Speech and debate adapts to an online season

August 26, 2020 — by Selina Chen
semis round

Virtual tournaments and practices create a multitude of challenges — and potential benefits — for the speech and debate team.

While competing in the online speech and debate National Tournament last June, club president Neil Shah was frustrated to realize that the Zoom meeting tended to pick up the sound of his opponent team’s better-quality microphones but not that of his own. This allowed the other team to talk over Shah during crossfire.

Additionally, Shah found it difficult to make eye contact with the judge and to show emotional inflection in his voice.

“It’s hard to dominate — to be the bigger person in a round — when you’re sitting behind a computer screen and your audio is not being heard,” the senior said.

Technical difficulties in a debate round are one of many challenges the speech and debate team faces as an online season kicks off.

For competitors in prepared speech events, most tournaments will be asking them to pre-record their speech on a platform that disallows video-editing but allows re-shoots. Coach Erick Rector said that this can give competitors the chance to capture a perfect performance.

“Saratoga kids are really driven to do the best they can,” Rector said. “As long as they can pre-record, they will be able to put together a truly phenomenal speech.”

Some tournaments such as the Yale Invitational, however, have decided to host live rounds. Rector’s biggest concern is a stable Internet connection, because in these emotional performances, a single glitch can ruin the competitor’s ranking in that round.

Differing time zones can also influence a speaker’s performance. If tournaments based on the East Coast decide to start rounds at 8 a.m. EST, Saratoga competitors will have to get up at 4 a.m. to deliver their speeches at 5 a.m. PST.

However, Shah said that adapting to online practices is currently more important than adapting to online tournaments.

“Experienced members must teach their underclassmen so that the younger students can get the same level of skills that they would have gotten with face-to-face instruction,” Shah said.

Freshman Minh Do, who has middle school speech experience, said the uncertainty of how practices will work intimidates him.

“Interacting and connecting with people is how I build my speeches,” Do said. “Talking to a profile picture or a half-attentive person isn’t the same.”

Rector is planning to hold practices on Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday, similar to the format of Saratoga High’s synchronous teaching. There will be breakout rooms in which captains will be able to give individual attention to newer members.

As for how many new members the club will get this year, Shah said that he expects the number to take a hit, for he doesn’t know whether an online club can retain students.

But Rector said that he thinks the membership will actually increase. “With less extracurricular activities going on right now, speech and debate is one of few in which students can spend their time,” he said. “It is still a great program in terms of building up skills.”

Another benefit of an online season is that tournaments typically held outside of the Bay Area are more affordable given that there are no travel costs, making them more accessible to anyone interested in participating

However, Rector said that the invitationals may be more competitive than ever because he believes the number of entries will increase, and tournaments will no longer place caps on the maximum number of participants.

Amid the negative impacts COVID-19 will have on Saratoga High’s after-school programs, Rector said he also sees an unique chance for Drama students to redirect their passion: If the fall play is canceled or greatly reduced in scope, then they can try out Interpretive speech events, which are essentially acting.

“These kids want to perform and they’re so talented,” Rector said. “This is the golden opportunity for them to do so.”

One concern students may have for joining the club is its suggested $800 donation. Despite the season’s being online, each member is still asked to donate this amount, as these contributions are vital for the club to hire a team of four reputable coaches, said Srividiya Velchamy, president of the parent boosters.

“The club is looking into ways to raise more funds,” Velchamy said. “We are always open to ideas and advice on better ways to do so during these challenging times.”

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