On April 8-9 I will be hosting the first annual Fun Tournament, here in Virginia. We have over 30 students registered from four states in attendance and are running TP, LD, and Parli (open to anyone). We are using the flexibility provided by Stoa qualifying rules to test out about every option we could think of to improve tournaments. While we don’t have a mega slide this year, you can reap some of the benefits of our tournament by seeing what you like and what you don’t.

Check back after April to see how things actually turn out in practice, but here are some variations we are doing that, in theory, should prove quite beneficial. What right do I have to try this stuff? After 8 years of debate in 6 leagues I’ve really observed (and then at PHC coached) many different tournament styles and picked up some decent ideas. I’ve also directed about a dozen high school and college tournaments, as well as delivered the judge’s orientation in NCFCA five years ago at regionals that brought in record low point wins and record two-page ballots from community judges.

The overall tournament goal is this: Increase the learning and the fun. This happens when we give parents more time to watch and coach their children (this is homeschooling, after all) by reducing the tournament bureaucracy (5 ballot checkers, timer coordinator, etc) and increasing the fun and ability to attract community judges. And it happens when as much as feasible we encourage the exchange of ideas above everything you can do to make a tournament more “competitively equitable”. I’ve heard the argument that coaches should be banned or good judge feedback should be banned because OTHER teams in another room won’t be getting as good feedback. We’re about educating and improving at these tournaments, and I challenge you to think on how we can achieve these goals better.

Here are some improvisations… most of them not my own idea, but putting them all together in a way I’ve never seen.

Judge Criticism Time: There are 15 minutes scheduled after each round for the judge to provide feedback. We think this will help improve judge recidivism (they keep coming back for more).

  • Why: Every tournament is a practice tournament if we are about education, so let’s let the judges get engaged and provide feedback from round to round so that you improve so much more than trying to implement 6 judges suggestions that you only have written down and get to test weeks later. Let’s get serious about using our judges to do more than decide who won, which we’re sure they will appreciate too.
  • How: When the round ends, the competitors will start a timer for 15 minutes. The judge must fill out a speed ballot (speaker points + decision) and turn it in to a hall monitor, THEN can make comments. No critiquing before a decision is made, obviously.
  • Who: Every judge! Community judge reactions will be better expressed verbally than in writing, most times. And when you have a speechwriter for 1 president, 2 VPs, and 3 cabinet members coming to judge, it would be a shame to rush him out to a room where he only writes on a little ballot something the students see a week later.

Judge Orientation Online: We’re going to improve the judge orientation, make it for parli, LD, and TP, AND host it online so judges can watch it ahead of time and we spend fewer resources orienting at the tournament. Filming this was my other project today until Josiah took the video camera to Texas.

  • Why: Because judges getting to see “good ballot” and “bad ballot” in orientation improves their judging, as does explaining that there are TWO competitions: one for speaker points, and one for arguments. Along with putting them in the shoes of competitors and helping judges empathize, we expect to train a superior judge pool with concepts used before.
  • How: Using a video camera and youtube. We have webinar technology and will explore using slides and voice in the future, but this time we want to test using a real face talking to a camera, so judges can catch the bug.
  • Who: All first time judges will be required to watch the video, and others encouraged to.

Self-Timing: Debaters will time themselves and each others, because in life you have to watch your time, it eliminates the need to train timers, and judges are able to push “start” and “stop” on a timepiece if they want. Nearly every other league times this way and it works fine.

Challenge Matching: Top seed chooses an opponent from the other seeds, then if 2nd seed wasn’t chosen they do the same, etc.

  • Why: Because speaker points are subjective and debaters know who the scariest teams are, or may want to try their hand at the toughest team early, or maybe it’s just going to be a blast. But for example, Josiah and Peter just lost octofinals in TX against a great team. Josiah and Peter were 6-0 and top seed and faced the top 3-3 team, a team with other tournament wins and great speaks, while the other 6-0 team hit the bottom 4-2 team. Challenge matching would likely have the top 3-3 going against a lower seeded opponent because clearly something just happened in a prelim but they are a superior team.
  • How: When I announce breaks I will announce seeding along with and bring everyone up front. Then 1st seed will have 10 seconds to choose their opponents, or it defaults to lowest seed. Then the teams will flip for sides (every time, even if they’ve debated before, since it would otherwise mess up challenge matching) and go over to be paneled with judges while we move to 2nd seed.
  • Who: All divisions (LD, TP, Parli)

Simplified Ballot: Ballot checkers won’t have to do math because judges aren’t either. Speaker points will be between 1 and 30, we’ll provide a scale (1=didn’t give a speech through 30=Martin Luther King Jr., with some points in between), and judges will also have more room for comments!

Talking About Ideas Unbanned: Judges will be allowed to intermingle with students after rounds, hang out in the common area, etc and get involved in the ideas and cases. We hope this sparks a more ideas-focused environment, where it’s about learning and picking judge’s brains and expertise, and saying “would you think this or that argument makes more sense”, and so on and so forth. Basically, it’s an open field for unlimited coaching from a likely judging pool! Woohoo! So maybe it gives someone a competitive edge, you say? Probably. Improving at a tournament because you are getting smarter about ideas ought to be the point of a tournament.

Open Tab: No speculation necessary when it comes to powermatching, because the results of each round will be posted once they are compiled. I think 12-18 year old students are emotionally sound enough to handle this, and doing so will allow us to tell everyone how the tournament actually works (a cool thing to learn about if you are newer to debate) and catch errors (i.e. the judge said X team won, but the results say otherwise–can you please doublecheck?).

Lightning Awards: When I say the education is valued above the competition, I mean it. Awards will be “stand in place” at forensics-clap speed, your award is in your folder. I had a vote from participants and Starbucks Cards and Chocolate are winning candidates for awards, with a few votes for a cool communications book.

Team Names: Teams can give themselves a name that goes on postings (we’ve got the A-Team, SourGummyWorms, and Jackson/Vanik registered for example). This is mostly silly but I hope it leads to a more fun environment where students meet other students more. We also have some special ideas for “fun fact about you” and “favorite word” that we’ve collected in registration.

Judge Bios: Our online registration form asks judges a couple questions about their background and experience (and sense of humor, from Elephant Jokes to “I am Stephen Colbert”) so that you can target your audience as a speaker.

Prioritized Announcements: The plan is to have all our ducks in a row before the tournament starts and to announce via email some of the important things like where to park, special notes about the facility, how to take judge criticism, etc etc. Often announcements at a tournament are not heard/comprehended because everyone is nervous and focusing on the competition.

You may not agree with some or any of the things we are testing above. That’s totally fine! We all do have the same goals in this activity, and the details are peanuts. Let’s see how some innovations work. I’ll post thoughts after the tournament as well as circulate a survey to participants and parents so they can inform everyone in the country how each innovation worked out.

Photo by DNAMichaud

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