Factors that make a great debater- Number 10: Self Starting

For the next 10 or so posts we are going to delve into some areas of practice that aren’t often discussed but are pretty crucial for becoming a good debater. So, where did these come from? Part of it is just my general observation, but the majority of it came from a series of discussions I had this summer with other coaches about what differentiates the good from the great.


Today we are starting with one of my personal favorites: self-starting. In general, self-starting is the idea that you don’t need someone else to tell you what to do, monitor your progress etc. It means you take the initiative to get things done, whatever those things may be- cutting cards, writing blocks, doing speaking work. So why do coaches value this in a debater? Let’s break the case down into two categories: the practical,and the philosophical.


We will start with the practical. As a coach, your time is finite. Debate is what I think of as an “open ended” activity- there is no end point. You can always cut more cards, write more blocks, be more prepared. Coaches therefore have to prioritize tasks to get the most important things done with their limited amount of time. This process can become bogged down in a lot of “busy work” when students are not self starters. Coaches spend A LOT of time answering questions that have answers that could be found by the student with a few seconds of looking (most often less time looking then the time it spent composing the email to ask the question)- examples of this include scheduling (when is XYZ), definition issues (what does the word X mean), etc. Because of this, coaches very much enjoy students who are able to take care of these things on their own- it frees up time to be spent on other projects (like more complicated questions where the answer isn’t easily available).


Now, sometimes this information isn’t easily available (or a term is too complex and has a specific meaning in a given context)- obviously students should still ask questions in those instances. The point is that self-starters ask these questions AFTER they have done the investigating themselves, not before. This brings us to the philosophical case.


Investigation= learning. Its true that looking stuff up is (at least initially) harder than asking a question and getting a direct answer. It’s harder because you aren’t yet very good at it. It’s a skill like anything else that you need to practice. When you do a quick google you then need to decipher the results, make a snap judgement about which links to follow up on, how much of them to read vs skim. These are all skills that you need to develop,and some of the better skills to have for your life whatever field you go into. There will always be times when you don’t know things and need to look them up. If you get to your first job and are constantly badgering everyone around you for information you could have obtained yourself its not going to go well. Ignoring that, this is really just a great way to learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know.


For example, I really like doing research in an actual physical library. The reason for this is that when I find a choice book I want to read, I go to that section of the library and wander around looking at other books in that area. Since the books are sorted so that related issues appear next to each other often times I will find a book better than the one I was originally looking for on a close shelf. Maybe I would have found that book anyway by doing more research, but oftentimes I wouldn’t have. Similarly, lets say you are reading an article and you come across something you don’t understand-say the term “constructivism” in IR. When you look that term up you will find definitions, but you will also find articles debating it as a concept, articles about where that concept came from /who originated it etc. You are behind the wheel driving your learning car- you can decide how in depth or how shallow you want to go with it. Even if your debate coach is a genius, and most of them are, they probably don’t have every fact on the internet memorized and ready to regurgitate.


Unfortunately, you won’t have a coach with you 24/7 for the rest of your life; at some point you will be on your own. You can’t always rely on someone else being there to help you (cue Ender’s Game music), and the sooner you learn to fend for yourself the better.


So what are some examples of self starting for debate?


Research- many people don’t cut cards unless explicitly directed by a coach. I know a lot of people who will read an article, see there are good cards in that article, but won’t cut them because “its not my assignment”. They often will spend large amounts of time not doing anything productive with the same excuse. Always be closing- so much time at camp, at practice, at tournaments is wasted that if you even did 5-10% better at self starting during this time you would see huge gains and get a large edge over the competition. So anytime you find yourself not knowing what you should do, just think about what arguments you have encountered lately that you weren’t 100% sure you could demolish. Whatever that argument (or list of arguments, I always keep a running list of topics we could be better on) just take 20-30 minutes and try and find 1 good answer. When you get better at this up the number to 2, 3 etc.


Speaking- many students want to get better at speaking but say they don’t know how. There are countless resources on this and other debate websites telling you exactly what to do, how often to do it, examples of speeches, examples of speeches to argue against, online videos of debates and instructional material etc.


Smartness- not exactly an elegant category name, but as I have mentioned before reading makes you smart. So if there are areas of debate you aren’t comfortable with (and by sheer number of issues involved there should be many of them) do some reading on that area. It doesn’t even need to be for card cutting, just to get a better grip on the issues involved. The next time your team has a strategy discussion you will be better prepared to participate.


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