Why Circuit Debaters Should Conquer NSDA Nationals

When I was a freshman at the then NFL National Tournament in Dallas, one debater from my district placed in the top 14 in LD. I got to watch him stand on stage next to well-known circuit debaters who composed a good portion of the top 14 that year in LD. The year after that, I watched another debater from my district (who had beat me for the spot to Nationals in LD that year) also stand amongst the top 14. The difference? There were less prominent circuit debaters standing on stage with him. While circuit debaters do consistently place high at the National Tournament, there also seems to be a decline in attendance from the circuit.

I believe that that circuit debaters should once again consider qualifying and attending NSDA Nationals and explain why I believe circuit debaters should be once again winning NSDA Nationals.

I: Real World Persuasion Skills

Let’s face it, debate is a persuasion game. Your goal is to convince other human beings that you are the better debater and that your side of the resolution is true/more desirable. You have to persuade people that have subjective preferences and biases. In circuit debate, that persuasion exists on a more technical level. In traditional/lay debate, that persuasion lies more on a big picture approach and on arguments that are typically considered “legitimate” by most normal people. At Nationals, it is very difficult to succeed and consistently win if one does not have good real world persuasion skills.

While I certainly believe that every debater should learn circuit debate concepts (I, for one, strongly believe that theory teaches technical skills unlike any other concept), I also believe that every debater needs to know how to make their arguments matter in the real world.

We commonly read theory voters of education, substantive engagement, and advocacy skills and when asked by non-debate people why debate is valuable, we point to things like how it creates better citizens, encourages us to explore real social issues, and teaches students how the world works so that they can better it. It’s fairly difficult to do that when spewing at 300 wpm about how proving a moral obligation to assist people in need causes extinction. While we need circuit debate to teach us technical skills and encourage more in-depth research and philosophy education, we also (sometimes) need traditional or lay debate to teach us how to connect those issues back to reality. For example, my senior year, the topic at Nationals was about national security and digital privacy. This was a topic that had a lot of good clash and was also the camp topic for VBI that previous summer. At camp, many debaters were running fairly obscure plans and disadvantages and kritiks, all of which is fine for breadth and depth of learning and allows us to explore the topic at a deeper level, but none of which was particularly useful to the average person. At Nationals, we had to ground the debate in something that the judges could connect to, i.e. the Snowden controversy, and make moral arguments that the average person could understand. This does NOT mean that I dumbed down my strategy. What this means is that my strategy focused on a clear, simple thesis that appealed to a wide range of judges. If we truly believe in all the reasons why debate is good, then we need to have stock, traditional debate at some point, and what better place to do that than NSDA Nationals? I believe that NSDA Nationals is a crucial tournament for every circuit debater to attend at least once so they can understand how to connect debate to the real world.

II: Judge Adaptation

While very similar to the above point, NSDA Nationals teaches another skill, which is judge adaptation. Even if you don’t think that education in debate is important, and you only compete in debate because it’s fun and you can crush other people with intellect, you still need to win and that requires judge adaptation. Judges are extremely diverse at Nationals. In one round, I was judged by one of the most prominent coaches on the circuit. In another round, I was judged by someone who literally wrote that she had no experience judging LD debate in her paradigm. It is a skill to learn how to pick up ballots from both types of judges. Nationals has such diversity that it requires debaters to master judge adaptation to do well at the tournament. Even if debaters don’t go into the tournament with a good grasp about judge adaptation, they should come out with a better sense on how to adapt. Nationals teaches debaters to appeal to a wide range of judges from all over the nation.

Of course, many people think that to succeed at circuit debate, you don’t have to adapt to lay judges. No. That’s just plain wrong. There are a lot of good reasons for why you should learn to adapt to lay judges. Some of those reasons are listed in the points above, but here are a couple reasons why adapting to lay judges helps you win circuit rounds.

