FAQ Answers for New Coaches
This resource is intended for new coaches as a tool to understand the norms and practices of the Speech and Debate Community. The first and probably most difficult concept to grasp about this community is that it differs from most competitive endeavors in that there are very few hard and fast rules. Especially in debate events, almost everything is up for debate. Time limits for speeches and restrictions to levels of experience are pretty much the only rigidly enforced rules.
A very special thank you to Lisa Willoughby of Grady High School for creating these answers.
So let’s begin at the very most basic level. There are two primary categories loosely woven together to form the Forensics Community: Competitive Speech and Debate.
What is Forensics?
The activity gets that funny name, Forensics, because it is public speaking, or speaking in the public forum; just as Forensic Medicine is medicine practiced on behalf of the public, for example, the work of a Coroner.
Why is it called Forensics?
In the world of competitive speaking, again there are two broad categories: Platform Events and Interpretive Speaking. In the world of debate, there are four separate categories. Click here to read about the event offerings. Click here for more information and resources from the National Speech & Debate Association.
What are the possible events?
What are the levels of experience? How do I know where my student belongs?
Novice Competitors are in their first year of high school competition. In Georgia, most tournaments offer a novice division in policy debate and many offer novice level competition in Public Forum and Lincoln Douglas Debate. The only tournament in Georgia to offer an exclusively first year or novice level of competition in speech events is the First and Second Year State Tournament. At this time, no tournaments offer an exclusively novice level of competition in Congressional Debate. When there is no novice division, all competitors can enter the Varsity (or only) division no matter their level of experience. Students who have competed in middle school can enter at the novice level during their first year of high school competition. We encourage students who experience success at the novice level to move up to the junior varsity or varsity level when possible. It is permissible for them to return to the novice or first year level at the state tournament during the first year of competition, but most coaches do not move competitors back and forth between Novice and JV during the regular season tournaments. Eighth grade competitors may compete at up to six regular season tournaments at the sub-varsity level if they compete with the high school program into which their school feeds.
Junior Varsity Competitors are in their second year of high school competition regardless of grade level. Many tournaments in Georgia offer JV competition in policy debate, but very few offer exclusive JV competition in the other events. Only the First and Second Year State tournament offers exclusive second year level competition in all events. Many first year competitors (especially in policy debate) will move to the JV level after a few successful novice tournaments. Most coaches believe that staying at the Novice level to rack up trophies is counter-productive, even if it may boost the competitors’ self-confidence. These divisions have less experienced judging, and therefore less helpful feedback, and the competitors do not gain access to the educational benefits of unlimited argumentation. Typically, at the point a debater wants to make arguments beyond the scope of the Novice Evidence, he or she should move to the JV level.
Varsity Competitors may be at any high school grade level and level of experience. Competitors may qualify for state based on numbers of entries. If there are twelve or more entries in the Varsity (or Open) Division, the top four debaters, or top six speakers qualify for the State tournament. If there are between 5 and 8, the top two debaters or speakers qualify. If there are at least four entries, the top debater qualifies. If a tournament offers an Open Division rather than an exclusively Varsity division, no middle school competitor may compete in that division. Occasionally, a tournament will collapse its JV and Varsity Divisions into an Open Division to allow more competitors to qualify for State Competition, in this case, schools that entered a middle school debater, should contact the Tab Room to determine the best adjustment in his or her entry.
For tournaments to work, schools must enter or hire enough judges to ‘cover’ the teams and competitors that they have entered. Unlike many sports, judges for debate tournaments are provided by the competing schools and not by a governing organization or league. While it is sometimes possible to hire judges from a tournament by paying a hired judge fee, this should only be done rarely. Typically you must enter one judge for every four debaters, and one judge for every five or six speech competitors. Parents, fellow teachers, and college students are all good potential recruits for public forum and speech events. With some basic training, any intelligent person can assess a round in those activities. There are good training resources also on this site. For Lincoln Douglas and policy debate, especially at the varsity division, the expectation for judge expertise is somewhat higher. You can recruit policy judges from university squads, from you own alums (once the team has some history), and you absolutely should begin to train yourself to judge. To prepare yourself, you can read about the basic expectations, or, or you could select a coach or judge whom you admire and ask if you can shadow that judge for a few rounds to observe and then discuss the decision with that person after the round. Tournaments at the beginning of the season will sometimes offer a training seminar. Enter at the novice level, and after a tournament or two you will find yourself to be very capable and your confidence in rendering a decision will increase with the number of rounds that you judge. Do not worry that you will harm the competitors; it is their job to convince you, the judge. Judging really improves your coaching; you will understand the arguments much better and will discover that you can explain much better to your debaters how to communicate the arguments to a judge.
