Discover more from Victory Briefs
8 Tips for In-Person NSDA Nationals by Lawrence Zhou
Lawrence Zhou is the 2014 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate. He is a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming, head coach of Team Wyoming, and an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. He was formerly the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Victory Briefs.
The Opinions Expressed In This Post Are Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of Victory Briefs.
Lawrence lays out 8 tips for anyone attending NSDA Nationals in-person, including thoughts about the Covid-19 guidelines and how to adjust practice and presentation after years of online competition.
Woo! In-person NSDA Nationals is back, this time in Louisville, Kentucky! I haven’t been at NSDA Nationals in-person since 2018 when it was held in Fort Lauderdale (I sadly missed 2019 as I was studying abroad in China) and the online NSDA Nationals in 2020 and 2021 were alright, but clearly no substitute for the experience of physically being at the largest academic competition in the world.
For some, this might be your first in-person tournament ever (and congrats to those of you who started debating during the pandemic and stuck with this activity!) and there might be a lot of confusion or a general lack of awareness about how in-person NSDA Nationals works. I have already seen several messages or posts in various online forums inquiring about NSDA Nationals. So, I decided to gather most of my thoughts about this tournament and put them in this one article in the hope that this helps some people thinking about competing at in-person NSDA Nationals. This article is mostly geared towards students in LD and PF, but there are sections in here that might also be helpful to new coaches.
Before I get into my specific tips, the NSDA National Tournament website is available here: https://www.speechanddebate.org/national-tournament-2022/. I would spend time clicking around the various pages, including the Coaches and Students tab, as this website will be very important and might answer many of your questions you have about the tournament itself. I would say that most of the information that you need to know for the tournament can be found somewhere on the webpage, but it’s not the easiest to navigate if you’re not familiar with it, so spending some time just exploring it can be quite helpful and answer a lot of your questions.
I also know that some states use alternative tabulation sites like Joy of Tournaments or Speechwire, but the National Tournament will be held on Tabroom.com here and so I would also recommend being familiar with Tabroom.com’s features, including the Paradigms feature, where you can look up the thoughts and beliefs about debate that a judge might have before the round begins. If you’re new to Tabroom.com, the NSDA has a webpage that has helpful articles on getting started with Tabroom.com.
Finally, I would consider skimming part of the High School Unified Manual, particularly the section starting on page 109 titled “Tournament Procedures for Debate Events.” For those of you who have never attended, the way that NSDA Nationals works for debate events is a bit strange, so making sure you’re familiar with the way it operates is important.
The short version is that the debate side of things can be broken into two distinctive sections: preliminary rounds and elimination rounds. In prelim rounds, each competitor will debate 6 prelim rounds with 2 judges in each prelim round, which leaves a total of 12 possible ballots to earn in prelims. Any competitor who receives at least 8 out of 12 ballots will advance to elims. The distribution of the ballots does not matter, so long as it totals up to 8. Once in elims, the tournament then operates as a double-elimination bracket (prelim ballot count becomes more or less irrelevant here), where any competitor who loses 2 rounds in elims will be eliminated from the tournament until there are just 2 debaters remaining. All elim rounds are paneled and power-matched.
Without further ado, here are my 8 tips for returning to in-person competition at NSDA Nationals.
1. Pay special attention to the Covid-19 guidelines.
Even as mask use declines in the wake of a federal judge’s ruling striking down mask mandates (a judge who, I might add, was deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association) and airlines’ decisions to remove mask mandates, the World Health Organization still recommends wearing masks in public spaces because even one-way masking helps. To that end, I’m quite happy that the NSDA has recognized that Covid-19 is not over and is taking reasonable precautions to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks.
The NSDA has released a comprehensive document concerning Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. At eight pages long, it’s not an easy read, but here are some of the main things to make sure you’re aware of:
All individuals attending NSDA Nationals are required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and upload verification of vaccination through VaccineCheck. A full description of the verification process and what constitutes being “fully vaccinated” can be found in the document.
All individuals attending NSDA Nationals are required to wear a mask with some exceptions such as while actively consuming food or beverages and while performing. While the tournament does not mandate a particular type of mask, I strongly concur with the National Tournament’s recommendation of using high-quality KN95 or N95 masks (you can find a list of where to buy trusted masks here or here; I personally use Project N95). I have found that masks that utilize head ties or straps where the straps loop over the head instead of over the ears (such as this one) are far more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. Also, there’s evidence that suggests that masks secured using ear loops are less effective than masks secured using head straps.
