Shortening Tournament Days: Simple Steps For Debaters And Judges

There is an ongoing discussion occurring in the college debate community about the length of tournaments and the need to balance competitive opportunities with a humane schedule. Many of the major college tournaments have moved to seven or even six rounds of preliminary competition in order to accommodate the substantially longer length of current debate rounds without forcing students and coaches/judges to endure a marathon schedule.

While this issue is not nearly as salient at the high school level, both debaters and judges could do substantially more to make the average day at a debate tournament more livable.


Everyone wants adequate time to prepare for their debates. Everyone wants some down time to hang out with friends, get some food, or just relax for a few minutes. These expectations are entirely reasonable.

Unfortunately, these expectations often become excuses for debaters to unnecessarily delay a tournament in a number of avoidable ways. No one wants to feel rushed at a debate tournament, but a bit more diligence on the part of debaters can ensure that everyone gets done in time to have a real dinner and get to sleep at a reasonable hour.

Some tournaments obviously require more grueling schedules than others; the Marquette Hilltopper Classic, for example, will inevitably run very late on Friday night because we attempt to squeeze in three rounds. But regardless of the tournament’s schedule, taking a few minor steps to make things run a little more smoothly will translate into more livable days.

The following are a few of the things that debaters can do to make debate tournaments run more efficiently.

  1. Pack up completely after each of your debates. In far too many rounds, the 2AR finishes and while the judge begins deliberating, the debaters leave to talk to their friends or just sit there moving papers around. Yes, the judge might need to read some evidence. But the judge will certainly not need to read evidence from the disadvantage you kicked in the block or from the impact defense file you pulled out but didn’t read any cards from. After the judge delivers their decision, finish packing up immediately and stack your tubs so that they are ready to move. Leaving a stack of disorganized files and flows while you saunter off to the cafeteria to chill with your friends just means that you will need to spend five minutes finishing the last round’s clean-up when the next pairing comes out.

  2. Keep yourself more organized during debates. This will dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes for you to pack up after a debate. More importantly, it will improve your debating — keeping your area organized and free of clutter and distractions will make it easier for you to find what you need when you need it. And by cutting down on the amount of uncounted preparation time spent looking for lost evidence, improvements in organization will also reduce the actual length of each round by a few minutes. (By the way, if you’re one of the many debaters that has decided it is a good idea to throw cards/blocks on the floor after you have read them, you deserve to be ridiculed mercilessly and probably tasered.)

  3. Have a system in place for when pairings are released. Tubs need to be moved, scouting needs to be completed, strategies need to be discussed, and files need to be pulled and highlighted. If you need to move your tubs, do so immediately. If you are affirmative, be prepared to hand the opposing team your plan text and answer their questions about your case as soon as possible — don’t delay disclosure in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Do not scout previous rounds until you have disclosed: you can do that after you have provided the negative with the information they need to begin their preparation. If you are negative, go immediately to your room and begin preparing—you should have some idea of what the affirmative will be running or at least some idea of what generic strategy you might deploy.

  4. Minimize the need for pre-round preparation by maximizing pre-tournament preparation. There is only so much you can do before the start of a debate: effectively constructing a strategy from scratch is probably not a reasonable expectation. Instead of spending the first five minutes scratching your head and brainstorming a strategy after finding out what case you are debating, decide before the tournament what your strategy will be against each major case as well as against cases for which you did not develop a specific strategy. Once you decide on a basic strategy, spend the rest of your preparation time pulling the necessary files, talking about argument interactions and strategic choices with your partner and/or coach, and writing out specific overviews or explanations that apply your strategy to the specific case you are debating. A well-prepared negative team does not need much time to construct their 1NC and plan their strategy. An unprepared negative team, on the other hand, can never have enough time.

  5. Take advantage of scarce coaching time. Do not expect your coach to spend twenty minutes constructing a strategy and walking you through the debate. Too much coaching time is spent inefficiently: instead of discussing the upcoming debate, the preferences of the judge, and the tendencies of the other team, debaters bombard their coaches with questions about what to say, where a file is, whether the other team is good, and whether they are at the top or the bottom of the bracket. Eliminate these distractions by preparing before the tournament and ensuring that you have all of the files that you need. For most debates, a five-minute conversation with your coach is more than sufficient to prepare you for the round. If you feel that you need more time with your coach, chances are good that you were not adequately prepared before you arrived at the tournament and nothing that occurs before the round will be able to make up for that deficit.

  6. Follow the tournament schedule as best you can. We’ve all been at tournaments—or run tournaments, for that matter—that publish schematics with unrealistic start times. When a tournament director yells “round four pairings are released — debate starts in 5 minutes!” in a crowded cafeteria, it is only reasonable for debaters and coaches to smirk and abandon any pretense of respecting the published start time. But for the most part, tournaments provide teams with at least 15 minutes to prepare for each debate. And while 30 minutes or an hour might be nice, there is no reason that a well-prepared team cannot survive (and indeed thrive) with this more modest allocation of prep time. Five minutes before the round is scheduled to begin, you should be in your room and ready to debate. Do not disappear in a transparent attempt to extend your prep time—if you do this, so will everyone else. Most importantly, doing so shows disrespect for the tournament and for your peers.

  7. Diagnose your problems and correct them. Despite your best efforts, sometimes you will just be slow when packing up, moving tubs, or getting ready for a debate. When that occurs, don’t shrug your shoulders and give up—figure out what the problem was and correct it in the future. Some teams are always late for their rounds. You do not want to be one of these teams: judges notice and will not be happy.

It doesn’t take much effort on the part of debaters to cut ten or fifteen minutes from each round. In a typical day, that can translate into getting out almost an hour earlier in the evening. Whether that extra time is spent at dinner, relaxing in the hotel, cutting cards, or sleeping, it will be much more useful outside the tournament than it would be at the tournament.


