Virtual debate tournaments can’t capture everything

Hannah Nelson is a freshman history major.


The energy of competition. The buzz of everyone prepping. The anticipation between rounds. This is what I look forward to when I participate in competitive debate. But at my first online tournament, I didn’t know what to expect. 

The first tournament of the year for the USF debate team was the Northern California Forensics Association Fall Opener on Sept. 19 and 20, and like many other current events, it was completely virtual. It used a video conferencing platform called 8×8, which is similar to Zoom. Because I had competed on my high school debate team before coming to USF and had fallen in love with its trademark spirit and reactive nature, the lack of connection, energy, and engagement from my opponents in this first tournament was a disappointment.

One of the best parts of debate is the friends we connect with along the way. If we had been traveling to an in-person debate tournament, we would have shared a van ride with debaters from San Francisco State University, where everyone could get to know each other. Even if it’s a three-minute conversation with someone we may have never seen or talked to again (except at another tournament), it’s always powerful and fun to have something in common with someone right in front of you. Now, in a virtual format, it’s impossible to connect this way with a two-dimensional face on a screen, with no before or after side conversations. 

The debate format that USF competes in is National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA)-style parliamentary debate, in which you are paired with a partner. In this particular style, good debate becomes about developing a rapport and strategy with your partner, having good communication, and reading your partner’s facial expressions and body language to learn when to step back. It is thus harder to build this kind of dynamic when only video chatting and texting.

At the online debate tournament two weeks ago, the lack of organic energy in the competition also made it difficult for me to maintain my energy during rounds. It takes a lot of attention to talk for seven to eight minutes straight during our own speeches and to then rapidly take notes on what our opponent says next. In addition, it really helps us sound more convincing and well prepared in our speeches when we have energy and drive to our statements. Having to do all of this while sitting in my bedroom and staring at a computer screen for hours proved to be a challenge. I felt drained by the end of the first day and found myself wondering if I could find energy and enthusiasm for the second day of competition. 

In the novice, or beginner, category in which I participated in, my partner and I competed against other teams that also had little to no prior experience with college debate. One of the most difficult learning curves for a new debater is adapting to the customs specific to the sport, like proper structure to arguments, responses, and new jargon. Trying to do this in a virtual setting made the challenge even more complicated. Members had to occasionally turn off their cameras during a speech due to Internet issues but, by doing so, they risked losing some of the passion that is essential in delivering a persuasive speech. 

Despite the new challenges online debates have presented, the tournament’s judges were enthusiastic to give constructive feedback after each round and the experience, though perhaps less engaging than an in-person one, was ultimately positive. Coming into the tournament, I wielded my previous debate experience to feel prepared, and the feedback I received was helpful and showed me I still had a lot to learn.

Having the opportunity to still be able to compete in a tournament online reveals the resilience of this activity I have come to love. While many of the things I love about debate tournaments were diminished or nonexistent, activities all across the board at USF are facing the same challenges. There are a lot of experiential aspects that don’t translate when translated to Zoom, but the best advice I could give to students missing the thrill of their favorite in-person activities is to just remember what we love about it, try to make a learning experience of it, and hold out for when we can fully experience it again. 


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