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Judging rounds as a debater is underrated by today’s standards. This technique has been increasingly neglected by both competitors and coaches as the drill-centric approach has become more prominent over the last few years. And in some sense, the advice to watch less rounds makes sense. It goes something like, “watching rounds is a passive skill. Doing drills is an active skill. Nobody ever got good by watching. They got good by doing.”
But those who simply embrace doing drills and writing frontlines focus on the technical and nitty-gritty sides of debate at the expense of an equally important part of debate, and they miss it in a pretty fundamental way.
Most people do drills something like this: they find a speech to redo (usually from a round that they watched or competed in) and then spend a bit of time imagining the constraints that they need to adhere to. (How much should I cover this disad? Which topicality answers should I read? Should I go for the impact turn or the link turn to the net benefit? etc.)
Most of the time, however, goes to perfecting the speech technically, making it shorter and more efficient. They can give the speeches that the champions can give (after lots of iterative practice), which is a good first step towards greatness.
However, that style of drilling does not train the mind to practice dealing with new material. It trains the mind to get better at existing material, which is why so many students see a disconnect between drill performance and tournament results. It’s because they don’t practice as much the real-time strategic evaluation on a more macro level. To put it simply, they miss the forest for the trees. They miss the bigger picture.
As a debater, I often struggled with this. While my speeches in predictable rounds were strong, my speeches in unpredictable ones were way worse. They would only become good after I redid them several times alone or with a coach.
On top of that, I got complaints from judges that were symptomatic of missing the bigger picture. They would say things like “it feels like you’re just going through the motions,” or “I wish you had noticed ____ because then I would’ve voted for you.” I was frustrated of always getting this feedback, given that I was investing so much time in cutting prep and doing drills.
Worst of all, I’m sad to admit, I mostly watched rounds to see my debate heroes do well without considering the context of the round that they were debating within and without fully understanding why they did what they did.
What I really needed was more practice evaluating and navigating “the big picture.”
I didn’t understand that debate isn’t just a game of technical brute force argumentation; if this were true, negs would always win since their 2NR is twice the length of the 2AR.
Instead, debate must be understood as a persuasive activity, one in which individual arguments are combined, compared, and fit into a larger narrative by both debaters. Less skilled debaters do a sloppy job of this; they usually just hand the judge a basket of individual arguments and ask the judge to make sense of them. Some of these arguments inevitably won’t fit, leaving the judge with lingering questions about why they’re relevant. More skilled debaters will spin arguments, chaining theirs and their opponents’ arguments together to create a larger narrative about why they should win. The most obvious conclusion is that debates are won and lost by whose narrative the judge chooses.
Truly seeing the big picture involves a few things: it involves choosing which narrative to sell (i.e. which position/arguments to go for), filling in the holes in the story to make a narrative more believable, and dispelling points that may disprove the narrative/may contribute to a counternarrative (this is what technical drill approach focuses on). While the technical drill focus is certainly an important skill, as too many contrary points will cause any narrative to crumble, it is only part of being a good debater.
The other skills (deciding which narrative to go for, and how to craft it well) are better built by encountering and thinking through new situations, not dwelling on old ones. One good way to do this is to watch successful debaters online or in person. After each speech ends, you should predict what the other side will respond with and what they will go for. At the end, write an RFD (without seeing who won in the judge’s eyes).
There’ll always be times when writing an RFD where you feel confused. The “blame” for this confusion will often be on the competitors for not spinning the narrative enough in their favor/explaining why their points are more valid than their opponents’. If you render a different decision than the judges’ do, I recommend thinking through their decision, piece by piece, and talking with a coach/friend to understand where/why you differed.
Over time, as you resolve more and more debates, you’ll get better at thinking about debate in the macro sense. You’ll be able to find the lingering questions in your narrative more easily, and you’ll be able to answer them before (rather than after) the RFD, maybe in time to change the decision from an L to a W. You’ll also see a rise in your speaker points, as you’ll be leaving less work to the judges and will be telling better and more complete stories.
The danger with taking this approach too far, of course, is that you get an imbalance of strategic vision and execution. Just as execution without vision is bad in that it leaves the judge with no coherent story, vision without execution leaves the judge with little material to vote for your side to begin with.
The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills