That…could have gone better

So the TOC is over, for many seniors their HS debate careers are also over/winding down. For others, mainly sophomores and juniors, they are coming off a disappointing performance at the TOC and may feel pretty bummed about it/their prospects. So I want to tell you a little story and go over some ways to channel that angst into improvement.


When I was a sophomore we qualified to the TOC and I was pretty stoked to go. The aff we were going to run was to end the NATO air campaign in Kosovo and negotiate a peace agreement with Russia. Everyday for about a month before the tournament I would do the following Lexis search Kosovo w/255 Russia and then I would print all. Those of you older than like 25 who remember what Lexis used to be like are probably chuckling at how catastrophically stupid this research strategy was- but for at least a month I would go through those 400+ pages of articles every day trying to put this case together. In the end we probably had around 6-700 pages of totally unorganized evidence in a giant manila folder “ready” to go. So we arrived at the tournament all fired up and ready to unleash hell. Well, we ended up going 1-6. To give you some insight into just how bad we did, here are some of the rounds I remember.


-We lost to shunning. Not only did we lose to shunning, but I knew that this team ONLY went for shunning so our 1AC was about 1 minute of actual debate and then 7 minutes of shunning pre-empts. Not only that, our plan banned bombing civilians, a pretty big human rights violation in and of itself. Nevertheless, the shun proved too strong.

-We lost going for malthus against some sort of disease assistance aff that claimed to solve for 1,000 deaths. The reason we lost is lost to memory but come on, only 1k? Malthus is like presumption at that point

-We lost on consult NATO when our plan banned an action that was unanimously voted for by all NATO members- i.e. even though every member of NATO had voted against the plan like 4 weeks before the tournament the judge thought NATO would say yes to the plan because of US influence… Still salty about that one Arnett.

-We lost to some team from Idaho and one of the debaters was named “Thad Blank”- what a stupid name and state.

-In a miraculous stroke of luck we debated a team running our exact case, only they also sent in a joint peace keeping force. We CPed to PIC out of peacekeepers. The CP text was like “EXCEPT PEACE KEEPERS”. We lost on CP sends peacekeepers just like the plan… still have no idea how that happened.

-something else I’m sure embarrassing

I was pretty bummed. I didn’t understand what went wrong, we had cleared at almost every tournament we attended that year, I had done all kinds of work… 1-6?  I didn’t want to go home because that would mean my parents would ask “how did you do” and I would have to tell them. After wallowing in self pity  for 10s of seconds I decided that wasn’t going to fix anything and I resolved to working on improvement. The next morning we went to the TOC banquet and I had one of the more important experiences of my debate career. I chose my seat at the banquet so that I would be within talking distance of a young lady who I had a large crush on since she annihilated me at the Northwestern tournament a few weeks prior. As I sat down I noticed that she was not eating but instead had a stack of files in front of her that she was going through and highlighting. I said hello and she kind of nodded at me and then somehow managed to ignore my charm and wit as I talked to some other people at the table. The banquet used to take HOURS so this went on for some time. I went off to watch rounds and didn’t think much off it until I saw the quarters pairing. The 3 or 4 other people I had been talking to after being Heismanned had all lost in the octos. In an Ace Ventura esque Finkel is Einhorn revelation it slowly dawned on me:


Doing debate work…. contributes to… wait for it… debate success.


I have no idea if the highlighting that took place during the banquet actually contributed to a win, or if the other debaters had done work instead of talking to me if they would have won their debates, but that image her ignoring everyone around her to focus on prepping stuck with me. In the long van ride home I started thinking about what we could have done better, how I could of put in more effort to achieve better results. For me there were a few key areas of improvement


1. Organization- for our aff we had a million cards but I couldn’t find any of them without a huge amount of effort. Our neg stuff was similarly disastrous.

2. Speaking- at every past tournament that year I had gotten a speaker award but didn’t receive one here-did these college judges not know how important I was? Apparently not. I had to rethink my approach, perhaps pure brute speed wasn’t the best strategy… j/k

3. For a good portion of the year we had been going for consultation counterplans. That’s what we had the most practice with, what we were best at. We didn’t read any at the TOC  instead reading new neg args. This didn’t go well. It turns out you are better at something after you practice it.