Is there anyone I should not enter to judge at a tournament?
How do I find judges to enter to cover the debaters and speech competitors I have entered?
If you feel confident and comfortable leaving your own students unsupervised with the judge in question, he or she should be able to take on the responsibility. You should constrain a judge from judging students he or she has coached directly, or with whom he or she has been on a team. Ask college students or alums that you employ about previous affiliations or existing relationships, so that you can restrict them from judging someone they should not. Most coaches try to provide the best judges they can find. Once you have employed a particular judge, you should constrain him or her from judging your students. More experienced debaters can judge at lower divisions so long as they are not eligible to compete at that level. For example, a varsity debater with three years of debate experience can judge at the novice or JV division, but a varsity debater with only two years of experience should only judge novice.
While Tab Rooms are typically open to coaches and judges who have genuine questions or concerns, the Tab Room staff needs to focus on tabulating the tournament. Sporadically, the Tab Room staff may have down time, and seem idle, but going to the tab room to socialize can seriously undermine the ability of the tournament to run accurately and on-time. Certainly a serious ethical violation should be reported to the Tab Room immediately, but for less serious concerns, your first question should be directed to the person manning the Ballot Table, (usually just outside the Tab Room) and to the Tournament Director. Another option to get answers for your questions would be an Area Coordinator, or an experienced coach from your area. We try to be an open and inviting community, and almost any coach will be willing not only to answer your questions, but to listen to your concerns.
If I have concerns, may I talk to the Tab Room?
May I watch my student speak or debate?
Tournaments are public events, and anyone who wishes may watch a round. Most preliminary rounds are held in high school classrooms, so the size of the room limits the capacity of the viewership somewhat. Many tournaments will attempt to place elimination rounds, especially of popular events like Interp in larger rooms. In the individual events, competitors watch each other, and should remain in the room until all competitors have completed their selections. If a student is double entered, the competitor may leave after completing his or her selection. Double entered students should be thoughtful of competitors and wait outside the room until there is a lull (following applause for a previous competitor) to enter. In extemp, the norm is different. In all but the final round, competitors deliver their speech for the judge or judges, and do not witness the speeches of their competitors. Most coaches choose to judge rounds (both to defray the cost of entering a tournament, and to stay up to date and better coach their own competitors) rather than to watch their own students compete.
Why don’t tournaments adhere to the posted tournament schedule?
Unlike many other interscholastic competitions, the pairings or opponents are variable, and may change at registration if a team drops. For this reason, it is difficult to predict exactly what time a tournament begins. Doing everything you can to minimize changes at registration, and notifying the tab staff of changes as quickly as possible will help tournaments to run closer to the scheduled time. During the tournament, delays seem inevitable; coaches want to give one more bit of advice before a round begins, debaters or competitors get lost navigating through unfamiliar buildings, judges don’t show up when they should, and the tournament becomes further delayed. Most experienced coaches will talk to their competitors about ‘debate time’ by which they mean the delays that are a norm at most tournaments. Many encourage students and judges to bring books and/or schoolwork to complete during the waiting periods. Others encourage competitors to enjoy socializing with team members or competitors from other schools.
What is the difference between a preliminary and elimination round?
At most regular season tournaments, policy debate (or sometimes LD and PF as well) will begin on Friday evening, and continue to Saturday. For those two-day tournaments there will typically be five preliminary rounds, and depending on the entries, several elimination rounds. For the other events, when entries are sufficiently large, there may also be elimination rounds.
What does it mean to break?
In Speech and Debate we use this expression two ways. Breaking is the jargon expression for advancing to the elimination rounds. Breaking an argument or case is introducing or running it for the first time in competition, typically in a debate round.