First, this approach gets you back to basics. If you can convince a parent judge, then there’s a good chance that you can convince a very technically oriented judge because you have gone back to the very basics of debate and the foundation of engaging real issues. Second, adaptation forces you to work on skills such as crystallization. Since lay judges are generally persuaded by the big picture, it forces you to get good at the big picture. Third, it allows you to appeal to a wider variety of judges. This is especially good for panels. Lay debating will hardly ever make a judge drop you, so it is a style that allows you appeal to a lot of judges. Fourth, you will better see the round from the perspective of the judges. Because lay debate forces you to appeal to the average person, it requires a fundamental mindset change that forces you to see the round for the perspective of the judge rather than looking at the round in a very technical manner. Finally, it will increase your speaks. Judges will appreciate the techniques that you are using. A lot of judges want to see more topical debates that are well-developed. You can’t ever go wrong with a cohesive, solid, lay strategy.

Some people might complain that circuit debaters just can’t adapt. I have no idea why people make this argument when it’s just clearly not true. The 2011 NSDA (then NFL) champion broke at the TOC twice and won the VBT twice. In 2012, several of the top 14 finishers were strong circuit debaters, in 2013, the runner-up at Nationals was also the runner-up at the TOC, and in 2014, the third place finisher was a circuit debater who had qualed to the TOC. And let’s not forget that the 2014 TOC champion also won NCFL Nationals, which is arguably even more traditional than NSDA Nationals. This doesn’t even include the other circuit debaters who have also been successful at Nationals and placed in top 30 positions at the tournament. Circuit debaters can win and they should win. They have so many advantages going into the tournament. They have unbelievable technical skills, usually more research than their opponents, and typically have a lot of connections going in. Circuit debaters should be winning, it’s just a matter of adapting.

Finally, some people just say that lay debate isn’t worth it or isn’t fun. While this argument has some merit, I believe that it isn’t a good reason to not attend Nationals. The above points seems to provide some good reasons why circuit debaters should attend Nationals and more importantly, Nationals only happens once a year, and it’s during the summer which means you don’t have to sacrifice any circuit tournaments to attend. If you primarily compete on the circuit, then surely you can put up with a District qualifier tournament and the National tournament, which are only two tournaments out of the whole year. And I sympathize, I know that traditional debate isn’t all that fun. I had to debate traditionally for four years even though I would’ve vastly preferred to debate on the circuit but couldn’t due to financial and travel restrictions. But even if you don’t think the rounds are fun, I still think the tournament as a whole is pretty fun, while leads me to my final point.

III: Cool Experience

Finally, NSDA Nationals is just a plain awesome time outside of debate rounds. Yes, maybe the rounds will be terrible, and yes, you may get wrongly voted down by a parent with no experience in Lincoln-Douglas debate, BUT outside of the debate rounds, Nationals is just a great experience. Having been multiple times, I’ve seen a lot from the student side of the tournament, and some of the best memories I’ve had over those four years of debate come from the National Tournament outside of the debate rounds. The tournament is a whole week of getting to meet new people from around the nation competing in different events in a totally new environment. Having so much time in between rounds means more time to find new people to meet or to be around the people you already know. The downtime is a perfect time to play cards, board games, or just talk amongst each other.

One of the best parts about Nationals is that unlike most circuit tournaments, you aren’t rushing from one round to the next all day. The tournament usually gets done fairly early every night with some time to go explore the city or environment you are in. Usually, the NSDA hosts a couple of events (which aren’t all that exciting in my opinion), but it also has a list of attractions that are available and sometimes can even provide some sort of discount of special offer for that attraction simply for being at Nationals. These are sometimes really fun to go to with people from your team, District, State, or random people you met at Nationals.

