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How to Get Better at Debate


Introduction

This post will not be about improving any specific aspect of your debating, speaking, or research workflow. Instead, we will zoom out and take a macro view of the habits of mind and action that separate great debaters from mediocre ones.

You have likely heard that you should think about debate work and outcomes through the lens of ‘process over product.’ Today we will talk a little about what that ‘process’ should look like. At an even broader level, we will talk about ‘meta-process’:  how to distinguish good process from bad so you can improve it over time.

A Preliminary Caveat

Like everything else in life – balance matters. Most of this advice will be tailored toward maximizing one thing: winning. It is very easy to become maximalist about this in an unhealthy way. If we are being honest, you might like winning, but other things in debate – friends, personal growth, having fun, being fulfilled by what you’re doing – also matter.

Sometimes it will be correct not to do some of the things I am about to tell you if doing it means sacrificing a more important value like your well-being.

8 Principles for Getting Better

1. Be Honest

The biggest thing standing between yourself and a better version of yourself is delusion. Every step you can take toward overcoming delusion – every increment of improvement in the information you use to make decisions – is a step toward debate greatness.

The most obvious kind of delusion is overestimation: people assume they are good at something when in reality they are bad. You cannot improve the things you are bad at until you identify them.

A common contributor to overestimation is groupthink. Groupthink is when you and the people you talk to begin taking things for granted that you shouldn’t, just because no one in your group thought to question them. Groupthink leads to unexamined assumptions. Acting on unexamined assumptions leads to your errors getting exposed in high-stakes situations instead of corrected during preparation.

To counteract groupthink, it is essential to verify what you are doing through reference to as many external data points as possible: lab leaders, coaches, teammates who didn’t work with you on your idea, high school teachers, cutting answers to your position on the internet, your opponents during a debate, parents, judges, anyone you can find. All feedback is useful feedback. If you present your idea to someone and their comments reveal they did not understand what you were trying to say, that is a signal that the way you communicate the idea needs refinement.

Record your debates. Listen to the ones you lost, not just the ones you won. Listen to your debates with your coaches. Compare what was happening in the debate to what the judge said in their decision. Did you have an accurate sense of what was going to matter to the judge as the debate was happening? From an external vantage, are you communicating your argument as well as you believed you were in the moment?

Just because you won a particular debate does not mean there was nothing to improve. Everyone has probably heard an RFD that started with ‘this debate was super frustrating,’ but you stopped writing as soon as you found out that the judge had voted for you. WRONG. This is the epitome of product-over-process thinking.

Delusions and failures of self-scrutiny come from ego. When your self-worth is linked to your debate skill, your desire for self-affirmation will distort your self-assessments. This stops you from overcoming your deficits.

Your worth does not depend on your win record. You are invaluable on your own terms. Accepting and internalizing this is part of growing up and gaining the stomach to look squarely at your weaknesses.

2. Strive to Learn

We are in a community of extremely smart people. You are surrounded by them. Every single debate person you interact with has something to teach you. They have thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of hours of debate experience. If they don’t have that, they have a lifetime of subject matter experience. If not that, then a lifetime of lived experience.

This reality means that respect – for other people and for the wisdom they have accumulated – should always structure how you conduct yourself. Approach every interaction as if you have something to learn.

There is a thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The general idea is that as you learn a little, your self-perception of your knowledge level goes way up. As you learn even more, your self-perception of your knowledge actually goes down, because you discover how much you don’t know.


Growth happens when your beliefs about the world are exposed to new information or reasoning. If someone disagrees with you about something, you have two choices: decide they are an idiot and stop thinking about it, or assume their belief is reasoned and make a genuine effort to figure out what those reasons are. The second path leads to growth. The first leads to stagnation.

No one likes being disrespected or their opinions demeaned. You want people to feel emotionally rewarded for disagreeing with you. You want them to feel like their input has been valued. You want your reaction to make them feel smart. This means you have to genuinely pay attention to what they’ve said, process it as fully as you can, and try to approach the issue from their perspective.

Even when there is no overlap on substance, you can still learn something from the process of engagement by probing the reasons why someone has reached a particular belief. What are their priors? Where are they coming from? What was the process that led to this conclusion?

3. Identify Action Items

The task of getting better as a debater is overwhelming. Debate is enormously complicated. There are many facets to think about.

The best debaters approach this task in chunks, distilling complex problems into actionable subcomponents. “I keep losing on states + politics” can turn into “I am bad at extending politics in the 2NR” into “I am bad at efficiently distilling the warrants of uniqueness evidence and comparing it with AFF evidence.” This smaller problem is one that can be addressed through smart practice.

The action items that can emerge from a problem depend on your context. Some prep decisions create path dependency; what’s done is done. You cannot rewrite your whole AFF the day before the tournament. “I just lost a debate because I don’t have an internal link card” begs different solutions depending on whether you are at a tournament or if the tournament is already over. You may not be able to fix this kind of problem overnight. At 9 PM before elim day, the answer may have to be to deemphasize the advantage with weak internal link evidence, or to go for theory. Take steps to ameliorate your problems, but do so with your context and situation in mind.

4. The Buck Stops With You

Whenever something happens to you in debate that you did not like, there are two ways to look at it. One is to focus on the ways that what happened was unavoidable. You were judged by a parent who just didn’t understand your argument, and that’s their fault. The pool at the tournament is bad so you couldn’t strike someone you don’t like. Your coach didn’t do good enough politics updates. Your partner didn’t highlight a file.

The other is to focus on leverage points that you can use to influence the outcome in the future. How do you better convince the parent next time? Is there a way you can adjust your prefs despite the poor quality of the pool? How do you, as a team, change your process of coordinating politics work to ensure you don’t have poor quality updates going into a tournament? How do you prepare in a way that reduces your vulnerability to a strong or weak politics weekend? Why did your partner not highlight the file, and what can you do to prevent this from happening in the future?

