How to Win A Debate Tournament

Dave Arnett is the Director of Debate at the University of Kentucky. Before arriving at Kentucky, Dave was the Director of Debate at UC Berkeley for twelve years. On 14 occasions, his teams have been ranked in the top 16 (US), including 10 top five teams, and 3 overall number one rankings. His teams have won almost every major college tournament in the US including Dartmouth, Harvard, Northwestern, and Wake Forest. He has coached a national championship team as well as two runner-ups. Dave was selected the National Coach of the Year on two separate occasions (2009, 2015). This year, Dave has had two separate teams ranked in the top 16 of the national debate coaches poll. He has over twenty years of experience teaching high school students.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

— Will Durant

The most important thing I can say about how to win a tournament can be summed up by the above quote. Winning isn’t about a single moment in time. It isn’t about the announcement of a decision by the judges. It isn’t about a trophy. Winning is a process. It is a series of “winning moves and behaviors”. The real value of debate is only realized by those that engage in this process. And for those that do choose to engage in winning practices, winning outcomes are likely to follow. After thirty years in debate it is difficult to narrow a list of suggestions to ten things. I’d prefer to view this as a starting point for a discussion into winning practices. One that we might expand upon further in the future. The following suggestions come from my experience as debater and coach.

  1. Belief

Debaters tend to focus exclusively on the minutia of rounds when asked about why they won or lost a debate. In my experience the intangibles and Meta issues surrounding an approach to a tournament are more important. After all, the small details of a debate are all guided by the process for how a team prepares itself to win. Nothing is more foundational than the belief that one can win a tournament. That belief or lack thereof is observable to other teams and judges. It is important to cultivate a strong belief and confidence and protect it against the inevitable ups and downs of a tournament. Debate is hard. You will be tested. Your belief will be as strong as your process for winning. Belief in your ability to win is a belief in your “system for winning” to carry you forward.

  1. Pacing

Winning a tournament is a long and grueling endeavor. I can recount a number of very big late debates lost because the team was just plain exhausted. Having the best strategy on the planet won’t matter if you aren’t in a position to execute. Eating healthy foods and getting sleep at tournaments is a fundamental part of a winning system.

I’m a big fan of going to bed early and waking up early at tournaments. Give yourself time to have a real breakfast, read through some files, and get your mind and body ready to win the big morning debate. The team that engages in this practice is putting themselves way ahead of the “bed head” team that rolls straight from bed into a debate.

While physical pacing is important, mental pacing may be even more important. Keeping emotions in check and not getting too high or too low during preliminary debates is extremely important. Teams often lose several prelims and go on to win the tournament. Conversely, teams with perfect prelim records often fall short. The tournament starts in elimination rounds. They don’t give trophies for the best team after day one. Championship teams will learn from their prelim debates (win or lose) and move forward. Teams that expend a great deal of emotional capital after every debate are unlikely to have much left in the tank by the time a final round happens.

  1. Maximize team resources

It doesn’t matter if your team is two or twenty people. Developing a system that efficiently utilizes its resources is make or break for their chances of winning a tournament. A few specific suggestions along these lines:

-Research assignments should reflect actual priorities and not be based on what someone finds interesting at the moment. The “boring” issues are often extremely important.

-Teams should divide up being experts on all relevant issues. If it isn’t possible for both partners to be experts on everything than figure out a division of labor that makes sense. Perhaps one partner focuses on being a military issues wonk while another becomes the economics wizard.

  1. Scouting and Preparation.

Since this essay is about winning tournaments, it is important to note the difference in approach from that and a team that might just be trying to reach the elimination rounds. If you’re a team with a legitimate chance to win a tournament, your focus needs to be on the top ten teams that are most likely to stand in your way. There is only so much time in the day so priorities must be set on the biggest threats. It is also the case that preparing well for the top ten will inevitably have spillover benefits for debating other teams that read similar arguments. Remember this advice is for winning a tournament. For a team just trying to reach elimination rounds it would make far more sense to focus on teams 20-40 at a tournament i.e. the teams you’re in direct competition with.

  1. Work every day and use your time effectively.

Debate isn’t a middle school history exam. You’re unlikely to figure it all out the Thursday before a tournament. Debate is the most challenging game on the planet. At a national tournament you’re playing the hardest game against the toughest competition. Those that engage in preparation on a daily basis and build effective habits are setting themselves up for success in the long term. To this end, time spent on debate is not necessarily productive time. Make sure you’re using it in an efficient and balanced way. A careful mix of top research priorities, speaking drills, and strategy discussion is a good guideline for how to use your time.

  1. Never lose to the same argument twice

When I was going into my senior year of high school I asked my summer instructor what they thought the most important keys to winning were. One of those was to “never lose to the same argument twice”. As the years have gone by, I have often gone back to the genius of this advice. I’m amazed at how relevant it is in so many situations. With my own team we spend a lot of time preparing for new argument situations and there is no doubt that this is part of a “winning system”. That said, while preparing for the unknown is important, the known commodity is often a far bigger enemy.

  1. Good debaters lose pretty/Great debaters win ugly

Real vision requires being able to be brutally honest with yourself in the middle of a debate. Being able to recognize what isn’t working is critical to creating options for winning that other teams wouldn’t ever contemplate. What if their evidence is better? What if their coverage was too good and yours insufficient? Can you change course within a debate to give yourself the best shot at winning? Sometimes that involves making some radical or bold moves.

  1. The benefit of new arguments in late elimination round scenarios.

Writing a new case or negative strategy should come with purpose. Late elimination round scenarios are often a good time to shake things up. The other team is also tired and prone to mental errors. New arguments can take the coaches out of it and help the other team make mistakes.

  1. Argument flexibility

A lot has been said about this over the last twenty years. I would make a small point to say how relevant this can be in late elimination round/final round scenarios. By the time the final round happens most schools and their judges have left the building. A final round panel is often a collection of who is left. The hour leading up to the debate often involves a desperate tournament director calling people to see if they are still in the state and are willing to judge. The point of this is to say that argument preference of a final round panel is extremely unpredictable. Teams with the capacity for adapting to their judges are going to have a very large advantage over those that can’t

      10A final thought

The most successful college debate coach in history was Scott Deatherage of Northwestern. He was also the “coach of the 2000s” which happened to be the time of my growing up in the coaching ranks. “The Duck” as he was called was both mentor and rival. I was recently at the Blake high school tournament having a conversation with a friend about the Duck. We both agreed that while other coaches were very good at a number of things, the Duck was the best about focusing his team on the singular goal of winning a tournament. Of all the advice he had for his teams and others (the Duck was always coaching everyone) one of my favorites was this

“Be hard on yourself when you failed to give your best. Take it easy on yourself, when you did and came up short.”

This always spoke to me because it informed a fundamental part of understanding winning. Understanding winning requires reconciling what success means and what you need to be validated in your search for it. I still remember the best feelings I had in debate were after I had given what I considered to be a great speech. That is to say when I had given the best speech I was capable of giving. These feelings were really independent of winning or losing and I look back on them as evidence that the “art of winning debate” should always be viewed as a process oriented activity. Build a winning system and the results will follow.

Dave Arnett
Director of Debate, University of Kentucky
Director, Tournament of Champions