“So, How Do I Get Better At Debate:” Answering Debate’s Toughest Question

Debate is hard — there are no shortcuts to success. Students often look for a blueprint that will get them from the 2-4 bracket to the finals; in response, coaches emphasize that there’s no substitute for hard work. “Nose, meet grindstone” seems to be the best answer anyone faced with the “how do I get better at debate” question ever musters. But there are tangible steps that debaters can take to improve: this website alone has published hundreds of articles offering advice to students at all levels, and there is an abundance of material available in other places that can help put students on the right track.

But something is still missing. How can debaters take all of these various suggestions, tips, and drills and integrate them into a coherent plan for overall improvement? What is needed is a curriculum: an integrated, complete course of study and practice that a debater can use to transform the raw material of hard work into a finished product of competitive excellence. And while the specific details of any particular student’s curriculum ought to be developed with their needs and goals in mind, it is certainly possible to compose a general outline of a course of study that can benefit all debaters.

This article is the first in a series that will attempt to do exactly that: provide students with a basic outline that they can use to create a personalized curriculum to use outside of the classroom or formal organized practices that will help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to compete successfully in debate. This first article will introduce the guiding principles that underlie the recommended curriculum; part two will provide suggestions for specific coursework.

Guiding Principle #1: Improvement happens fastest with consistent daily effort.

Students—and debate students in particular—have a tendency to put off their work until it gestates into a large, intimidating burden and requires extraordinary effort to overcome. Supposed to prepare a new negative strategy against your big rival’s case? Wait until the Thursday before the tournament and stay up all night to crank it out. Such approaches are rarely effective even in the short-term, but over the long-term they are extremely harmful. Instead of spending a reasonable amount of time on debate while balancing academic coursework and a healthy social and family life, students waste inordinate amounts of time procrastinating and leave themselves without the time or energy they need to devote in order to improve at debate (much less anything else).

A dedicated student should be able to spend only a few hours per day on debate while still enjoying a great deal of success. The key is not to work longer but to work smarter. By dedicating one-to-two hours per day to debate outside of the classroom or formal practice settings, students that work smart can quickly and dramatically improve.

Guiding Principle #2: Reducing broad concepts into small, manageable tasks is essential.

Competitive academic policy debate is one of the most difficult activities a high school student could possibly find: it requires a great deal of specialized skills, enormous amounts of background knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge to practical controversies, and mastery of an arcane language and rigorous interdisciplinary decision-making framework. It is nearly impossible to improve top-level debate skills without first improving the foundations upon which those skills are built.

“How can I make better 2NR decisions?,” for example, is a question that cannot really be answered. To figure out the causes of poor 2NR decision-making, a student must first untangle the problem of 2NR decision-making from a wide range of interrelated assessments of one’s debating: is the student too dependent on the critique? Are they struggling to confidently explain their arguments? Do they have trouble extending the positions that were in the 1NR? These explanations for poor 2NR decision-making can all be corrected, but the root cause is almost certainly something even more fundamental. The debater that is too dependent on the critique, for instance, would be well-served by increasing the amount of research they conduct in non-critique literatures. Likewise, the student that struggles to confidently explain their arguments might not be doing enough original research or might need to spend more time preparing and practicing efficient explanation blocks. And the student that has trouble extending the positions that were in the 1NR might be struggling to flow effectively or to create effective strategic divisions of the negative block.

In every case, this “root cause” must be addressed at a fundamental level before meaningful improvements can occur in the proximate issue being targeted by the student.

Guiding Principle #3: Integrative approaches are the most effective way to pursue meaningful improvements.

Debate is not graded using subcategories of achievement: there are no “A”s for research or for speaking or for preparation, only a final grade represented by speaker points and the win or loss. When thinking about how to get better at debate, students should focus on integrating all aspects of the debate process into their daily “course”. There are basically three components of debate preparation:

  1. You have to know what you’re talking about.
  2. You have to be ready to tell others what you’re talking about.
  3. You have to effectively tell others what you’re talking about.

