Factors that make a great debater 8: Criticism

Great debaters know how to take criticism



I recently read an article about Thomas Keller, who is one of the top chefs in the world that I think is illustrative here. To begin with, however good you are at debate, Keller is a better chef. He has multiple restaurants that are constantly on the “best of” lists for both the US and the world. He has been performing at this level for decades. When per se got panned by the NYT it was the equivalent of a parent judge telling a multiple NDT winner that they didn’t know how to debate. By all rights Keller could have ignored it, written it off to judge bias, and moved on. But he didn’t- instead he issued an apology and set in works a series of correctives to make his restaurant(s) better. This got me thinking about debate and the way criticism is probably the most essential and simultaneously reviled part of debate.


Criticism- no one likes it, and I get that. Unfortunately debate is an activity where every time you compete you are quite literally being judged, so it is unavoidable. For a variety of reasons people shut out criticism to their competitive detriment- if you are unwilling to listen to what you may be doing wrong you can never fix it. Why are people, and more specifically people in debate, resistant to criticism? Let’s break it down into a few categories.


1.Ego- when people think “doesn’t take criticism well” what most often they are referring to is ego (AKA arrogance). Some people can’t cope with the idea that they aren’t 100% perfect/the best at something. Debate has a variety of ways it is “scored” (wins/losses, elim performance, speaker awards, different divisions that you graduate to etc) and this large number of metrics allows people to easily pick one arbitrarily and use it to inflate their ego. I have had the following conversations with students over the years


“You need to do XYZ”



“but we won”

“but I got a speaker award”

“it was my partners fault”

“judges don’t care about XYZ anyway”

“Why do I need to do that, I’m not a novice”

“my lab leader told me…”

“my friend told me…”

“anonymous45 on cross-x.com told me”


I could go on. These are all mental tricks we use to insulate ourselves from criticism- to soften the blow of comments that claim we are not god’s gift to debate. For a long time in my debate career I had a very specific form of these mental tricks working. I would accept criticism but only from people whose debate IQ I “respected”. That was a small group to begin with, but anytime someone in that group had the audacity to criticize me I had a simple solution- oust them from the group. If they thought 20 winners win cards in the 2NC was “repetitive” or “unnecessary”, or they objected to me saying “more evidence” 15 times in a row instead of reading a tag-well they must be dumber than I thought, and therefore there is no reason to listen to what they have to say.



  1. Sensitivity- debate is a great thing. One of the things that is great about debate is that it is often a place where people find they fit in a way that they didn’t fit in other places. I did a lot of things before debate- musical theatre, chess, sports. While I liked them all enough, none of them were really “my jam”. For many, the environment of debate is the first place that they feel like they really fit in. This is a good thing (that they find a place they feel they fit), but unfortunately can oftentimes heighten the “sting” of criticism. People have a hard time separating out that criticism is not of “them” it’s of their “performance”, or more specifically, their argument in a specific debate.


  1. Dogma- debate has no lack of gurus. Depending on where you go to school, where you go to camp, or who you idolize you are buying into a certain set of beliefs about what “good” debate is and how it should be done. Unfortunately you can’t always be judged by fellow acolytes of the one true path- there aren’t enough of them, and if there were its not always the case that your opponents would pref them as highly as you do. This makes a clash of world views between debaters and judges inevitable. Even if you don’t think a particular piece of advice is “true” that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Debaters often write off or underestimate the benefits of “pandering”-telling people what they want to hear, exactly how they want to hear it.



So how should you respond to criticism? There are a few different ways


  1. Limited- what I mean by limited response is that you take that criticism to heart in a small set of circumstances. So if you get told by a super policy oriented judge that you need to explain your alternative better, re-write the alternative block and have a second version that you read for super policy judges. That way if you get that judge again, or a similar judge, you are ready. Write into the block the exact way they want to hear you explain it (if they don’t tell you make sure you ask), and then you will have your bases covered. Even if you don’t think what they say is correct, you need to package your arguments for them because they ultimately decide.


  1. Test Drive- a test drive is what I refer to trying something out in a different way. So if you get the feedback that your 2AC impact calc on the case is not good, and you get it from multiple judges, then at the next tournament take that criticism and incorporate it into a new 2AC impact calc block. Try it out for a tournament and see how it goes. If it goes better, stick with it. If you are still getting a lot of criticism over it than you need to go back to the drawing board and see if you can find a different fix for the problem.


3. Worldview changes- sometimes you get the same criticism over and over again. For months… or years. If that’s the case, at some point you need to have a heart to heart with yourself and acknowledge that you are doing something wrong. Most often these criticism relate to something like speaking style (because argument content usually, or hopefully, changes from year to year). So if after 3 years of being told you are unclear you finally decide that maybe these judges are onto something you need to make a correction. Slow down a lot.  Maybe you will get less arguments out, but so far the mass number of arguments hasn’t been working out for you so you need to change.


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