Note - This article and the subsequent articles have been in the works for a few months as of the time of posting. In the time since I’ve written this initial article, a great piece that I echo heavily was written by Jasmine Stidham for Girls Debate. I highly recommend reading this article as well Persisting: What Are Small Schools and How Can They Thrive?
High-School Debate has been caught in an abstract, charged tug-of-war where debaters and coaches tend to put themselves in one of two camps: “Big-School” or “Small-School.” Generally, the definitions of each are unclear, and in many respects there is a grey area that makes this dichotomy an insufficient way of viewing debate disparities. Personally, I find a lot of the concern about being a “Small-School” debater overblown, and think that the issue is more about perspective. In this series, I’m going to go through some advice I have for debaters that can be helpful in efforts to reach the top of the debate world. Most of this advice should be helpful to any debater from any program, so don’t feel like whatever institution you are part of really changes the story. This article is going to be introductory and is going to be about the perspective you should have if you’re planning to reach the top of debate.
We’ll start here with some clarification about what I believe makes a small-school vs big school debater and what those terms mean when used on the circuit. I’ll go on a bit later about why I think this is pretty silly, but I think this definition work can help settle the question on what people say when they use one of these terms, or at least introduce a reader who’s new to this.
Big-School: Big school debate I define as schools from established, funded programs that are integrated into the curriculum at a level that moves beyond a simple elective or club. Here are a few general thresholds that make this definition a bit more concrete. They are not absolutely required to be a big-school, but by and large these schools have them.
- Private School: There are very few strong programs that aren’t private. This makes sense: private schools generally have more budgetary and curricular flexibility, which lets debate become a larger part of a student experience should the school pursue supporting it.
- Location in a debate hub: Schools tend to be in a feedback loop with their regions such that regions become central for national circuit debate. Texas, California, New York (as a stand in for the Northeast), and Florida are the debate hubs in the United States for TOC debate. Schools that fall into the big-school criteria almost always fall into these regions.
- Large Teams: These tend to be large debate teams, with anywhere from 10-50 members per event. This makes prep distribution, argument diversity, and support much more accessible and consistent.
Small-School: In the world of debate, this is so dichotomous pretty much anything that isn’t the above could be argued as small-school. To me, small-school debate consists of a team or program in which the support for Lincoln-Douglas (and this can be extrapolated to other events I’m sure) is minimal at best, and students are generally navigating the circuit without an institutionalized support network. This means that school coaches have no formal training in the activity, or shallow understanding of high-level LD. This could mean you have no coach at all. If you are trying to figure this activity out functionally on your own, you’re most likely small-school.
These definitions definitely leave some grey area. How do we define schools like Harrison, West Des Moines Valley, or even Greenhill? Harrison and Valley are public (I believe), and Valley isn’t really in a hub location. Greenhill is private and extremely successful, sure, but the team is rarely bigger than 5 kids. People have said “Big-School!!” to all of these teams. Ultimately, I think this arbitrariness proves that all of the definition work is fairly meaningless, and the distinctions we make are only a way to categorize and divide, usually with self-serving intentions. It is far easier to accept the difficulties and failings of your debate career if you externalize your losses onto something else. That is, without a doubt, a controversial sentence, and I want to get the chance to expand on that a bit further in the coming section, which is my advice for approaching the circuit if you are someone who feels like they fall into the small-school camp.
Most debaters have a fundamentally flawed perspective of top-level national debate. They think it should be far easier than it turns out to be, and I wholeheartedly disagree.
Picture this. You start playing tennis your freshman year of high school and know absolutely nothing about it. You feel good about your play, and start competing. Well, those tournaments turn out to be pretty tough, and your after-school practice sessions with your buddy aren’t translating into tournament wins. You really want to stick with tennis though, so you enroll in lessons at your local tennis club and join your high school team. You’re definitely getting better now, but you are still losing way more than you would like. Sophomore year, you’re varsity and you’re doing alright at local tournaments. You go up to the next level of competition (in Texas, it goes from ZAT to Champ). Suddenly, you’re getting absolutely demolished. Back at the bottom, you realize you’re going to have to work harder and harder against players who are more and more dedicated. You’ve decided you want to be the best in the country at this point, so you look into what your competitors do. Most of them, come higher levels (Super-Champ in Texas), are going to tennis academies or programs and are playing 5-8 hours a day, every day. They live and breathe tennis, and they scrap for every single point and claw for every single ball. The super-champs I knew were also excellent students as well, so they knew how to juggle responsibility. All of this fighting for the top still only leaves some of them contending for D1 tennis or pro, because they have to duke it out with the best of the best from across the world. Wow, that dream of becoming the best tennis player in the country is going to take a lot more than you expected at first. Do you stick with your hope to be the best? Do you decide that the obstacles in front of you are too much for you to take on in your high-school career? Both excellent decisions, but ultimately you have to choose one.
