Lone Wolves: A Guide from a Tournament Director

The national circuit is becoming increasingly unfriendly to “lone wolves.” In part because of the misbehavior of some independent travelers, tournaments that have in the past been reasonably friendly for the lone wolf have become less so. And tournaments that have never been lone wolf-friendly have taken steps to more or less prohibit independent attendance.

Concerns about independents are not unwarranted. Whether you agree with them or not, it behooves the lone wolf to take the steps necessary to engage the national circuit as amicably as possible, while not making things worse for yourself and future students.

This article provides some suggestions from the perspective of a tournament director who supports lone wolf debate in principle.

Don’t Lie

One thing that will make tournament directors really angry is lying about your situation to get around entry requirements. And lying doesn’t just create problems for you — it creates problems for other kids in the future. One of the driving reasons behind the recent acceleration of anti-lone wolf policies is students in recent years who have lied to tournament directors — lied about what school they attend, lied about what city they live in, lied about having permission from their school to travel, lied about their relationship with their judge and chaperone. Experience with students who lie makes tournament directors feel ill-treated, and they come to associate these bad feelings with independently entered students in general. Always be up front with tournaments and tournament directors; if that means that you can’t attend a certain tournament because you don’t meet its guidelines for independent entry, then so be it. There are plenty of tournaments — pick another.

Bring a Judge

I understand that for independent entries, bringing a judge can be difficult. You don’t have a team subsidizing the costs of travel, so buying a plane ticket for yourself and your judge gets expensive.

National circuit travel, particularly outside of your region, is expensive. This is one of the reasons that working to grow a team may be a better approach than traveling independently (see below.) But in any case, you should not be traveling without a chaperone (see “Have a Chaperone” below). Do your best to arrange it so that your chaperone is also someone who can judge (see “bring a knowledgeable judge” below). Providing a judge to the tournament is part of the debate social contract. If teams didn’t provide quality judges, tournaments couldn’t happen. Traveling independently doesn’t absolve you of the obligation to participate equitably. One of the hardest parts of being hospitable to lone wolves is dealing with large numbers of students who enter without judges. Good tournaments hire a slate of judges to deepen the pool. Having to additionally hire large numbers of judges to cover lone wolves makes this much more difficult.

I get that for some providing a judge will just be impossible. If you have to hire, it’s not the end of the world. But you should have a sense that by doing so you are making life a little harder for the tournament. Strive to avoid this when possible.

Don’t Drop Judge Hires. Seriously. Don’t.

If you can’t bring a judge, and you must hire from the tournament, do not request to drop the hire at the last minute. You should never ask to hire a judge until you’ve made a concrete decision to attend the tournament. When you ask to hire, the director finds someone to cover your entry, and they contract with that person to attend the tournament and receive payment. They probably book them a hotel room. When you decide not to attend at the last minute and ask to drop your hired judge request, you stick the tournament with that cost, because they cannot simply “fire” the judge. You also waste directors’ time. This makes you seem like a bad planner, and it makes tournament directors feel like lone wolves are more trouble than they are worth. Plan conscientiously; make an effort to be competent in your planning. Do not stick tournament directors with judge costs.

Bring a Reliable Judge

If you do bring a judge to the tournament – Bravo! Make sure, however, that your judge is reliable. Many quality judges in our community are not reliable. They don’t know how to set alarms. They stay up really late and can’t wake up in the morning. They decide to take off randomly to smoke cigarettes, take long lunches, or skip elims because they have to be in class. All of these behaviors make tournaments much more difficult to run — and make directors much less tolerant of lone wolves. (Although, to be fair, it is not only lone wolves who bring these ne’er-do-wells to tournaments.)

When you are hiring an independent coach, consider the possibility that there is a reason that coach doesn’t work for an established program. Even if the person was a brilliant debater or is a brilliant coach, if they can’t fulfill the basic expectations of a judge at a national circuit tournament, then you are doing yourself a disservice by listing them as your judge.

Bring a Knowledgeable Judge

If you can’t find a judge to chaperone you, and you must bring your parent, please do not try to enter your parent in the judge pool unless they are experienced in debate. And, “experienced in debate” does not mean “you gave them lessons on debate.” Imagine your own strike sheet: if your parent is someone you would strike, then for heaven’s sake, don’t enter them in the pool.