These components of preparation are often considered distinct: knowing what you’re talking about requires research, being ready to tell others what you’re talking about requires block-writing, and effectively telling others what you’re talking about requires speaking drills and rebuttal reworks. But this dichotomy between different aspects of preparation is unnecessary and unhelpful. Why practice speaking in the abstract, for example, when you can practice communicating a particular argument? Debate is the ultimate multidisciplinary activity and preparation should reflect that reality.

Guiding Principle #4: The work done outside the classroom determines the value of the work done inside the classroom.

Students have a tendency to place the burden of improvement on the shoulders of their coaches. When interacting with teachers and coaches, debaters frequently ask questions that can be fairly characterized as demands to “make me better now!”. In other cases, students complete the required work assigned by their coaches and then are baffled when they do not immediately achieve competitive success. “I did what you told me to do,” they argue, “but it obviously doesn’t matter!”.

This disconnect, of course, stems from the sizeable demands placed on students that wish to be successful in debate. It isn’t enough to simply meet the minimum requirements: students wishing to achieve competitive excellence must constantly challenge themselves to know more, prepare more, and practice more than their peers on other squads. Coaching plays an important part in a debater’s development, but it can never be a replacement for independent study. A coach can help a debater rework a rebuttal speech to improve its efficiency, for example, but the debater cannot deliver a truly excellent speech until she has confidently mastered the content of her arguments, carefully written and organized (and revised) her blocks, and repeatedly practiced her speaking. If these steps have been taken outside of the classroom, the student’s interaction with their coach will be incredibly valuable. If not, the interaction will be of limited utility.

Creating a Curriculum

Be realistic about the time that you can commit to debate work. Using a monthly planner or calendar, cross out all of the days on which you will be unable to spend time on debate—including days spent at debate tournaments. From there, assign yourself a project to complete each day and write it in your planner; suggestions for the kinds of projects you should include are discussed below. It is important to keep things interesting rather than planning to spend several days focused on one thing. By adding variety to your personal curriculum, you will be more enthusiastic about doing the required work and more likely to actually do it.

Once you have planned a few weeks worth of “courses,” stick with it. Every morning, challenge yourself to complete the work that you established as the day’s assignment and keep track of how you’re doing using a journal or log. The sense of satisfaction you feel at the end of the day knowing that you did the work you had assigned yourself is incredibly rewarding and can be used as motivation to continue working hard.

Things You Should Accomplish Every Day

Every day’s “course” should be able to answer “yes” to the following questions:

  1. As a result of my work, do I know something better today than I did yesterday?
  2. As a result of my work, are my debate materials more organized today than they were yesterday?
  3. As a result of my work, am I more likely to win an important debate today than I was yesterday?

Every component of preparation should seek to increase one’s knowledge, improve one’s organization, and enrich one’s understanding of debate in a meaningful way.

In part two, the GPB model (Goals, Process, Benefits) will be introduced and specific courses will be described. The final article in the series will discuss ways to maximize the value of student-coach interactions.

8 thoughts on ““So, How Do I Get Better At Debate:” Answering Debate’s Toughest Question

  1. Anon

    I know concepts, but often struggle to explain them to others. I'm a poor communicator even when I have a thorough understanding of my arguments, and I don't communicate in a persuasive way. I often sound hesitant when explaining my arguments, even if my arguments are good.

    Are there things I can do to improve at this besides practice? Is there anything I should be focusing on or making sure I am doing while speaking?

  2. Nick Khatri

    Great article! I look forward to reading the next two. The set of questions at the end really hit me. I definitely need to be more diligent about doing stuff every day as opposed to cramming it all in to the few days before a tournament, especially now that in college I have more time between each tournament.

  3. Pingback: 3NR Reading | no subject

    1. Daniel

      I'm pretty sure the intent of this article is getting better outside of debate class, everything applies whether or not you have a class to be outside of.

Comments are closed.