The first approach is bad. It does not invite any action items. If your partner is lazy and that’s the end of your thinking about an issue, there is nothing for you to do except to accept mediocrity. This is a pointless conclusion and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second approach is far better. For each factor you can’t control, there are a dozen you can. This isn’t to say debate is always fair; far from it. As a community, it is important to think about the ways that debate’s systemic unfairnesses can be mitigated. But that question operates on a different scale from any individual debater’s preparation. If you are trying to maximize your win rate, focusing on the factors that you can influence is key.

Sometimes, the factors that you can individually control are not obvious. This, in itself, means there is often room for you to improve your process of identifying action items, whether through your own brainstorming or through tapping other resources.

It’s important to mentally separate the question of “what can be done” from the question of “who is at fault” or whether you should be proud of what you are doing. If you have done your best and your process is the best the current version of yourself can make it, that is worthy of pride. That does not mean your best is “good enough” by every metric, or that it cannot be better than it is. “Good enough” is a function of your goals; if your goals are primarily competitive and you did not reach the competitive level you were after, then the quality of your preparation needs to improve for you to achieve your goals. This does not make performing at the peak of your abilities – whatever those may be at a given moment – any less admirable.

5. Practice Smart

To get the most out of your practice, you sometimes need to do things that are unpleasant. You need to give speeches about things you are bad at, and that is not fun. It is stressful, it highlights your deficiencies, it is uncomfortable. Cutting cards about things you don’t understand can make you feel out of your element.

You have to do it anyway. You will not grow as quickly if you exclusively spend time in your comfort zone.

The most useful way to measure debate work is not in terms of hours spent or the number of cards cut – it is in terms of expected impact on win percentage. It is very easy to spend lots of time doing debate work without moving the needle. Doing this is better than doing nothing, but worse than spending less time in exchange for a higher benefit.

Here are some examples of things that people do as “debate work” that are usually not as helpful as they think:

  • “Talking about cards.” This is a common trap. It presumes you have enough context to evaluate the quality and usefulness of a card in a vacuum, divorced from the cards that answer it or other cards that could play the same role. You will usually get more out of cutting ten more cards and then taking stock than out of cutting a single card and talking about it endlessly.

  • Full debates can be helpful, but only within reason. They take forever and most of the time spent is not useful. A full debate takes two hours! The reason people still do them is that people enjoy them. That’s not surprising. Arguing is fun. But they add little value beyond more limited forms of practice – mainly by helping you grasp the big picture and refine your strategic decision-making. That means if you are doing a full debate, your reflection on that practice should focus on your strategic choices.

  • Unnecessarily “reorganizing files.” Sometimes it needs to happen, but if you are going to do this you should have a reason. The returns on “reorganizing your files” diminish really fast.

None of this is to say that you should never do things that are unproductive but fun. Keeping motivated is an important part of avoiding burnout and sustaining your work ethic over time. Striking a reasonable balance is important.

6. What’s The Cost?

Everything you do in debate has a cost. When you strike one judge you give up the opportunity to strike someone else. When you say economic collapse is good you give up the ability to read an economy impact or impact innovation by saying it benefits sustainability. When you put 4 CPs in the 1NC you are paying for it in an increased risk of a loss on conditionality and increased risk of overstretch hurting argument explanation. When you spend a week writing a NEG against a specific team’s AFF and improve your chances to win against that AFF by 50%, you give up the ability to spend a week improving a generic that links to every AFF at the tournament by 10%.

Being conscious of these trade-offs ensures that you target your efforts in the most efficient way possible.

7. Take Care of Yourself

Part of being conscious of trade-offs is being aware of your own physical limits and taking care of yourself to ensure your efforts are sustainable.

Sleep. There is nothing you could be doing at 2 AM the night before a tournament that matters more than sleeping.

This matters in the lead-up to a tournament, not just during the tournament itself. Go to bed early, wake up early. Enter the tournament with a good sleep schedule. Changing your sleep schedule is like changing time zones, and typically people adjust by one to two time zones per day. You will feel better and you will debate better if your ‘time zone’ more or less lines up with the tournament.

Eat. If you cannot eat the tournament food, bring a snack. If you are too nervous for real food, bring energy bars. If eating when you’re stressed makes you nauseous, experiment until you find food that doesn’t do that.

Relax. Debate can be extremely stressful. Being constantly stressed out is unsustainable. Put conscious effort into identifying things that help you reduce your stress level and increase your confidence. This can range from exercise to a pump-up playlist, to drinking tea, to doing yoga or a breathing exercise.

8. Take Care of Others

It is a given that you should want to be the kind of person who does this. Debate is ultimately made up of people and everyone’s existence in debate is just fundamentally better when we genuinely care for and about one another.

Even on a competitive level, debate is a team activity. You can’t do it alone. Your friends and teammates will catch mistakes, correct deficits in prep, or help cut a critical card before a critical debate. They will do this for you because you have done it for them, or because you are prepared to do the same. You should want to entrench this social contract because the effort it takes you to reach out to someone when you’re up and they’re down is much less than the benefit you’ll receive when someone does the same for you.

Conclusion

You will notice that a lot of these suggestions aren’t debate-specific – they are just a good way to live, and a good way to think about improving in many different skills.

A lot of people talk about the benefits of debate for education, for crafting arguments, or for public speaking, and they would be right – debate can be very good for these things. As I personally look back on my time in debate, however, it is these intangible aspects of the learning mindset that represent debate’s greatest mark on who I am as a person.

While I have been short on detail in places, I hope this has been helpful as a holistic way to accelerate your growth and get as much out of debate as you can.

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