Debating without strong team, school, and/or administrative support is often a huge hindrance to success. Furthermore, working to satisfy the requirements of schools administrators, tournament directors, and parents without such support can be extremely difficult. For those organizing their own teams and tournament attendance, I would like to share a few tips from my own experience. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me at shailjasomani[at]

  1. Create a comprehensive calendar for tournament logistics using a spreadsheet.
    1. Include the following information on the spreadsheet:
      1. The date tournament registration opens on Tabroom/Joy of Tournaments and a link to the tournament information so other team members know where to look for any other information needed.
      2. The date registration fees are due. Some tournaments also require that fees are received before admitting students from the waitlist, so ensure your fees are sent as early as possible if this is the case. The tournament invitation should specify its waitlist procedure.
      3. The tournament’s policies regarding independent debaters, e.g. if they require a school chaperone present, a liability waiver, a letter from the school administration, etc.
    2. Choose tournaments to attend based on:
      1. The time commitment, which affects not just hotel costs but also the number of school day absences and thus, how much debate upsets your teachers/administration.
      2. Distance, which affects travel costs and time commitment.
      3. Availability of chaperones and/or judges
      4. Teams attending with which you might share chaperones, hotel rooms, judges, etc.
    3.  Here’s a template of a tentative tournament calendar that I would use to help my team decide which tournaments to go to:
  2.  Tips for attending tournaments independently:
    1. If the tournament allows students to attend independently, you will most likely have to
      1. Get a responsible adult over 18 to chaperone your trip,
      2. Sign a waiver releasing your school district from any liability, and
      3. Sign a waiver releasing the tournament from any liability.
    2.  Possible chaperones include:
      1. Your parent
        1. Your school can consider this a personal event your family is attending to be released from liability
        2. The tournament knows you have a legal guardian present who liability falls upon
      2. Another school’s chaperone
        1. If another school has hired the person, they probably passed a state background check to be hired and thus are trustworthy.
        2. If you can find a chaperone from another school within your school district, that would be ideal as most districts hire employees for all their schools via a similar process and will let them work with multiple schools in the district.
        3. If you cannot find a chaperone within your district, try asking other sports, academic, etc. teams/clubs to see who they often compete with and see if your school has a relationship with any of those schools that would allow you to share a chaperone.
        4. The chaperone will most likely have to sign a form from your school district stating that they will watch over you at the tournament.
    3.  Methods for convincing your school that you ought to be able to attend tournaments, even if just independently, include:
      1. Explaining how doing well at high-level national tournaments brings good publicity to the school district. When students do well at prestigious tournaments, (a) debaters and coaches across the nation regard that school highly and (b) the students’ schools and districts can use tournament results to advertise their academic excellence.
      2. Explaining that you will sign any waiver divorcing them from all liability.
      3. Holding demonstration debates for your school’s community using high-level arguments, but at conversational speed, so parents, teachers, and administrators can see how intellectually stimulating debate is.
      4. Trying not to ask for extensions on homework assigned while you’re traveling. Be on top of making up missed work with teachers.
      5. Speaking to teachers at your school in fields such as history, literature, etc. about debate-related topics they can speak to, such as politics, constitutional rights, the history of certain rights in our nation, etc to debate to further demonstrate how intellectually stimulating debate is and increase adult support on your campus.
  3.    Tips for registering for tournaments:
    1. Register on the earliest day possible so you can plan the tournament without any waitlist complications and, if any other complications do arise, you may still have time to drop from the tournament without penalty.
    2. However, be careful to not register more people than actually end up attending the tournament. Dropping entries upsets tournament directors because it makes planning difficult and, as an independent entry without much support, you don’t want to upset more adults in the activity.
    3. In that vein, if you are registering for your whole team, make sure the parents/guardians of each student are aware their student is registering for the tournament to avoid unnecessary drops.
    4. Make sure you send your entry fees as soon as possible to ensure you won’t incur penalties such as extra fees or being moved to the waitlist.
    5. Ensure you turn in all related paperwork, such as waivers, if applicable.
    6. Here’s a template of a tournament calendar I used to keep track of tournaments I was registering my team for:
    7. Here’s a template of a spreadsheet I used to keep track of entry fees for tournaments I was registering my team for (be sure to look at the multiple sheets):
      1. The way this spreadsheet worked was that we’d make out entry fees’ checks from our team account (which was removed from our school administration and had money because of fundraisers students ran and donations from team parents), send those checks in to the tournament and record them on the first sheet of the spreadsheet. Then, we’d have a separate sheet for each tournament and used each sheet to track checks the team received from individual students who attended each tournament. We’d keep track of how much money we’d collected back from students for each tournament and the remaining balance on the main sheet. There were obviously severe consequences for students who failed to turn in individual checks, the first being that they were immediately dropped from the tournament.
