Building from the Ground Up

Luqmaan Thein | 12/24/22

For small-school debaters, it can be incredibly hard to keep a speech and debate program afloat. Between coaching uncertainties, limited enrollment, conflicts with other extracurricular activities, and academics, a program can—at some point—die. To keep the torch alight, it is important to build a program that can outlast you.

A small, core, talented group of students—or maybe even one student—can make a program successful, but they do not guarantee future success, nor do they guarantee survival. A program, after the graduation of five successful participants, can experience a severe decline the following semester and may possibly end within four.

Before anything, get your life in order. Ideally, the summer before you start running the debate team. Make a schedule. Do your chores. Set your priorities for the upcoming year. Study for your future classes. (Academics are more important than debate.) Make your college list two months before anyone’s started thinking about it. If you have a friend willing to help you, make sure they’re dependable and willing to make sacrifices.

If you haven’t done this in summer, it’s not too late to start, but you may need to spend a few late nights getting everything together, and know that you will be a few months behind many other teams. That’s fine. You should still be able to squeeze a few tournaments in, but you’re going to have to work quickly and effectively.

Although many would argue that the heart of speech and debate is learning to speak better (myself amongst them), the soul of speech and debate is competition. This means you have to be familiar with competitions logistically. You should know Tabroom inside and out. You should know how the NSDA site works. You should know when major tournaments are, whether they be on a local circuit or the national circuit. And you should have some vague idea of how to get people to and from tournaments. Not sure? Talk to your school’s administration. They may be able to help.

Also, in regards to competition, is tournaments themselves. Generally, especially if you’re a small school with very few experienced debaters (i.e., one or two), limit your exposure to in-person national tournaments. Despite their merits, national tournaments come with an enormous expense to time and money, and novices may not be willing to make that commitment. However, towards the end of the season, I suggest sending regular participants (both novices and varsity members) to one, large national circuit tournament (i.e., Harvard) so that they can get the experience of a national tournament. The following year, with a larger group, you can consider participating in multiple national tournaments, but it really depends on how committed your team is. Until then, consider virtual events like the Digital Speech and Debate Series. If you’re serious about this, the program’s success is more important than your own. Stick with smaller, in-person locals. They’re easier to manage, both logistically and competitively, and can properly inspire interest in forensics without being overly demanding.

Now, to actually start, there are a few essential items that you need.

First, a mentor with some degree of speech and debate experience. This can be you. Know your stuff. You’re teaching a class. The success of your team depends on your ability to properly communicate with them the essentials of speaking.

Second, a schedule. This can be one of the hardest parts of actually building a team. Obviously, if it’s just you, you might be trying to take things one day at a time. At the bare minimum, you need to have a set time of day that the team meets, and some regularity at which that occurs. For example, it could be as simple as once a week after school for an hour. You should also be cognizant of the other extracurricular activities going on around your school at your desired time. Some students would prefer to go to varsity soccer practice than debate.

In extension to the second point, a medium of communication. Personally, I like Remind. Recently, we’ve started using SportsYou. Others like GroupMe. Whatever it is, make sure you have some way of communicating to participants when the meeting is, when the next tournament is, etc.

Fourth, a place to meet. Ask your favorite teacher. Talk to administration. Make sure you have some place to facilitate the practice. It is additionally important to be aware of other extracurricular activities because on a certain day at a certain time, another club might be meeting at that place. Don’t make every other club hate you. Chances are, you should be able to find a place where you can meet 95% of the time. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from administration.

Fifth, a responsible adult(s). This could be between anyone who can register you for tournaments, to someone who can register you and judge (though you will, at some point, need judges so try to cover that in the best way you can, but some tournaments may let you slide if they already have enough), to someone who can actually coach the team. Although the lattermost is preferred, understandably, this cannot always be the case for small schools. But as long as you have someone that can handle all the administrative stuff that you, with your student account, do not have access to, you should be good.

Beyond that, start small. No one’s asking you to start running every single NSDA event ever at your school. (No one wants that either.) Start with two events. Three if you’re feeling ambitious. One if you feel overwhelmed. If you can manage it, one debate event and one speech event (i.e., Congress and Extemporaneous Speaking). Treat events without prejudice (to the best of your ability). Be patient and understanding. Don’t demand 100-hour workweeks from your novices, but don’t obscure the time commitment. Encourage them to compete in their first tournament, cheer them up if they don’t do as well as they’d hoped, and embolden them to try harder now that they actually know what the event is. Do your best to keep it together, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Good luck!