Many tournaments have rules against parents filling judge obligations if they are not competent to judge circuit debates, but those rules are hard to enforce, mainly because, as adults, it is awkward for us to tell other adults that we don’t consider them competent to complete a task. If your parent is the only chaperone you can get, then ask to hire a judge rather than putting a judge in the pool who is only going to suck up strikes.

Plan to Stay to the End of the Tournament

If you want to be in the tournament, be in the tournament. When you (or your judge) plans in advance to leave the tournament early, you create massive headaches. If you leave, you spoil the bracket or hand out an unearned win. If your judge decides to leave before their obligation is up — to attend classes, for instance — they make it more difficult to panel elims. Electing to leave before you are done with the tournament creates a massive headache for the director, disadvantages other students, and makes it less likely that directors will be tolerant of future lone wolves. Before you plan to attend an event, make sure that you and your judge can stay for the whole event. If you can’t, pick a different event.

Have a Chaperone

You are a teenager. You should not be traveling the country on your own. You may think you are competent to take care of yourself while abroad, but please believe me, you are not. Things will come up that you won’t know how to deal with. When that happens, you will impose on someone else to solve those problems for you. You may well find someone willing to help out — our community is full of helpful people — but that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to wander the nation on your own, depending on the kindness of strangers.

Always, always have a chaperone. If you can’t afford to fly someone out, either stay home or hire someone local to the tournament. If you have very good relationships with other coaches from your area, you might ask them to serve as your chaperone — but make sure this is acceptable to your school before you do it. Do not ask the tournament director to provide you with a chaperone — managing a tournament is unspeakably difficult, and directors do not have the time or energy to find someone to babysit you. They will almost certainly say no, and your asking signals to them that you are not competent. Whatever you do, you absolutely, positively, no exceptions should not be traveling the country without a chaperone.

A couple of notes on this:

1) Many tournaments will no longer accept chaperones who are not employees of your school. If that is the case, follow the rule. Either bring a school employee or don’t go.

2) If you do get help from someone filling in as a chaperone, be nice to them. Bring them a gift. Be responsible and competent and don’t create problems for them. Say “thank you.”

Pay Your Bills

Tournament directors may waive fees where possible, but this isn’t always an option. If you incur a fee, pay it. If you forget to drop before the drop deadline, don’t try to get out of paying your fees. Experienced coaches understand that trying to avoid fees is discourteous and they generally don’t do it. Debate tournaments are fundraisers; the money earned finances debate for other students, many of whom are also not well-off. When you try to get out of paying your fees, you are detracting from their ability to compete.

To be clear: I am not saying you should not request a fee reduction or waiver. Some schools (including mine) budget for waivers. In our case, we focus our waivers on UDL schools, but we try to be flexible. What I’m saying is that if you do incur a fee, you should pay it, no matter what.

Understand That Wanting Expensive Things Is Not the Same As Being Poor

Ideally all students should have access to debate. Millions of American high school students live below the poverty level and attend public schools that struggle to provide basic educational necessities. When a student in that situation asks for fee waivers or other help attending my tournament, I do everything I can to help.

However, this is not the situation faced by all lone wolves. Some come from families that are quite well-off. Even for wealthy families, an entire debate season worth of travel can seem quite expensive — asking your parents to send you independently to a dozen or more tournaments is kind of like asking for a Ferrari for Christmas. (OK, a used Ferrari.)

But there is a huge difference, both ethically and practically, between a well-off student who wants something expensive (like a debate season) and a low-income student who truly cannot afford debate travel.

When you are asking for consideration from tournaments, keep this distinction in mind. Tournaments have limited resources. If you are well off, but your parents are hesitant about the high costs of debate travel, please do not plead poverty to tournament directors in an effort to make your already comfortable life more comfortable. Tournament directors are understandably hesitant about asking nosy questions regarding your financial situation when you apply to them for aid. Be self-selecting. If your family is well-off, but cannot afford to send you to every tournament you’d like to attend, then either accept travel limits or get a job to pay for additional opportunities. Fee waivers and other financial assistance should be reserved for students with real economic need.

