Its debatable…Speak Up!

June 18, 2007

Practice is not enough…

Filed under: Debate,Forensics - General — bk2nocal @ 10:50 pm

In any competitive activity, the first thing competitors are told is typically, “practice, practice, practice…”  But, I think its important to recognize that practice is not necessarily enough or even good for you.  I used to be a swimmer and swim coach, and in swimming, when you practice wrong, its worse than not practicing at all.  It is much the same in speech and debate.  Practicing without focusing on the quality of the practice can actually make you worse.  A few examples:

  • Practicing your speech with “uh”s and “like”s in it will make you more likely to use those fillers in competition.  This, to me, is WORSE than not being memorized.  If memorizing your speech entails developing bad habits, I would rather have you practicing continually with your index cards.  So, when working on memorization, always have someone listening.  You may start using these fillers without realizing otherwise.
  • Practicing speed drills without focusing on clarity can make you a worse speaker.  I don’t know how many times I have told debaters that they would be faster and more effective if they actually SLOWED down.  Some debaters pick up hitches as they develop speed.  Others have breathing issues.  Without building your speed along with developing your clarity and breathing and stamina, you are likely to make yourself slower and less understandable in the end.
  • Writing arguments/speeches.  Of course there is some truth in saying that writing, rewriting and rewriting makes you better automatically.  But, without proper direction and feedback and improvements, these rewrites become a practice in futility.  Whether it is feedback and direction from a coach or just a “fresh set of eyes” from a peer, you have to seek out others’ opinions in order to make improvements in your arguments and speeches. 

I think there are two important things to consider.  First, practice is important.  This is not meant to say that you should quit practicing!  Far from it.  What I’m saying is that practice only makes perfect when the practice itself is designed to reach perfection.  That means reflecting on where you are, where you need to be, and how to get there.  I would suggest a few ways of helping out with this:

  1. Structure practices to include reflection, de-briefing and goal setting for improving.  Most speech and debate competitors read their ballots or listen to their post-round decisions, most even understand what the judge is saying, but the big step is figuring out how to make the improvements that are necessary.  Make sure that these reflections and de-briefings include the last part – setting goals and designing activities to fix the problems that judges identify. 
  2. Seek feedback.  Competitions are great for providing feedback on your speeches and arguments and speaking, but if you wait until you get to the competition to get the feedback, you’re wasting a lot of in-between time.  So, design practices to include feedback.  Practice in front of different people.  If you can find people who are not affiliated with the team, even better.  Getting some unbiased and unrelated feedback can help.  For debaters, this may mean submitting your argument briefs to an expert on the topic for suggestions rather than actually debating in front of them.  
  3. Self-evaluation is important.  Usually, competitors are their own harshest critics.  So, videotape yourself speaking, being cross-examined, etc.  Then, make sure you watch it and make changes based on what you see and hear.  Your perspective dramatically changes when you see and hear yourself.  This can be a great coaching aid.  It is even better if you can videotape some rounds at tournaments so you can see and hear what you sound like in actual competitions. 

This is obviously just a start, but gives you a good idea of why just scheduling practice time or doing speaking drills every day is not enough.  You have to do these things with a purpose in mind and you should discover that purpose through reflection, feedback, and self-evaluation.



  1. A question that is somewhat on topic. What should a coach do who has debaters who are less motivated to do research and write their own positions? I inevitably do a lot of the research for our team, and I fear that my love of competition is interfering with the education. Do you have rules for research and/or position writing for the members of your team? If so, what are the consequences? Thanks.

    Comment by Mike Marse — June 24, 2007 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  2. This is a great question Mike and one that I’m sure many of us ask ourselves over and over again every year. What is doing enough but not doing too much for your students? In all honesty, I have yet to figure out the “right” answer. I have coached years when I and/or other coaches did the lion’s load of the work – and in all honesty, I found it to be somewhat disastrous. Although they always had something to say, the debaters did not feel any investment in the evidence or the arguments. I have also had years when I did hardly any work (because of other responsibilities, illness in my family, etc.) and those were also often disastrous because the debaters had no evidence/arguments to make in rounds. So, I can safely say it has to be a balance. I would love to have other coaches chime in on this though…
    I think that you have to figure out a way to have the students do the work and then as a coach, you revise that work to make it usable. I’m going to start viewing debate more like I do IEs. I would NEVER consider writing a speech and giving it to an IEer wholesale. I require them to do the work researching and writing and then I get involved in the revising of the speech. So, why would I feel comfortable doing this for debaters? Now, how much you get involved in the revision process will vary of course, but at least they have to do the work at the start of the process.
    I think I will post something to edebate on this and get some feedback on there and write another post consolidating the responses I get.

