A Champions Guide To Succeeding At NCFLs

Everyone, this is not a drill — we’re only a few days away from the NCFL Grand National Tournament (catnats, if you will)! This is a particularly exciting year, as it is the first in-person catnats in a while (after it was cancelled in 2020 and online in 2021.)

Catnats is a great tournament, and I want all of you to do the absolute best you can. So, to facilitate all of you being as prepared as possible, in this article I will be explaining some of the key things you should know about catnats prior to competing there for the first time, as well as offering a few tips that I think will help you succeed.

1. Tournament Structure

First, it is important to note that NCFLs is the shortest national tournament, with 11 rounds total (including the play-in) in just 2 days.[1] There are five double-flighted prelims, all held on Saturday, and a play-in round followed by doubles onward on Sunday. The full schedule can be found here. This means you should be prepared to be very tired; I’ll offer some tips in section 5 regarding how to deal with the strenuous schedule of this tournament.

Second, something that differentiates NCFL prelims from other national tournaments is the judging system; every prelim has a three-judge panel, elims through quarters have three-judge panels, and semis and finals have five judges. There’s no judge preference system, tragically, but the panels in prelims should (ideally) help minimize or balance out any wonky judging situations.

Third, location: most tournaments are held in schools, or, this year, online, but the D.C. catnats is primarily held in convention centers, at least for prelims. Now, I can’t say anything about this with one hundred percent certainty, so don’t send me angry emails if this turns out to be incorrect, but the last time catnats was held in D.C., the convention centers had little cubicles set up basically using curtains to separate the ‘rooms.’ I feel this is important to note because you should be prepared to handle how this will affect your performance. There’s very little space in the cubicles,[2] there’s not excellent soundproofing, and both of those things have implications for how you will have to adjust to competing. Make sure you’re conscious of the space you’re using, consolidating your items so you are making the most efficient use of limited desk space, talking at a proper volume that it overcomes background noise but you aren’t shouting, etc. Elims are usually held in conference rooms at a hotel, which is a great place to have them. Those rooms are really fun. No complaints there.

Ultimately, don’t stress about structure — there are a few differences between the structure of catnats and other major tournaments, but mainly ones that will either have no effect or will even enhance the experience of the tournament. Remind yourself that it’s just like any other tournament!

2. Judging

This section may be a bit theoretical, but nonetheless I hope I can offer a few tips. The judging landscape at catnats will likely be a bit different from years prior; in 2021, for instance, when compared to previous in person iterations of catnats, there were many more young, experienced judges since they could judge from anywhere. Now that we’re in person again, there’s no telling exactly what the judging pool will be like, and the NCFL tabroom page has yet to publish judges.

However, what we can reasonably expect to see is a very mixed pool of judges with a variety of experience levels. Judges come from across the country, and they vary from former debaters, current debate coaches, coaches or alums of non-debate events, and, surely, some community and parent judges. This means you should be fully prepared to debate in front of not only an ideologically diverse set of judges, but in front of them on panels; it could surely be the case you have three completely different judges on one panel.

But never fear! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and, either way, it is certainly something you can overcome. Here are some of my tips for dealing with the NCFL judge pool.

First, don’t over adapt, especially on a panel. Obviously, there are little things you can do to help a judge vote for you. Speed, for instance, is easy to adapt; it doesn’t massively affect your style but can greatly help some judges understand the round better. Ultimately, what judges want to see is a confident debater who enjoys what they are doing. You’re going to perform your best on your terms; don’t massively change your style to try to contort to a panel, just make little adjustments that will make it easier for the judge to vote for you.

Next, please read paradigms.[3] This might seem a bit contradictory with the previous tip, but I assure you they work in tandem. Ideally, judges should have paradigms that will cue you in to what adjustments you need to make. When reading paradigms, make sure you look for the overarching things that affect how someone judges: what is their preferred speed, how much and where have they judged, what events do they usually judge, are they tech over truth, etc. You’ll see a variety of paradigms; shorter ones might give you too little information, longer ones might give you too much,[4] but just try your best to sus out the most important aspects of each judge and adapt to those in round. Readings paradigms is also useful because one of the least favorite phrases of any judge, in my opinion, is “I didn’t get time to read your paradigm before the round, do you have any preferences?” You could probably read the basics of our paradigms in the time it takes us to answer.

