We were surprised as anybody by NCFCA’s recent announcement of abolishing outrounds for its qualifiers, and moving to an 8-prelim structure. Having run tournaments in five leagues and coached in 11, I can say with some authority that this seems pretty unique.
NCFCA has said it is still accepting input. Here is some food for thought should you provide any.
There are a few benefits, mostly administrative.
Pro 1: 12% Fewer Judges Needed
Here’s the math that shows a likely 12% reduction in the amount of total debate judges required. Given how homeschool debate has largely become a parent-judged event, we are sure this eases some burdens on administration.
Download: NCFCA Outrounds Calculation.xlxs
Counterplan: there are several other ways to need fewer judges or improve the experience that judges have and get them coming back. These would require some surveying and deep changes culturally, though.
Pro 2: Keep On Debating
You pay good money to go to tournaments. It can be sort of lame to not debate the entire third day of a debate tournament. This helps some debaters at certain times in their debate careers, and harms you in other ways. The change most benefits the following debater types:
- Experimenters – there is little consequence for trying all kinds of new things, so go ahead and try those mini-cases
- Looking for Experience – if you came to the tournament to get a chance to do more rounds, then this is for you. Reflection and improvement aren’t the big goals for you right now.
Counterplan: Optional tournament continuation for debaters who do not break to outrounds. This is similar to the old pre-qualled/unqualled separate outrounds brackets that got more people debating longer.
Pro 3: Shorter Schedule
I remember when NCFCA first mandated the three-day schedule a few years back. Before that, directors chose their own schedules to fit their facility needs but had to fit the required number of speech and debate rounds. Before that, directors could choose to run speech-only or debate-only tournaments and get the dads more involved and concentrate community judges on Friday afternoon + Saturday tournaments.
The current schedule is exhausting. How much are you really improving when being judged at 11pm at night for Octofinals, by a bunch of people who don’t really want to be there? Not much. 6:30am to midnight is scientifically proven to be BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH, and three days in a row can make debate more of a stamina exercise.
Easing the schedule is the most significant benefit we see. Get some sleep!
Counterplan: 1.5-day debate-only tournaments are the best for concentrating highly qualified judges, getting in a lot of rounds, and staying healthy. Other counterplans include cutting speech events or total prelims 😉
There are some significant cons for debaters most interested in learning/improving.
Con 1: Plastic Audiences
There are few times in life where it’ll be you at a lectern with a single person for your audience. Usually it’s best to turn those into one-on-one conversations sitting down, even if they happen to you at a big event. The one-judge audience is a manufactured necessity to get in more rounds.
The first time a team breaks to outrounds is always a defining moment. Can you change your style to speak to an audience? Can you widen your stance, your gestures, your adaptation to the cues each judge is supplying? This is more like life, and I think you learn twice as much in these outrounds about PRESENTATION as you do in the prelims.
So prelims are good for sorting out arguments, but outrounds are where you find the difference between good and great: general likeability, persuasiveness, and presentation. Every debater should hope for larger audiences.
Things you can do:
- Find community issues that need debating and serve as a voice. For example, my partner and I in college once split up and went against each other for the Fairfax County Police Department HQ to voice both sides of the “should we enforce federal immigration law” debate that was ripping apart their internal culture. This debate in front of around 120 leaders was the kind of thing outrounds prepares you for.
- Organize your own audiences locally, via exhibition debates.
Con 2: No watching others
When you get knocked out, it’s useful to go watch those who went on so that you can practice Classical Rhetoric’s fundamental building block of learning: imitation.
(That parents will now have even fewer opportunities to see their own children debate is not something we’re covering here)
Con 3: Removal of High Stakes
I once coached a CEO who had presented to audiences of 0–100 dozens of times, but had an opportunity to speak to thousands for an hour at a giant conference. This CEO completely cracked under the pressure and had to spend weeks getting psyched into it, and honestly just didn’t do that great.
The “one of us is going home” stakes of outrounds provide a different mentality that is good to learn to deal with, survive, and ultimately yearn for. Most national-class debaters I know think of prelims as perfunctory meh – often not getting speaking awards (THOUGH THEY SHOULD TRY HARDER) – but then completely flip a switch once outrounds begin. That’s the tournament, because NCFCA doesn’t track prior results and starts each and every tournament over from square one (you could have 18 year old prior national champs vs. 13 year old novices at any given Round 1 of a tournament).
Some of the best moments of debating happen in one-time strategies formed for a particular outround against a particular team at a particular time. You can find a few case studies on our advanced-to-national class content ring. Growin’ Debaters need high-stakes opportunities. Your first outround shouldn’t be the one that determines whether or not you go to nationals.
This could theoretically happen:
- Debater does really well at prelims during all qualifiers
- At Regionals does not even break
- Qualifies via at-large
- Goes to nationals
- First LIFETIME outround with an audience greater than 1 is double-octos at nationals
(If at-large is changed, you could still be looking at second lifetime outround at nationals.)
I asked one debater about this, and she said…
Funny story: If this had been implemented when I started I wouldn’t have debated in an outround until my 3rd year.
And I would have lost interest because debating in Prelims doesn’t give you an adrenaline rush. I only continued in debate because my brother and I broke at my first tournament and I loved the feeling and wanted to do better.
While debating a whole lot is good for experience, the lack of debating in front of audiences puts a plastic ceiling on your abilities once you’re ready to become an advanced debater.
How NCFCA Could Make No Outrounds Better
If administrative needs do need to take priority over educational needs, then here is our recommendation to make the best of it: tab the last three or four rounds transparently and differently.
Step 1: Run initial prelims randomized or based on prior results
This is normal and what we expect. Well and good.
Step 2: Stakes Change – Powermatching
Raise the stakes a little and begin powermatching as soon as the numbers justify it. The numbers could justify it as early as round 2, if step 3 is adopted. (For newbies: powermatching matches brackets in debating, so 1–0s debate 1–0s and 0–1s debate 0–1s)
Step 3: Stakes Change – Embedded Outrounds
Keep the entire tournament going, but announce the “upper half” of the tournament. In the past, I’ve done this sometimes using a “hidden bracket,” but in this case debaters should be told they’re debating in this upper bracket. They do not have to know their exact seedings (that they should is a different story for a different time), but it would at least raise the stakes to know “I’m debating in hidden outrounds.”
Let’s say this happened for 3 rounds. Then in Round 6 of the tournament, 1st seed is vs. 8th seed, and so on, like a normal outrounds bracket. The one tab constraint to lift would be priors. If priors meet, they should simply switch sides.
Step 4: Pilot + Survey
A best practice for such sweeping changes (8 prelims, any way its done) is to have a few verifiable business hypotheses about it, then survey the NCFCA attendees against those hypotheses to see if the assumptions really worked. Since NCFCA is making a sweeping change, it should try a couple different pilots and gather feedback.
The no-outrounds change is pretty disappointing for upper level debaters, but may represent NCFCA’s seeming shift towards the younger/getting-started crowd. It may also be facilitated by unknown administrative challenges. Educationally speaking, the change seems more hurtful than helpful, but there are ways to make it work that help mitigate the harm.
Isaiah McPeak is the Head Coach and CEO of Ethos Debate. He has over 10 years experience in speech and debate, coaching 5 national champions and placing top 5 in multiple leagues himself. Outside of the debate world, he’s had years experience as an intelligence analyst, writer, rhetoric teacher, and communications coach. He is also the CEO of the new startup, statUP.com
Isaiah is also author of Upside Down Debate, a 5-star rated book that teaches debate from a life-transference and Classical Rhetoric perspective.