May 18, 2019
Competing Mindfully: The Power of Deliberate Practice
One important tool I use to promote mindfulness with my students is encouraging a commitment to a consistent routine of deliberate practice. More specifically, almost the entirety of my teaching philosophy has been built on the premise that students should repeatedly give speeches that are likely to be given in high-stakes rounds. I have found that practicing with purpose is a crucial component of preparing successfully for high-stakes competitions. Competitors tend to be more confident and less stressed out when they know they have put in the work necessary to succeed at the highest levels. The following example by Aubrey Daniels illustrates what deliberate practice entails using the analog of basketball:
“Consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”
The model I have found to be effective for developing a commitment to deliberately practice is as follows. The first step is finding accurate simulations of what your students are likely to encounter in real-time, which differs based on their preferred argumentative style and the geographic region they compete in most frequently. Personally, I either find rounds online where the speeches we want to work on are representative of what high-level execution and responses are likely to look like, or we construct the speech we want to respond too ourselves. Where possible, I prefer using online rounds.
Once we have a good example speech to practice against and use for whatever skill we’ve isolated as important (be it a 2N going for T, a 1AR responding to tricks, a 2N going for CP + DA vs case, etc.), we do the vast majority of our practice on that speech an assortment of pedagogical design features, such as using minimal prep-time (to mimic real rounds) and no blocks. I have found that doing the speeches largely impromptu is powerful for a couple reasons:
- Technical inefficiencies are exposed. Debaters tend to sound better when they are reading or doing something rehearsed, which can give both the debater and the coach a false representation of what the debater sounds like when they are actually debating without blocks. Impromptu speeches give both debaters and coaches more accurate data to assess performance and measure improvement
- Impromptu speeches hedge against nervousness before big debates. In important debate rounds, feeling pressure is largely inevitable, but if studnets have spent hundreds of hours debating at a high level without notes and prep time, no matter what type of curveball is thrown at them in the round, they can fall back on their training and allow muscle memory to take over and do what needs to be done
Another pedagogical tool I use is putting arbitrary constraints on the speech and breaking it into chunks (this varies based on the speech and the context). Seemingly nonsensical constraints like “do just this portion of the speech in 30 seconds instead of 60 seconds” or “make 3 of your best arguments on every defensive argument on the limits standard” or “lets zoom in on just this 45 second portion of the speech and analyze what happened” help create the space to isolate and work through specific skills (be it having better argument selection, better argument refutation, etc).
Designing deliberate practice is a separate skill from assessing performance effectively and giving students actionable insight. The major internal metrics I use to make adjustments on speeches my students practice (in no particular order) are:
- argument coherence (e.g. is this argument warranted and able to be understood)
- argument presentation (e.g. are you signposting clearly and marking when one argument ends and another begins, are you varying your tone and pitch to bring emphasis, etc.)
- technical execution (e.g. deliver speed / pace / tone / pitch)
- strategy (e.g. was there a better argument you could have made, did you explain this argument in the best possible way, did you respond to the best possible version of your opponent's argument, etc.).
Obviously these metrics can (and maybe in a later post, will) be expanded upon significantly, and by no means is this list exhaustive. However, hopefully this provides a useful insight into what my internal process looks like as a coach.
In particular, deliberate practice is powerful in high-level academic debate because under duress, competitors tend to go back to what they are comfortable with. Very few debaters are truly flex, i.e. equally comfortable and equally practiced at giving the 2N going for Theory, Topicality, DA and/or CP and/or Case Defense and/or Case Turns and/or impact turns, a wide variety of Phil NC’s, Tricks (e.g. skep triggers, permissibility triggers, etc.) and a wide variety of Kritiks. Most debaters have stylistic preferences and argumentative expertise that can be predicted and prepared for if one is committed to deliberate practice. I’ll walk you through 2 examples from previous students:
Example 1: Parker Whitfill, 2017 Champion, TOC
Parker almost always wanted to give the 2NR going for topicality versus affirmatives that only defended a subset of the resolution (especially if the affirmative was new) on the Jan/Feb 2017 topic. Despite our best efforts to get him to add a Kritik to his toolbox that he could go for regardless of the specific aff we were debating, Parker strongly preferred going for Topicality absent the 1AR making a technical error that made the win conditions of the round functionally game-over on a different layer (e.g. the aff dropped plan-flaw in the 1ar or a case turn that was weighed in the 1N itself + terminal defense on the only offense the 1AR extended).