Finally, use this diverse judge pool as a learning opportunity. I firmly believe that big national tournaments are some of the most pivotal moments in the education of debaters. Catnats, if nothing else, should help you understand how you can use your own style to adapt to a number of different judges. Take the lessons you learn about adaptation and apply it in your future rounds and endeavors!

3. Competition Style

I have similar things to say about the style of competition as I do the style of judging: it is all over the place. You have students from a lot of different backgrounds, different experience levels, and different locations all competing together. There will be debaters who primarily compete on the circuit, those who only compete local circuit, those who don’t even do LD as their primary event, and so on. I don’t think this is a particularly huge issue (again, I view this more as a learning opportunity,) but there are a few things I will note.

First, the tournament is very traditional. Even granted there are circuit debaters competing, this is the most traditional of all three major national tournaments, in my opinion. Since the judge pool and competitors will trend extremely traditional, make sure you are prepared for very traditional or even lay rounds. Again, don’t over adapt, but be sure you are prepared to go very slowly in some rounds, give very traditional, narrative based final speeches, and so on.

Next, be prepared to see some surprising arguments. I’ve had a lot of students ask me just this year what sorts of frameworks, for instance, will be commonplace at the NCFL tournament. While you obviously should be expecting the standards (util, structural violence, etc.) I wouldn’t count out anything else. There are inevitably several surprising, unique frameworks that pop up at NCFLs,[5] more than I could reasonably predict, and you should be prepared to handle those. Obviously you can’t drill against every framework you might see, but I would recommend you drill against frameworks you have trouble responding to prior to the tournament. In round, if you’re debating a framework you’ve never seen, it’s going to be okay! Take a deep breath, ask about it in cross, and use logical responses — everything has a flaw, and I trust you are all capable of figuring them out. These same tips apply to contention level arguments you didn’t predict; respond logically and make sure to weigh!

Finally, again, learn from this! When you debate in an insular community, like the local circuit, it can be easy to fall into the same old habits. I think national tournaments are great opportunities to see what other good debaters are doing and pick up a few tricks to make yourself a better debater, and to spice things up on your local circuit when you return!

4. COVID-19 Precautions

Now, while I, like everyone else, am thrilled catnats is back in person, and while I surely do not want to put a damper on anyone’s excitement for a trip to D.C., I do feel obligated to remind everyone about the COVID precautions put in place by the NCFL, and why such stringent precautions exist.

First, you all should (hopefully) have submitted your proof of vaccination by now, which was required by the NCFL for all attendees of the tournament. You should make sure you have proof of vaccination on you (your vaccination card, a picture of it, a digital pass, etc.) just in case there are any locations you wish to visit in D.C. that require that.

Second, there is a mask requirement for all attendees at all of the competition locations at all times other than when speaking or eating. Make sure you bring plenty of clean masks that you can wear, and I would suggest having extras stored in your bag in case the need should arise. There will be a lot of people milling about the competition sites, so to keep yourself and everyone else as safe as possible, I would recommend making sure you have the most effective type of mask that is comfortable for you to wear for a long period of time (the NCFL is recommending K/N95s). And, please, I’m begging, wear your masks correctly.

Additionally, although masks are not required while you are speaking, I would encourage you all to ask the participants (competitors, judges, observers) in your rounds if they are comfortable with you speaking without a mask. I understand many debaters do not prefer to speak with a mask on, but with the nature of COVID-19, I strongly believe it’s a tradeoff that occasionally must happen. If this makes you nervous about how you will speak, I recommend doing a couple of drills masked to ensure you can adapt.

Finally, just stay vigilant in general! Bring some at-home tests if possible. If you start to feel sick, make sure to tell your advisor so the relevant persons[6] can be notified and take the proper action. We all want this tournament to run as smoothly and safely as possible, and making sure we limit the spread of illness is a huge part of that.

