As this debate season draws to a close, your most triumphant wins and painful losses are probably still fresh in your brain. That makes right now the perfect time to conduct an honest self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as a debater. Take the time to reflect on what you do well, and what you’re not so great at. This is the first step to coming up with a plan for improving over the summer, clarifying your goals, and creating strategies that play to your personal strengths. Today, we’re going to help you get started.
In order to improve, you need to be realistic about what is working, as well as what needs improvement. The key is being brutally honest with yourself about where, how, and why you tend to mess up. You want to diagnose, as specifically as you can, what is preventing you from winning debates. If you don’t know, you can’t fix it!
Don’t worry!- Pinpointing your problems will clarify their solutions.
If you keep ballots or record audio/video of your debates, your self-assessment is a great time to go back through them. If you don’t, reviewing old flows can also be helpful. If you’re relying on pure memory, try to think in specifics (i.e. “round 4 at the State tournament”) and consider whether any problems seem to come up repeatedly.
Here are some self-assessment questions you may want to ask yourself:
How are my time allocation/management skills? Do I drop stuff a lot?
- If so, why? Some possibilities to consider:
- Is it because other debaters are faster than me? Am I dropping arguments knowingly because I physically don’t have enough time to get to them?
- Is it because I make flowing errors? Am I dropping things because I didn’t have them on my flow at all? Or am I flowing accurately, but forgetting things?
- Is it because I am inefficient? Am I spending time talking about issues that don’t matter very much, at the expense of ones that do?
- Are there any particular issues that frequently screw up my time allocation (for example, many debaters are top-heavy on theory and/or topicality)?
- Once you have determined the exact cause of your drops problem, make a list of ideas to fix it. This might involve:
- Flowing drills.
- Speaking drills. Working on speaking quicker and/or reducing unnecessary words.
- Asking your partner to prompt you verbally if you’re forgetting something.
- Giving practice rebuttals on topics that frequently trip you up.
Generally, am I more comfortable affirming or negating? Do I win substantially more rounds on one side than the other?
- If so, why? Some possibilities:
- Do I lose aff rounds because I fail to write (good) blocks to common arguments? Do I always write blocks to new arguments after I encounter them, or do I rely on “winging it”?
- Do I lose neg rounds because I fail to prepare (good) negative strategies? Do I frequently find myself thinking “we have nothing prepared against this case!” and scrambling?
- Do I lose more on one side because I am weak at giving a particular speech (such as a 1AR)?
- Am I currently dedicating a lot more time and effort to prepping for one side than the other? Why?
- If you identify that you are weak on one side, make a plan for effectively preparing yourself. If you do a partner event, this may involve switching speaker positions (in general, the stronger debater on each side should be the second speaker on that side).
Do I frequently lose to the same argument(s)?
- If so, why? A few possibilities:
- Do I fundamentally not understand the argument?
- Was I inadequately prepared? Did I lack evidence or a cohesive response strategy?
- Was my strategy just ineffective/bad?
- Was I explaining my responses poorly?
- What steps do I need to take to be ready to effectively debate this issue in the future?
- Are there concepts I need to research so I can understand them better?
- Do I need more evidence on [subject(s)]?
- Do I need outside help seeing this in a different way?
How are my speaker points? Beyond just wins and losses, do I sound good in my debates?
- If my speaker points aren’t great, why? (if you can, consult your ballots for judge comments on this):
- Is it because my delivery is unclear/messy/disorganized?
- Is it because I am perceived as rude, unethical, or inappropriate?
- Is it because I don’t seem confident?
- Is it because I am going for bad arguments that annoy my judges?
- Is it because I talk at the wrong pace (too quickly or too slowly) for my circuit?
- Once I see a pattern, what can I do to start correcting it?
Am I making the correct choices about what to go for? Do judges frequently tell me I lost because I focused on the wrong issues?
- If so, consider:
- Am I biased towards some argument because I like it? Is this making it difficult for me to acknowledge when the round’s circumstances make going for it unstrategic?
- Are there arguments I avoid going for because I don’t feel prepared/they make me nervous?
- Am I misreading my judges and going for arguments they don’t like or have too much of a “high threshold” on? Do I fail to read/ask about judging philosophies before the round? Do I adapt?
- Do judges usually tell me I went for too many arguments, or too few?
- Am I ignoring my partner’s input, or do they typically agree with my choices? Should I be listening to them more?
Am I putting in enough work?
- Do I always feel confident that I have up-to-date, high-quality, pertinent information ready for every tournament?
- Have I read, highlighted, and understood all of my evidence before I arrive at the tournament?
- Am I cutting my own cards, or am I relying on someone else to do it for me?
- Do I feel like I genuinely understand what I’m talking about?
- In the future, how much time per week can I realistically expect myself to spend on debate, taking other obligations into consideration? What is the best way to leverage the time I have?
Overall, what am I best at? What am I worst at? (Almost no one is great at all of these things, so be realistic!)
- Some general skill areas to evaluate yourself on:
- Debate technical skills (maintaining an organized flow, strategic in-round maneuvering, effective use of offense/defense, understanding and expertise with debate theory, etc).
- Research skills and preparation.
- Making connections between arguments, meta-analysis, helping the judge see the “big picture” in your favor.
- On-your-feet thinking, ability to respond effectively to unexpected situations.
- Strategic vision, the chess-like ability to create a good strategy and steer the debate in the direction you want it to go.
- Time management, efficiency.
- Eloquence, passion, rhetorical talents, “talking pretty.”
- What strategic choices can I make to play to my strengths and downplay my weaknesses? How can I improve in my worst areas?
Just thinking about these questions is helpful, but you might find it worthwhile to actually write your answers down/type them up. Committing something to writing can help it seem “real” to you. Plus, you will already be covered if later on you want to go back, refresh your memory, and check your progress.
Write it down!
Once you’ve done your self-assessment, write yourself an action plan for summer improvement. What do you need to practice or change? Sometimes, you might have been making mistakes without really realizing them, and just becoming aware of the problem may be enough to fix it. Other times, you will need to develop a concrete strategy for practicing breaking those bad habits. Either way, the first thing you must do is identify the issue in the first place. You can’t fix something you don’t know exists!
If you find yourself struggling to come up with precise answers to these questions, you might need outside help. That’s ok! A very common problem for debaters (and people in general) is that they aren’t able to see past their own perspective. What they are doing and saying makes sense to them, so they don’t understand why others might disagree. Your downfall as a debater might be an “unknown unknown.” Getting an outsider’s perspective can help you find those problems lurking in your blind spots.
Get some help!
If you feel like feedback would help, you can bring what you’ve come up with to your coach, camp lab leader, or send them in to us! We’re happy to offer comments and suggestions for emphasizing your strengths and correcting/mitigating your weaknesses.
Good luck, debaters!