It’s a familiar problem facing many up-and-coming public forum teams: spending tons of time and resources on debate, attending bid tournaments weekend after weekend only to go 3-3 or lose in the first outround. In fact, I myself struggled with the problem of stagnation – the fall and winter of my junior year of high school was spent driving to debate tournaments and then losing the bid round. My partner and I earned the moniker “Kings of Silver” from my teammates. In this article, I’ll discuss two strategies that helped me get past my plateau and reach the next level of competitive success.
The first strategy that I propose may seem counterintuitive: simply take a break from debate. Hours upon hours of preparation, drills and brainstorming can create a feedback loop of frustration and stagnation. Taking a break from debate and focusing on other important things such as school or different extracurriculars can help students lose the bad habits that can be created during constant competition. When debaters return after taking a break, they often focus more on fundamental skills that make the difference between good and great debaters, such as warranting, argument comparison and weighing. Speaking from personal experience, taking a break from debate during the summer between my junior and senior year both energized me for the upcoming season and improved my debating. I found more competitive success during my first tournament back from summer break than during the two months period of my junior year where I attended tournaments on a weekly basis.
Second, focus on fundamental skills. Debating weekend after weekend with no immediate signs of improvement can obviously create frustration for teams who feel they deserve more success. It’s easy for teams to psych themselves out and focus more on finding arguments that will catch their opponents by surprise rather than on actual improvement in debating that will be transferable across topics. This preparation of ‘squirrely arguments’ may create success in the short-term, but in the long-term it can lead to regression because teams begin to rely on their opponent not having adequate responses to their argument. Instead, in times of stagnation, teams must focus on improving the fundamental skills that brought them to that point in their career. A team that can well warrant their arguments in every round will win many more debates than a team that relies on their opponents dropping arguments. Instead of preparing unlikely arguments, do drills that focus on warranting arguments out, such as impact weighing tournaments.
Reaching a plateau can be one of the most frustrating points in a debater’s career. There is no easy solution and attempting to find shortcuts can lead to regression in success. However, taking a break from debate and focusing on fundamental skills are two ways that debaters can slowly move past their hump, and break into a higher level of competitive success.