October 22, 2021
Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has permeated every facet of our lives. From disrupting jobs to changing social behaviors, living in a pandemic since March 2020 has forced each of us to adapt and overcome. The speech and debate community illustrated that resilience when it was able to move completely online with just months’ notice for the 2020 Tournament of Champions and National Speech and Debate Association National Tournament.
We learned many lessons from those pioneers of online tournaments and improved upon their practices during 2021. Today, online tournaments at the local and national levels have become the norm. Whether it be synchronous or asynchronous competition, online tournaments have kept the speech and debate activity afloat when it otherwise would have been impossible.
Here are some top tips for success as we compete online and some ideas about the lessons we’ve learned from this experience.
It looks like online tournaments will be around for a bit longer so we may as well make the most of this reality. Here are some basic tips and tricks to survive the online format.
1. Slow down and over enunciate! A lot of the computers used for competition don’t necessarily have the best microphones. While spreading is a useful tool to increase depth and coverage in a round, it is also quite difficult to understand online. And even if you aren’t spreading, you still can be difficult to hear. Taking your time in some instances can help you avoid losing a round the judge didn’t hear your full argument.
2. Take breaks! Online tournaments can have weird hours depending on your time zone and, depending on the tournament, many have some nice time built-in between rounds. Don’t just stare at your computer screen. Even a ten-minute walk or changing rooms can have a big impact on your in-round performance. And while we are on the topic, we should all be drinking more water!
3. Communicate with your teammates! Checking in between rounds can help recreate some of feeling of an in-person tournament. It is healthy to decompress, share stories, and get your mind off of competition.
4. Test the technology! Nothing is worse than taking a loss in the first round because the school’s WIFI blocked NSDA Campus or your microphone didn’t work. Making sure things are in working order is key to success.
5. Restart your computer daily! I have tabbed a lot of online tournaments over the course of the last year and a half. You’d be amazed at how many issues are resolved simply by completely restarting your browser or restarting your computer. I encourage you all to restart at least once a day. And judges, if your ballot doesn’t have the competitors on the right sides when you try to submit your decision just refresh the page. Restarting computers and refreshing pages fixes probably 90% of the issues that come to us in tab rooms.
Hopefully the end of the pandemic is in sight, and we will be returning to more in person competition soon. When that happens, we have certainly learned lessons during online competition that we can take with us.
First, live docs are awesome! Have curated information for events all in one place that is updated with contact information and announcements in live time is a gamechanger for tournaments. Knowing where to look for information and who talk to if you can’t find it has helped tournaments move much more smoothly.
Second, online judge’s lounges and helpdesks should be here to stay. Whether it be a student issue in a round or a judge having a ballot issue, there is no reason we should trek across campuses to fix problems. Zoom calls to troubleshoot have been remarkably helpful. In that same vein, I hope we keep Google Voice helpdesk text lines open. Firing off a text and getting a response directly from tab room officials has increased tournament efficiency immensely.
Finally, I hope some online tournaments stay around. This has been a valuable way for more people to engage the activity. Even asynchronous speech events have increased students’ ability to share their message and get feedback from judges. We’ve built all this digital infrastructure and continue to learn how to use it well, there is no need to throw all of that away when we can finally start traveling again.
The last year has been full of challenges. I’m proud of this community for how we have handled it. I look forward to hopefully seeing you all in person again in the future. For now, you can likely find me via the Google Voice Helpdesk number. Chat soon.
Nathan Johnston is the Director of Community Engagement for Champion Briefs and Co-Director of Speech & Debate at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, FL. He is a Diamond Coach who has coached students to late elimination rounds at various national tournaments in Congress, Public Forum, Extemp, Interp, and platform events. Nathan currently serves on the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Wording Committee and on the Florida Forensics League Executive Board. He has master's degrees in history and educational leadership, and is currently working on his doctorate through the University of South Carolina in Educational Practice and Innovation.