Upward Trajectory: How to Improve Quickly by Raffi Piliero
Raffi Piliero debated for Harrison High School for 4 years, clearing at the TOC twice, and finishing as bid leader his senior year. He also won several national tournaments and several top speaker awards, and now debates for Georgetown University.
Nobody is perfect. There will never be a 1AR that makes 0 mistakes, an NR that executes everything exactly as the judge would have hoped, or a debater that wins every single debate in a total blowout. Whether someone is a novice who’s never listened to a debate before, let alone given a speech, or someone vying to win the TOC, everyone can stand to improve, and continue to maintain skills over time.
This article is simple; it outlines what you should do to improve, regardless of who you are or your experience. I’ll start by offering some general tips, and then talking more specifically about things to do based on beginner, intermediate, or advanced skill levels.
A. There’s no offseason:
For a lot of debaters, when their last tournament ends in the spring, they figure they can put away their Tabletote and flow pens for another few months until camp rolls around, and forget about debate for a while. While certainly it’s important not to burn out (and I’d even suggest giving yourself a week to rest and come back rejuvenated), the months in between the season ending and camp are ideal times to improve, not regressing and coming to camp worse than you were at the end of the season. Camp is a time to learn from instructors you won’t see during the year, and to build skills you otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to; ideally time isn’t spent re-learning how to spread and fixing word economy that vanished in the months you took off.
The best debaters recognize that the time between the season ending and beginning again is an incredible opportunity, since qualitatively different skills can be emphasized and improved than during the season. Most debaters, during the season, are preoccupied with scouting positions on the NDCA Wiki, writing new AFFs, frontlining, and thinking about the topic; these things are important, and necessary for success, but are things that one need not worry about during the offseason. Instead, once the season is over, there’s a golden opportunity. I personally would use the time to read books about debate, whether critical literature, philosophy, or just debate theory articles to learn more about the mechanics of arguments. Other people I know would watch tapes of their debates from the previous season to figure out some tics or common mistakes they were making continuously. These are all important, but are things that take time and trade off with topical prep that yields more instant, immediate returns; in the off season, there’s no such tradeoff, and these help improve skills that make the difference during the season.
Although certainly a shorter period of time, breaks from school also present a great opportunity for this type of skills building. Although obviously there’s a topic out that needs to be prepped (and that should be the first priority) given the amount of free time, doing any of the above can only help
B. Work at it daily
Wanting to improve is a great (and necessary) first step. But what really counts is actually doing it. Working daily on speaking drills, speeches, prep, or whatever you’ve decided to do is important to continue to improve. The more you work, the more you will improve. Sloppily doing work a couple of times a week with Facebook or TV in the background won’t help nearly as much as committing to actually improving. In line with this, writing out manageable goals and setting schedules for yourself can help you stay organized. For example, if you write out that you want to get to quarterfinals of your tournament in a month, and will cut 10 cards a day and do 20 minutes of speaking drills, you’re setting much more attainable and precise goals than just generically “hoping to improve and do well”. You also then can know if you’re doing what you need to, or if you’re falling short
For people with no debate experience, breaking into it seems daunting. Everyone seems like they’re speaking incomprehensibly fast, making arguments that are convoluted and confusing, and just not debating at all like the presidential debates you’d see on TV. However, everyone starts there inevitably, and there are things that can be done to improve
A. Watch rounds online.
The most overwhelming thing for most people starting out is the speed people speak at. The solution is to start training the ear to understand it. Watching videos of rounds online that are slightly slower than average circuit speed is a good start; building up to average and then fast circuit speeds is something that takes time, but eventually can happen. Additionally, watching college policy debates can be useful; they’re quite fast but usually very clear as well, and are a good test for if your ear is getting attuned to high speeds
B. Learn from others
One of the biggest factors for me sticking with debate and improving was the amazing support I had from varsity teammates and my coach who taught me a lot of the basics of circuit debate. However, many people lack this type of base; instead, one helpful thing is to reach out to others in the community (or at a camp) and ask questions.
There’s no need to be nervous; nobody is going to judge you for being inexperienced and wanting to learn, because everyone was there at some point. Reaching out to others and asking about what an argument means, how a particular strategy is executed, or even their thoughts on the topic can help you understand how successful circuit debaters or coaches think, which can only help you learn more.
This sounds obvious, but people really don’t utilize this enough. If you feel unprepared about executing in rounds, then do it more. Go to local tournaments with low pressure, low stake environments; regardless of the final results, you’ll get more experience and more rounds in, and can get input from judges. If tournaments don’t seem available, doing practice rounds with teammates or even just friendly figures in the community can help create the aforementioned benefits of rounds
The people who fall into this group are those who have debated for a little bit, know the basics, but want to start achieving more prolonged levels of circuit success. These debaters might go even at tournaments, or go 4-2 and miss clearing on speaks; there are several tweaks that make the difference between someone that barely misses elims and someone who gets to the bid round, or bids
A. Give speeches, and do speaking drills
This is something else that should be second-nature, but a lot of people don’t do. The difference between a decent circuit debater and a great one often just comes down to technical proficiency. Being able to speak quickly, clearly, and efficiently comes down to practicing it a ton.
While I’d argue that being able to speak extremely quickly isn’t even essential (or optimal for debaters where it trades off with clarity or efficiency), being efficient is the replacement for that. If a time-crunched 1AR wastes 40 seconds (or more) on inefficient phrasings, repetition, and other inefficiencies, they likely lose to an equal debater just given structural constraints of the time-crunched 1AR. Or, if the NR says the right arguments, but they were so unclearly delivered that the judge didn’t understand them, that debater probably loses to an ethos-y and well-framed 2AR that explains arguments in a coherent way.