There will be on- and off-site Covid-19 testing sites. I would still personally recommend several members of your party bring along some rapid Covid-19 tests for your group.
There is a fairly comprehensive section outlining what to do if one or more of your party tests positive for Covid-19 during the National Tournament. I would make sure that everyone is aware of that process.
While many competitors may choose to remove their masks while competing (see the official document linked above for guidance on this policy), some competitors may still choose to compete while wearing a mask. First, if you plan on not wearing a mask while competing, please be respectful to those who choose to keep their mask on while competing. Second, if you plan on wearing a mask while competing, please make sure to practice speaking with the mask on. This post by the American Speech-Language-hearing Association and this post from CNN have some great advice on how to ensure you are still properly communicating while wearing a mask.
2. Pack in advance.
Many debaters and coaches haven’t traveled to an away tournament in years. When I was preparing for my first in-person travel tournament in nearly two years, I realized I had forgotten how to efficiently pack for debate trips. The worst is when you get to the tournament hotel and realize you forgot your phone charger or toothpaste. While this is not the end of the world (most teams will do a Walmart or Target run on the first night to grab snacks, drinks, and items that people forgot to pack), it is often a minor inconvenience that can be one additional point of stress in an already stressful trip. The best way to solve this is just to plan in advance.
Here are some of my general packing tips:
I would strongly recommend creating a packing list to help organize your packing.
I would also strongly recommend packing at least one day before the trip so you have time to double-check your packing.
Keep in mind the weather in Louisville (you can find the average weather patterns for June here) and make sure you’re packing weather appropriate clothing.
Pack lightly for your personal item or backpack that you will bring with you to the competition venue. You will be walking a decent bit each day, and anyone who is walking with one of those massive backpacks is going to be so much more sweaty and tired compared to everyone else.
Victory Briefs also released an article a few years ago detailing what some camp staffers would carry in their debate backpacks if you’re looking for some inspiration (even if some of the item recommendations are a bit dated).
Here is a list of the items that I would consider including in your packing checklist (this is not meant to be comprehensive):
Appropriate competition clothing, 3-5 days.
Casual clothing, including comfortable clothing for travel, 5-7 days.
Socks and underwear.
Wallet and ID.
Refillable water bottle.
Laptop and charger.
Cell phone and charger.
Headphones or earbuds.
An extension cable (these are lifesavers for buildings where outlets are limited, I personally use this one from Anker).
Face masks and rapid Covid-19 tests.
Debate specific items like flow paper, colored pens, and a timer.
Relevant toiletries like toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, facial cleanser, lotion, etc. (keep in mind the 3-1-1 liquids rule if you’re flying).
Any medications or supplements you need.
3. Coordinate travel.
This part is more geared towards coaches and adults who have to worry about the logistical side of debate tournaments, but before I get into those boring details, I have some advice about travel for students.
This lecture from the 2020 Dartmouth Debate Institute by the 2020 Rex Copeland winner Miles Gray is one of the best lectures I’ve seen about what it takes to win a major national circuit tournament. While most of the advice is geared towards policy debate, there is so much insight and advice packed within this lecture that is broadly applicable no matter what type of debate event you do. In particular, I would really recommend listening to the section that starts around the 28 minute mark which is about the travel and rest day and gives great advice concerning how to approach the travel day in terms of sleep, food, and hygiene. There are other great nuggets of wisdom throughout the lecture, including tidbits on how to perform at the highest levels against specific teams, how to deal with mental health during a tournament, and how to effectively leverage the resources of a team, so I strongly recommend watching the whole thing even if you’re not a policy debater and just bracketing off a lot of the advice that is specific to the intense preparation process of policy debate. The short version is that you have to remember that traveling is tiring, even when you’re not doing anything (and this is especially true for those of you on the west coast). Regardless of whether you’re flying or driving, travel is draining. Don’t use this for doing lots of debate work. Instead, use it to relax and prepare both mentally and physically for the tournament. I’ll discuss this more in the 6th section of this article.
Now for those who have to pay attention to the nitty-gritty details of traveling to the tournament, there are two similar but distinct travel schedules that need to be coordinated: travel to the tournament and travel during the tournament.