Debaters should view being the best at debate as comparable to being the best in tennis. In fact, debaters are lucky because debate is so much more accessible and so much smaller that the rise to the top is miles upon miles easier than it is for tennis or just about any other high-school event. Evidence: I realized I wasn’t the greatest at tennis my sophomore year of high school and became a top-20 LD debater by my senior year. Less than two years with no institutional LD coach, nobody setting up my tournaments, and not once a true “war room.” Compared to tennis, that’s insane, and I don’t believe I’m some outlier - anybody who knows me knows that I am not by nature a debate supermind.
So how do you do it? You recognize the challenges you are faced with and you meet them head-on. Just like tennis, my competitors had an array of coaching resources and the institutional backing to churn out competent debaters. I took my first steps in meeting that challenge by going to camp my sophomore year and figuring out the basics. I put myself out there and found an incredible person who was willing to private coach me. I talked to him 3-6 hours a week. I practiced debate non-stop. I made friends who could help me work through the stresses of the activity. I constantly proved to my parents that this was an activity that was worth backing me up on. All of this effort ended up paying off and I made it to close to the top. It was extremely difficult, but it was possible. It tracks pretty comparably with that tennis story. I did not spend my time (seriously) complaining about big-schools or using them as a way to rationalize failures, I just spent my time working to overcome them (and many times I did). I accepted the reality of my situation, and did not shy away from it.
This, naturally, is not easy. It was extremely draining, and if I had the chance to go back, I would have done a few things differently to make sure that I was approaching debate from a more healthy angle (consistently exercising, for instance, or sticking with speaking to my therapist rather than deciding I didn’t need the mental coaching). This requires an enormous investment, both financially and personally. If you are not ready or able to make those investments, change your perspective on what you want from debate, and accept that getting everything you can from this activity is completely okay. You do not have to be the best to learn from an activity, and you should enjoy it as much as possible. If you do want to be the best, however, do not shy away from the realities of your situation. As debate grows and evolves, it will only get harder and harder to get to the top when everyone is, like the best tennis players, scrapping for every single win and every single point. Be prepared to immerse yourself into this activity as would anyone who is trying to be the best in the world at something, and be prepared to push yourself to your limits again and again. If a goofball like me can do it, I promise that you can too.
To summarize perspective into a few points:
1. Understand what you want from debate: If you want to be the best, you should absolutely go for it. If you aren’t sure, and don’t know if you are up to investing yourself that heavily, that’s totally fine. Upon accepting that, change your course and learn from debate all that you can.
2. Think about debate comparatively: In any other activity, getting to be the best is a near-impossible pursuit. With debate, it can absolutely be done, and you should hold onto that fact as your guiding beacon.
3. Don’t complain, conquer: We can spend all day talking about the obstacles to being a top-level debater. It is valuable to minimize those obstacles. For the most part, leave that discussion to the coaches and people who aren’t competing. At the end of the day, being a debater means accepting your circumstances and being ready to fight through them.
4. Accept the reality of investment: You cannot be the best in the world without investing yourself heavily. This is going to be something you have to do no matter what activity you pursue, so be prepared to start that process of investing yourself and your support network into this pursuit. In the future, I’ll go over some tips on how to tap into support networks and how to try and create an infrastructure for debate success.
5. Push yourself!: Frame the big-school competitors not as unfair to compete against, but instead as people to overcome. Embrace your underdog status, and push yourself to endlessly improve. Put in that time, cut those cards, and make yourself the best debater you can possibly be.
When I hear people upset about the divides in resources in the debate world, I empathize, but I don’t ignore the reality of the situation. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will be exhausting. This is what it takes if you want to be the absolute best in the world at something. Perspective is about being realistic, accepting your circumstances, and pushing yourself to whatever your limits are. From there, you’ll find yourself truly blossoming as a debater, and you’ll look back and be extremely pleased with how you approached the world of competitive debate.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author