Behind the Scenes of a Debate Tournament

By: Priten Shah >>>Check out other posts by Priten.


Throughout the year, competitive debaters attend on average 7-8 tournaments, some attending as many as 15-20. They are likely to help host zero to one. This creates a substantial gap in knowledge of the time and effort that goes into allowing the debate community to thrive. As a student, seeing the “other side” of things is vital to appreciation of the concerted effort that goes into making each debate tournament possible.

At every tournament, debaters point out the gaps in hospitality (“I wish they had more Diet Coke.”), in tournament procedure (“Why aren’t the ballots posted yet?”), or even location (“This place is a ghost town.”). Complaining is fine, but doing so without appreciating the effort tournament directors and students put in behind the scenes is less fine. The chance to host our own tournament at the end of the season every year gives myself, and my fellow teammates, an excellent opportunity to look back and appreciate the effort of every tournament host.

I helped host my final tournament as a student of Lakeland Central School District a few weeks ago, and it was quite the adventure. Tournament preparation began months before anyone had even begun to prepare for our Westchester Classic. The first step is getting our online presence set up (Joy of Tournaments) and letting our administration and janitorial staff know what is in store for that weekend. This includes deciding the rate to charge, the entries to cap, and the events to hold. As we get a more concrete idea of how many participants will be attending, we begin to plan housing, food, and the number of judges we will be hiring. Of course, none of this is final, even as the participants start flooding the school building.

Housing is probably the simplest sounding, yet most complicated process when running a debate tournament. A major hurdle is getting enough families ready to house strangers in their homes. We have to look beyond debate families, requiring us to comfort people that these random high school students are not going to ruin their homes. We are very lucky here, because our local community is extremely supportive of our efforts and we end up having enough slots every year. The next step for housing is getting names/genders from coaches. Most debate coaches have busy lifestyles and these things change all the way up to the last minute, and so accuracy is but a myth. The second most difficult thing is getting the two groups of people paired up (by gender, allergies, number of students each family can take, and number of nights a student is staying). The final showdown occurs the night of the tournament when we have to physically pair the strangers together. It involves a lot of yelling, running, and confusion. Add in there the mix of last minute demands, missing people, and people all wanting to go home, and it’s deadly in there.

When you have a large group of teenagers coming, food is of utmost importance to their experience. Most tournaments are low-budget and therefore require great patience when looking for a place to cater food from. The amount of food per person, cost per person, delivery cost, timing, and date by which we must confirm all play a large role in the decision to choose a cater. This year a Subway and a Chinese place, Emperor’s Choice, accommodated us and helped make running the tournament a little bit easier. Serving the food, dealing with allergies, and cleaning up are hassles that are common.

Coordinating the efforts of ~40 students, many of whom are new to hosting, provides it own challenges. Our debaters judge, handled ballot running, ballot scanning, food set-up, helped clean, and tried to be as accessible to our guests as possible. Here is an excerpt of an email sent out to help eliminate some hassle:

  • You are required to attend the tournament.
  • It does not count as community service. House students if you need hours.
  • The tournament starts Friday at 2pm at Lakeland High School. Panas students will have a bus to take from there to Lakeland as soon as school ends. (Meet Tanay near East Bus Entrance as soon as the bell rings.)
  • You must wear your debate shirts (which will be given out during the tournament) or a black t-shirt if you decided not to purchase one.
  • I will have a sign in and out sheet. You must sign in when you come in on Friday/Saturday morning and check with me before leaving both nights, as well, in order to get full credit for the tournament.
  • Do not enter the judge lounge, unless you are helping.
  • EVEN those of you judging, may not eat/drink/hang-out in judges’ lounge.
  • If you are not doing anything, you may sit quietly in the back of the tabroom.
  • Below are job descriptions/assignments.
  • No changes will made as per a DEBATER’S request.
  • Everyone is on stand-by judge duty.
  • You are not allowed to go on the roof, leave the campus except for food, play in the gym, go in the woods or whatever other silly thing you were thinking of doing.
  • Bring something to do in downtime.

When the tournament finally comes around, it is a relief that it gets started and that it’s almost over. The morning of the tournament is full of drops and changes that require changes to our housing assignments and the changes need to be made into the system. Once you have everyone registered, you can get the first pairing out, however, the first set of pairings is never perfect. Between drops that were not reported, teams that forgot to show up, judges that are missing, and rooms that turn out to be locked, the round mandates that a lot of decisions be made on the fly. Throughout the tournament, a masterful tabroom staff handles change after change, glitch after glitch, and mistake after mistake to ensure competitors get the best experience possible.

There is much that I have omitted for the sake of brevity. However, much gratitude is to due to the following individuals for helping make our 37th Westchester Classic Tournament educational for competitors:

  • Alumni
    • James Wilson (tabroom)
    • Jack Chong (judge)
    • Jaime Burns (judge)
    • Theo Maulen (judge)
    • Emily Krantz (judge)
    • Ben Faber (judge)
  • Guest Appearances
    • David Glass
    • Gregory Varley
  • Team Moms
    • Mrs. Burke (hospitality)
    • Mrs. Thornquist (hospitality)
    • Mrs. Black (hospitality)
    • Mrs. Allen (hospitality)
  • Other Amazing People
    • Karen (hospitality)
    • Nick (hospitality)
    • Brian Manuel (tabroom)
    • Sheryl Kaczmarek (tabroom)
    • Bruce Miller (ballot desk)
    • Our administration and teachers for their support
    • Mr. Schwartz and Orchestra Members (Breakfast Saturday Morning)
    • Jeff and the custodial staff
Next time you are at a tournament, throw out an extra thank you and one less complaint, it will make the community a better place to be!


1e9113eAuthor Bio: Priten debated four years for the Lakeland District Debate Team. He was admitted early action to Harvard University’s Class of 2017, but will be deferring admission for a year. He is the CEO of Pain, Passion, and Pursuit Inc., a college admissions consulting company. He is the President of the Teach to Learn Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that aims to increase educational opportunities for the underprivileged. Check out his personal blog or LinkedIn profile.