Comments for the Circuit on the NCFL and NFL Nationals by Brad Taylor

I jotted these thoughts down last year after the CFL and NFL National tournaments to offer some pointers to the LD circuit crew on both of these tournaments this year. That’s the group focusing on the “national circuit”, the collection of tournaments where the competitors earn bids to the coveted springtime Tournament of Champions (TOC) in Lexington.
There are probably several hundred kids that would call themselves circuit debaters. Circuit debate is at one end of the debate spectrum. I guess the term “style” might be the best description of the spectrum, but I’m not sure that’s a perfect fit. The other end is usually called “traditional” debate. You’ll have to indulge me as I toss the entire LD debate world into one of these two bins.

Circuit debate is hyper-competitive. It’s the type of debate that you’re trained for when you attend certain popular debate camps. I’m trying to avoid using adjectives like “top” or “best” because that’s all relative and not very important. Suffice it to say that most of the large LD debate programs across the country would recognize these camps, hire coaches that coach circuit debate, and generally train their students to compete in circuit debate.

Circuit debate has case and argumentation rules and expectations that evolve year by year, many more than traditional debate. Wins and losses are decided primarily on a technical level. To be sure, speaking ability is still important and valued, but persuasion is much less so, as the judges are technical as well and decide mostly on the detailed flow. It’s this structure of rules and expectations that creates a type of debate that snags the interests of the circuit. It embraces an array of tactics, requires a high level of research and preparation, and facilitates amazingly diverse and sophisticated debates. I’ve been told this is what excites and drives the circuit debaters. It’s also conducted at warp speed. Two hundred words a minute and you’re slouching. But hey, more words, better debate.

And that’s fine for the circuit. Traditional debate is different. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s not harder, it’s not easier, it’s different than circuit debate. And there’s the rub, since for the most part the judges fall into the same two camps. The judges decide who wins and when there is conflict they’ll usually defer to their camp. So you need to do the math; if there are more circuit judges, try to debate circuit; if there are more traditional judges, do that — if you see it coming and if you can change directions mid-stream.

The 2011 NCFL LD tournament was a boat race for the circuit gang. Yes, that’s a good name for it: a prototypical beat down, the outcome never in doubt from the start. Coaching a single debater on the national circuit all year, it was natural for me to examine how the best circuit debaters, those who demonstrated consistent success in the bid tournaments, fared in the NCFL LD break. They were crushed.

The NCFL field was 214 LD debaters. If we look at the top circuit debaters, those who earned at least one TOC bid last year, there were about 120 of them in the entire country. By my count 15 of them were in the NCFL LD field (apologies to anybody I missed). The break was to doubles, 32 out of 214 or 15%. The TOC-bid circuit broke all of three kids, only 20%. Considering that many, if not most, of the LD entries had far less experience, the TOC-bidders’ break percentage among those who “stood a chance” was much less than a random draw. And considering the accomplishments of this group on the circuit, certainly much less than they expected and were used to (and if I missed any then the numbers are even worse).

The CFL is a more traditional league than the circuit, so on balance, the judging there is traditional. And let’s not mistake that for inexperience. Most of the judges I observed were well seasoned. The game was played by mostly traditional rules, so to succeed, the circuit folks had to adjust properly, and most of them did not. I learned quite a bit from observing other judges, through friendly conversations between rounds and sometimes specific comments after a round. There is a tremendous diversity of points of view and styles. Some of the things I heard other judges say and do were frankly staggering. For example, several experienced judges did not flow a word.

At the risk of minimizing all the differences between circuit and traditional debate, and going by what I’ve observed at the NCFL tournament the last three years, including judging all prelim rounds and doubles last year, I think there are three key points the circuit needs to keep in mind.

First, persuasion is at a premium. Not just communication, but at the end of the round persuading the judges that your big picture makes more sense than your opponent’s — getting them to believe you. This is the hardest aspect to put your finger on, but we all know some people do it better than others. The best persuaders outline a good thesis, keep it consistent, and keep it simple. They fold their arguments around the thesis while stacking their opponent’s off to the side somewhere. It’s not the exclusive domain of traditional or circuit, but it’s harder to focus on persuasion while doing all the other circuit things. In particular, circuit debaters are often trained to “layer” their argumentation with as many “even-ifs” as possible. While this is strategic on the circuit and sometimes persuasive in real life, more often than not the use of excessive layers comes off as a perceptual weakness, because the debater that sticks to one or two layers sounds like they are more confident and have a more consistent message.