So, given that this was the strategic preference we had to accommodate for, thoughtful deliberate practice entailed having Parker work through every possible 2NR he could give (going for limits, going for semantics, going for education) against every possible 1AR he was likely to debate (e.g. a heavy paradigm issue press, a heavy education defense, a heavy defensive dump on limits, etc). We spent a lot of time practicing this 2NR because it was a core generic for Parker, and I used all the tools elaborated above to help Parker master this speech to the best of his (and my) ability.
Example 2: Ishan Bhatt, 2019 Champion, TOC
Ishan was worried about debating Jaya Nayar from Harvard Westlake in elims at the 2019 TOC. We knew that no matter what we did, Jaya would be responsive, thorough, tech, and blazing fast. Defeating someone of Jaya’s caliber is a tall task that leaves little margin for error. On Sunday night of TOC, we had a couple hours to prepare before bed-time.
We knew that if Ishan debated Jaya on elimination day of TOC, we would be side-locked affirmative because Ishan had negated and lost to Jaya Round 2 of prelims. We were also reasonably confident that if we read a new affirmative, the 1N would likely be one of two speeches:
- Topicality (1-2 args, most likely “T-Plural and T-Authoritarian”) + a Kritik of Settler Colonialism (hereby abbreviated Set-Col)
- Topicality (see above) + a substance strategy consisting of some permutation of: a Process Counter Plan, Impact Turns, Disads, Case Turns, Case Defense
In other words, we were reasonably sure that Ishan’s 2AR to defeat Jaya would have to either (i) defend the topicality of the new affirmative we were going to read, (ii) answer the criticism that our affirmative is settler colonialist or (iii) defend the case against a clever process counterplan and/or well-developed impact turns.
Ishan and I had worked extensively on the 2AR answering Topicality pre-TOC (though we can and should have done more work practicing the 2AR going for our new-counterinterp to T-Authoritarian), so we decided to spend some time in the couple hours we had on Sunday evening before elims working on giving the 2AR against Set-Col. Here is a video of him practicing this 2AR, with no flow, 100% impromptu against the args we thought the 2N would likely include (we used 2018 Glenbrooks Finals as our model debate to practice against):
Again, notice how Ishan has literally no notes or prep-time for this speech. I literally told him: “Let’s pretend we are reading X aff, and now give a 2AR against set-col mimicking 2018 Glenbrooks Finals. 15 seconds of prep, starting now.” The video above is what he put out.
This impromptu 2AR would undergo multiple major revisions (with input from multiple people, including Raffi and Whit) and get more efficient given that obviously in real-time Ishan would have an actual flow and much more prep time. But the point is, if Ishan was going to give a 2AR against set-col at elims of TOC, we all knew that we had done deliberately mindful practice on that speech and we could walk away from the debate with our heads held up high, win or loss. He had given that 2AR under much more difficult conditions the night before, so even if we lost, we left everything we had on the table.
Here’s another example of a speech I had Ishan practice that evening:
This is a simple case extension of the new aff without notes, in addition to responding to the case defense we thought would be most likely in the event that Jaya opted for the Topicality + substance strategy. This speech was the 2nd version of what Ishan practiced, and I recorded it so that we could analyze whether some of the words he was using were repetitive. The thought process was that we were reasonably confident we could predict what the most likely case defense would be against the Central Asia aff, and a commitment to excellence required us to do our due diligence and put in the work. You can see here some immediate adjustments made in the following video, with an uptick in efficiency and explanatory coherence:
In summary, elite performers across all domains consistently reflect on how they were able to manage performance anxiety because what they did successfully in front of everyone when the lights were brightest was something they had practiced deliberately and with purpose by themselves and with their coaches/mentors when no one was watching. The takeaway is that if you don’t cheat the process and the game, it usually won’t cheat you. If you are giving a speech in a big debate round that you have practiced dozens of time at home, the deliberate practice will help guide you through the speech regardless of how anxious you become. I could give countless examples where I have seen this type of commitment to deliberate practice help students improve dramatically and rapidly. Is this method holistic and all-inclusive? Of course not. This is just one portion of my coaching philosophy, but it is an important one.