Why Local Tournaments Matter by Stephen Babb

I distinctly remember reaching a point in high school at which attending local tournaments came to feel like more of a burden than opportunity. To be sure, my sentiment was and is shared by a number of students and coaches alike.
Reasons to feel this way abound, of course. The judging at local tournaments is typically inconsistent at best. The competition may be less of a challenge when compared to national invitationals. And it should go without saying that traveling across town is rarely as exhilarating as packing one’s bags for New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

These instincts aren’t wrong—they’re just incomplete. They fail to acknowledge the unique advantages of debating locally, benefits that affect both students individually and our broader community. First and foremost, these tournaments are opportunities to build rapport with other teams, coaches and judges that you can actually interact with face-to-face on a regular basis. Given the extent to which debate has thrived as a virtual online community, it’s easy to forget it can thrive in real communities as well. There’s no limit to the kind of good these relationships can do for you, both in terms of debate and in terms of life.

Teams should be doing more to promote local tournaments for a number of more concrete reasons, as well.

1. Access

Local tournaments are the best opportunity most debaters have to compete. With the expenses and time commitments associated with traveling across the country, there just aren’t many options for anyone facing tight budgets and/or schedules. This increased access to debate is essential to the activity’s constituent virtues—we ultimately want as many students as possible engaged in the research, writing and argumentation that characterize debate’s core pedagogy. Few activities have the same potential to transform a student’s academic and personal development.

2. Skill Diversification

The beauty of local tournaments is that we never really have to choose between developing more intensive research and rapid thinking skills on the one hand and improved speaking and persuasive skills on the other. The national circuit leans in one direction, while local circuits lean in the other. This is a good thing—it allows for the best of both worlds. That isn’t to say both of those worlds couldn’t do a better job as fostering their respective skills, but it does mean we’re more or less headed in the right direction. Debaters will naturally prefer certain styles or find themselves better suited to particular strategies, but that’s not a reason to neglect the opportunity to broaden one’s skill set. Is it challenging to package your argument in a way that anyone could understand? Absolutely! And that’s why it’s a good thing.

3. Innovation

While national circuit debate always seems like it’s on the cutting edge of every trend imaginable, it’s worth remembering that much of the innovation we see on the national level probably started in local and regional enclaves. I’ve seen countless positions and strategies tested out at local tournament before they’re introduced at a travel tournament. In this sense, local and regional tournaments can operate as laboratories for experimentation and a natural discursive extension of the team itself—a space for collaboration, practice and support.

4. Branding & Outreach

Debate has too often come to resemble golf—a “country club sport” that really isn’t much of a sport at all. What’s worse, the styles typifying debate at the national level have put a face on the activity that the outside world doesn’t find very attractive. That’s a separate discussion to be sure, but the beauty of local tournaments is that they allow it to be a separate discussion. If we want more parents and schools to support our community, we should be highlighting just how inclusive this community is. The last thing we want  to do is so dramatically eschew the integral role of public speaking. For a lot of people, debate represents an opportunity to hone real-world discursive skills, and local tournaments maintain a space for debaters to do just that.

5. Practice

Even if you can set the above-mentioned interests aside on account they’re lofty pursuits of “the social good,” there are self-interested reasons to attend local tournaments too. It makes a lot more sense to try out new case positions or strategies 20 minutes away from home than in another state. Local tournaments are an affordable and less time-consuming chance to try out new things. If nothing else, they’re an opportunity for repetition.

For many debaters, local tournaments simply aren’t feasible due to crowded travel schedules. In these instances, rare attendance at local tournaments is understandable, but there should be room for compromise. Rather than attending your 10th bid tournament, why not show up at a local tournament and support the hometown?

Some of the most fondly-remembered people from my years in debate are the coaches and debaters I ran into weekend after weekend at local tournaments. My coach may have been the one twisting my arm to attend those tournaments, but I was almost always glad I did.

  • I also think this comment needs to go to coaches as well as debaters. I have noticed a tendency for high school coaches to prioritize national travel to the exclusion of local tournaments. While there are some good reasons for this, limited resources, prestige, etc., it has the result of limiting possibilities. When I was coaching in Iowa in a program that was unable to afford national travel we often had difficulty finding places to compete. The lack of attendance at a number of tournaments due to the preference for national travel had caused many locals to die on the vine. Where possible I think coaches need to make it a priority to support locals with attendance to help keep these tournaments (and the teams they support) alive.

    • I agree. Tell the coaches too! There are some places that just have no local tournaments, because the teams in the area have all opted to head to national tournaments. It makes it hard for the university in the area to do any recruiting. Many Seniors have no idea we have a team because they have spent their entire career debating in different states.

  • Adam Torson

    Another advantage to devoting some time to debating locally is that you are forced to explain what the technical concepts you employ actually mean. "The Alt to the kritik is the counterplan, so when I perm the counterplan the kritik just becomes a non-unique disad." To a lot of really smart people that sentence is non-sense. Sometimes having to explain the meanings of technical concepts more fully improves your own understanding so as to make those concepts easier to apply in non-debate settings.