The Top Five Lessons Any Team Can Learn From This Year’s CFL Nationals

The National Catholic Forensic League held its annual Grand National Tournament this past weekend in Albany, New York. Featuring a mix of national circuit powerhouses and local teams from circuits across the nation, Catholic Nationals is one of the most unique tournaments on the high school policy debate calendar. Hosted every Memorial Day Weekend, it challenges debaters to survive ten rounds in two days while adapting to the full spectrum of judging styles and experiences.

While many programs have decided not to attend the Grand Nationals in recent years, it remains a difficult test of adaptation and an invaluable preparation opportunity for squads hoping to go deep at NFL Nationals in June. Albany marked my seventh trip to CFL in the past eleven years. In what follows, I will offer five lessons any team can learn from my experience at this year’s tournament. Whether you will be competing in Birmingham in a few weeks or not, the CFL Tournament can provide some invaluable insights into our activity that any debater should appreciate.

5. Five Minutes Of Preparation Time Will Expose Your Weaknesses

On some circuits, five minutes of preparation time per side is standard operating procedure. On other circuits, the norm is eight minutes or even ten minutes. For teams that are used to having more prep time at their disposal, debating with only five minutes available can be difficult to handle.

With limited prep time, it becomes even more crucial than ever that debaters not waste this scarce resource on things that could have—and should have—been done before the round. If you’re the 2A, you need to have 2AC blocks written and organized for all the positions you’ve anticipated or encountered earlier in the season. If you’re the 2N, you need to have 2NC blocks written and organized for both the generic and specific strategies you are planning to go for. In some cases, you can answer an argument extemporaneously. But if the lack of a block will cost you even 15 seconds of prep time, it is better to spend the time to write it before the tournament.

Ideally, prep time should be spent thinking about the debate and discussing it with your partner, making decisions, and critically evaluating your opponent’s evidence and arguments. If you have to spend precious preparation time creating your response to an argument, you won’t have time to do the higher-level work that can make the difference between a win and a loss.

4. When Civilizations Collide, Debate Is A Race To The Middle

Every year at CFL Nationals, I judge at least one debate between two relatively competent teams who subscribe to entirely different philosophies about debate. This most typically occurs when a slow, professional, “stock issues” team debates a fast, casual, “national circuit” team but it can also involve two conservative teams from different regions. In these situations, the two teams can barely communicate with one another: their experiences in debate have been so different that they do not share even the most basic expectations about evidence, argumentation, delivery, and behavior.

Almost without exception, both teams in these debates give off the impression that they are clearly winning and that the other team is off the rails. When asked about the round by their coaches later in the day, I have no doubt that both teams will laugh about how terrible the other was and how the judges would have to be idiots to vote for them. In reality, both teams debated poorly and neither team deserved to win.

When confronted with a situation where your opponents are approaching the debate from a different background, do your best to engage them. There is nothing more frustrating than an hour-and-a-half charade in which four high school students ignore one another while posturing for the judges. If you think your style of debate is superior, prove it: make good arguments and explain them in ways that challenge those of your opponents. If you disagree with something your opponent does (doesn’t hand-over evidence, for example), get over it — don’t draw attention to yourself by having a temper tantrum or by insulting them for being “backward”.

If you find yourself in a clash of civilizations debate, think of it as a race for the middle: find common ground, respect your opponent’s style, and do your best to make your arguments in a way that engages with your opponent. Your judges—no matter their preferences—will appreciate the attempt.

3. Never Underestimate The Persuasive Appeal of the 2AR

After this year’s double-octafinals, Ben Schultz made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that CFL Nationals move to a 32-team coin-flipping contest in place of the debates on Sunday. After all, almost every team that won the flip chose to defend the affirmative, and rightly so: the persuasive appeal of the 2AR is amplified when teams are forced to debate in front of judges with divergent preferences. The 2NR is hard enough when the negative needs only to win over one “audience”: effectively winning two or even three “audiences” can be nearly impossible. And that doesn’t even account for the inherent affirmative side bias among many lay judges. Suffice it to say that the affirmative has the upper hand—decisively.

So what is a poor negative debater to do? First of all, don’t give up — an aff win certainly isn’t a fait accompli. You know that the affirmative has the upper hand, so acknowledge that from the beginning and account for it when creating and implementing your strategy. Strive to find the common denominator that will be accessible and persuasive to all of your judges: instead of relying on winning a separate argument for the “fast judge” and another for the “slow judges,” build a strategy that relies on winning only one major thesis. You’d be surprised at how many arguments can be packaged persuasively for conservative judges, especially if you spend the time to construct them in the appropriate style (include an explicit thesis, for example).

Finally, control the framing of the debate by making explicit arguments about the affirmative’s burden. This is something that I’ve seen several California teams do quite well: instead of taking it for granted that the 2AR will get to wax poetic about their case, hammer away early and often that they have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt or without a significant question. In this way, you can coopt some of the affirmative’s persuasive appeal by making the debate less about the failings of the case and more about the failings of the affirmative team. This framing of the debate seems to resonate well with lay judges because it incorporates language and assumptions from the legal system that are familiar to most people (Law & Order has been around since 1990 for a reason).

