How To Win Rounds Against “Better™” Debaters

I debated on a local circuit in the state of Ohio. And even though I almost exclusively competed in one debate category, I generally knew who the Ohio community viewed as the “Best Debaters™” in other categories. A combination of tuning in to the award ceremonies, overhearing hallway buzz and chatter, and listening to the opinions of my teammates kept me informed and up to date. Plus, we all know the feeling of getting paired against a team/debater that we believe are “really good” or “better” than us. But, often times we place too much emphasis on a debaters past success or reputation. My goal with this article is to offer techniques that can help students overcome those feelings of immediate defeat, while helping you perform your best, even when you think you’ve lost the round before it started.

Mindset & Mentality

First, I want to dismantle the idea that any person “should” win a round or is, in any way, “entitled” to a ballot. Rounds are won or lost based on the judge’s decision, and that decision alone. Ballots are earned. They are not handed to whomever is most “deserving” based on the records of previous tournaments. Were that the case, what would be the point in debating? After all, rounds would just be decided before they even started on the basis of who “should” win.

Even though your opponents may be seniors, it doesn’t mean they need another win for their final year. Even though your opponents may have qualified to NSDA Nationals or the TOC all 4 years of high school, it doesn’t mean they never make mistakes. Even though your opponents were the top seed, it doesn’t mean they have perfect final focuses.

What I’m getting at with those anecdotes is that no matter how skilled your opponent has been in the past, they do not deserve to beat you. The person who deserves to win the round at hand is the person who does the better debating. Past records do not matter if your opponent drops of one of your contentions in rebuttal, or undercovers a CP that solves all of case in the 2AC. Debaters are human, and they will make mistakes. They have done nothing to deserve the outcome of this next round by itself.

The second important thing debaters should remind themselves of is to fight the implicit or explicit urge to give up. Far too often students will see their opponent, make judgements about whether or not they feel as though they can beat that opponent, and perform in round as though that outcome has already been decided. But, even if the round is very difficult, walking in with a losing mentality is more likely to actually make you lose, and diminishes the educational value of the round for everyone. Rather than give up, debaters should approach tough rounds as a learning experience. Challenge yourself to do better, instead of assuming defeat. At the very worst, you lose the round anyways. But walking in with the most optimistic perspective can increase your chances of winning the round (by sheer confidence in performance alone) and lead to a more educational experience for you as a debater. So, no matter how much you may think the round is a lost cause, always debate as if the round is winnable. Because it is.

The last point in mentality that I want to make is to remain grounded in your love of debate. Falling in love with debate is what keeps you going when you’re in are tough moments, where luck doesn’t work out for you. Remember the reasons why you do debate. People participate in debate for a variety of different reasons, but we all share a love for this activity, no matter how big a place it has in our hearts. If you figure out what debate means to you, you will then be less prone to burnout when working on tough research projects or just trying to do that rebuttal redo correctly. Some people think about debate every day, others the night before the tournament. It doesn’t matter where you fall in the formula. But your position on how much debate matters to you will help carry you to victory or help cushion your loss if you don’t care as much.

However, those who have more of a passion for debate are more likely to win those tough rounds because they’ve put the time in. If you’re reading this article, chances are you have the drive to improve as a debater and as a result, are more likely to win tough rounds compared to those who don’t care either way. Congrats! That’s the first step to making success happen.

Round Application

Stick With What You’re Best At

You may be thinking that you haven’t done the necessary prep to beat a “higher-level” team. Sure, your block sheet may be ¼ the size of theirs. You may have way less cards or time to do drills. You may think that they’ve done so much more than you, or that they’ve had way too much experience for you to win a round against them. And while they may have more prep and/or experience, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still pick up the ballot.

If you have one thing prepped that you (and your partner) know like the back of your hands and are ready to argue, you have something you can beat this team on.

I know that in many debate formats/on many circuits, there is the temptation to spread your opponent(s) out, wield an ungodly number of tricks or utilize highly-technical arguments to try to gain an advantage over your opponent. However, good debaters see through these methods and know what you’re trying to do. They will make your decisions work in their favor, by reading offense or predicting your rebuttal strategies, so that they get the best time-tradeoff. To prevent this, stick to what you know, and what you’re good at.

It is not strategic for you to focus on arguments which you have less experience on compared to your opponent. The best recommendation I have is to stick to what you know and to focus on running arguments that are familiar so you can argue them the best. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to spread your opponent out or use technical/tricky arguments to beat the other team – it just means in this particular match-up, it probably isn’t the most strategic approach for you.

Another benefit of reading a small number of specific arguments or your standard case is bridging the “Good Team/Debater v. Bad Team/Debater” divide. This is the name I give the uncanny knack of the “Better Team/Debater” to make the “Bad Team/Debater” look perceptually worse by asking them the right cross questions or through digs/comments during speeches. Reading arguments that you know allows you to sound just as informed on your issues in the round as they are on theirs.

In short, while it might be tempting to try and utilize technical strategies to force your opponent into an uncomfortable position, “higher-level” debaters can generally handle these arguments, because they have more experience with them. The best way to beat a debater that you feel unconfident against is to debate in your most confident way, relying on strategies and arguments you are most familiar with

Stay Clear For The Judge

When you’re competing against an extremely experienced debater, the round can get really messy. One of the most common comments that we hear younger debaters get in their RFDs is that the judge was confused on what to vote for. Often times, younger debaters can lack a strategic vision for the round, prioritizing responding to everything thrown at them rather than construction a winning strategy. Even if you aren’t a younger debater, chances are that these “Good Debaters™” may be better at explaining to the judge why they have won the round in a succinct way.

You need to make sure that, throughout the entirety of the debate, the ways that you win the round are clear. Signpost all the net benefits to the CP or signpost the three responses you have to their Contention 1, give an overview for your speeches so the judge knows what you’re doing, etc. While you might feel a lot of pressure because you perceive your opponents as “Good Debaters™”, you need to always keep in mind that you are NOT debating for them. You are debating exclusively for your judge. Make the round clear for your judge.

Capitalize On Their Mistakes

This recommendation is a little bit of an extension of one of our earlier points. Debaters are humans. Even the best of us make mistakes. We’re fallible – we get poor sleep, forget to eat lunch, don’t have the time to prep out a specific DA, or just simply mess up. It’s an inevitability that your opponent will make some mistakes in round – whether big or small.

Far too often I see debaters let their opponents’ mistakes slide. Do not do this. If your opponent drops your C2 – make this the biggest point in the round. If they accidentally concede something – point that out. Did they forget to extend an argument in rebuttal? Did they drop offense you put on their case? Your opponent will make a mistake, so capitalize on it.

Keep Your Head Up

It can be really discouraging competing against one of the top debaters in your circuit – we understand. It can make you really anxious or nervous. But if you want to perform to the best of your ability in that round, you must keep your cool. No matter if the other team is stoic, humorous, or mean, you need to focus on the arguments and not let their personalities throw you off.

Often times, debaters will act more confident or arrogant in rounds where they feel as though they have already won. But this is all performative, and in part, is designed to make you even more nervous. Don’t let the other team throw you off and remember that you have the tools to succeed.

One piece of advice to help this is to write your partner or yourself positive notes during the round, motivational messages or things to remember during the debate to keep them/you going in the most intense moments.

In short, debating those at the top of the bracket can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be. Being prepared both with debate prep and your mental state are the keys to succeed in these challenging debates.


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