I can’t speak much about traveling to the tournament. Hopefully, your coach, chaperone, or trusted adult will be dealing with travel logistics. If you’re in charge of coordinating travel to the tournament, I recommend looking at Debate Travel Tips, a travel blog written by Lexy Green, director of forensics at College Prep, that contains a lot of great travel tips useful to anyone but debate coaches especially. There are also tons of excellent resources on how to book cheap flights and hotels out there, though it’ll take some time to go through them all.
My best advice I can offer for traveling to the tournament is that the best way to reduce costs is to share them. Find out which other schools from your area are attending and find a way to share a ride with them, split hotel rooms with them, or otherwise share costs. For example, when I went to NSDA Nationals while I was in high school in Oklahoma, many of the Oklahoma schools would coordinate travel (usually by caravan and school vehicle) to the tournament. Hopefully, travel to the tournament isn’t the responsibility of any student, but it’s still worth knowing a bit about travel logistics.
Traveling during the tournament can also be quite difficult. Due to the sheer scale of the tournament (I believe the front page of the National Tournament page says there will be approximately 6,000 competitors at NSDA Nationals this year), the way the tournament works is that each main competition event has its own building (usually just a local school building), so that extemp might be in one school building on one side of town while policy debate might be in another building on the other side of town. For smaller teams with only one or two entries, this may not be such a large concern, but for teams that have multiple entries across multiple events, this can pose a large logistical challenge.
I would first recommend looking at the Coaches tab on the NSDA website and looking at the section about Competition Venues. I would then look at the Google Doc called High School Tournament Event Schedules and Venues which will show a more detailed schedule of which competition events are located in which buildings. For example, LD will be held at Atherton High School (Google Maps link here), while PF will be held at Doss High School and Trunnell Elementary School (Google Maps link here). These schools are about 10 miles away from each other, and I imagine it could easily take over half an hour to travel between these schools during the busier hours of the day (when I looked up directions between these two schools as I writing this article, Google Maps said it would take 23 minutes with usual traffic). If your school or district has a team competing in PF and another in LD, having the same driver drop off teams at both venues seems inefficient. Finding a way to share resources and responsibilities with others helps a lot.
For example, the Oklahoma schools that went would usually stay in the same hotel and schools would divide up travel responsibilities at the tournament, so that one school might take all the district’s LDers to the LD building while another school might take all the original oratory kids to the original oratory building. You can also try and coordinate with other small schools attending and find a way to share costs that way through forums like the High School LD Debate Facebook group or the r/debate subreddit and the various Discord servers associated with it (explore at your own risk, many of these sites are student run).
One of the best parts of traveling for debate is that you get to experience different cuisines and cultures. Personally, debate is the reason why I’ve been able to travel to many different places, from Alaska to D.C. and even abroad to China!
While Louisville isn’t exactly the most exciting destination to travel to, it still has many fun things for people to see and experience. I might recommend taking a look at what Trip Advisor recommends to do in Louisville or seeing what the Louisville tourism website suggests, including what restaurants they feature. Personally, I’ll probably try and avoid some of the more popular attractions on the weekend since the city will be flooded with other speech and debate people, but I will be on the lookout for some good food in the city. I would strongly recommend trying to bake in some time in your schedule to do something fun as a team or district. Consider assigning someone to be in charge of planning your touristy excursions (and make sure they’re sensitive to financial or other constraints that members of the team might have).
5. Adjust presentation practice.
When tournaments were primarily online, many of the aspects of public speaking were relegated to the sidelines. There was less of a focus on body language, facial expressions, vocal modulation, and composure compared to in-person events. But as Jo Spurgeon, the 2020 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate, argues in a piece for Triumph Debate, “People like to claim a strict divide between speech and debate events. The issue with this, though, is that many of the skills you learn in speech… cater nicely to debate. People who are smoother speakers, modulate their voices, and can at least feign interest in what they are saying are subconsciously more memorable and more persuasive.” I very much agree with this advice! To that end, I’ll just add a few more thoughts here:
Practice speaking. Public speaking is not easy (it still remains one of the most common fears in the American public) and requires practice. This means practice sounding persuasive. Focus on inflection, pronunciation, articulation, and all the usual stuff. This video by Chris Anderson on how to give a great TED talk is an excellent watch for improving public speaking skills. There are so many resources out there for learning more effective public speaking, so I leave it to you to discover those on your own, but just make sure to actually practice!
