Lessons Every High School Debater Can Learn From Their Intercollegiate Counterparts

With very few exceptions, the best intercollegiate policy debate teams in the country gathered in Atlanta this past weekend for the Georgia State National College Debate Tournament, a season opener that is widely considered the first “major” of the year. Most everyone would agree that the quality of the debating that occurred at GSU was superior to that found at even the best high school invitationals. This only makes sense: college debaters are older and more experienced than their high school counterparts and should therefore be expected to demonstrate a superior skill set.

But what actually is it that separates good college debaters from good high school debaters? What lessons can high school debaters learn from the GSU college tournament? My “top five tips” list is below the fold.

1. Little things make a big difference. The gap between the teams that finish 5-2 and the teams that finish 4-3 and even 3-4 is very small. Luck certainly plays a significant role: some teams get favorable matchups while others get the wrong side against the wrong team or the wrong judge and come up short. But it’s certainly not all luck. The teams that are able to separate themselves from similarly-skilled peers do so in large part because of superior preparation and organization. One of the most common impediments to improvement at the high school level is an inability to get organized and put one’s proverbial house in order. Even without any tangible skill improvements, most high school debaters could reap dramatic competitive benefits simply by getting more organized. And in most cases, improved organization will translate into improved execution and higher-quality speeches—and will make the difference between clearing and just missing.

2. The 1NR is extremely important. In most high school debates, the 1NR is an afterthought; the 2N takes the most important arguments in the 2NC and extends them in the 2NR. At the college level, the 1NR is leveraged much more effectively to not only put pressure on the 1AR but to independently win debates. The ability to extend a strong set of arguments in the 1NR that can provide a complete strategic option for the 2NR is invaluable. Unfortunately, few high school teams take maximum advantage of the 1NR. Part of the problem is time constraints—the extra minute added to college rebuttals is important—but too many high school 2Ns are simply unwilling to delegate essential arguments to their partner. Letting go of this insistence on control can dramatically improve a team’s negative winning percentage.

3. The best teams make the best use of their tournament time. As one of my coaching mentors told me many years ago, debate tournaments are business trips—not vacations. From the time that one first arrives at the tournament until the time that the last decision is announced, debaters should treat their time as a valuable resource that needs to be managed well in order to maximize its utility. Does this mean that you can’t socialize with friends or take a break and relax for a few minutes? Of course not. But most high school debaters waste an enormous amount of time at tournaments that could be used to improve their preparation. In particular, the time between the conclusion of the 2AR and the announcement of the judge’s decision is a time that should be used to accomplish something—instead of checking out, spend that time highlighting cards, doing some research, writing a few blocks, and/or filling out a round report. The more work that one gets done during downtime—including the time between debates—the better prepared one will be and the more rest one can get at the end of the day. Why waste time during the day only to burn the midnight oil getting ready for tomorrow’s debates? Wise time management means a debater is more prepared and can get more rest—and as a result, more wins.

4. Internal links are contested much more rigorously. While terminal impact defense remains an important and prevalent part of most strategies, the best college teams focused much more on debating internal links than most high school teams. In the 1AC, teams committed time to reading multiple cards to support the unique necessity of the plan and many included preemptive responses to expected negative attacks (alternate causalities, uniqueness presses, etc.). Subsequent speeches continued this trend: negatives invested significant 1NC time into contesting the internal links to the case, 2ACs pressed the internal links to disadvantages, and so on. Most importantly, these arguments were carried through to the final rebuttals instead of being discarded at the first opportunity and they were frequently an important consideration in the judge’s decision.

5. The best debaters know the most about the topic, not just their arguments. Most of the debaters in contention to clear at GSU were technically proficient: they could introduce, extend, and refute arguments effectively. While some debaters were able to separate themselves from the pack by virtue of their outstanding technical skills, the bigger difference between the teams that went deep and the teams that went home was their ability to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the issues—and not just arguments—they were debating. Against a team that doesn’t really know what they’re talking about, it’s pretty easy to fake it—a good debater can paper over the finer details of a controversy and paint a relatively convincing picture with a broad brush. But when these superficial-knowledge-only debaters match up with a team that has developed genuine expertise, it is clear that the emperor has no clothes. Good evidence and good technique can get a team a long way—even into the elims. But without a strong background knowledge and sophisticated understanding of the issues being debated, there will always be a ceiling that is very tough to overcome. Mastery of a topic—and not just a debate argument—is what all debaters should strive for.

8 thoughts on “Lessons Every High School Debater Can Learn From Their Intercollegiate Counterparts

  1. Beauty and Decay

    This isn't responsive to this thread, i just couldn't find anywhere else to post this.

    Over the past weekend at Valley High School, we encountered some teams that were debating paperless. In one debate round, the paperless team, flashed us their speech and it was out of order / they didn't read all the cards / no analytical arguments that they made were on the speech. And i don't mean that they just skipped cards, but they went from the bottom of the document to the top of the document.

    And granted, I understand debate is a flow activity and I think paperless debate is good, however i think this is unfairly disadvantagous for the team that isn't paperless. For instance, if the team was reading off paper, you could sit next to the team and you would know what order they read the cards in. However, that's not possible in paperless debates. Then this creates problems when arguments are answered out of order which makes the rest of the debate messy when it didn't need to be. I don't know if the team was trying to be strategic, or if it just happened that way, but it sucked to be in that debate, especially when trying to read the evidence and flow ( which isn't nearly as difficult in paper rounds)

    1. Thomas Hodgman

      Everything you identified is a symptom of poor debating, not paperless debate.

      Teams read paper speeches that are out of order, and teams read paper speeches without getting to all of the evidence. Analytical arguments are not always on printed paper.

      You also still have the ability to look over the shoulder of a team debating paperless if you want to keep track of their speech as they go – the viewing computer/flash drive is for your convenience.

      That being said, many teams are switching to paperless, and are probably new to it and more sloppy than they would have been with paper. Give them a little bit of time – the structure of paperless debate ultimately allows for a much more orderly debate experience overall, once a team has the basics down.

    2. Chris Crowe

      I know you have the little caveat that you "understand debate is a flow activity," but you seriously just need to flow.

      I think we've reached a flowing crisis in the middle tier of high school debate.

      Teams debating AGAINST paperless teams are the worst. They don't flow a lick, they're always dropping stuff. Paperless debate isn't a substitute for FLOWING. Rarely does anyone follow their paper blocks exactly, let alone a speech document on a computer.

      And the whole "not jumping analyticals" thing is worse… You don't need that on the viewing computer. You need to, well… flow.

      1. Roy Levkovitz Post author

        this was going to be an rlevkov RANT tonight on the podcast, It will likely still be a RANT, but David Copperfield is right, nobody flows anymore (even when the other team isn't paperless). The notion that it is expected you jump analytical args is insane.

  2. miles

    another symptom that we ignore is that clarity is also a lost art … maybe if people were comprehendible, their opponents wouldn't have to look over their shoulder

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