Three Ways to Improve Your Mental Game by Adam Torson

Most debaters spend their time working on two things – the quality of their arguments (research, case-writing, blocking, etc.) and their technical skills (drills, etc.). All that is great, but if you can’t execute your preparation during the tournament, and especially in important rounds, your work is for naught.
Debate is a mental game. Some people have a natural ability to think clearly and execute their strategy under pressure. If you are one of those people, you can stop reading. If your mental game is already strong, over-thinking it can hurt you. If, on the other hand, you sometimes struggle under pressure, here are a few things you can do to improve your state of mind during important rounds.

1. Avoid radical style changes in important rounds.

All debaters get comfortable with a certain style. When you try new things, you won’t execute them as well as the style with which you are comfortable. Change causes discomfort. There are two important takeaways.

First, when you get into an important round, don’t try to be something you’re not. It is surprising how many debaters try to radically change their style in high-pressure rounds. Elims are not the time to expand your repertoire. Construct a game plan that allows you to feel comfortable in your own skin.

Second, outside of high-pressure rounds, expand your repertoire as much as possible. The last thing anyone wants is to go into an important round with a panel or opponent to which you can’t effectively adapt without becoming a totally different debater. So, use early rounds or more laid-back tournaments to work on things you aren’t comfortable with. If all you can do is debate the framework, try a few rounds where you concede the framework and focus your energies on the link and impact comparison debate. If you’ve never run a kritik, try one.  The more comfortable you are with a diversity of styles, the more weapons you have in your arsenal for elims. You might lose some rounds or speaker points you could have picked up early in the tournament or early in the season, but this will pay dividends down the road.

Furthermore, use practice time (especially any time you’re able to spend at a summer debate institute) to expand your horizons. Debaters often make the mistake of practicing what they are already good at – it’s comforting to give your tenth great 1AR in a row. This, however, is not the way to improve. Shore up weaknesses outside of rounds so you don’t have to make uncomfortable adjustments inside of rounds. If you’re honest with yourself, you can identify weaknesses and work to turn them into strengths.

2. Have a plan.

If you know you could react better to pressure, plan ahead for what you are going to do when you start to feel it. Many debaters sort of cross their fingers and hope their nervousness will go away. Experience will abate this to some extent, but it is a good idea to take deliberate, proactive steps as well.

Creating a plan to help you react well to pressure starts by accurately and precisely diagnosing the problem. Are you distracted by all the extraneous goings-on in elimination rounds? Do you get locked into your pre-round prep too much and fail to adapt to the situation? Do you try to go too fast and lose clarity? Do you over-adapt to the panel or the opponent? Do you go for too much because you don’t have confidence in the strategy you chose? Do you go for too little because you second guess the arguments you generate?

In other words, don’t just chalk up these poor performances to nerves. What exactly are you doing that is hurting you? The better you understand the problem, the easier it is to craft a solution. At the very least, you can recognize your tendencies under pressure and avoid the pitfalls. A while back I posted an article to our Facebook page by Malcolm Gladwell that addresses this issue well. It is called “The Art of Failure” and I strongly suggest reading it.

3. Commit

Winning and losing in debate is about relative performance. You don’t need to be the best debater, period; you need to be the best debater in a given round. The more you improve your skills and your argument set, the more likely you are to be the better of two debaters in an important round, but don’t get flustered just because you aren’t debating perfectly. You don’t need optimal strategy and optimal technical execution to pick up the W.

The practical application of this idea is that you have to commit to your choices in the round. It is important to see the big picture and be flexible, but once you’ve picked a strategy you have to convince yourself (for about forty-five minutes) that your approach is just dead-right. Nobody can perform well while constantly second-guessing themselves. I’ve even seen (many times) debaters correct themselves or express doubt about their own arguments out loud in the middle of a round! It should be obvious that if your 1AR has little bits of the 2NR thrown into it, your mind is not in the right place.

You will never have a perfect debate round, so don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You will not find a single champion of NFL Nationals or the TOC who says she gave a perfect performance in the championship round. Pick a strategy and execute it as best you can. If you focus on the process, the results will take care of themselves.

Caveat: Being fully committed to a strategy in round does not mean that you can’t be self-critical after a round. Honestly evaluating your performances is the key to turning weaknesses into strengths. But, the time for this is after the round or after the tournament, not during it.