The National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) has gotten quite the bad rap from the homeschool community (and some of it is certainly legitimate), but it’s not as bad as many make it out to be. In fact, there are many great educational opportunities you can gain from competing in the NSDA that aren’t available in homeschool-specific leagues such as NCFCA or Stoa.

The NSDA (or formerly the NFL, for National Football Forensic League) is the oldest and largest high school speech and debate organization and honor society in the world, spanning thousands of public and private schools nationwide. Sponsoring five debate categories (Policy, LD, Public Forum, Congressional, World Schools), eight speech categories (Informative Speaking, Program Oral Interpretation, Dramatic, Duo, and Humorous Interpretations, Original Oratory, International Extemporaneous, and United States Extemporaneous), and several other non-national category events which also serve as consolation or supplemental events at Nationals (Storytelling, Impromptu, Poetry, Prose Reading, Extemporaneous Debate), the NSDA hosts the largest academic competition in the world—NSDA Nationals—with upwards of 4,000 students participating annually.

As a four-year competitor in the NSDA, I’d like to inform you about the league, highlight what I feel are its high and low points, and encourage those who’d like to compete in another league that doing so will greatly benefit their public speaking and prepare them for the “real-world.”

About the NSDA: Stylistic Differences

As in Stoa or NCFCA, there are many stylistic and argumentative differences within different regions of the league. The same is true (and in much greater proportion) in the NSDA. If you are interested in competing in the NSDA for a few tournaments, which I strongly recommend, I advise you observe a few rounds at a local tournament, to see what type of region your area is, so you can have a better idea of what events would be most fruitful for you to participate in. It may also give you a great love for the fact that you have community judges and such a strong focus on communication (even over the flow) in your own leagues.

Type 1: Traditional Circuits

Traditional regions (such as the one I competed in in Hawaii) are stylistically similar to Stoa and NCFCA. Pace is conversational, a higher emphasis is placed on persuasive speaking and the three pillars of rhetoric. Policy debates focus on the topic and may be argued from stock issue or policymaker lenses. Lincoln-Douglas debates, though with Policy-type resolutions, are debated within a values context and are generally devoid of policy arguments such as plans, counterplans, and absurd theory arguments. Judges in these regions tend to be parents, community judges, alumni, and coaches.

LD at NSDA Nationals tends to fall under this category. If you find that your local tournaments are “traditional”, I wholeheartedly encourage you to try a few tournaments in Policy or LD. It will be different (meaning you learn new skills), but the end goal is still the same, to improve your speaking to develop as a person and to winsomely persuade for truth.

Type 2: Progressive Circuits

Progressive circuits, on the other hand, are very different than what you are used to debating in Stoa or NCFCA. Resulting from debate coaches and judges who commit to as little intervention as possible in the round, such regions include spreading (jargon for speed reading) at 350+ words per minute to cram as much evidence into a single speech, performative affirmatives which play music, rap, or talk about a different subject as a better use of the “debate space”, nuclear winter and extinction impacts on both sides, jargon-heavy debates, etc. LD is “one-person policy”, with plans, theory, counterplans, topicality, kritiks, and other arguments run while spreading.

Policy at NSDA Nationals tends to fall under this category (but the final round competitors do not as asked by league officials so as to make the debate accessible to the people in the audience). As a debater who competed in a traditional district, then went to the National Tournament, I can tell you that debating in progressive circuits is not fun nor educational in developing skills you can use outside of the debate space. If you are in one of these districts, I would discourage competing in Policy or LD. (NOTE: Some traditional regions of LD may be progressive in Policy, and vice-versa. So it’s best to check out both types of debate as they may be very different.)

By now you may be thinking, “I’m in a progressive district. What good will debating in this environment do for me?”

What should I do if my state or region is heavily progressive?

