Three Ways to Make the Most of Debate Camp by Adam Torson

Many of you will be attending a summer debate institute, and just about everyone will be a better debater for the experience. But, some people undeniably get more out of camp than others, simply because of the attitude and approach they bring with them. Here are three tips to help you make the most of your camp experience.

1. Have a concrete plan.

Often camps will have a wide array of opportunities available: lectures on different subjects, new drills on different skill sets, many instructors to talk to, practice debates, demonstration rounds, etc. While having all these resources at your disposal presents a tremendous opportunity, it also makes it easy to get lost. Don’t try to do too much – if you try to “cover” everything, you may make it harder to improve very much in any one area. Remember, for most people winning one or two more rounds per tournament (or improving your speaker point average by a single point) represents a major jump up to the next level. It’s the difference between average and breaking, and the difference between breaking and going deep in outrounds. So, what can you do that is going to get you that one more win per tournament or one more speaker point per round?

The best way to accomplish this is to have a plan going into camp. Work with your coaches before camp and your instructors once you arrive at camp to identify some concrete areas in which you need to improve, and plan your camp experience around those objectives. This does not mean that you can’t branch out or pursue subjects that are of interest to you – those things should definitely inform the planning process. But, don’t feel the need to try to experience the entire curriculum just for the sake of getting to everything.

There will always be trade-offs. Ask yourself if you will really improve more from the lecture on advanced contractualism than you will from the one on giving a great 1AR or learning to research more effectively. If you already give great 1ARs, then by all means go to the contractualism lecture. But remember, you are going to give a 1AR in about half your rounds; you will encounter “advanced contractualism,” but not nearly as often. Which is more likely to help you win that one more round per tournament? Also, consider what resources are available to you during the season. If your coach’s strength is public policy analysis, maybe it makes sense to focus less on that and more on technical skills or philosophy. If your coach is a philosophy guru, you probably don’t need to spend every waking moment in a philosophy lecture.

Camp is a great opportunity for intellectual exploration, and you should certainly come to camp with the expectation of learning about ideas and concepts that are deeply interesting and exciting. But, to the extent that you want to improve competitively from camp, doing an honest assessment of priorities and pursuing them diligently is your best bet.

2. Expand your comfort zone.

A few weeks ago I posted an article about improving your mental game. One of my suggestions was to take advantage of opportunities to expand your comfort zone so that you don’t have to do it in important rounds. Camp is an excellent opportunity to do that. There is no competitive trade-off to trying new things, because it’s not a competition. All of your drills and practice rounds at camp are aimed at making you better in the long run.

So, spread your wings. If you’ve never gone straight-ref in the 1NC, run a plan, written a framework-heavy case, run a kritik, etc., now is your chance to give it a try. You might not become an expert, but you can develop your skills enough to make you dangerous. Another good way to expand your repertoire is to work on judge adaptation. Can you debate at 60% of your top speed if you have to? Can you extend your case without using too much jargon, or explain a dense philosophical position with simple terminology and concrete applications? Can you answer an abusive strategy without running theory? If you can’t, you are giving up rounds and speaker points.

The least productive thing you can do is come to camp and practice things you are already good at. That sounds intuitive, but you would be amazed how many people are afraid to try new things because they don’t want to look dumb in front of the instructor or they don’t like being frustrated by making a change. Having an instructor correct you is exactly why you are at camp. Making changes is exactly why you are at camp. Don’t let the desire to look like a good debater prevent you from actually becoming a good debater.

3. Keep usable records.

Many people learn lots of new skills and concepts while they are at camp, and then go back to their teams and fall into their same old patterns. You need to think ahead about how you are going to take what you learn at camp and use it during the regular season.

For example, you sit in a philosophy lecture and take notes, and those notes help you understand the subject. Great. Will you every look at those notes again? Will you really be able to apply your newfound understanding six months from now? If the answer to those questions is no, then you have sacrificed a tremendous amount in terms of using camp to get that one extra win or speaker point. So, what do you do? If you retyped and organized your notes, would you remember them better or be able to use them while brainstorming or blocking down the road? What if you approached the instructor on a subject that interested you and asked her to help you write a basic framework using the philosophical ideas you just learned, or to construct a file on the subject? My bet is that you will get more use out of an evidence file on utilitarianism than your notes from a utilitarianism lecture saved on your computer somewhere.

You just had a great word economy drill with a great instructor. You are going to be super-efficient at that practice round later today. But, will you be that efficient in six months? If you’re not, will you know how to fix it? In addition to simply doing the drill, give yourself a concrete takeaway. Create a checklist to remind you of the things you need to key on to give a great 1AR or write a plan AC. Create a regular drill routine that lets you practice that core skill once a week or between rounds at a tournament, or just when you feel like you need a tune-up. The point is, don’t just walk away with knowledge in your head and hope that you remember it or that the skills will still be there months from now. Put yourself in a realistic position to implement what you learned over the long haul.

These strategies will be a little different for everyone, but my point is that you shouldn’t count on simply improving by osmosis. Don’t sit around trying to absorb debate skill and knowledge – take concrete steps to make sure you have a usable resource at your disposal at the end of camp.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to attend a summer institute. Be grateful for the opportunity and make the most of it while you’re there. When the time to compete rolls around, you won’t regret it.