How does it work? Who/what decides which students compete?
Tournaments use computer software to assign debaters and speakers to their rounds, and to assign the judges who will adjudicate those rounds. In debate, after the first two ‘pre-set’ rounds, competitors are scheduled to meet others who share the same record. In debate they are paired ‘High-Low within brackets’ which means with others who have the same record, and the top seed within each bracket meets the bottom seed. This seeding is based on speaker points. Following the preliminary rounds (typically between four and six) competitors are seeded again just as they would be in a NCAA competition. In the elimination round the top seed meets the bottom, so for example in a tournament breaking to octa-finals, the first seed will debate the sixteenth, and the second seed would debate the fifteenth, etc. In preliminary rounds the computer tabulation software prevents competitors from the same school to meet in debate events (unless the pool of competitors is so small, or a single school makes up such a large percentage of that pool that this means that debates could not happen). Typically the software will honor side constraints, so that competitors in policy and LD get as close to an even division of Affirmative and Negative rounds as possible. In PF, because sides are determined by the coin toss, this is not a concern.
What does it mean if my competitor gets a BYE?
When there are an uneven number of competitors in a particular pool one competitor or team will not have an opponent-they get the bye (an automatic win) In presets, the bye is assigned randomly. After the pre-sets, typically, the competitor with the weakest record gets the bye. However, if the pool is very small, or if too many debaters are from the same school, the bye may be assigned following a different procedure.
What does it mean if someone ‘walks over’ his/her teammate?
In elimination rounds, competitors from the same school generally do not debate. The coach of that school typically allows the competitor or team with the better record to advance or walk over the competitor or team with the weaker record. At times, a coach may choose to advance the more senior team even if it is not the higher seed. If your competitors find themselves in this position, you should approach the Tab Room to inquire about their seeding, and to decide which competitor or team to advance.
Most coaches believe that it undermines team cohesion to debate a teammate in intra-scholastic competition.
Why don’t competitors from the same school debate during elimination rounds?
What does it mean to disclose a decision? Are judges obligated to disclose their decisions?
This varies from event to event. In policy debate almost every tournament will encourage judge disclosure and critique. Coaches believe that students learn more when the judge is able to talk about the particulars of the round when giving feedback in critique. Judges are not obligated to disclose, but almost all will, so refusing to disclose a decision in policy debate places the competitors in a disadvantageous position. In Lincoln Douglas and Public Forum debate, some judges disclose and others do not. Because these debaters are accustomed to judges who do not disclose, they will be less frustrated than policy debaters. Speech or Individual Events judges do not disclose their decisions, but may offer some verbal feedback to supplement the ballot.
What should I/my teams do during the judges’ critique?
If you are able to watch the critique of a round in which your students competed, you should try to model the respectful sportsmanship that you want your competitors to emulate. Most coaches encourage debaters to listen carefully and to write down feedback from the judge. This feedback, especially when paired with the ballot, can help the coach guide the debaters to frame arguments, or modify their speech or interpretation more effectively for that judge in the future.
What does it mean to disclose information about your case and/or strategy?
Many policy debaters will enter the room asking their opponents to disclose the affirmative they plan to run and what negative positions they have run in previous rounds. While many coaches and judges believe that disclosing this information leads to better debates for all, some feel it further advantages teams that have a large coaching staff able to go around prior to a round to coach their debaters on the particular arguments they will hear. For teams competing on the national circuit, the norm is to upload cases, arguments and citations to the wiki immediately following a tournament when that argument is made. Failure to keep a wiki up-to date may make your team seem less ethical. Case and strategy disclosure is not the norm in Lincoln Douglas or Public Forum debates in Georgia.
Are my debaters obligated to disclose this information?
There is no obligation to disclose information prior to a round, but because most teams will disclose (unless they are breaking a new case or argument for the first time) refusal to do so may seem strange, and gains little strategic advantage.
Why do tournaments allow ‘scouting’?
Just as in other competitive activities, because debates and speech competitions are public events, non-competitors are legally allowed to watch the rounds. They are also allowed to flow or make notes about arguments or selections. Out of courtesy, most observers will request permission to observe prior to the round, and will honor the request of students to refrain from observing. However, at the State Tournament, all competitors are allowed to watch any round they'd like to. Many competitors will be reluctant to allow their own parents to watch them compete, and most coaches will try to either change the student’s stance or discourage the parent from insisting.
