I’m never going to forget my eagle scout project. My team and I repaired antique fire ladders for the City of Chesapeake’s Fire Department – but we did it using the classical style: scraping the old varnish off of the ladders with shards of glass. The hardest part of that project wasn’t the actual project – the hardest part of that project was the hours of preparation for the project. It was such a pain filling out the paperwork, securing the hardware, discussing plans with the beneficiary, raising awareness and recruiting assistants.
In debate we shouldn’t expect the hardest part to be the actual competition. Indeed it can be the most enjoyable and exciting, but the difficulty of debate, like eagle scout projects, comes during the preparation. So now that we’re in the middle of the tournament season, what’s the best way to prepare?
Preparation at this stage is a two-step process: looking backward, to see where you’ve been, and looking forward, to see where you’re going.
It’s foolish to prepare for upcoming tournaments without first examining your performance in past tournaments. Often the best lessons are learned during this time. Drew Magness outlined this well in his article, “Never Lose the Same Way Twice”
The first step in looking back is…
It’s crucial to think about why you won the rounds you won, why you lost the rounds you lost, what you should keep the same and what you should change. For me personally, I found looking back that my presentation was lacking at my most recent tournament. After examining my ballots, talking with friends, and watching several rounds I could really stand to up my speaker game.
The evaluation process doesn’t need to be painful or long, but it does have to be as objective as you can make it. We’ve all heard the classic lesson to not blame your judges after rounds but that’s such a hard rule to follow. Here, you should. In this process of evaluating how you debated you should understand that your future success can depend on a fair assessment of yourself. Self-assessments can be a really hard thing to do, but it’s also one of the best ways to improve yourself.
Step two is…
After your evaluation of past rounds, records, and RFDs, you should anticipate what kinds of arguments and issues you’re most likely to see again. Make a list of the arguments you hit and order them by priority of addressing. Think about what rounds may have been a fluke. Ask yourself is there are certain judges that you’re not connecting with and how you can better yourself to communicate to them. Check yourself for issues in different types of debate rounds (to debate better in outrounds, read this article by Isaiah.)
Again, this process should not be difficult. Trying to anticipate what you’re likely to face again isn’t a painstaking task. But it’s an incredible tool in preparing for upcoming tournaments. The prioritization of certain arguments and ideas that need addressing is a fundamental aspect of improving yourself.
I love writing songs. Something I’ve learned after years of music production is that you need to make the big changes first, and as time passes, make smaller and smaller changes to your song until you’ve run out of changes to make. This same philosophy is a great way to approach debate preparation.
I have had a month between tournaments, and so my first step after evaluating and anticipating was to make the big changes to my cases. By doing this, not only will I understand my arguments better come my next tournament, but I’m also leaving ample time to fix issues with the new arguments that I write. If you need to re-write your AC, do that first. If you need to write a new consequence for your negative case, take care of that first. If you need more evidence or examples, find those first. You want to finish the big changes as soon as possible.
Once the big changes have been taken care of, just like writing a song, start to make the smaller changes. Address the subtle problems with your reasoning and arguments. Write that somewhat unimportant, but nevertheless necessary mini-brief you’ve been putting off. Try to refine your transitions and improve the structure of your arguments. This step is really open to interpretation. The first and third steps are both pretty clearly laid out, but this “in between” step is sort of up to you – as long as the changes you make are genuine improvements based off of lessons you learned from the evaluation and anticipation stage.
Once you’re packing for the tournament or making a list of what snacks to bring – whichever comes first (for me it’s the latter), it’s time to make the smallest changes. Write figures of speech for different arguments, find the perfect opener/closer combination, perfectly word the thesis of your NC. This step is one that’s been earned by completing the last two steps. I can’t make the tiny changes to a mix unless I actually have a track in the first place. Nor can anyone add such minute changes to their case unless they have a case at all.
Arriving at this point is liberating. The feeling of having truly prepared for a tournament and saving yourself from the shame of changing nothing is freeing and makes debating way more fun. This is where the winners and losers are truly determined – because he who is better prepared will be more professional and confident than he who is not.