If you did poorly at the TOC and want to improve your results than you need to think, and be honest, about what areas you want to improve on. For most of you thats going to be two things


1. Cut more cards. Look back over the year, from the time camp ended till the time you left for the TOC how many pages of debate work did you do? If that number is less than 1,000 you need to work harder. I can hear it now “1,000? bro thats so much work”. Really its not. Camp ends like Aug 10th. TOC was April 22ndish, we will count august and april as 1 full month to be conservative. Then you had Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, March for 8 total months of work time. On average months have 30 days, so thats 240 days. In order to do 1,000 pages of work you would need to do 5 pages a day giving you 40 days off for time at tournaments, holidays etc. That is NOT A LOT. That is about 1 hour or less of card cutting per day. If you aren’t willing to put in 1 hour a day, you aren’t going to be that successful barring some ungodly amount of talent or the luck of being on a huge squad with lots of other card cutters. If you want to win tournaments/clear at the TOC 2-3 hours of work a day is probably a more reasonable goal and you are looking at 2-3k pages of work at the end of the year.


Obviously you don’t just want to cut cards you want to produce runnable arguments. That usually includes writing blocks. I count a block as a page of work but it should probably count as 2-3 pages as blocks are more important than raw cards. Think about your TOC- how much of your speeches were blocked out? If its less than say 70% than you didn’t do enough prep. Blocks make you sound better, make your arguments more efficient and polished etc. If you aren’t writing a ton of blocks, and then re-writing them over and over, you are doing it wrong.


2. Speaking. How many practice speeches did you give in April? If its less than 50 you are doing it wrong. A practice speech at most takes 8 minutes, if you did 50 of them that would be 400 minutes. Divided by the 20 or so days prior to the TOC that works out to 20 minutes a day of practicing speaking- this is not a lot. IN fact you should be doing more than that, but as a bare minimum you should be able to see that if you didn’t even reach 20 minutes a day you are preparing for failure.


As a little ending, I would like to relay some convos I had with former lab students recently about work/success at the TOC.


Labbie 1: I had 4 bid rounds this year but lost them all, I don’t think I will ever qualify

Me: in those 4 rounds, how many did you read new arguments in?

Labbie 1: zero

Me: How many of those 4 rounds did you lose to new arguments?

Labbie 1: none


Well… than this is a situation that is preventable. If you are on the cusp of being able to qualify or not you need to make sure you put effort into doing things that will help you qual- writing new arguments is a big part of that. Writing a new case, a generic neg position, or even a case specific strategy- if you have any of those things going for you in a bid round you should be in good shape. Doing well doesn’t just mean prepping at the end of the year, in order to get to the end of the year you need to put in work throughout the year. If you are doing your 5 pages a day you should be able to write at least 1 new case per month which means you should have new arguments in the hopper at all times. Some of the new cases you write will be bad and you will lose anyway- but you are gaining crucial experience that will make you better in the long run


Labbie 2: We always read X and people started reading like 4 mns of pre-empts making it really hard

Me: well when they do that you need to go for something else

Labbie 2: … but I don’t want to


Look, debate is a lot of different things to different people. If you want to use debate to talk about something important to you that is totally fine, but no one is required to vote for you just because you care about what you are talking about. Debate is a competition, when you only have 1 argument in your arsenal you give your opponents a huge advantage- both in preparing to debate you and in making in round decisions. If you look at the teams who either struggle to qualify or who did qual but then struggled at the tournament you will see a lot of unidimensional teams. These teams are often able to do well vs less experienced/less skilled opponents but that struggle significantly vs the upper echelon because when they finally debate someone ready to deal with their 1 trick they crumble. Argument diversity is something everyone should strive for- being able to go for all 5 off that are in a 1NC makes you much harder to debate then only being able to go for the same thing over and over again. Now is a great time to practice some things you are bad at- whether you are a predominantly policy team or a K team or a T team or whatever- working now to add more arguments to your repertoire will pay off. Dedicate the month of may to researching and then practicing an argument outside of your traditional wheel house.




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