Community New Year’s Resolution #3: Lone Wolves by Sunhee Simon

SunHee Simon is a LD curriculum director at VBI. She is currently a junior at Stanford University and coaches here and there.

Resolved: The debate community needs to make debate more accessible and communal for lone wolves.

Sometimes it feels like lone wolves are LD’s dirty secret that everyone knows about. While some kids are privileged enough to belong to a program that can support them and their teammates, there have been a rise of independents who have been pushing their way into the national circuit. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a “lone wolf” in debate usually refers to a debater who lacks institutional support from their school. This support can vary from funding or coaching to the existence of a formal team. As you can imagine, it is not easy navigating debate on your own. Even help from a nice English teacher or well-meaning parent does not cover the cost of debating, navigating unique circuit norms like prefs, or having enough prep to go against debaters from strong debate institutions. We continue to see the rise of lone wolves, yet tournament directors continue to see them as liabilities and community members perceive their existence as a threat to the order we have in the community. While there are certainly legitimate concerns about how lone wolves should exist in this space, it is important that we as a community pay attention to inevitable change and start accommodating. Now, it is common for a student to have to hire a judge at a tournament. Now, it is common for a student to have satellite coaching. Now, it’s common for students to handle logistics because they do not have adult support to help them navigate it. Instead of only telling lone wolves what to do, it’s time that those of us privileged enough to “belong” in any degree find a way to be actively involved in the change necessary to let kids, no matter the status of their program, participate in debate.

1. Guilds for Lone Wolves

“Lone wolfs like myself have to recognize one thing very quickly; the whole research and prep burden standard is Right. Here. We don’t have the comparably massive resources of large schools which have everything from backfiles to class schedules built around accommodating debaters. The most important part comes from how effectively large teams are able to divvy up work between their different debaters and get evidence from their coach. …Thus I propose a system for lone wolfs to be able to compete with these schools which are basically private prep sharing groups, but I’ll refer to them as ‘guilds’…lone wolfs select between each other to form groups of a minimum of 3 debaters and a flexible maximum. Teams are incentivized to have smaller groups so there’s more control and checks and balances from the group; after all you don’t want to create more power structures where only 1 or 2 debaters are controlling the rest of the group to make them basically just do work for them. …I notice that the reason large teams work is because you have a structure of where work is coming from and going to, and at the same time the team is working for the same goal. You don’t hit your team, and you know if you work hard you can become the A team. On the other hand, guilds would require so much more trust it’s unrealistic to be able to trust too many people, i.e. a large guild.” —Ron Nath

This is an excellent concept! As a community we have seen the rise of prep sharing under formal organizations (shout out to programs like Debate Drills and Premier Coaching for pushing the boundaries and continuing conversations about access and success), however the amount of space available or the costs can make it hard for some to participate. This is an alternative for students who are motivated but may not be able to get into these programs. Creating the guilds Ron has proposed can be a matter of circulating a google doc or creating a form for people to express interest. Additionally, using camps or tournaments is an excellent way for lone wolves to find other lone wolves to create these online sharing spaces with.

2. Tournament Accommodations

“More tournaments should be inclusive of independent entries and tournament fees should be reduced or waived (especially “base team entry fees”) if a debater is the only one from their school competing at a tournament.” –Anonymous

There are certainly tournaments where directors decide to waive fees or provide additional support for students debating on their own—especially if they are low income. Let’s make this a norm. Our anonymous student makes an excellent point by highlighting “base team entry fees”. Given that we are all aware of independents competing, having separate fees for individuals signing up for a tournament could be a way for directions to ensure that they get money to cover the costs while providing reasonable prices for students.

I also believe this could be expanded further. Two issues that come to mind are lodging and disclosure. If feasible, directors can have students room with teams that have extra space. Additionally, if a school is aware of extra space in their hotel rooms and it is not in violation of rules from their school district, disclosing availability or telling their students to reach out to lone wolf friends could help lone wolves know there are options for where they can stay. As for disclosure, a more controversial conversation the community continuous to have, considering the way disclosure requirements operate could be another form of accommodation. A compromise on what helps those who favor disclosure and those who oppose it should be found so students can debate wherever they choose. That, of course, is still up to debate.

Kudos to the directors who already do these things! Continuing the conversations amongst your peers who are on the fence or have never accommodated lone wolves in this way could help spread the effect and promote more inclusivity.

3. Support Groups

“In my experience, I’ve never been able to form a support group in debate. I feel like in part its because I grew up with social anxiety (which debate largely helped me overcome), but I’ve never had a team to fall back on and the people I meet at camp and tournaments never form “debate cliques” (I don’t approve of the clique mentality, just groups in general) since I don’t have access to nat circuit tournaments. In that way, I understand since groups shouldn’t have to just give prep away, but I always pull my weight, just I don’t have opportunities. I think REAL lone wolf support groups or just some way to make people be more inclusive during the year is good. I know lone wolfs come together and form groups but that still doesn’t address issue of inclusivity (and also debate elitism, which is also a problem).” —Anonymous

I’ve noticed this trend in talking to lone wolves over the summer. At the end of the day, we want to belong to something. Even if you don’t have a formal team, having a group you can trust at a debate tournament can be the difference between someone quitting or staying in debate. For all the students who read these resolutions, you really have the power to create small spaces like this. An act of being a person and not a competitor 24/7 can help someone feel at home. As for those who are lone wolves themselves, creating a “real” lone wolf support group can look different based on your comfort. The easiest suggestion I can provide would be creating a facebook group for lone wolves—which I’m sure some of you may have already. Often, you can be connected to 5 other independent kids who don’t know each other but can be introduced to each other through you. Widening your network can create a virtual community (at the very least) where you could share information about tournaments that are better for lone wolves, the guilds Ron Nath proposed, or a space to vent and strategize about the debate community away from biased eyes.

I’ve been lucky enough to have always be supported by institutions and friends. As a result, I come from a position of privilege and prefer to leave to conversation open while centering the voices of students who were brave enough to express their strategies. The issue of lone wolf-ing is a nuanced one and warrants a longer conversation than this article. For example, how should we approach low-income lone wolves compared to high-income lone wolves who can afford expensive private coaching? What can we do as a community to provide resources without sacrificing structure and competition in an inherently competitive activity? I encourage us all to partake and be open to learning about hardships we may not have noticed before as the community moves towards this change.

Read the previous resolution here.