There have been times in my career or in the career of those I’ve judged and coached where one debater is hopelessly outmatched. I’ve seen students in the varsity section of high-level tournaments who were there after perhaps one, maybe two tournaments max, none of which were circuit. Age, skill, style differences, and a few other variables create situations where debaters will be experientially mismatched. High-level or aspiring students I work with who have this happen to them are always concerned and ask many questions about how to best adapt to a debater who is newer, or perhaps more traditional. Should I slow down? Should I pull out the traditional case? Should I avoid any jargon? The prevailing wisdom is accommodation; you shouldn’t steamroll that debater and should debate closer to how they debate than how you debate. Judges often include in their paradigms that accommodation should be #1 on the list. I am of the opinion that we do a disservice to students on both sides of the ballot when we tell debaters to “debate down” to adjust for those skill differentials. It is far better to encourage debaters to vie for upward growth in response to a challenge.
Several clarifications from the jump. First, this does not extend to accessibility constraints requested by other debaters due to disability. If Debater A is very competent and Debater B requests that the round adjusts to account for a hearing impediment or some other concern, Debater A should as much as possible respect that concern while continuing to maximize their chances to win. Unlike most sports, debate is a fairly accessible activity and we should celebrate this by adjusting behavior as is reasonable. Second, this does not forego the standard decorum of respect and mutual recognition expected of any competitor. This belief does not give the “better” debater license to flaunt their skill and aggressively over dominate the other debater. A hallmark of an excellent competitor is grace; One does not expect Roger Federer to gloat in the face of a junior player upon victory. Third is that I admit that this gives space for justifying ”cheap wins.” This largely takes the form of abusing high barrier forms of debate like theory, the kritik, philosophy, or the impact turn (I don’t believe spreading = cheap behavior). It should be fairly clear that going for those wins against someone who barely understands them is not competitive excellence. Let’s extend the tennis example; it would be like if Fed was hitting dropshots to someone who barely understood that those hits were an option. He would certainly move away from the dropshot in favor of powerful, but engageable strokes.
Like other games, debate is competitive and naturally generates skill gaps. Some people, flat out, are better at the game than others. Be it due to time involved, practice, infrastructural support, or natural skill, you will certainly see competitors sifted into winner and “not so winner” categories. Unlike other games, debate has a tendency to shy away from this inevitable aspect of competition. In basketball, tennis, or any other competitive space, we celebrate upward mobility, encourage participants to do their best to reach the top, and discourage participants from having unrealistic expectations. We should do more to mimic those sports rather than balk. It will generate stronger debaters who force each other to grow, will encourage top students to focus on being the best debater they can be, and will culturally shift the activity further in the direction of rigorous gamesmanship, which has its own host of benefits. Ask yourself this – if Serena Williams were matched with someone obviously weaker than she at a Grand Slam or Tour Tournament, would anyone ask her to take it easy so that the other person feels more accommodated? If they did ask her that, she would scoff, because she understand that competition is not about the other side, but instead about winning and maximizing the chances of winning in a respectable fashion. One may argue that this example is different at the pro athlete level, but I guarantee any competitive high school athlete would respond the same as she.
Beyond an abstract theory of gamesmanship, holding all debaters to a higher standard of competitive rigor helps losing students grow. My experience and that of many others shows that, when faced with a near-insurmountable challenge in a debate, we are inspired rather than discouraged. I am wholly unconvinced by the argument that getting trounced is likely to make students disengage from the activity. Seeing the heights of potential growth, facing challenges far beyond your current capacity, and learning how to accept a humbling experience are all valuable lessons on their own, and more often than not they ignite the passion for growth and betterment that is so central to the human experience. I will happily vote for a debater who brings their A game against a debater who can’t yet match that A game. As a judge and a coach I will also do my part to encourage the other debater to view these experiences as growth opportunities rather than insurmountable. I would also expect the winning debater to be courteous and generous to their opponent – one of the shining moments of my debate career was losing to a much stronger opponent who, after destroying me, gave me advice about how to be better. Any student who concludes these challenges are overwhelming out the gate likely has uninspired coaching or is simply not fit for the highest levels of the activity. Why do them the disservice of taking away the chance to go through those realizations by asking top debaters to treat them with kiddie gloves on?
An orientation to the mean often is worse for those who participate than it is better. Debate sometimes leans a bit further into a spirit of the collective than is for the best – embracing competition in a controlled space will help all debaters grow as students, as people, and as competitors.