NOTE: Just staying within your little circle might be fun, but there are two reasons in my mind why it might be best to expand your social circle a little bit. First, you see your circuit friends a lot already, and there’s a good chance that you’ll spend two or more weeks with them at camp next summer. Nationals isn’t about seeing the people you already know; it’s about meeting new people with new stories from across the nation with different experiences. There is simply no other environment where you can meet these new people, so take advantage of it. Second, staying within your circuit circle somewhat reinforces the elitism that many outsiders perceive of circuit debaters. My senior year at Nationals, I could walk into the cafeteria that served as our waiting room and point out the two tables where all of the national circuit kids were sitting. I’m not saying that circuit debaters intend to be elitist or that they are elitist. What I’m saying is that by only remaining within a circle of circuit debaters, many outsiders will perceive that action as being elitist. And I’m also not saying to never hang out with the circuit squad, I’m just saying to go make new friends. Don’t worry, they’ll love you. If they’re anything like I was, they already have massive GDS for you.


I know that many circuit debaters have heard this sort of rant before, probably by the older coaches, and I know that many circuit debaters will still choose not to go to Nationals because they feel it is a silly tournament, with subpar judging and competition, that isn’t their style of debate, that it isn’t fun, or whatever. However, I strongly encourage circuit debaters to reconsider this position. I believe that Nationals has a place in the debate world both for circuit and non-circuit debaters and I believe that circuit debaters should qualify and compete at the National tournament to hone their existing skills, acquire new skills, and (hopefully) bring back some nice hardware. So when the time comes around, I hope that circuit debaters will attempt to qualify for the National Tournament and once again conquer NSDA Nationals.

Lawrence Zhou is the 2014 NSDA National Champion. He attended and is now an instructor at the Victory Briefs Institute. 

  • Mustapha Mond


    Otherwise, excellent article — a message that would serve the circuit kids well.

    • Lawrence Zhou

      Thanks! And it actually is the NSDA. They recently changed their name from the National Forensic League to the National Speech and Debate Association: http://www.speechanddebate.org/

      • Mustapha Mond

        Oh, I know — but old habits die hard. Can’t stand the new moniker, it’s change for change’s sake.

  • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

    The sentiment is nice, but using the term “conquer” is terribly unfortunate. Traditional LD debate is a wonderfully challenging yet accessible event. Cracking the top 14 at NSDA requires incredible intellect and skill, and yet it’s entirely feasible for one smart kid from a school with no established program to qualify and perhaps even advance.

    Virtually all the educators I know –outside a small group that run the circuit– want to keep that accessible model in place. NSDA is the linchpin of that system. While many other prestigious tournaments are seen as having “fallen” to the high-priced cartel of circuit debate (not here to argue the accuracy of this view, but you must admit it’s a plausible one), NSDA is a place where you can still take a smart kid from a public city school –who will never be able to afford the weekly plane fares, camp tuitions, etc., to compete on the circuit– and make round 11 or 12. I know because we’ve done just that for several years now.

    So when you say “conquer,” rather than “experience” or “share in”, it evokes images of students from the same 3-4 dozen affluent schools descending with their phalanxes of coaches to colonize yet another big tournament, and further pad their college applications at the expense of the less privileged. The substance of the article seems to suggest the opposite: coming to NSDA to accept and immerse oneself in what is essentially a different event. If that’s the case, then by all means come. But please check your jargon, speed, made-up “theory”, and privileged impulse to “conquer” at the door.

    • Lawrence Zhou

      I’m sorry that the article title invoked that image. For clarification, I took the term from a lecture I attended my senior year at VBI about how to conquer NFL Nationals. Also, as full disclosure, I come from a small, public Oklahoma school. My town’s population was about the size of the college I now attend and my debate team was only about 10 people large my sophomore year. I did not compete on the national circuit, and neither did the other two debaters from Oklahoma that placed 2nd and 4th. In previous five years, an Oklahoma has placed in the top 14, all the way back to 2010, when another student from my high school ended his career in finals, and all of those debaters did not compete on the circuit. Obviously public school kids from programs that do not participate in circuit debate can and have won or done extremely at NFL Nationals. The point of the article was indeed to make NSDA Nationals a more open experience, but it also was to help address the divide between circuit debate and traditional debate.

      • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

        That’s what I figured you meant, and I fully support that approach.