Well, the Board of Directors of the NSDA realized this was a problem, so in the early 2000s, a new category was created: Public Forum (PF) Debate. In both traditional and progressive leagues for LD and Policy, Public Forum Debate is conversationally paced, focused on persuasion using three pillars of rhetoric, and usually judged by community members, parents, coaches, and alumni who seek to differentiate PF from what Policy and even LD has become in many regions. With new topics every month pulled from the headlines (see below), short 4-minute constructives, 2-minute summaries/final focuses, 3-minute two-way crossfires, and a grand crossfire between all debaters, PF is a fast-paced, unique style of debating you cannot find in a homeschool league that has great educational value and appeal to speechies and debaters alike.

“On balance, a one-day national primary would be more beneficial for the United States than its current primary process.”

“The United States should lift its embargo against Cuba.”

“On balance, economic sanctions are reducing the threat Russia poses to Western interests”

Public Forum Debate requires debaters be skilled in rhetoric, arguing specifics, as well as identifying the crux of the debate. If you argue too wide of a position in the 2-minute final focus, you risk losing all your arguments.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Well, I can get the same type of debate in traditional NSDA leagues as I can in Stoa or NCFCA, and there’s this one other debate category. Why should I bother with trying to enter this new league?”

So why should I compete in the NSDA?

There are three main reasons why I believe any homeschool debater should compete in the NSDA.

  • Access to More Tournaments

The more you practice at something, the better you will become. With nearly every public and private school in America participating in the NSDA, there are usually tournaments that are just a couple miles from your home! Some areas even have tournaments nearly every weekend.

  • Debating in Front of a Different Audience

The great majority of your fellow competitors and judges in Stoa and NCFCA are Christian and conservative. While this provides a tremendous opportunity to grow in your faith and communicate with other believers, it’s important to also convince those who hold beliefs different than your own. With competitors and judges of vastly different religions, lifestyles, and political viewpoints, debating in the NSDA is a great way to persuade a great range of individuals.

  • Improving Efficiency and Line-by-Line

Some judges (in the great minority) do not flow, in traditional districts. However, many judges in even traditional regions adjudicate via the flow. While both appreciate boiling down to the crux of the debate and looking at the big picture, the best debaters in the NSDA are incredibly efficient and skilled at the line-by-line. Debating the NSDA will help you to improve your line-by-line debating and word economy. A greater focus on the line-by-line will help you to better develop these skills, as well as how to balance the big picture and specifics as you move to persuade.

  • Public Forum Debate

You can’t get this form of debate in a homeschool league, and it gives you so many unique learning opportunities: researching quickly, writing cases every month, condensing to the crux, winning the line-by-line through efficient word economy, and short speeches. Cross-examination is different because of the back-and-forth questioning, and overall, it’s a fun new experience.

  • Defending Your Beliefs

Drew here. Josh said I could hijack his post and throw this little note in. 😛 I competed in a couple of NSDA tournaments last year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. One of the reasons is that I actually had to defend my ideologies. In NCFCA and Stoa, it’s often far too easy to just rest on the fact that most of your judges have conservative beliefs and just know that they’ll vote for you as long as the words “free-market” “de-regulate” and “natural rights” are in your speeches. In Stoa, I watched a team in semis run a harm of “Socialist Sugar Policy.” In NSDA, I debate someone who advocated creating a socialist housing market. IN FINALS! These viewpoints would almost lose just by being brought up in Stoa and NCFCA. However, in NSDA, you don’t just get to win because you quote Ronald Reagan. I was forced to go to the routes of my beliefs and understood why I believed them to be true in order to win debate rounds. This was the most helpful experience in the NSDA for me, defending my beliefs.

Back to your regular programming. 🙂

At the end of the day, you may prefer debating in your homeschool league, be it NCFCA or Stoa. However, take a chance, and try out a few NSDA tournaments in PF or another category.

I’ve gained so much these past four years taking advantage of different categories and opportunities given by the NSDA. Take hold of these as well—you’ll be glad you did.


Joshua Hu is an intern at Ethos. In the fall he will enter the University of Hawaii at Mānoa as a freshman, studying Accounting and Political Science, with the intent of pursuing a law degree and working in law, business, and/or policy. He debated for four years in a traditional district of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA), in both Policy and Lincoln-Douglas formats, qualifying to NSDA Nationals his sophomore and senior years. Some of his hobbies include hiking, fishing, cooking, and playing basketball.

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