I don’t want to belabor this point too much, and I’m sure we’re all tired of hearing about COVID statistics. But, the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations are on the rise again across the United States, and D.C. is no exception, having just last week raised their COVID danger level from “low” to “medium,” so it is imperative that the necessary precautions are taken to minimize the spread.

5. Advice, tips, and tricks!

Finally, I’m going to offer a few general tips that I think will boost your overall experience at the NCFL National Tournament.

First, take care of yourself! I don’t know how many times I’ve said this to debaters, but I will keep saying it until the end of time. Debate is tiring, and like I said, NCFLs is the shortest national tournament, shoving a lot of rounds into only two days. It’s imperative that you do your best to eat, sleep, and relax sufficiently. Not only is this just good for your wellbeing, but it will enhance your performance. I know you think you need to stay up for hours cutting those extra cards, but seriously. Just go to sleep. You will thank yourself later.

Second, have fun, both in round and out of round. I know you all want to do well, but you all should also make sure you’re having fun in your rounds; debate the way you want to debate, read some spicy arguments, have some good discussions, etc., especially if you’re a senior. The rounds you will remember most, I promise, will be the ones you had the most fun in. Plus, judges can tell when you’re having a good time, so it’s competitively useful too. Outside of round, also make sure you’re enjoying the tournament. Hang out with your friends, go some fun places in D.C., meet some new debaters. This is the first in person national tournament in a few years, and y’all should take advantage of that.

Finally, remember strategy. Like I said earlier, you’re going to be in front of a variety of judges against a variety of debaters. While I don’t believe you should substantially change your style, I do think this necessitates changing your strategy. There will be rounds where going for certain things just won’t be viable. I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes debaters can forget basic strategy in the heat of a round. Remember that collapsing is always an option, kicking is always an option, going for turns is always an option, and so on. You should have very clean understandings of how to use different parts of your cases for different scenarios and so on. Strategy is the most important adaptation method you can possibly use at NCFLs.


I hope this article helped you all be more prepared on what to expect at the wonderful NCFL Grand National Tournament! Remember to stay calm, take care of yourself and others, and always debate the way you want to debate.

If you have any further questions, you should peruse the NCFL website to find further details about the tournament, and make sure you download the tournament app (‘NCFL Grand Nationals’) to access important information. Finally, feel free to email me with any questions about this article or NCFLs in general at evathelamberson@gmail.com.

Good luck everyone!

[1] Compared to ~12 rounds in 3 days at the TOC and ~16 in 5 days at NSDAs.
[2] One might hope they will be a bit more spacious this year to accommodate for social distancing, but we shall see.
[3] For new judges that are trying to write their paradigms for the first time, Triumph will be publishing an article on how to write paradigms soon that you should keep a lookout for!
[4] Like mine. Sorry. With longer paradigms you should always make sure to utilize Ctrl F.
[5] I say this with some authority because I was the type of debater that did this sort of thing. Sorry to everyone who had to deal with that!
[6] The NCFL has yet to say if there will be a medical reporting system/office at the tournament, but I would venture to guess there will be one and the guidelines for reporting will be discussed at the beginning of the tournament. If there is not, you still should alert someone who can take the proper action.

About The Author

Eva Lamberson competed in Lincoln Douglas for four years at Canfield High School in Ohio, where she served as the president of her team in 2018. Eva was a two time NCFL Grand National Tournament qualifier, a tournament which she championed in 2018. Eva was also a two time NSDA National qualifier, where she advanced to round twelve both years, placing fifteenth in 2017 and eleventh in 2018. She has been coaching for four years, and is currently the LD coach for the Hawken School. Eva has coached students to qualify to all three major national tournaments – NSDA, NCFL, and TOC. Students Eva has coached have also reached late outrounds or finals at tournaments like the UK season opener, Yale, Durham, the OH State Tournament, NCFLS, and NSDAs. She attends Youngstown State University where she studies philosophy and English and competes on the Ethics Bowl team.

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