December 20, 2018
Recently, I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number and presence of large prep groups and coaching squads that have begun to dominate the national circuit. While dominant programs will always exist due to resource disparities and simply better programs such as Lake Highland or Valley, my specific interest is in the problematic increase of a system that has come to reward more than just good programs, but deep wallets. In response to these groups of debaters and coaches that have pushed debate toward a pay-to-play system, I find it beneficial to discuss strategies that do not require any extra resources that low-income or small school debaters can use in order to combat these groups that place them at such a structural disadvantage. While debate has increasingly benefitted those with the resources to hire coaches, there are many successful strategies that allow small school, low income debaters to maximize their potential in debate. I will outline several ways to combat the large school resource disparities through tactics I’ve used in each step of the debate process – prepping, pre-round, and in round.
The most obvious place the resource discrepancies in debate occurs is during the preparation before even arriving at a tournament. Large teams have the capability of dividing up prep to accomplish more research and case writing, more eyes to review each other’s work and improve upon it, and have coaches write higher level cases or make significant improvements to cases or just general debate skills. While all of these clearly place smaller school debaters at a severe disadvantage, the following three tricks have helped me and my students overcome these obstacles during my pre-tournament prep. As a small school debater, you must understand that without dedicating hours upon hours to prep, you simply will not be able to out-prep large prep squads and teams. Since you can’t out prep them in quantity, you have to focus your efforts on quality.
First, know your position. This seems fairly obvious, but too often debaters will write a position and throw it to the side until tournament time. When I say know your position, you should be able to know your position well enough to beat a 7min prewritten NC with perfect interactions with your position, since this is very much a possibility when debating these large prep groups. In order to do this, you have to have a better understanding of your position, card by card, than any one of your opponents. While prep outs certainly make the round more difficult, a debater that knows their position well enough will have no problem beating back generic backfiles, turns, or even line-by-line arguments read against their position.
Second, avoid stock positions. While there can be benefits to reading a really good stock position, small school debaters should avoid these as much as possible. This is fairly intuitive, as stock positions are more likely to be prepped out already, even if not for the purpose of your round, by larger schools. Unique arguments are not only less likely to be prepped out, but it also can throw debaters used to discussing positions with their coaches off their game. The surprise factor is a very strategic advantage to have, since it pushes debaters that are accustomed to having a set up strategy to think on the fly and generate responses that most likely wouldn’t be as good as if they had come in contact with similar positions in the past. Unique positions could also include things like reading a generic card in a way that allows you to extrapolate different conclusions that aren’t the generic way the card is usually used or cutting a different author for the same argument so it is not as recognizable. An extremely obscure position that you are really familiar with automatically removes some of your competitors’ resource advantage and gives you the ability to compensate with a possible intellectual advantage.
Third, don’t disclose. This will no doubt be the most controversial advice I will give, but I do not intend to provide an argument for why disclosure as a practice is good or bad, but rather that it is strategic for small school debaters to restrain from disclosing. I believe a small school debater has two options when it comes to disclosure – either don’t disclose at all or disclose only positions you will not read. Let’s discuss option one first – the argument that nobody preps out the “lone wolf” at tournaments is a fairly ridiculous one, especially in the context of the most important rounds. While it may be true that you won’t be on the radar of a large school or prep group before a tournament, I assure you that if you are debating them, they will absolutely check your wiki, come ask you what the strategy is, and ask around about what your cases are. As such, it is far more advantageous and practical to be ready for a disclosure debate than it is to frontline all the possible angles the prep out might attack from. The second, admittedly more “sketchy” option is to disclose positions you have no intention on reading. For instance, if the main stock position on the topic is a Kant aff, it is most likely fairly easy to write a short Kant aff and disclose it without having an intent to read it. This allows you to avoid the disclosure debate and throw off your opponent because they will most likely brush off the fact that you are reading a stock position and go into the round confident in their speech doc. You should also absolutely use the fact that other people disclose to your advantage. Imagine a world in which the National Football League had a website that was accessible to all 32 NFL teams that was designed for teams to post their playbooks for educational purposes. Now imagine the Cleveland Browns are playing the New England Patriots and the Browns post all of their offensive and defensive plays on this website, while the Patriots did not post anything. Obviously, we would not blame the Patriots for taking advantage of the fact that the Browns decided to put their plays on the website since it was not mandated by the league. This disadvantage or abuse story is self-inflicted by your opponent. Since forcing an optional norm that definitionally makes debate less strategic for those who follow it is obviously nonsensical, I suggest small school debaters view the wiki as a sort of compensation for their resource disparity, which only works when they do not disclose.
Now that we’ve discussed how to prepare as efficiently as possible, the next step is to win the inevitable pre-round encounters that you will have with large prep groups or programs. This section mainly applies to elimination rounds, but can also apply to preliminary rounds on particular occasions. There are a few main things to keep in mind before you debate someone from a large program.