2. Sometimes You Lose Debates You Should Have Won… But Not As Often As You Think

This should be obvious, but it is an important lesson to remember: sometimes judges make objectively bad decisions and the wrong team wins. This happens a lot less frequently than most debaters seem to assume, though, even at a tournament like CFL Nationals. In the vast majority of cases where one team feels slighted, it is not because the judge was wrong but because the winning team did a better job of adapting to the judge than did the losing team. Some things just can’t be adapted to, for sure. And sometimes you just don’t have much of a chance in front of a certain judge. If that’s the case, there’s nothing to feel angry about — you did your best, now move on.

In the vast majority of rounds where judges make the “wrong” decision, though, the losing team could have done more to secure a victory. It is the sign of a mature intellect to learn from these decisions instead of casting them away as the result of unqualified idiots whose opinions about debate are beneath you being given a ballot. Policy debate is decidedly not Public Forum debate, but that doesn’t mean that you should avoid opportunities to improve your public advocacy skills. Be honest about how you packaged your arguments: could you have done so differently? Did you rely too much on jargon or implied explanation? Did you anticipate the best common-sense responses to your argument and account for them—even if your opponent did not make them? Did you present your argument with professionalism and passion?

At a tournament like CFLs, there are dozens of factors that go into a judge’s decision—almost all of which are ultimately more important than the text of the argument itself. If you find yourself reading ballots and chalking up your losses to bad judging, you need to rethink the way you approach the debate. For many judges, the debate is not won and lost on The Flow—even if the judges flow, they do not immerse themselves in the line-by-line and decide the winner of the round based exclusively on the interactions of the blue and black squiggles on their sheets of paper.

You: (reads ballots, lost 2-1) How could we have possibly lost that round? That team was terrible!
Partner: Yeah, they totally sucked. We went for LOST and their only answer was that the political process was irrelevant to the plan?!? C’mon!
You: Yeah, and I five-pointed that. And the 1AR just repeated their argument, if you can even call it that. I mean, what kind of idiot doesn’t have answers to the politics DA?
Partner: I’ve heard of people who don’t like politics, but c’mon — they basically dropped it!
You: Yeah, those judges were idiots. At least we picked up the good judge. I can’t wait till our next circuit tournament.

Until you can start to understand debate from different perspectives, you will never truly excel—even in fast, flow-centric, national circuit rounds. The faster you come to grips with that, the more wins you’ll rack up and the more fun you’ll have at tournaments of all kinds.

There’s nothing wrong with preferring a certain style—I’ll take the judging pool at the NDCA Tournament over the judging pool at the NCFL Tournament in a heartbeat, obviously—but even the best judges in the country are a lot less robotic than many debaters probably think. Learning to appreciate the human element of debate judging and to take advantage of it in order to win more debates is what separates those teams that are merely technically proficient from those that are truly exceptional.

1. Good Teams Can Be Successful In Front Of Any Audience

Bishop Guertin’s Katryna Cadle and Chris Power finished the regular season in second place in the Baker Award standings and have since reached the finals of the NDCA and the quarterfinals of the TOC. By winning CFL Nationals, they have become just the latest in a long line of successful national circuit teams who have triumphed at the Grand Nationals while adapting to a very different style of debate. The lesson? Good debaters tend to come out on top regardless of the circumstances.

When coaching students at CFL and NFL Nationals, I use a simple explanation for how to approach each debate: The National Final Round Test. For many judges, these tournaments are the national championships and the only chances their students have to see national-caliber competition. When judging a round, they are either explicitly or implicitly asking themselves a basic but complicated question: does this team seem like a national champion? Is this a team that I would want my own debaters to watch and emulate? If this team makes it to the final round, will I be able to brag to my colleagues about how great they were when I judged them in the prelims?

Everything you do, from the time you enter the room until the time you leave it, affects the judge’s answers to these questions. Are you well-prepared? Are you confident in your arguments? Are you a good speaker? Do you interact with your opponents professionally? It turns out that most of the qualities that teams develop while debating on the national circuit are the same ones that everyone looks for in a “national champion” debater. While your ability to speak fast and discuss Lacanian political theory will not be impressive, your thorough preparation and knowledge of the topic will be. Slow down a bit, keep your arguments squarely in the middle of the topic, and use the skills you have developed debating on the national circuit to impress your judges. Other teams might be more persuasive speakers, but you’re playing the game on “easy” — expose the pretty talkers for their sophistry and wow the judges with your knowledge and refutation skills.

It is no coincidence that the best teams in the country tend to be the ones that win at CFL and NFL Nationals. Once you get rid of the stylistic and ideological baggage and just debate, the better debaters almost always prevail. And that’s how it should be.