Understand That Hating Your Team Is Not The Same As Being A Lone Wolf
A lone wolf is a debater who doesn’t have the benefit of a program. A person who does go to a school with a debate program is not a lone wolf, even if you don’t like your program. 

Maybe your coach doesn’t run practice the way you like. Maybe they don’t go to the tournaments you want to attend. Maybe they don’t value your awesome debate skill as much as they should.

Well, tough. If you want things to change in your program, advocate for change. But don’t jump ship and try to travel against your coach’s wishes. Tournament directors are the colleagues of your coach. They will respect your coach and your coach’s decision, even if they don’t agree. And if you try to sneak around your coach, they will be mad at you.

Park Your Sense of Entitlement At the Door

You deserve the chance to debate. That does not mean, however, that every adult in the country is responsible for ensuring that that you receive that chance. The responsibility for providing you with debate opportunities falls on (in order): your school, your parents, and yourself. End of list.

You are fortunate that, because of the nature of debate, there are other adults — adults who are not responsible for you — who are willing to help out. We have folks who put together summer camps that provide low-cost instruction. We have folks who build entire organizations around providing coaching, judging and entry fees for students in need. We have tournament directors who are kind enough to waive fees or provide housing. All of these things are wonderful.

But as you take advantage of these great opportunities, bear in mind that these things are not owed to you. Most lone wolves are very good about this, but there is a minority who make lone wolves look just terrible. I was once contacted by a lone wolf who asked me to pay for his plane ticket to attend my tournament, and then, when I politely refused, sent an angry email telling me that I am a terrible educator because I was not committed to his success.

If you subscribe to the notion that everyone in the world is obligated to do everything in their power to ensure your happiness, please understand that you have a problem.


Every high school program began at some point — every single one went from “not existing” to “existing.” If you find yourself in a position where the onus is on you to build the program — well, that can be tough. But it is also very rewarding. I became a debate coach in 1996 because a group of freshmen from Highland Park High School in St. Paul, MN decided that they wanted to have a debate team. I was a former debater and I was student teaching in their school. They asked around and then approached me to be their coach. And, voila, a debate team was born (one, by the way, that is still very competitive.)

Those kids faced some challenges that today’s HP debaters don’t face — they had to start from scratch, they had to track down someone willing to do the coaching and planning. But they also enjoyed the opportunity to build something new and lasting — and since then, hundreds of debaters have benefitted from what they built. If it weren’t for those first students, none of that would have been possible. Going through life with the knowledge that your efforts built something of such great and lasting value surely outweighs the short-term challenges associated with the building itself.

Building a program also has more direct, tangible benefits. Have you noticed that you don’t have any school support, and that you have to pay for everything yourself? Establishing a program and bringing in other students, parents, and teachers establishes a support network of people who have both the interest in raising, and the ability to raise, funds to support debate. And those funds needn’t necessarily come from the school. In its early years, the Highland Park debate team received little district support — so we fundraised like mad. During the summer we held car washes almost every weekend. We worked in a cookie booth at the Minnesota State Fair. We once made $2,000 for being extras in a movie. None of these things was easy, but with a large group of students and parents shouldering the work, it was doable. Imagine how much easier it would be to manage national debate travel if you had a home-grown support network!

Also, be aware that one of the main reasons that debate coaches and tournament directors throw up obstacles to lone wolves is that they want to see more programs developed. When a wolf decides to go it alone rather than build a program, they close off the possibility of many more students benefitting from debate. The adults who question lone wolf travel are not saying that they don’t care about you or other independent students; rather, they are saying that every school deserves to have an established debate program, and that it is the responsibility of each school to accomplish this. After all, every debate program started at some point — those schools with established programs did the heavy lift. Every school should do the same.

Successful lone wolf debaters avoid those challenges, and to some extent, shift the burdens of supporting their debate careers from their own home schools onto the tournament directors, housing families, chaperones & etc. who make up the “lone wolf support network.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing — everyone should have the chance to debate. But it is a reason that the ideal scenario is one where lone wolves develop programs that will then support them, rather than simply getting skilled at resourcing out their individual debate needs. And if no one else is willing to get the ball rolling, it might just be your responsibility.