Judges are often just as responsible as debaters for long days at tournaments. There are a number of steps that judges can take to reduce the amount of time we spend on an average tournament day.

  1. Pick-up your ballot before you begin coaching. This is one of the biggest pet peeves of most tournament directors and it is easily correctible. While sometimes you will get sidetracked and take a while to grab your ballot, make an honest effort to do so immediately after pairings are released. If you are also serving as a coach, you can do this while students move their tubs and scout so that by the time you arrive at their room they are ready for useful preparation.

  2. Minimize the time it takes to finish pre-round coaching. This can be tricky and relies mostly on the debaters to improve their pre-tournament preparation. Especially if you have several teams to coach, make sure that you prioritize the teams that need a little more help and that you don’t waste precious time on “coaching” that doesn’t require your presence—lost files, scouting, etc. If the debaters can do it themselves, coaches should allow them to do so. Time spent with students should be focused on adding value to their preparation: discussions about advanced strategy/tactics, the judge’s preferences, the opposing team’s tendencies, and keys to concentrate on are much more helpful (and can be done much more quickly) than discussions about basic strategies that could have been done at home.

  3. Adhere to posted start times. This is a tough one for many of us, especially when time is short and there are many teams competing for your attention. However, the net result of our unwillingness to begin rounds on time is that we all end up suffering through grueling days that make us ornery and lead to burn out. That extra five minute spent coaching your team is not worth the overall harm to the livability of tournaments. It is reasonable that sometimes you might need a few more minutes before a big round and most people will understand if the circumstances warrant it. But coaches that make a habit of coaching their teams well past the scheduled start time are doing the entire community a disservice.

  4. Begin rounds punctually and enforce reasonable prep time limits. Too many judges allow coaches to work with their students well past the posted start time for a round and are unwilling to tell debaters that a round needs to start. Once rounds finally begin, too many judges allow debaters to suspend their preparation time on demand—it has become the norm for some judges that prep time does not need to be used when looking for evidence, organizing flows, figuring out the order for a speech, starting/rebooting a computer, going to the bathroom, getting water, etc. Some of this “uncounted” prep time is reasonable but most of it is egregious. When did looking for evidence, finding your flows, and organizing your speech order stop being considered “preparation”? Judges don’t need to keep a running clock, but they do need to enforce prep time limits.

  5. Minimize the amount of times you leave a round. Judging is a thankless job and everyone is tired and hungry: it is not unreasonable to take a quick trip to the bathroom or judge’s lounge during prep time. But some judges make a habit of leaving at every available opportunity to smoke, grab some food, talk to friends, or just wander the hallways. This is usually not a problem but it can become one when it results in the lengthening of a round. Think about it this way: would you rather spend that extra ten minutes during each round wandering the halls? Or would you prefer to have forty extra minutes at the end of the day? The answer should be obvious.

  6. Make quicker decisions. This is a much more controversial suggestion and one that I will discuss in-depth in a future article. Paul Strait’s recent post at the CEDA forum raises a number of excellent issues regarding the length of decisions. I have been known to take more time than most high school judges but I have been consciously re-evaluating the way that I judge to reduce decision times without sacrificing decision quality. This is a much less prevalent concern than it is at the college level, however—most high school decisions are made relatively quickly and even the most lengthy decisions are finished in well under an hour, not the two-and-a-half hours that has become the upper limit in college.

  7. Turn in your ballot before discussing the debate. This is another tab room director’s pet peeve and it is something that judges can easily remedy. While I admit to violating this norm once-and-a-while (usually when there are no ballot runners and the tab room is a very long way away from the room that I am judging in), I have made a conscious effort this year to ensure that my ballot is in before I deliver my decision and I can honestly say that it hasn’t inconvenienced me at all. If anything, the few minutes that it takes to turn in a ballot gives me a chance to collect my thoughts and therefore provide a better critique to the students. Especially if you are regularly taking longer than most other judges to decide or to deliver your decision, this step can make a big difference—it ensures that you are not delaying the tournament but still enables you to engage in an educationally enriching discussion with the students you have judged.

Judges, like debaters, can make small changes to their routines that will meaningfully reduce the length of the average tournament day. While we are not facing the same kind of “crisis” as is the college community, we could certainly do more to make our tournament schedules more humane. I encourage debaters and judges to honestly assess the ways in which they are contributing to unnecessary delays at tournaments and to take steps to correct these behaviors.

One thought on “Shortening Tournament Days: Simple Steps For Debaters And Judges

  1. Faber

    RE: judges enforcing prep time limits – paperless

    I had never judged a paperless team until last weekend. The team was quite conscientious about giving their evidence to the opposing team before the speech rather than after. They told me, however, that it is atypical for judges to charge them prep time for any part of the save-to-flash-drive–>move-flash-drive–>open-document-from-flash-drive process. I accepted this, figuring that it would be maybe 2 minutes per speech, and 8 minutes per side or 16 minutes per round might be a reasonable sacrifice for the benefits the community gets from going paperless. And then 2 minutes for the 1nc became 4, became 6… To be clear, there was no deception involved here. The team was not prepping under cover of saving the speech, nor intentionally delaying the round, but the technology was being uncooperative, and it was taking a long time to get this done. But still, even if it wasn't anyone's fault, it delayed the round somewhat, and if the problem had persisted throughout the round, it would have been about 20 minutes lost to the neg being paperless.
    Yet, to charge the paperless team prep here makes it much harder to be paperless because technology errors sometimes do happen without being anyone's fault, and if I had charged the neg prep in a 1:1 ratio to the time used to transfer this 1nc, the neg would have been out of prep entirely and about a minute into the 1nc before they got the speech loaded on their viewer computer.
    What should the community norm be about this?

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