  4. Tips for doing tournament bookings:
    1. Book as early as possible to avoid high flight prices. Flight prices normally jump 21 days before the date you are set to fly. I recommend using Google Flights because it’s a great way to compare airlines and search according to specific flight preferences you may have.
    2. Consider using rewards accounts for hotels and flights to see if there are any potential deals you could take advantage of.
    3. Attempt to find another team to share judges or chaperones with so you can split their travel costs.
    4. Take red-eye/overnight flights to save on flight and hotel costs and potentially miss fewer school days.
    5. Share rooms with other teams, or even offer to sleep on the floor and still split costs to save money.
    6. Here’s a template of a document I used to organize a variety of tournament details discussed in this section and those above:
  5. Tips for finding coaches for drills and prep:
    1. Talk to all your friends about students who have just graduated from their schools and would be willing to coach. Ask your friends how they were as captains to gauge what type of coach they may be. Also, if you went to camp, ask your lab leaders if they can coach or know anybody who may be able to.
    2. Explain your situation and they may be sympathetic and decrease their normal rate or help you out a bit more. It may not work, but some people are very kind, so it’s worth a try.
    3. Write and sign a contract with them for a few reasons:
      1. It clearly outlines your expectations for each other in terms of time commitment, prep, on-site coaching at tournaments, and anything else applicable.
      2. It allows you to have financial details in writing if any issues arise.
      3. It ensures that this person will coach you, even if offered a better offer from another school.
  6.   Tips for decreasing financial burdens:
    1. Reach out to organizations like Access Debate that aim to assist debaters with financial hardships. Even if they can’t help you financially, they may offer some other form of support, like administrative advice.
    2. Apply for fee waivers at tournaments and camp scholarships.
    3. Share rooms, coaches, judges, etc. to split costs between students. Take red-eye flights and offer to split to cost of a room with a team even if it means crashing on the floor in a sleeping bag.
    4. Explain the benefits of debate to your school (see section 2C above) and ask them if you may fundraise in a manner your school permits, so your fundraiser gains legitimacy and can be advertised through appropriate school channels.
  7.  Tips for building a team:
    1. When looking for students to join your team, go out in your school communities and talk to people about relevant personal interests, whether they’re philosophy, politics, arguing, traveling, or something else. Try to find a way to connect their personal interests to debate and suggest they come to practices for a week or two to check out the activity.
    2. In my opinion, recruiting novices is difficult, but retaining them and making sure they stay in the activity and eventually make the transition to varsity is much harder. When you’re staring out a team and working with novices, make sure to provide some one-on-one time or attention to each dedicated novice to ensure that they stay in the activity.
      1. They will feel like somebody is in their corner and they have somebody to help them grow.
      2. Especially for women, underrepresented minorities, etc, it’s easy for novices to feel like they’re removed from the community, so it helps to have a captain/mentor in their corner.
      3. It may seem like a large time commitment, but becomes mutually beneficial when they become good debaters and help you prep/drill as a team as well as mentoring just being a good thing to do!
    3.  Mentor your novices closely and debrief rounds with them quickly between rounds and in detail after tournaments so they can grow as debaters and feel like they have somebody who cares about them and can answer questions.
    4. Be willing to compromise on tournament attendance, practice times, prep assignments, and more. Starting a team requires leaving a lot of room to accommodate everyone.
  8. Tips for building connections in the debate community:
    1. Just talk to people! It’s very intimidating at first, but just compliment a position your opponent wrote or a speech they gave. It’s a good first step and opens the door to a conversation.
    2. Be kind to everybody you meet and don’t judge people based on their records/success. This is applicable to everybody, but just wanted to include it here as well!
    3. Reach out to other independent debaters in similar situations. You may be able to share prep, especially if you’re going to mostly different tournaments on the same topic, drill together over video chat, talk about strategies together, share flows, and more. These relationships are always mutually beneficial!
    4. Always be willing to take the first step and initiate contact or offer somebody some prep first if they seem open to the idea of sharing prep. This generally goes over better than asking for something first.
  9.  Closing Remarks
    1. Debating without institutional support often seems overwhelming and it’s easy to consider quitting in the face of obstacles. But I encourage all of you to keep debating because it’s definitely possible for you!
    2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and/or reach out to older debaters or other people in the community. I personally am always open to answer any questions or try to help out in any way I can!
    3. Good luck and feel free to contact me via Facebook or at shailjasomani[at] with any questions/comments.



Shailja Somani | Webmaster, Editor

Shailja currently attends Johns Hopkins University and coaches LD, Policy, and Congress at Loyola Blakefield in Maryland. She was the president of speech and debate when she competed for Lynbrook High School, clearing at tournaments such as Loyola and Golden Desert. Shailja has taught many speech and debate events at Lynbrook and also ran Lynbrook’s Speech and Debate Camp for middle schoolers. Having to coordinate and attend many tournaments independently with her Lynbrook teammates caused her to develop a passion for helping out and working with independent and lone wolf debaters.

Shailja Somani