Winning Debate Tournaments — Conrad Palor

Winning a debate tournament is no easy endeavor. It is a goal that many debaters strive to accomplish, yet a goal that few achieve. As such, it is critical to note that there is no magical formula that goes into winning a tournament, rather, winning a tournament is a collection of best practices, that when applied in the right circumstances can set the foundations necessary for success. Gathering from my experience as a competitor, I put together a list of ten things you should be doing if you want to win a tournament.

  1. Scouting

Scouting is an important thing to be doing at any tournament, but if your goal is winning the tournament, scouting should be done in a fundamentally different way. Instead of scouting any team you consider good, focus solely on the top five to ten teams at a tournament, ranking them based on priority. As there’s only a limited amount of time during the day, in between rounds and the chaos of tournaments, allocate your time wisely. Gather flows and write prep outs to arguments that are more nuanced or unique that you don’t already have prewritten blocks for.
2. Networking
Networking is an undervalued aspect of debate, but I think it’s one of the most important. Making friends with various teams around the tournament is critical to getting insight on teams they previously hit, as well as judges they’ve had in previous rounds.

  1. Speech Re-Do’s.

Speech Re-Do’s are something that are very popular during the summer months but tend to die when the season starts. Instead of sitting around between preliminary rounds, go outside with your partner and re-do your summary and final focus from previous rounds. The goal should be maximizing efficiency, and getting familiar with the interaction with both your arguments and common arguments on the topic to be able to maximize your speaking time in round.

  1. Forward Thinking.

It is inevitable that throughout a tournament, you might be faced with a decision that you may disagree with. Additionally, you might lose some early preliminary rounds, which can result in pessimism to the tournament as a whole. Instead of dwelling in the previous rounds, it’s important to always look towards the next rounds, and treating every round as though it was your first round in the tournament. This foresight is necessary to avoid a race to the bottom in which your one early loss manifests into you not breaking at a tournament that you had the potential to win.

  1. Never Lose to the Same Argument Twice.

At most debate tournaments, there are a series of arguments that are commonly read. If you lose a round due to an argument that you might have thought you were prepared to answer, spend some time before the next round focusing on improving your blocks or analytical responses in order to ensure that you don’t lose to that argument again.

  1. Take Care of Yourself.

Debate tournaments are marathons, not sprints. Don’t go out too fast and make sure that you are pacing yourself for the long haul. This is especially true at multi-day tournaments in which you have opportunity at night to prepare for the next day. Instead of staying up until 3 am writing prep outs, you should go to bed early, to ensure that you are ready for not just your first round in the day, but hopefully many more to come. Likewise, make sure you are properly hydrating and eating healthy food as opposed to eating Popeye’s Chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Trust me, I’ve know from experience). If you can, try to cut caffeine at around 6 pm.

  1. Judge Scouting and Adaptation.

One of the important facets of Public Forum Debate that sets it apart from other forms of debate is that anyone is encouraged to judge. This means that in one round you may have a judge with decades of coaching experience, while in the next round with someone who barely speaks English. I recommend that when pairings are released, read the judge’s paradigm (if there’s one at all), but at the very minimum check online for how long they’ve been judging for. Once you have that information, make sure you and your partner know what the best strategy is for getting that judge’s ballot. That may mean reading faster or slower, or whether an argument is appropriate to be read at all.

  1. Listening to RFDs.

Whether you won the round or not, if a judge happens to give an oral RFD (Reason for Disclosure) make sure you are taking notes on what they have to say. More often than not, teams take what a judge says through one ear, and then by the time they leave the room they let it go through the other. I recommend–whether or not you won the round–ask the judge questions on specific arguments and their interaction in the debate round as a whole. After the round, when you are with your partner, discuss the judge’s RFD, and consider changing your strategy for future rounds.
With the rise of the internet’s presence regarding tournament logistics and beyond, combined with debate echo chambers such as the notorious debate Reddit, it is easy for you to get psyched out when you are debating a good team. If you want to win a tournament, do everything you can as to not psych yourself for rounds against good teams because in front of a judge, you have the same chance of winning the round. Do not lose yourself on Tabroom searching their record at the last three tournaments. Conversely, don’t underestimate your opponent. While it is strategic to scout out the best teams at the tournament, don’t overlook the team you are debating, as these rounds can sometimes be much more difficult than you initially thought.

  1. Believe in yourself.

Last, but certainly not least, in order to win a tournament, you must believe that you can win the tournament. If you don’t believe in your own abilities to win a tournament, you will struggle to find the confidence to beat a tough opponent and earn your judge’s ballot.
Final Thoughts: Debate is a hard activity. Public Forum is even harder. In the words of Paul Bryant, “Show class, have pride, and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself.” While winning a tournament is a great and impressive accomplishment that demonstrates your skill and hard work into a tangible accomplishment, don’t get so overly fixated on trophies that you forget why you do this activity in the first place. Best of luck!