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Speech & Debate Team Earns Virtual Victories

The Scarsdale High School Debate Team’s track record of success is continuing, despite a radically different program structure with not just online competitions, but online practices as well. 

“One of the good things that came out of the pandemic is that a lot of the travel costs have been eliminated, so we can go to tournaments we didn’t go to before. Already this year we’ve competed in tournaments in Texas and Illinois,” Senior Curtis Chang said. “We just paid the entrance fee and there was no jet lag.”

Senior Jaden Bharara said the increased accessibility of tournaments has led to a much bigger pool of competitors, and exposed students to more styles, new argument structures, and ultimately has made tournaments more competitive. However, even the larger audience doesn’t replicate the feeling of an in-person tournament, he said. 

“You get much more of the tournament mentality when you’re up early in the morning, it’s dark, it’s cold, you have your tea,  you all jumble into a bus for an hour to go to an unfamiliar school, and you’re around 100 other kids who are nervous and excited too. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re at home. So I guess that there are good and bad. I miss the tension and the excitement,” Bharara said.

At in-person tournaments, awards ceremonies could be painfully long affairs as dozens of competitors are recognized for their achievements. In order to help speed things along, over time the community has developed The Debate Clap, a single, unison clap from the entire audience after each name that is read. 

 “And winning is not as satisfying. Before, at the awards ceremony everyone gets their moment and their Clap,” Bharara said. “We have something like this on zoom, but it’s not the same.”  

Online competition has created other challenges as well. Bandwidth is an issue at nearly every competition, so students have themselves muted and their cameras off when they’re not competing. Judges will often leave their cameras on, but microphones muted. This makes it hard for competitors to ‘read’ their judge- to see the body language when they are persuaded, or hear them chuckle at a joke. 

“Now, you have to prepare a speech that you can perform in front of a camera,” said Sophomore Oral Interpretation competitor  Carly Gell. “The preparation is different. You can’t move around a lot because you need to stay within the frame. You’re not looking around the room and making eye contact with the audience.”

It’s also a challenge in activities requiring a partner, because it’s impossible to pass a note or shoot a look at a partner who is not in the room with you. 

Junior Tom Gibney said he’s noticed the changes have led to improved performances among many of his peers in Humorous Interpretation. 

“You perform where you practice, and you don’t get that energy of walking into a strange room. There’s a freedom,” Gibney said. He also referenced advice from a magician he admires,”The biggest thing to do is to use your limitations to your advantage. It doesn’t restrain anything, it just changes the rules of the game. So when I selected my piece I had to think, how can I make this better on Zoom?”

Speech and debate is an activity that comes with a huge social aspect, as students spend time together in between scheduled rounds, on long bus rides to and from tournaments, and at hotels at tournaments farther away. Virtual tournaments can’t replicate that. 

“Outside of our team community, the social aspect has almost dropped to zero,” Bharara said.

“Tournaments aren’t an experience anymore,” Gibney said. “It’s just  a platform for giving my speech.”

The relative isolation of tournaments now has brought the team closer together. 

“The social aspect of debate definitely took the biggest hit. It used to be In between rounds,you could decompress with your friends,” Chang said. “ Now, you don’t have a lot of outlets.  So what we’ve done is we created a team Discord channel, and we hop on in between rounds and talk, which helps.” 

Senior Zach Siegel said he’s spending more of his time coaching and mentoring younger debaters than he might otherwise. 

“We all work together, and before rounds we hop on a call together, we talk to coaches, we mentor younger debaters before they go into rounds,” Siegel said. “That aspect is nice, and being able to do that means that we can still talk and hang out with each other a little.”

On the other hand, not having to spend time traveling makes tournaments more attractive to students who aren’t as willing or able to give up an entire weekend just to compete in a tournament. Practice has also benefited, especially during practice rounds when upperclassmen mentor younger debaters.

“We don’t have to end practice early because someone needs to catch the bus to go home,” Chang said. “With Zoom we can just practice until we’re done. It makes a big difference to novices and really everybody when we can finish a round and not have to cut it off. “

Despite the changes the activity has undergone, veteran competitors say the core values which drew them to debate are still there. 

“One of the best parts about debate is that when you’re preparing arguments for both sides, it forces you to get your personal bias out of the equation. Because when you’re too attached to one side, that just makes it harder to debate the other side. But it also makes your argument structure better, because when you’re prepared for both sides, you know what the answer to your own argument is, so you need to elevate your argument. You learn how to improve the  quality of arguments such that people can’t just reply with easy responses,” Siegel said. “I’ve been made to learn more about the different judging styles and argument structures in different areas. It’s given me insight and perspective into how the world really works in areas outside of the debate world. And it’s made me more confident, more of an advocate for myself. It helps you better understand the nature of how other people feel.”


“It’s still very competitive, but everyone is patient, people aren’t yelling, they really are working together to make it a success,” Bharara said. “And there’s a lot of trust right now. It’s so easy to cheat, the focus on integrity  is high. And it’s not an issue for anyone. It’s still fun, and it’s still hugely educational, no matter what category you do.