    Comment by bk2nocal — June 24, 2007 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  3. This is an issue that I also worry about on a fairly regular basis. My concern is not that students lack a feeling of investment as much as that they lack an understanding of the position/file and gain less education as I cut more and more cards for them. But for me, it is very difficult to not assist in research. As a competitor, my best skills were research and strategy, not necessarily performance in round. As a coach and director, I find it terribly difficult to coach students if I have not read and worked with a decent amount of the topic literature.

    I often find that the experience level of my squad dictates how much research my coaches and I do for the students. If the squad is generally inexperienced with case writing and research, then coaches do more of the work and we work far more with students on learning how to research through smaller assignments and affirmatives and block writing. It seems rather pointless to demand that students research extensively unless they first understand what is needed to construct a full position/argument and what to look for in their research. I find that block/frontline writing often creates a vital opportunity to have these conversations and to improve students’ understanding of the “strategy” involved in beginning research. Simple things like asking students what arguments are they missing, generating lists of keywords and sources where they can go to find such arguments, etc. will force the student to invest in their arguments and to improve their research and debating skills. Additionally, we use specialized one-on-one practice rounds to drill students on particular files and arguments and how to use the evidence and arguments to further their understanding of the arguments/strategies.

    As my squads become more experienced, then we move away from block writing sessions (well, we keep them, but more so to revise and to ensure that blocks are being written) and give out more and more research assignments to the students. Coaches still have a substantial role in oversight and providing spot research (e.g., filling in wholes in students’ arguments, helping pick up a smaller assignment that we simply don’t have enough people to cover, etc.). At the moment, my squad is fairly experienced with research and creating files, so the coaches largely look over and revise files and have discussions with students about the viability of certain strategies and arguments.

    To return to the question, I think your involvement depends on the dynamics of the team at a given time. Even this year when we had a top 5 NDT prebid qualifier, I found myself doing even more research because those particular students asked me on several occasions to do certain work that would help them cover assignments that they couldn’t cover due to time, classwork, catching up on laundry, etc. My actual research participation seems to be highest at the beginning of the season to help students get affs together and to complete strategies and by January, really the students are driving the overwhelming majority of research activity.

    There is obviously an ethics question here as well. My position is that coaches doing research is fine IF the purpose of doing that research is to provide a model for students to improve their research. I would not hand over a file to students without extensive discussion of how to use the file, how to improve the file on their own and then explaining the choices and decisions I made in putting together the file. I would have never developed my research skills unless I had first seen a really good file from one of my coaches and the work they put into creating that file. I have had numerous students tell me that their research skills substantially improved from watching me research and construct a file. There has to be some coaches work to create a model and standard for research for the rest of the squad. However, I don’t believe that a coach should be doing all or the majority of the research.

    Comment by Kelly Young — June 26, 2007 @ 8:39 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for your input, Kelly. I was thinking of setting up something quantifiable and enforceable, in order to keep students accountable for their own research. Here’s my idea. Every debater has to turn in at least one piece of evidence or position per week, or they will be ineligible for the next tournament. This sound pretty minimal, but my guess is that once they start, they will jump over this bar. My scholarship students are required to attend all the tournaments they can, and my non-scholarship students are required to attend one tournament per unit (up to 3). In this way, I can just say someone is ineligible if they don’t do the work, and it will eventually effect their ability to pass the course.

    In terms of logistics, I would have all of the debaters upload their evidence to a shared folder on the debate course’s blackboard page, giving all of the debaters the ability to see each other’s evidence instantly.

    Any comments/scathing criticisms?

    Comment by Mike Marse — June 26, 2007 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

  5. I think you can go above one piece of evidence and you may want to not require “positions” at the beginning. Your post reminded me of the assignments that a friend of mine who teaches 8-12th grade debate has for his classes. He requires the 8th graders to cut 10 pieces of evidence per week. Maybe you can begin by letting them cut evidence on anything having to do with the topic and then as the season progresses, you (or the students themselves) can assign out specific assignments. You might also up the 10 pieces of evidence requirement each semester they compete (so first semester 10, 2nd = 20/week, etc.). What usually ends up happening at institutes when I’ve done this is the students find an article that has a bunch of stuff in it and they can complete the assignment in one or two articles (not very arduous). And then they have evidence they can read in rounds that they have cut. I might say institute a “matching plan” – so for every week they cut 10 cards you’ll cut 10 cards (as long as your team isn’t too large) and you can focus this research on helping to complete arguments they’ve started, etc. Or maybe any cards over the 10 required you’ll match – that seems even better!
    An the electronic filing is definitely the way to go. People can manipulate files that way, the originals are not “lost” by someone on the team, etc.
    The 8th graders at my friends school sometimes end up doing as much work as the team members just because they’re so excited about finding stuff. I think working on the arguments they find really helps with that as they feel like they are contributing and are more likely to do it more in the future.
    Great stuff here!

    Comment by bk2nocal — June 26, 2007 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

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