Competing at Top Levels as a Small-School Debater - What’s being Invested?

Lucas Clarke | Jul 27, 2021
11 min read

The first part of this series, Perspective, was about how to approach national circuit debate with a competitive, fierce mindset. Unfortunately, passion is not the only thing that takes people to the top. There are immense obstacles to approaching national circuit debate that even the most dedicated debaters struggle with. Being independent, having other obligations, or struggling with the financial and mental toll of debate are all very real obstacles that all debaters will be facing, and it helps to have support networks to lean on when the going gets tough. This article is going to give some general tips on what resources you can generate when you’re a small-school debater. I use the term invested because I think it’s a good analogy to consider the support networks you’re tapping into as parties that are investing in you and your success. With that in mind, you go into the conversations with the mindset that you must prove that you deserve the support, rather than presuming that support comes at a whim.

First and foremost: National circuit debate’s upsides are rarely immediately apparent to those not involved in the debate world. Your parents may not understand why you want to fly to California to sit in hallways and yell at 500 words per minute. Your debate coach might not understand why you want to sign up for a tournament to get some bid when you can just debate novices near home. This is going to be something you will have to deal with and prepare yourself for, and you shouldn’t harbor any resentment that your message isn’t loud and clear from the second you start your pitch. You want to be part of a persuasive activity, so you need to be ready to use those skills from the get go. There’s a good chance you’re going to have to persuade your way into some support, so buckle up for some resistance and hone your message.

That leads me to the second point. Be prepared to explain why you believe that debate is something you should be pursuing.Nobody likes hearing a pitch that hasn’t been thought out or well prepared. Recall the perspective article. Why are you doing this? What value is it going to bring to you and those around you? You need to be able to go further than “But mom, I think this is super cool and I get to read kooky articles about Marxism and tree roots and intersectionality!” Think about the benefits for college, the benefits of being part of an extracurricular, the benefits of critical thinking. Craft those benefits into a good pitch, and make sure you’re ready to give it to a variety of authority figures in your life. Most likely, those you're pitching will be very impressed at the lengths you're going to and the skills you're demonstrating.

So who do you talk to? There’s a lot of people in your life that can be a support network, some a little more difficult to approach than others, but all valuable to take a shot at.


Family is, obviously, first and foremost for support in debate. Financially, emotionally, and structurally your family will be involved. My mom had to drive more miles, fly more flights, and chaperone more events than any person ever should so I could go lose debates. That’s a level of dedication that, especially for small-school debaters, is priceless. You need to be able to count on the support of your family to make sure that you can take full advantage of this activity. I have had students in the past who struggled with this first element of their support network, which is unfortunate because it is frankly crucial to playing the game. One piece of advice that can help persuade parents is enlisting the help of a trusted lab leader or figure in your local debate community that has authority. Someone with experience, ethos, and good persuasive skills can go a long way in speaking to parents and helping them with any worries or concerns they may have. I always make myself available to my students in this capacity, and I’ve spoken to parents in the past with good results. At the end of the day, without the support of your family, you’re not going to be able to truly dig into national circuit debate. If this is a point of struggle for you, go back to the idea of Perspective, accept your limitations, and get the most from the activity that you can. I also advise again against harboring resentment to your family if things don’t work out. Sometimes, as with everything, viewpoints don’t align, and you should be prepared to take a negative turnout with grace and stoicism.

School Coaches

This is your second line of support in approaching this activity. Most schools have a faculty member in some capacity who operates as administrator for the team who has authority over your debate career. This person is going to be another big part of your success in debate. My coaches in high school were not at the level where they could coach me in national circuit debate. Their specialties were more in logistics and other debate activities. With my family in my corner, I was able to work with my school coach and make it clear that my dream in debate was to be the absolute best, and these coaches did their best to help me from the sidelines. Sometimes this meant signing me up for tournaments they perhaps weren’t supposed to. Sometimes this meant allocating funds for my specific tournaments. Other actions included giving me the free time to work on debate on my own, giving me lots of freedom with grades, and giving me the free reign to make the activity whatever I made of it. This was a special privilege that I received that helped me immensely. There’s a couple of specific things I want to recommend here that you should keep in mind when crafting your pitch:


Last but certainly not least is school administration. You would be shocked at how much flexibility admin can be willing to give you. I was given functionally unlimited absences by my school’s principal under the table. For some reason, my absences just never stuck, and my rare tardy never panned out into trouble. This is obviously a privilege, and I don’t think one that should necessarily be expected, but it’s worth mentioning as an idea of what weird things are possible if the admin cares about you beyond just seeing you as another face in the crowd. I would recommend approaching your principal with parent(s) in tow after approaching your school coach. This can go one of two ways in my opinion.


In the hopes of making a broader insight on your pitch strategy (and to add a fun cultural fact to the article), this makes me think of the concept of “Dar um jeito” in Brazil, from where I wrote a good bit of this article. In the states, we have this idea of the rules being rigid, stable, and immobile. In Brazil, there’s always some wiggle room, and someone is always able to make something happen if you ask nicely. I advise you to go into this meeting with the mindset of asking for a "jeitinho;" the idea that there is flexibility may magically create some flexibility. Keep the same thoughts in mind that you had when crafting your pitch for your school coach, and see what comes out of what is in essence icing on your little debate cake. Worst thing that happens is the admin says no!

There’s a couple of other places I think should be considered when crafting your support network for debate. Friends of yours should get an idea of the stresses and challenges you’re going through. They should be supportive of you and you should be prepared to ask them for support. Explaining Kant to your friend will help you a lot in debate rounds, so don’t be afraid to tap them even for substantive stuff. Your private coach (which I think is another absolute must for most) should have an idea of what you want from debate and should get the message that you want them to push you to your limits and beyond. You should consider setting up meetings with mental health consultation of some form; my time with therapy in my sophomore year was so incredibly valuable, and I always, always recommend the mental coaching that consultation provides. If you have pets, you can talk to them too. My dogs heard plenty of 1ars and they were always happy to be an audience. My point here beyond just being silly is that you should think hard about who can help you from debate, and you should try to approach them and see how much they’re willing to give. You never know unless you ask, and debate is one thing where having a lot of support is a must.

This article on investment hopefully gives you an idea of how you can make your passion for debate more realistic. There’s a lot of room for things to go wrong here, and that’s just something you need to be ready to accept and adapt to. Ultimately, you’re batting against the odds a tad, and life rarely goes as we dream, so keep yourself grounded and prepared for some tough breaks when it comes to getting the most out of possible support figures. Next article, I’ll focus on what it’s like to compete solo and how to keep from losing your marbles when you’re on your own against the big names of our corner of the world.

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

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