How to Improve at Debate Camp Part 2- Updates

Part one dealt a lot with practicing traditional debate skills- speaking, card cutting, executing strategies. This time around I want to focus on five things people don’t really think of as debate skills but have become increasingly important in the modern era.


1. Highlighting- most people at camp, and during the year, do not highlight their own evidence. They divide things up between partnerships or as a squad and end up predominantly reading evidence in rounds that was highlighted by someone else. This is a disaster for at least a million reasons, but I would like to focus on a few.


A. Trust No One- One of the funniest things that happens at debate tournaments is that teams who have gotten into deep elims, say the semis or finals, will be prepping for their round and will recruit recruit other students on their squad -students who did not even clear- to help them highlight evidence for the round. This is pretty backwards. Students who don’t clear in tournaments may have been screwed by judges or a rough draw… but in reality it is far more likely that they have major problems with fundamental debate skills- of which highlighting is one. Why would you want someone who is much less experienced than you highlighting key pieces of evidence for your round? You wouldn’t, and shouldn’t. This same principle applies throughout the year- you never want your rounds to be dependent on the work of other people, you want to be on top of the arguments yourself.


B. Never read a card for the first time in a speech- You should have read every card you are putting in a speech at least 2 or 3 times prior to the speech. You obviously want to be familiar with the evidence- you want to be able to explain it and know what it says. You also want to be aware of the larger context of the evidence- are there parts that can be read or used against you? In the ununderlined portions are there some sentences that will look back in CX? You want to be aware of all these things so you aren’t caught off guard when a smart opponent makes an issue of them in the round. In an ideal world people who are assembling files- your squad mates and coaches, students at camp, hired guns on – have put files together so that the best evidence is first under a heading and when you grab cards you can be confident that you are pulling the best ones. In reality people exist in a world of time constraints and distractions, the end result of which is that often times the files you are working with are not great. When you make your 2NC uniqueness block you want to read through as many uniqueness cards as possible to select the best ones. Maybe you have 2 cards that say the same thing


Card 1: ABC

Card 2: CDE


You don’t need to read warrant C twice. Maybe when someone else highlights the cards they don’t know these two cards will be read in conjunction with one another and so they highlight warrant C in both cards. Making sure you highlight your own evidence will help you avoid this mistake.


C. You are all unique snowflakes- some of you are fast, some are slow. Some of you read lots of cards, some of you read less. Highlighting should be as specific as possible to the person speaking- there is no one perfect way of highlighting evidence. When I debated I often debated with people who were slower than me and so evidence would always have 2 sets of highlighting, one longer set for if I was reading a card, and another shorter set if the other person was going to read it. Sometimes evidence will be longer if you are reading it in the 2AC when you generally have more time, but will need to be shorter if you present it in the 1AR. Sometimes certain judges like a smaller number of longer cards, and other judges want pure quantity of arguments. There are many more variables that could affect highlighting, but hopefully you have gotten the point by now.


These are all reasons you should be highlighting your own evidence in the abstract. But more important than any of these is that highlighting is itself a skill. Almost every time I ask a student why they didn’t highlight their own cards they say something like “I don’t have enough time”- ignore for a second how silly this is. Assume for every debate for the entire year you will only get 20 minutes of prep- the time from when the pairing is released until the round starts. If that is the case, you would want to be able to utilize that time as effectively as possible. The more you highlight things, the better you will get at it. If you don’t practice highlighting you will never get faster at it and you will always be totally dependent on others to get your files together. In a given debate you are going to read 20-30 cards. You should be able, with your partner, to highlight all 30 of those cards yourselves in that 20 minutes before the round. Obviously if you prepare ahead of time many of those cards should already be highlighted, but assuming the worst case scenario you should still be able to handle it yourself. If you don’t practice, this goal will always be out of reach.


2. Prep your own strategies. This is especially true at “camp tournaments” and one of the reasons I think camp tournaments are somewhat garbage. What I mean is that generally for the main 3 or 4 cases being run at your camp, you will have hundreds of pages of case specific negative evidence, and also a huge option of generic disads/cps/ks that you could read on the negative/use to formulate your strategy. What many people do is divide up the cases with a group of people and let others handle prepping entire negative strategies. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!For the love of all that is holy no. The SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT skill you can try and learn/improve at debate camp is how to formulate a strategy. Farming out that work is a DISASTER. At camp you have multiple lab leaders in your own lab, and probably a dozen not in your lab, who would love to spend time helping you develop a good strategy, giving you feedback on what you are doing wrong and how to improve it. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS!.  If you wait until the night before the tournament yes, you will be screwed trying to put together a strategy for every case. But you don’t have to do that. Just like you should spend some time doing speaking drills every day, you should also be spending time reading through files, highlighting them, figuring out what arguments will and will not work. If you take an hour of time a day to do this it will be much easier/more manageable than if you try and wait till the last minute.


3. One of the paradigm shifts you as a student need to make if you want to be successful at debate is to accept delayed gratification. The way most of you prep for debates is you bug your lab leaders to release the practice debate pairing as far in advance as possible and then you spend 20 hours prepping for one specific debate. Most of that time is wasted through media multitasking and generally chatting with others in the library. After the debate is over, all that prep is now close to useless. If instead you work on prepping in the abstract, as a skill, you would be much more successful in the long term. The problem is that this will not help you “crush” in your practice debate occurring tomorrow. What you need to realize is… no one cares. Its a practice debate. Most likely there isn’t even a winner and loser. Success in that specific round could not be less insignificant to whether or not you will be successful during the year. Research, the ability to strategize and understand how arguments work – these are the skills you need to learn. The smaller your squad, the more important it is you learn these skills. Many people just throw up their hands and say “well I don’t have a coach or many other debaters on my team, so its not important for me to learn these skills. What is important is for me to get practice rounds/rebuttal redos.” Wrong. As someone who came from the smallest possible high school squad, and then went to debate at the largest college program, I can tell you that universally the way to succeed at any level and on any squad is fundamentals like research, block writing, strategy construction and not getting files from other people, facebook, coffee shops. /Rant


So what are some examples of delayed gratification at camp?


