First Tournament Survival Guide: Part 1

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To welcome new members to speech and debate, as well as ForensicsCommunity, I’ve constructed a two-part survival guide designed for beginners who are eager to learn more about tournament preparation. Part One of the guide will cover the basics: essential items to have with you at a tournament, a few definitions, and a basic breakdown of a tournament’s structure. Part two will include a step-by-step guide for what to do when you’re at your first tournament – where to go first, how to begin your performance, and what will be expected of you.

First, here’s a quick list of items you should always take with you to a competition:

Pens or Pencils (You need more than one because someone will undoubtedly ask to “borrow” one…
A water bottle or other drink.
Your black 10-inch binder (if you’re competing in Oral Interpretation (poetry/prose) or Duo Reading)
A legal pad and index cards (if you’re competing in Extemporaneous Speaking or any debate events – you’ll also need access to your team’s files, so consult your president or captain)
A wristwatch, stopwatch or digital timer (for keeping track of how long each performance is in speech and for keeping track of rebuttal times, etc. in Policy Debate)
Cash (you will probably end up spending it on snacks and sodas at the concessions table because most teams do not leave the school for lunch during the competition, and if you do leave you’ll likely be eating fast food. Also, keep in mind that many teams go out to a nice restaurant at least once at every tournament – ask around and find out how much money you’ll need.

There are a million other things I could recommend – cough drops, Band-Aids, a spare shirt (in case you spill something, yikes), dry-erase markers, extra pantyhose – but those are the bare necessities. Pack those in your bag and you’ll be OK unless there’s a zombie uprising.

*Note: In the event of a zombie uprising, don’t forget that you can certainly use your speech and debate skills to your advantage. Use your talent for interpretation and work with the fact that you stayed up all night before the tournament memorizing your lines/studying your case to blend in. Just drop your head back, extend your arms and say, “Braaains.” You’re welcome.

Before a tournament, your team will most likely meet in the morning for a briefing and a few touching pep talks, so you should at least get a general idea of what’s going to happen. Your team’s president will explain where the tournament is, where you’ll be staying if it’s an overnight trip, who you will be riding with to get to the hosting school, and where you’ll need to go once you get there. Your coach will usually have transportation plans arranged for the team, be it by bus or by chaperone’s cars, so find out ahead of time what the plans are. If you are going to be on the road for 30 minutes or more, use the time wisely. The ride to a speech tournament is a perfect time to review your pieces, fine-tune your introductions and, of course, bond with your teammates.

There are a few things you should know about a tournament’s structure. Tournaments are scheduled using rounds. This means that for each event, there is a first round, a second round, a semifinal round (“semis”), and a final round (“finals”). Each round usually consists of between five and eight performers who are all evaluated by one judge. Your judge will be another school’s coach, a former competitor, or a friend of someone who attends the hosting school. Your job at a tournament is to do the best you can in each round to show your judge that you have worked hard, so this means you need to be polite, helpful and kind to each judge. Rounds usually last about an hour. Each student is limited to a ten-minute performance.

Keep in mind that this structure is not concrete: at small tournaments, some events have three required rounds and go straight to finals, while at a large tournament, some events will have quarterfinals or even octofinals before semis.

Your scores in the first two rounds will determine whether you advance to semis. In a semis round, you will have three judges (this is to ensure that a lone judge does not have the power to pick finalists; the scores depend on the opinions of three different people). Your scores in semis will determine whether you advance to finals, and your scores in finals will determine whether or not you receive a trophy (often referred to as "placing," as in, "to win second place").

Different schools will use different techniques for scheduling a tournament. Typically, “Individual Events” (this includes Dramatic Interpretation, Declamation, Humorous Interpretation, Original Oratory, Oral Interpretation and Extemporaneous Speaking) are grouped together, and “Partner Events/Debate” (this includes Duo Reading, Duet Acting, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Cross-Examination or Policy Debate) are grouped together.

So, if you go to a tournament and you are competing in Extemporaneous Speaking, Dramatic Interpretation and Duo Reading, you must participate in the first two rounds of each event. Because you are competing in Extemp and D.I., you are “cross-entered,” meaning you will be competing in two events with rounds that take place during the same time. In most cases, you’ll be the first speaker in Extemp and the last speaker in D.I. Because your Duo round will take place at a different time, you will have a few minutes after you’re done with D.I. to prepare for the next round.

Confused? For a step-by-step guide to what to do when you’re at your first tournament – where to go first, how to begin your performance, and what will be expected of you, check out Part Two!

Anony's picture

Super helpful! Thank you for taking the time to write this for a newbie :)

In the event of a zombie uprising, torn pantyhose or a shirt with spills on it could work to your advantage ;)

Question: is it okay to use the stopwatch feature on your phone? Or will that just be interpreted as rude because people might think you're texting?

What's the best place to find information about beginning a team? How long before a team would be ready to compete? How do I find competitions? How big should a team be?

Most judges will not allow you to use a phone to time yourself with, and those that will won't like it. You can request time signals, or purchase a small inexpensive kitchen timer.

I agree with EvanCornelius about the phone as a timer. Could you imagine if the thing went off from a text or call during a round? Arg, no.

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