Focus on how you present in a physical space. If you sway, fidget, or otherwise display body language that conveys that you’re nervous or not confident, that will damage your credibility. Body language heavily affects your public speaking and so it is worth spending some time focusing on this skill. Do drills! I would strongly recommend that you record yourself presenting and look for eye contact, composure, and other non-verbal elements of your presentation that can affect how the judge perceives you.
Use paper copies if possible. When I competed back in the dark ages of 2014, using computers in round was just becoming commonplace, and it wasn’t until after I graduated that it was more common than not to see competitors read cases and blocks from their computers instead of from paper. For a while, using paper debate cases was evidence that a debater was stuck in the ancient days of when there were only typewriters and the cell phone hadn’t yet been invented. Today, that trend is reversing, with more and more evidence piling up in favor of ditching our reliance on screens, including findings that taking notes by hand is superior to typing them out and that computers are often larger sources of distraction than productivity. I think there is a lot of merit to these views and I think it says something about how one should prepare for NSDA Nationals. In particular, I think that paper is the way to go for NSDA Nationals. Not only is there evidence that paper is still easier for reading compared to screens, but I believe that reading from paper confers significant presentational advantages. Having printed cases signals to the judge that you are well-prepared (as you took the time to format and print your cases prior to the start of the tournament), that you care about formality (as using printed notes often looks more professional than burying your head into a laptop), and that you take the activity seriously. I also think there’s something classy and nice about a debater who approaches the podium with just some papers in their hand, ready to debate, compared to debaters who have to awkwardly carry their laptop and flow up to speak. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have your computer with you or that you shouldn’t use your computer if the need arises (e.g., if someone makes an argument that you have blocks to on your computer but you haven’t printed off those blocks yet), but I do think you should try and have at least your constructive speeches on paper.
Attire matters. Not only do formal clothes give off the appearance that you take the competition seriously, but there is also evidence that wearing formal clothing actually confers cognitive advantages to the wearer, making them feel more powerful. I would spend a little time ensuring that what you’re wearing is professional and conveys the image you want the judge to see. And yes, obviously professional clothing is often expensive, but thrift stores typically carry formal clothing at severely discounted prices.
One caveat is that there are racial and gender differences in many aspects of presentation that should be considered. For example, there are well-documented biases in standards of “professionalism” for racial minorities, vocal differences between men and women (where masculine voices are preferred, an effect well-documented in the political arena), and beauty bias (a part of the halo effect, where presentation of attractiveness is then correlated with positive judgements of a person). Each of these deserves its own article because they are serious enough that could affect the outcomes of debates and are something that debaters should at least be aware of. Of course, the NSDA has put out guidelines on Culturally Competent Judging, but simply having judges being aware of biases rarely is sufficient to override those biases as work on implicit bias has suggested.
6. Stay healthy and sleep.
A few months ago, I penned a short piece on ways in which debate tournaments can take a massive toll on your health. I also released a file called “Sleep Good” (available here) on the important cognitive and health benefits that proper sleep promotes. The tl;dr is that debate tournaments, particularly long ones like NSDA Nationals, take a massive toll on physical health.
Natalie Schaller, the 2017 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate, suggested in an interview that “caring for your health is important. Don’t goof off – get as much sleep as you can, drink water, don’t go overboard on the coffee, and try to find some healthy meals. What’s more important is staying mentally strong throughout the tournament, because Nationals really is a mental game.” I strongly agree with each of those points, which I’ll briefly elaborate on in turn.
Here are just a few practical suggestions:
Drink lots of water. Caffeine in limited quantities is safe (and I personally consume waaay too much caffeine daily), but there’s definitely a risk of drinking too much caffeine which can come with a whole host of negative side effects. Many students also consume lots of energy drinks like Red Bull and that can also induce side effects like dehydration, anxiety, and insomnia. While some caffeine is fine, that should not serve as an adequate substitute for quality sleep or water. Water is great and you should drink more of it.
Eat. My junior year, I basically didn’t eat for an entire day of competition because the nerves were simply too much. That was absurdly unhealthy. Don’t do that. Try to eat somewhat regularly and eat healthy. Fast food satisfies cravings but rarely is ever good for you, especially during a tournament. Try your best to eat healthy and regularly.