The solution is putting in the time and giving speeches and speaking drills. I won’t go into a lot of the specific drills that can be done (Danny DeBois wrote a fantastic article a few years back outlining most of the ones that I would recommend; I attached the link at the end of the article), but drills themselves are important. At minimum, doing speaking drills on a daily basis to build speed and clarity is important to form the muscle memory in the mouth that lets one just speak naturally and fluently without thinking about it, making it more habitual. Giving speeches and redoes can help one hone the speech and make it stronger, so that it can be executed better in real time
B. Watch the best
If you want to learn how to be the best, and to take the next step, you need to know what you’re aiming for. Whether it’s watching the best debaters of your year or some of the most successful from previous years, watching top people can help teach important skills. The way I’d recommend watching rounds is to pause after each speech, and think about what your strategy would be, what you predict they would do, and to think backwards from what their final speech and overall strategy should be. That way, you’re actively making decisions in a high level round, so that when you find yourself in those situations, you know how to handle it and to think proactively about in-round strategy
C. Know your prep
One big issue that prevents a lot of solid, but not great debaters from taking the next step forward is not cutting their own evidence, whether just because they’re handed it by teammates or coaches, or because they just use the evidence that other people have cut and just recut it off of the wiki. You’ll never know an argument well enough just by giving it a cursory read-through on the bus ride to a tournament, especially compared to someone who not only read that article, but read the 3 articles that the author footnotes and is responding to. Being able to talk intelligently about a card isn’t just useful for speaker points and CX; it helps you know what arguments interact with each other, and helps you make the most intuitive answers to various substantive. positions
Improvement for top tier debaters is one of the more underrated types of improvement, because people don’t realize how important it is. At the beginner and intermediate levels, debates are often won just by mistakes that one person makes, and aren’t often as close. However, in advanced debates, rounds are usually won between two quite proficient debaters who capitalize on mistakes, and win by out-debating the other. The difference between winning a tournament and losing in octas to a talented debater might be a single piece of evidence you cut and highlighted at 11PM, or the extra analytic you were able to put out on theory because of that extra 10 seconds of efficiency you saved; rounds are won at the margins, and come down to small things
A. Don’t forget the basics
Just because you have 5 bids doesn’t mean that the 1AR should have inefficiencies, that the 2AR shouldn’t tell a story, or that the NC can be read incomprehensibly. These things matter, and are often forgotten about at the higher levels of debate. These all require practice, so a lot of the drills outlined earlier in the article should still be done
The first thing that many people notice on the circuit is how often a lot of the same cards get used and recycled; those cards came from somewhere. This is true both of generic framework and K cards, and of topic specific positions. While it’s OK to model a position someone else has run in a pinch, ideally you’re the one who has the prep that people are modeling. Do tons of research, and find the articles buried in the literature that aren’t on the first 2 pages of a Google search. Be the one who people are recutting from the NDCA wiki, not the one doing most of the mining. That way, when TOC rolls around and people are still reading the cards from the AFF you cobbled together in January, you have brand new prep and positions that nobody knew was coming.
Honestly, this is probably what singularly distinguishes the advanced, good debaters from the truly great ones. Being able to make new arguments, have recent evidence, and stay on top of the ball means that everyone else is forced to be reactive while you’re proactively changing the game.
C. Attack your weaknesses
It’s important to be self-reflexive; despite how many tournaments you’ve bid at or won, you aren’t perfect. There will always be someone in the country who has a comparative strength over you and that you wouldn’t want to debate on a particular skillset. Once you’ve identified areas you’re weak in, and concerned about, it’s time to try and fix it. Doing practice rounds with people on concern areas, or just giving speeches can help. For example, an excellent util debater doesn’t need to be as good on philosophy as they are on their main strength, but they shouldn’t be in a spot where they’re sweating bullets if they’re Aff against a good phil debater.
Being able to also make the round come down to what you’re good at is another important way to shift away from weaknesses. Following the above example of the util debater who is weak at philosophy, they should pref low judges who will be receptive to dense philosophy, or get good at winning util tricks (or even theory hedges like epistemic modesty and theoretically justified frameworks) to make the framework debate avoidable.
D. Attack your opponents’ weaknesses
As mentioned above, nobody is perfect. Mistakes people make often aren’t isolated, and among top debaters, positive reinforcement like wins breed complacency where people don’t try to fix mistakes and continue making them.
Watching rounds of your main competition, whether at tournaments or online, can help you to figure out what those weaknesses are. This type of scouting can help you know which types of judges you want to pref, which types of arguments you want to make, and foreshadow what strategies you think they’ll do against you.
For example, my senior year, I was worried about a particular AFF; I watched a number of debates where teams read this position, and I timed the amount of time they spent answering Topicality in the 1AR. I then decided that I would read a super short T argument whenever debating it just to get a positive time tradeoff, since it would be shorter than the prewritten frontlines that were continuously read against it. This type of scouting helped me think ahead to the end of the debate, and what I thought my best arguments and options would be based on the predictability of some opponents’ responses to arguments.
Improvement isn’t something that only happens at a particular point in time, or for a particular skillset, but something continuous. I hope this article was helpful in giving some general tips and guidelines; obviously, every person is different and learns differently, but a lot of the general ideas hopefully can help you figure out weaknesses and hone strengths.