Second, traditional debate is more about the 10,000 ft. view than the 100 ft. view. Circuit debate is all about the 100 ft. view. Many judges give priority to the former over the latter. Some of the judges outright ignore the details and many are less persuaded by them than the bigger picture. Many traditional judges, the ones that flow at all in the circuit sense, won’t flow or process the details.

And third, many circuit tactics just won’t fly because they are not understood or considered necessary. This is not a deficiency of traditional debate, it’s not worse because of this, it’s just a different game. A circuit debater may spend a lot of time on arguments that are simply irrelevant to many traditional judges. For example, they might spend a lot of time warranting their value criterion and attacking the lack of warrants in their opponent’s. Many judges don’t believe this is required and some don’t completely understand warrants. Circuit debaters are often trained to see the value criterion debate as determining the relevance of contention-level arguments in the round. For example, if you win that “maximizing the protection of life” is more important than “constitutionality,” then it doesn’t matter if your opponent’s brilliant arguments about the constitutionality of an action are stronger than your mediocre arguments about saving lives. Many traditional judges, on the other hand, take a holistic view of the round. They aren’t looking to entirely accept or reject one particular value criterion. In order to win these judges, you need to treat your value criterion and contentions as two parts of the same narrative, and treat your opponent’s the same way.

The same goes for claim-warrant-impact structure to arguments. One would think this is required at all levels of traditional debate, but it’s not. I saw many case arguments, even in the elimination rounds, without warrants, some without impacts. And I saw many judges who did not care about them as much as an argument’s (or an arguer’s) intuitive plausibility. Again, this is not wrong per se, it’s different. And if you’ve spent your time arguing these things in front of judges who won’t credit you for those arguments then you’ve wasted your time. The judge probably won’t care if your opponent dropped your link-turn because they don’t understand the term. Judges won’t reward you for being obtuse, fast, or complex. Leave your theory expando at home, forget about K’s, off-case adventures, and ditch any non-traditional treatment of the resolution. Moral skepticism (or relativism, or particular-ism) will get you to 0 – 5 after prelims.

The NFL nationals are a bit different than the NCFLs, but similar in some ways. The tournament is larger and sports a more diverse pool of competitors and judges. It’s more traditional than the circuit, but not as provincial as the NCFLs. Circuit judges are well represented as are non-circuit judges open to non-traditional approaches. Circuit debaters fare better here, but overall it is still dominated by traditional judging. The six prelims are set in advance, so without power pairing some good debaters will suffer from tough draws while others will benefit from easy ones.

The three key points given above certainly apply to NFLs, but you may have a little more leeway for sophisticated tactics. However the traditional style still dominates and non-circuit peculiarities abound. I witnessed one quite unexpected manifestation of this in the 2010 NFL late rounds (11 and 12): a non-circuit debater deftly used scripted rebuttals to defeat two circuit debaters, including my debater. Scripted rebuttals (in this case large portions of the NR and 2AR) would be anathema to circuit debate — no one could predict in advance what would be on the flow. But they were brutally effective in the persuasion and big picture department and won the majority in both cases which happened to be traditional judges.

In round nine this past year the other two judges were circuit, plus me, who passed for one. The flight A debaters treated us to a knock-down circuit round worthy of quarters at a TOC bid tournament. Flight B was slow-down traditional. The juxtaposition was striking and the rest of the panel commented afterwards just how odd that was. As late as round ten, I judged a debater who interpreted the resolution in a clearly abusive manner, taking most of his opponent’s ground, something that would never have happened on the circuit unless someone wanted to provoke a theory debate – and judges voted for it. In another late round, my debater won a convincing round by a 2-1 decision. The dissenting RFD was that his opponent’s case was “better organized.”

Despite the clearly non-circuit flavor, the good news is that the last three winners of the NCFL tournament, and the last two winners of the NFL tournament, were all circuit debaters — and the list may go back even further. I had the opportunity to judge or observe all of them. They all could spin a good story without stopping for an “umm” or pausing to regroup, making it sound like they were reading it from a script, and all while embracing the art of persuasion. The young man who won the NFL last year had six TOC bids, but in the semis and finals he slowed way down to almost an “aw shucks” drawl. His opponent in the finals was one of the North East’s most successful circuit debaters, but she also won Villiger, a CFL-ishy traditional tournament at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia which had an LD field of 125.

So, there is a path to success from the circuit in these tournaments. You just need to find the right approach. You might start by talking to one of the recent champs. Or don’t worry too much about it, have fun, and experiment. Just don’t expect the circuit treatment.

Good luck!

Brad Taylor is a former LD coach for Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Bryn
Mawr PA.  His son, Zachary, competed on the North East circuit for three
years and continues to debate for the University of Rochester.  Brad is a
Technical Fellow at DuPont.