‘Some challenges, some triumphs:’ Speech and Debate team adjust virtually

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Photo credit: Rick Raven

Members of the Speech and Debate team join together on Zoom after a successful league tournament the last weekend in January. Five members collectively placed in six different categories leaving the team “excited for future tournaments,” as Admin Captain Rachel Azrialy wrote in the caption of a post on the Archer Speech and Debate Instagram account. 

By Greta Irvine, News Editor

Memories of suits, trophies and travel emerge in the wake of speech and debate competitions each year. But in this unprecedented time, things are a bit different. In accordance with schools across the nation, Archer’s Speech and Debate team has had to acclimate to the virtual setting. 

“At the end of last year, we were all pretty devastated because our state tournament that we worked hard to qualify for was canceled,” debate captain Jessica Tuchin (’21) said. “Coming into this year, we started out with low motivation but we’ve begun to pick it up with virtual competitions and local league tournaments. Normally we start in the summer preparing, but we did not get as much of a head start this year as we did last year simply due to the virtual setting and the challenges we confronted.”

 The pandemic was not the sole obstacle Speech and Debate participants faced. Midway through the year, Rick Raven was brought in as the new speech and debate coach for the Archer team. The 15 upper school students had to develop new relationships while simultaneously shift to online practices. As a team “extremely impacted by social connection and group interaction,” Raven noted, transitioning to Zoom practices after school Tuesday and Thursday proved difficult. 

“Traditionally, [during] practices I’m used to taking two people into a corner of a room for support and direction or I would walk around or send the captain’s around, whereas if you want to do something like that now, you have to use breakout rooms,” Raven said. “But then you’re so private that moving between rooms becomes tough to manage. So the practice portion has become more difficult, whereas those beginning times you could start out with group warm-ups or something social and coming together as a team was pretty easy.”

We’ve been working really hard to succeed in the online setting, so to see that work pay off in competitions has been really exciting.”

— Jessica Tuchin

To abide by COVID-19 guidelines, the format of local and national competitions was modified as well. However, adjusting from in-person, overnight trips to concise, virtual tournaments came at a social and competitive price.

“A large part of speech and debate that makes it such an endearing extracurricular is the fact that it’s part of this larger community and you get to know people outside of your school at tournaments and invitationals, and that’s just something that’s a lot harder to do in a virtual setting,” speech captain Kylie Chryss-Connell (’21) said. “And in speech, which is basically competitive public speaking, I’ve had to definitely alter the ways I perform in a virtual setting because I’m not live and can’t interact with an audience.” 

Tuchin echoed Chryss-Connell’s statement acknowledging the challenges of online competition, but she also noted an unforeseen advantage of the new virtual format.

“Tournaments are lacking that essential connection between team members,” Tuchin said. “Nevertheless, now that [competition] is online, we actually have some kids coming to our invitationals from different states. I think that’s pretty cool because, in general, you’re not going to drive, say five hours, for a debate tournament but now that we’re online, we have more freedom to expand our range of tournaments and competitors.”

As a result of the increased screen-time, however, Raven noted mental hurdles have arisen for the team.

“I think it’s hard, in the sense that we do so much on Zoom right now. Going to a practice or team meeting may, for some people, be like trying to do another Zoom call which feels either like school or work,” Raven said. “And I think the excitement of being in a room with your opposition, a judge and spectators is something that drives people to excellence when they are competing. But being online so much, that excitement can be lost at times.”

Despite tech challenges, competition structure changes and social strains, the team has seen lots of success so far this year. Posting on Archer’s Speech and Debate Instagram, admin captain Rachel Azrialy (’21) has kept the community updated on the numerous tournament wins of the 2020-2021 school year. To accompany these wins are the less tangible relationship triumphs. 

“It’s easy to become super close to a lot of people when you’re in person because we have frequent practices and competitions which provide a really great way time for bonding,” Chryss-Connell said. “So it was interesting coming into this year with some struggles at first stemming from a bit of a disconnect between teammates. But I was really pleasantly surprised how some of these girls I’ve only interacted with virtually this year, yet I feel extremely close to them. The relationships we have formed are certainly different than they have been in the past, but that being said, it doesn’t make it impossible to form meaningful relationships at all.”

I think back to the time when speech debate was your Friday and Saturday social life. You would spend time between rounds with your team or have a lunch break with other competitors. Although that social aspect is missing a bit more now, I still think it is translated online better than we expected.”

— Rick Raven

Engaging in practices and tournaments on a weekly basis, the speech and debaters remain passionate and committed, Raven said.

“There are three really strong senior captains [Tuchin, Chryss-Connell and Azrialy] and they’re incredible,” Raven said. “And it’s a competitive team. A small team but it’s a pretty aggressive, competitive team that does really well and I’m excited to see what happens next.”

Chryss-Connell reflected on the changes of the year overall, assessing the unique elements of speech and debate brought about by the unprecedented virtual format. 

“When you have to convert an extracurricular to a virtual setting, it’s stripped down to its bones. As much as I love the sort of flowery elements that accompany speech and debate — the suits, tournament attire, awards and all that stuff — they take a backseat when it’s virtual and you really do have to focus on the more core elements like the speech itself,” she said. “So I think that is a positive of competing virtually, where although I love the flowery stuff, it’s not taking away from the important stuff. The heart or the root of speech and debate has remained and that’s what’s really important.”