May I record/videotape my competitors?
Again, as in football or other intra-scholastic competitions, there is no legal restriction against recording or videotaping. Coaches often use videotapes of rounds as a teaching or coaching tool. However, because many competitors are minors, and coaches/parents do not have parental permission for media disclosure, those recordings should be deleted following its use for teaching or coaching, and should never be shared via public media or social media.
May I record/videotape another team?
Generally, out of courtesy, and because some schools and systems have policies restricting unauthorized recording of students, most observers will ask permission before recording a competitor, and will honor a request not to record. Some debaters use in-round recording to validate evidence challenges; these should be deleted immediately following the judge’s determination concerning the validity of the challenge.
Is it considered fair for a judge or competitor to share information about my students’ arguments or pieces with other competitors?
In this community, gaining information about a competitor’s arguments or pieces through judging is viewed as the reward for having a larger squad, and entering more judges. Intel or information about one’s opponent is a valuable commodity, and so building relationships with competitors can help your students gain this information.
Should my students leave campus to eat lunch/dinner?
Most tournaments offer food for sale during a tournament, and this is often an important fundraising necessity for the hosting team. For this reason, most teams will encourage their competitors to patronize the concession stand as an effort to support the overall community. Moreover, because time is limited at the tournament, it is generally impossible to leave campus and return in time for subsequent rounds. To maximize profits the planners of concessions choose high appeal offerings: pizza, sub sandwiches, chips, candy and soda. Because there is a large contingent of competitors who follow a vegetarian diet, generally they offer vegetarian options. Some schools will make an effort to offer healthier options like fruit and vegetables, but because those items often do not sell, they are generally limited. You may wish to bring some healthier snacks, or food items for your students who have special dietary needs.
When we spend the night at a hotel, are there any rules we should follow?
We want to preserve the reputation that this activity enjoys for having considerate and well-behaved young travelers. As a rule of thumb, we encourage students to be considerate of other hotel guests by reminding students that while we often arrive at a hotel after ten or eleven, many other hotel guests are trying to sleep. Most coaches establish specific team rules and expectations prior to the first overnight tournament. Check with your administrators before you leave to make sure you are in compliance with any school or district rules. Some typical rules or restrictions are established times to be in assigned rooms, and to turn off the lights. Many teams will restrict students of mixed genders from socializing in hotel rooms after an established time, and some will require the presence of three persons, or an open door in a room to discourage any romantic fraternizing between team members or with other competitors. Many coaches find that requiring competitors to do cross gender preparation in public spaces of the hotel solves this problem. A conversation with an experienced coach or two about how to manage room checks, wake-up calls, limitations on luggage, or room assignments may help you find solutions that you might not have considered.
Can my students call me from their round? Can they call teammates?
The organization strictly prohibits any coaching or providing any suggestions, evidence, or feedback once a round has commenced. Coaches should try to avoid even the appearance of violating this rule, by discouraging debaters from contacting them until after the round is finished. Sending e-mails, texts, or any other electronic or written communication about logistics (where to meet after a round finishes, or what time a bus arrives) would not necessarily be a violation, but should be limited and only one direction. We try to make sure that students know that communication with anyone outside of the round, by any means, is a serious violation of the community ethos.
Can students use the internet during their rounds?
The GFCA permits the use of internet during rounds for debate events, as well as during prep for extemporaneous speaking. While competitors may use the internet for research and evidence retrieval, they are prohibited from communicating with teammates and/or coaches during the round.
What should I do if my students leave something at a tournament?
All of us are human, and forgetting things—computers, chargers, book-bags, cell-phones, etc. –is an inevitable part of a tournament. Most tournament directors will have an emergency number to contact if students leave items behind. Many coaches find that a reminder to “locate your belongings” before departure will minimize this eventuality.
There are wonderful resources on the GFCA web site, the NDSA web site and among the members of the Georgia coaching community. Start with coaches in your area or at schools comparable to your own, and ask for suggestions about running practices, raising funds, managing partnerships, selecting activities, etc.