In the Name of Optimal Speech Judging

by Chris Jennings, Assistant Coach, Canfield High School (Youngstown)

Fellow coaches, what is the thing that frustrates us most?  What frustrates our students most?

The subjectivity of speech judging, of course!

Subjectivity is inherent in judging.  There is no way to eliminate it, and we shouldn’t want to do that.  But we should absolutely do everything possible to ensure that the judges in the room are the most knowledgeable, capable ones available.

The following are things we can do to improve the quality of judges in the state of Ohio:

1. Require coaches to judge.

One of the questions I have coming out of this year’s OSDA State Tournament, as well as the overall season, is: Why do so many coaches just sit in the cafeteria all day during a tournament?

We complain about ridiculous rankings, but we’re allowing less experienced people to judge our kids.  I recognize that most schools need a coach or other responsible adult to be available at all times throughout the day, and that’s fine. But what purpose is served by assistant coaches hanging out in the cafeteria, playing Cards Against Humanity all day, and asking their kids “How did it go?!?” after every round?

Other than ensuring the safety of the students, there is no more important role a coach can perform on the day of a tournament than judging.  And, if nothing else, there is no way to make the day go faster than to actually be doing something during rounds—rather than sitting in a stuffy cafeteria, drinking burnt coffee, and trying to grade papers on a Saturday morning.

Just judge, people!  Your fellow coaches thank you in advance.

2. Flip the tab staff.

Each district should hire and train a tab staff: parents, former competitors, etc.  This will allow the most experienced eyes—head coaches—to be in rooms for judging.

I understand the desire to preserve the integrity of results in the tab room, and that our head coaches are (hopefully) the most reliable people available when it comes to handling sensitive results, and that they usually do a great job.  But they’re most reliable because, so far as I know, we haven’t allowed other to take the reins in tab.

I would rather have those most knowledgeable about speech and its intricacies judging rounds than doing data-entry.  I understand the dramatic paradigm shift involved in this proposal.  It might take years to transition away from our current system, but if we want more accurate judging and constructive feedback, who better to provide it than our head coaches?


“[W]hat purpose is served by assistant coaches hanging out in the cafeteria, playing Cards Against Humanity all day, and asking their kids ‘How did it go?!?’ after every round?”


3. Standardize judge training for all judges.

I recommend that each team must hold a mandatory judge-training session.  In lieu of that, each district must hold a mandatory training session.  Live or recorded performances must be shown, ranked, and discussed.  Pre-tournament judge meetings should not be dismissed as unnecessary by those leading the meetings. Leaders must go over important reminders and updates about all categories and always reaffirm the importance of thorough feedback and judging—based only on what’s seen in that round.

I understand that pre-tournament judge meetings get repetitive for most of us who judge every week, but there are always new judges, and even some experienced ones can get lax in their approach to judging.  I give credit to Pam Pisa and Joe Curry, in the Youngstown District, who always try to make their meetings fun while also being very pointed when it comes to judging issues they’ve seen in their students’ critiques.

It needs to be that way every week at every tournament in every district.

4. Establish judge accountability and recognition.

The “reason for rank” sheets at the State Tournament is a great idea.  Cheers to the state board for adopting it.

Now let’s keep going.

How about creating a judge feedback system for students and coaches?  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  It can be one question: Which of your judges’ feedback was most helpful?  Or allow students to rate the quality or helpfulness of each judge’s feedback on a scale of one to five.  Only highly-rated judges should be used in break rounds, and to add a nice incentive for judges beyond the weekly slate of delicious doughnuts and aforementioned coffee, the highest-rated judges from each district should be recognized at the State Tournament Awards Ceremony.

That balance of increased oversight paired with recognizing high-quality feedback could lead judges to “up their game,” and that can only make our students better.


“I would rather have those most knowledgeable about speech and its intricacies judging rounds than doing data-entry.”


5. Enact cumulative scoring at the State Tournament.

The idea that one round of competition is used to determine the “best speaker or performer” is ridiculous, especially in an activity as subjective as ours.

This is not a game with a definitive score.  One judge in one round at State can end even a great speaker’s season.  That happens too often, and we’re left mouths agape, grasping for some way to explain to our kids what just happened.  “It’s a subjective activity. That’s speech…” is not enough for them.

I understand that, at State and at many of our larger tournaments, we use multi-judge panels and other measures to alleviate the impact of outliers.  But if you’ve read this far, you can see the problems endemic in the judge pool.  The State Board saw fit to enact the bid system to select State-Qualifiers—a great move.  The bid system awards success over the course of a season rather than a student’s performance at a single District Tournament.

Why not apply that same logic to the most important tournament of the year?

Currently, it is possible for a student to earn straight 1’s in prelims and, for an hour or so, be the top speaker in Ohio in his or her category, only to be eliminated by a single Quarterfinal rank.  Why should that one rank carry more value than the eight that came before it?

The point is that, if we know we aren’t necessarily ensuring the quality of the judges in the room to the fullest extent, we cannot perpetuate a situation in which one judge in one round can make or break a kid’s season.

Sure, some of these proposals are more feasible than others, but all are worthy of discussion and consideration.  As coaches and supporters of this incredible activity, we must always pursue ideas that make it better, more fruitful, and less frustrating for our kids and ourselves.  #

Editor’s Note: Chris Jennings’s human caretaker (see photo) also contributed to this piece. 😉