges can give good, big-picture feedback without saying this specific team won.

Third, students need speaker points. Do they? This is obviously a discussion for another day but there is so little valuable information gleaned from speaker points. Individual judges’ variability and the context of a single debate can all drastically influence speaker point. At an in-season tournament, speaker points allow judges to provide some individual metric for students. At camp tournaments, when individual feedback is the norm, there’s less of a rationale for needing speaker points.

Fourth, coaches have expressed frustration in not being able to see if their students are “truly improving” or to see students’ results to create plans for the upcoming season. Wow am I underwhelmed by this argument. A good instructional team who’s worked with students for a month or more would always be a better resource to give perspective on student improvement than a single tournament. I honestly don’t even understand how coaches can use camp tournaments to make decisions like that. Typically a student is paired with someone from another school and surely we all understand that there’s tremendous variability in student performance on any single day.

Rather than taking a small sample set, in imperfect conditions and making sweeping extrapolations about the upcoming season, let’s normalize other metrics of improvement. Instructor feedback, benchmarks in the online learning management system, or watching students give practice speeches after camp would all work better to assess student improvement. In the online systems at the SDI, student have recorded a lot of their own speeches for submission. Students could submit that to their coaches to demonstrate improvement instead of the largely arbitrary 4-2 record at the camp tournament.

I’d encourage other camps to use this summer to rethink the whys of debate camp. There should be a curriculum-based argument in favor of including different activities and metrics. Camp tournaments are an opportunity to make simple changes that drastically improve student experience and outcomes. Controversially, this should mean reducing the “competition” at tournaments in favor of increasing the practical value for students.

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