A. Going for new arguments. The first 10-20 times you go for politics, Wilderson, or an agent CP odds are high you are going to be terrible. THIS IS NOT THE WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN. Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement. You have to get these awful debates out of your system. So if you have never run the politics disad before get those debates out of your system at camp when it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. If you go through and prep the politics file yourself you will then know how to do it during the year when you (hopefully) cut your own politics file.


B. Trying new speeches- too many students at camp obsess over their speaker positions. “Im a 2A so I can’t do this debate”. Look the speeches are somewhat different- you need to be more efficient in a 1AR than a 2AR- but in general the idea that you have to practice some specific speech in order to get better are way off base. The general principles are always the same- be more efficient, write blocks, do line by line, engage the other teams arguments etc. Stop obsessing over things like I can only do the 2A and if you get the opportunity to jump into an extra debate because someone’s partner didn’t show up TAKE IT.

When you start something new, that’s hard, you are going to be tempted to just give up and go back to doing what you did before because its easier, and more comfortable. RESIST! The only things that are worth doing are hard. If you came to debate to get better, doing the same things you have always done is not the way. Keep doing what you’ve always done and you will keep getting what you’ve always gotten.


4. Take notes on paper. Watching students at lecture on their computers there are 2 incontrovertible truths:


A. Given the option to be distracted by facebook and flash games, most of you will take it

B. None of you have any idea how to take notes


A should be self explanatory. Most people cannot resist the temptation to fool around on their computers during a lecture. If you know you are one of these people, don’t set yourself up for failure by using your computer to take notes.


B is more controversial, but I think can easily be illustrated as true. Here is what happens in lectures


<lecturer puts a slide up on screen with a definition>

“I am the lecturer, I will now repeat this definition to you”

<every student in the room furiously types down the definition>


This is terrible. One of the things about taking notes on a computer is you are able to type way more than you could ever write. The problem with this is it encourages wrote transcription instead of thinking. When taking notes on paper (if you want to see if this is true just try flowing on paper vs on a computer) you have to make choices- you can’t write everything down,so you need to think about what is being said and what is important in that material. What do you already understand and what do you need to note for later. Over the years I often see students  who take a lot of notes on their computer, but then fail to demonstrate that they have internalized any of that knowledge in practice debates. Learning is not writing things down. Learning is taking new information and incorporating it into your debate practice. Typing down 10k words during a lecture is not learning. If you are really interested there is all kinds of science that supports me on this.


If you really want to learn something (debate, history starcraft) this is the three step process you should take


1. notes on paper

2. Organize and structure your notes into a study guide which you then type up

3. Break things down into small pieces that you can then turn into flash cards on quizlet , and if you search debate you can find a ton already made from my former students/labbies.


This 3 step process encapsulates different learning modalities that psychology literature says are important to the learning process

-writing and typing activate different areas of the brain

-organizing facts requires understanding conceptual linkages

-flash cards work on quick, forced memory recall that enhances short and long term memory



5. Time Management. To get the most out of camp you will need to put in some effort outside of organized lab time. For most students this is a challenge. At camp you are away from home, hanging out with your friends, you get to go out and explore a college campus. However, as you get increasingly older this will be the norm not an exception. You will have many, more fun activities vying for your time and making debate work seem unappealing. Time management- planning out how long you will spend working hard vs playing hard- is a skill that you need to practice. If you get out of lab at 9pm and go to bed at 1pm you have 4 hours of time to manage. Maybe you can’t do work for all 4, maybe you can’t do work for 3. Everyone should be able to take at least 1/4 of their free time to work on debate without getting stressed. So if that’s all the time you can spend on it, make the most of that time. What many of you do is what is called “media multi tasking”. This basically means when you sit down to do work you turn on the TV, open 20 gchats, and check facebook every 3 seconds. This is a disaster. People generally have convinced themselves that they “work better” this way. This is wrong. Again, science, you can google it if you really care, but since you are already overtaxed you should prob just take my word for it. If you sit and work for 1 hour, and then screw around for 3 hours, you will get more done than if you tried to multitask for the entire time.

If you need help managing your time, get a calendar or an extension like stayfocusd which can help you. Lots of students complain at camp that they get no sleep due to the workload. Almost always when questioned about how they spend their time the conversation goes like this


me: What time did you go to bed

them: 3am

me: you got out of lab at 9, what did you do then

them: walked back to the dorm

me: what time did you get there

them: 10

me: the dorm is 5 minutes away, how did it take you an hour

them: well… i hung out waiting for other people to get out of lab, then we got ice cream

me: ok so your at the dorm at 10, what did you do next

them: worked on my blocks

me: Ok, 10-3 is 5 hours, how many blocks did you write

them: 3

Me:well, that means each block took over 90 minutes, why did it take so long

Them: well i wasn’t JUST writing blocks, i was also on skype and watching netflix and on the phone with kids at other camps and texting and…





Break down how you are spending your time and often you will see you are not actually spending as much time “working” as you think. When I went to camp we didn’t have computers or phones or electricity so it was much easier to focus on research then. So whereas we had to work on different skills, like organizing paper files, you all really need to work on time management as a skill, maybe the most important skill.










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