I love the world of speech and debate. I love the tournaments. I love seeing the students all dressed up in their professional attire and walking from room to room, presenting their different speeches.  The speeches are inspiring and excellent. I love listening to debate rounds. I love this whole thing. I would have eaten it up at their age. It’s fabulous.

The days are long and our tournaments are three days long (while the National Opens and Nationals can be 4-5 days long). We have to be on the tournament site by 7:15 am every morning (usually because I am working/volunteering as tournament staff), but devotions begin at 7:30 am, judge training begins at 7:30 am and the first rounds of the day begin at 8:00 am. We are not usually finished until about 10:00 pm. The last debate round on the first night begins at 8:00 pm. The first day? There are 4 debate rounds and 3 speech rounds. For students who do both speech and debate (my older son, for example, competes in Team Policy debate plus 4 speech categories), it is a long, arduous day.

Day two is similar, except we end a little bit earlier, at 7:30 or 8:00 pm (as long as all is running on time). It gives us a bit of a breather, as we can actually leave earlier and get extra rest, if possible. Most tournament nights we are not in bed before 11:00, and sometimes it is afterwards.

Did I already mention the days are long? 🙂 It could be longer, depending on how far away our housing or hotel is from the tournament venue – which is why I try to stay as nearby as possible. Long commutes, late at night, or very early in the morning, take away from precious sleep time when we are already tired. And sometimes, we just do not sleep well… because we are in a new place, or if there is noise from outdoors, or someone has allergies, or whatever. But we have to get up very early and make it through the day. I get up the earliest, so my boys who compete can get extra sleep.

Day three starts early as well, and ends with an awards ceremony at 8:00 pm. On this day, only the students who have advanced to the finals rounds in speech or debate categories will be competing; the rest will be watching and learning or helping to time rounds. If awards begin on time, we can be done by 10:00 pm.

On occasion, there will an “after party” scheduled after awards, around 10:00 pm. It is usually about 50-75 people descending upon a restaurant (hopefully we’ve given them advance notice!) In the past, we’ve overwhelmed the Steak n Shake staff on several occasions. I’m not sure why, but this group seems to prefer Steak n Shake. We’ve gone to other places (Chick Fil-a, and even a late night party at a local Y for ice skating, basketball, dodgeball, we order pizza, with a negotiated discount for about $5… the after-party venue varies depending on the city we are in.)

Students from six states in our region participate; tournaments vary from about 120 (at the smallest) to 200 (one of our largest) students. We have 4 Qualifiers, one Regional tournament, and then those who advance make it to Nationals. In addition, there are at least 3 National Opens, in which students from any region can participate. This year the National Opens are in Spokane, Boston, and North Carolina.

So, why go through these long days? Why the travel?  Why endure the lack of sleep, pay the extra money for traveling?

Because it is worth it. It’s work, a lot of work, before, during and after, but we do it because we love it and have seen the benefits. And because it is fun; the kids do enjoy it.

But of course, it is much more than simply “fun”. We do enjoy it, but these students find other students who are also excited about learning, discussing ideas, things that matter. These students, though young, have their minds pricked with big ideas and bring them into their speeches and debates… they learn how to think critically and defend their position and speak eloquently. At the end of a long day? The parents area ready to go home, but it is common to find these young people in small groups talking to each other about policy, ideas, and strategies. Even at the end of the day, you will see students having philosophical discussions about whether retribution or rehabilitation is the better course of action for the criminal justice system (which happens to be this year’s Lincoln Douglas debate resolution). What is exciting is to see these young minds, growing intellectually – and in wisdom. It is exciting to witness that happening amidst apathy in our culture – and to see that we have young people who are learning how to be leaders… leaders who care, who do not exist in a moral vacuum, who will seek to be positive change-makers… these are young people who love God.

I have told many people this: there is no other activity in the high school years that can offer such an interdisciplinary array of academic and communication skills and character lessons than debate. It is, without doubt in my mind, the single most worthwhile activity we pursue. It may officially be an “extra-curricular”, but it really is not “extra-curricular”. Other than reading good books, this is it. (Of course, we do our complete array of school work, with everything else, like math, science, history, etc.). But this? Debate? I can’t find anything else that compares.

It is hard to fathom without experiencing it. I first saw this world when I was recruited to volunteer judge at a tournament in my city several years ago. My kids were too young to compete at the time, but what a vision it cast for the future. I knew this was something I wanted my kids to also do when they were old enough. And once in, my first year was a fog. I did not quite understand it all. We only planned to attend one tournament, then at the last minute, decided to attend a second one.

Now, six years after that first tournament… we are fully immersed. We attend all the qualifiers, and at least one National Open.

EthosDebate (a website I refer to regularly to read about debate, coaching, strategies, etc.) recently came up with a very comprehensive list of skills learned in debate. These two charts are only the academic/communication part of it (they do not include the character lessons). The founder of EthosDebate is a young, gifted entrepreneur, and an excellent and intuitive debate coach.

This is the most comprehensive list I have seen (and admittedly, I am not an expert, so I do not know what else is out there), but I’d say it would be hard to top. Two surprises came up as they brainstormed this list: 1) More skills than expected, and 2) Lifelong skills. With their permission, I am posting an image of these skills below. I will also be printing and laminating them for reference for our debate club. You can read the entire post and see the complete list of skills written out, since this chart is tiny and hard to read, at ethosdebate.com (search “What skills do you learn from debate? Here’s a huge list”.)




This chart takes some of the high level skills from the first chart – and condenses them. As you can see, they are also arranged in the order of Aristotle’s Canons of Rhetoric.