First, do not get intimidated. This is something I’ve witnessed many young, inexperienced, or small school debaters struggle with at national tournaments since I started the activity. Often times a student will approach you before round with a coach or teammate in an attempt to intimidate you into telling them your strategy or even just to throw you off your mental game. The key thing to keep in mind is that you are their equal, you are also at a national tournament with most likely an equal or similar record as them. In these encounters you have to stay confident and even get a little sassy with your opponent if necessary to show them you won’t be intimidated by their resource advantage. The psychological aspect of debate is all too often undervalued – when you enter a round confident and composed you quite simply perform better in all phases of the activity, from CX to spreading speed. In this same spirit, you should try to psychologically manipulate your opponent right back. Often debaters from large prep groups are reliant on certainty before round: knowing what the aff is, what the round will be, what your temperament and style is, etc. This way they can discuss with their resources and teammates what the strategy is and what to expect, it is no doubt a comfort level they generally have before round. Being able to be unpredictable and confusing in your encounters allows you to mitigate this advantage, and even gain the upper hand since you have become accustomed to going into rounds without discussion in the same sense.
Second, make connections. As a small school debater, other small school debaters are one of your most valuable assets at a national tournament. You should attempt to make as many friends as possible with other debaters and help them out when they ask for it. Having friends you can talk to before rounds for comfort or scouting not only makes debate much more enjoyable but also allows you to close the resource gap a little bit. Ultimately this advice is more for your social flourishing in debate, but it will also help your preparedness and attitude before rounds, which will absolutely aid your performance.
Onto perhaps the most important part of debating a large program – the actual debate. While not every debater that is part of a prep group or large school is the same, there are absolutely certain tendencies that these debaters have when they are in round. Due to the nature of their access to resources, their style can be somewhat predictable and thus, susceptible to intelligent exploitation.
First, win CX. This is perhaps the part of the round in which resource disparities have the least effect. While having a coach to do CX drills with is helpful, I find CX to be much more about your general intelligence than resources. As such, you should focus on dominating both the offensive and defensive CX. I find CX to be somewhat of a lost art in debate, too often debaters simply use it for clarification or prep more than for strategic purposes. The main goal of CX is to get as many concessions as possible (which any good debater won’t give you) or to at the very least seem perceptually dominant. There will be occasions in which it becomes clear your opponent didn’t write their case or have not read through it/comprehend it as well as they probably should – this is the perfect opportunity to gain an upper hand and exploit the possible disadvantage having lots of resources provides.
Second, it’s all about the script. “The script” is used to refer to the prewritten arguments debaters use for their rebuttal speeches – this includes extensions of arguments, interactions, and even full 7 min prewritten NC speeches by their teammates or coaches. While the script can be deadly if used effectively, it can also be the downfall of a large school debater and provides a great opportunity to flip the script in your favor. There are two ways to exploit your opponents’ reliance on prewritten arguments. You can either try to get them off the script entirely or bait the script. The first method is the most common and perhaps less effective than the second method, but still a perfectly viable strategy. The idea is to force the debate in a direction your opponent does not have prewritten arguments for – this could include reading strange positions, line-by-line work to prevent pre-written extensions, or reading lots of “blippy” or short arguments that are overwhelming in a way that prevents them from having time to read their script. This is why “tricks” debate is such an effective strategy regardless of your opponent’s resources, as even students with vast resources often can’t handle the nuance and technical proficiency of tricks debaters. The second and more interesting method is to predict and bait the script. For instance, teams that read one stock, barely topical aff for the entire topic do so for a reason – they attempt to bait T and other generic arguments that are really your only options to engage with the aff since generics don’t apply, and read the script against those arguments. Knowing this is the strategy, you can design an NC that baits the arguments they have prepared as a time suck in order to collapse to an entirely different, and most likely under-covered layer. This strategy would like a short/generic topicality shell (1-1:30), another generic position (for instance a court clog DA) and then another one or two case positions that are unpredictable or positions you are better at defending (for me this would be a unique NIB NC) and then line-by-line the aff. The most likely outcome is the 1ar doing something like reading their prewritten responses to T and the DA that consume most of the 1ar and getting to the other arguments with little time left. This makes the 2n extremely winnable allowing you to collapse to your most comfortable and least contested position. In this way, you use their prep advantage against them to gain your own strategic advantage.
Despite the resource disparity gap increasing in the debate community with the rise of large prep groups, it does not entirely exclude underprivileged or small school debaters from engaging and succeeding in debate. Addressing the issue of inequality in debate is a tough task, but these tips and tricks will help debaters combat the inequalities using strategy and intelligence to overcome their disadvantages and succeed in the activity they love.