Sleep. Again, I’ll plug my “Sleep Good” file here if you remain unconvinced about the benefits of sleep, but NSDA Nationals is a marathon not a sprint. It lasts a whole week. If you don’t sleep, you won’t perform well, simple as that. You’ll simply perform worse as the tournament progresses if you don’t make an effort to sleep (and that performance decline correlates with when you need to be at your peak performance in elimination rounds against other top debaters). This doesn’t mean you can’t stay up and hang out with your friends, but it does mean you must have limits on what you do and that you should try and sleep well. If you must ruin your sleep schedule, at least wait until you’re finished competing.
Move around. You’ll probably be moving a decent bit throughout the tournament, but as I’ve noted in a previous article about the benefits of walking, you should try and take brisk walks every so often for both the health and cognitive benefits it affords in the short-term. Even though it’ll be a bit hot in Louisville in the summer, I would also recommend taking a walk outside every so often, mostly just to get an opportunity to take your mask off and breathe fresh air for a while.
7. Be nice to your coach.
This is some advice that I wish I could’ve given my younger self. NSDA Nationals is a stressful time for all, but especially the coaches. Many coaches are also full-time teachers who are in the middle of a national education crisis where they aren’t just responsible for children’s education and well-being for also, oftentimes, essential childcare. Coupled with the fact that teachers are underpaid for all this work and having to deal with national culture wars infecting their classrooms, it’s no wonder that teachers struggle so much with stress and burnout. Many coaches teach debate with almost no real financial return, forced to give up valuable weekends that could be used for grading, relaxing, or spending time with family and friends to escort a bunch of rowdy high schoolers to a tournament in exchange for a pithy stipend. The reason that debate coaches stick around? Because they care about their students.
As a student, it’s often hard to appreciate the impact a coach can make in your life in the moment (the Humans of New York posted a story on May 9th about the incredible story of a single debate coach who made a transformative difference in someone’s life), but especially at the last and largest tournament of the season, please go out of your way to both express gratitude for your coach and to make their job a little easier. Something as simple as offering to carry their bag or buying them a coffee during the trip can go a long way.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to thank their coach on stage during the thank you speech that precedes a final debate round, but that shouldn’t stop you from thanking your coach anyways. Thank and appreciate them for all they’ve done even when no one is looking. Your attendance at NSDA Nationals is a privilege, not a right, and it’s only made possible by the selfless sacrifice of your debate coach.
8. Have fun!
Bennett Eckert, the 2016 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate, remarked in an interview a few years ago, “Winning is great, but it’s important to enjoy Nationals while you’re there. Don’t think of it as some stressful, intense last tournament (especially if you’re a senior). Think of it as a last hurrah to celebrate the end of your career or year.” I couldn't agree more.
Nationals isn’t fun when it’s treated as a stress fest. My junior year, I spent the time off in-between rounds simply stressed out and worrying about how I would fare in the next round. By the time I was eliminated in the quarterfinals, I couldn’t have been more relieved. I finally started eating again, talking to people again, and enjoying debate again. I was thrilled to remove some of my dress clothes and simply observe the semifinals as a spectator.
My senior year went far better. I was less stressed, partially due to the fact I had already placed well the year prior and partially due to the fact that I had prepared more efficiently for Nationals that year, and consequently, my experience at Nationals was far better. I actually hung out with the other Oklahoma debate people, met some new debate people along the way, and ate a decent bit of Kansas City barbeque. Not only did I have a more competitively successful tournament, but I also enjoyed it far more.
I guarantee you that no one is really going to care how well you did at NSDA Nationals within a few years. Even winning the tournament isn’t that big of a deal (I can confidently say that the vast majority of people I meet in debate nowadays have zero clue of my high school debate record). What you will remember is the experience of Nationals and the connections made along the way. I have almost no recollection of debating in finals, but I do recall the good memories from each NSDA Nationals I attended.
Please, go out of your way to talk to fellow competitors, to meet new people, and to enjoy the event itself. NSDA Nationals can be overwhelming. There are so many people from all across the country. Apart from a few elitists who can be justly shunned, most people there are nice, friendly, and want to connect with fellow forensics competitors too!
NSDA Nationals is a one-of-a-kind event in its sheer scope and size. It can be a bit intimidating when you first attend, but if you try your best and have fun, it’ll be an incredible experience that you can be proud of for years to come. Hopefully, these 8 tips helped you and good luck to those competing in Louisville this summer!