  • James Ahern Jr MSE

    Always look forward to out-of-state policy debaters debating at Yale U HS Invitational as a former policy debater from CT judging. Missed 2014 Yale U HS tourney, but looking forward to hearing policy debate rounds on oceans exploration and/or discovery at Harvard U HS Invitational this year of 2015. Wish all the debaters the best of luck.

    I am stuck in basketball country at UConn which has an aversion to policy debates like the secondary schools in Connecticut Debate Association tournaments. Even the New Haven Urban Debate League differs from the rest of our nation. The Connecticut Debate Association tournament regulations go in the opposite direction of the rest of our nation by actually PROHIBITING debaters from using their own research in a debate round. What kind of debate community or group of educators prohibits secondary school debaters from researching on their own and presenting their own research? Strange state.

    Listen to audio of 1982 NFL National Policy Debate Final Round to hear four policy debate cherubs that were able to adapt to lay judges, and excel at top policy debate tournaments alike. (Beckie R and Beckie Y from Groveton HS (AFF) v. Bu and Abbate from Cathedral Prep (NEG) ) Aff plan was sex education under education topic. Enjoy! P.S. Wish I could have been there! I failed to adapt to CT judges at states myself and didn’t get to go to nationals.

  • Danny DeBois

    Agreed 1000%. Two thoughts:
    1. One of the problems with NSDA nationals is that it’s during the week and often conflicts with graduations for Northeast public schools that end in June (I didn’t go my junior year because I would have had to miss finals, and went in the worlds division my senior year because it was shorter so I would have been able to go to my last day of school.) I’m not sure if it’s feasible for the NSDA to change its dates or try to condense more of the tournament into a weekend, but I think this is at least part of the reason why a lot of circuit schools in the Northeast don’t go.

    2. I think it’s a sign of a larger problem with the activity that NSDA Nationals and TOC appear to require completely different skillsets. Theoretically, a debater who can make smart arguments, advance a thesis, and reasonably cover the flow (all of which you have to be phenomenal at to get to the top 14 of Nationals) should at LEAST be able to qual to TOC. I agree that circuit debate has certain educational benefits you can’t learn elsewhere, but perhaps our activity’s barrier to entry is a bit too high.

    • Lawrence Zhou

      Thanks for the comments! These are really important things to keep in mind.
      1. I seem to remember Amy telling me about this as a problem last year during Nationals, as she mentioned that she had to fly back to take finals for school. I think this is a problem that the NSDA has to really look into. Obviously, this tournament should appeal to everyone, and if its dates are off-putting to certain regions, then that is a serious issue for a national tournament that’s supposed to appeal to everyone across the nation.
      2. I think that your comment hits it right on the head. Jake Nebel and I had a short email exchange that mentioned a lot of the things that you talk about and about the growing differences between the two different national tournaments. This seems to be a major problem that requires attention from debaters from both more traditional and more progressive areas of debate.

    • Josh Roberts

      I’ve been trying to think of analogy that captures the difference between circuit debate and “traditional” debate, and I am not convinced that my analogy does that, but I think it might get close.

      I think the difference between the two styles of debate can be explained by the difference in two professional sports. For example, basketball and football while different sports require some similar, fundamental, skill sets. Speed, agility, strength, vision, etc. Obviously certain skills differ between the two sports, like throwing a football versus being able to hit a three-pointer, but the fundamental athleticism and so on are the same. At the end of the day they’re both professional sports that require a high-level of skill, just like TOC and Nationals are championships. They both require debaters to have mastered certain fundamental skills that are useful regardless of which tournament you attend, but they also have their differences which require you to adapt your skill set accordingly. So, perhaps the barrier to entry is too high, or perhaps people just want to play one sport.

      • Lawrence Zhou

        I think this analogy, while not perfect, makes a lot of sense. Jake Nebel pointed out that every NFL National Champion from ’04 to ’11 was in TOC elims, which shows that the basic skills of weighing, impacting, speaking fluently, etc can carry over from circuit and traditional. But a lot of the more specific skills don’t necessarily translate well from one to another, as evidenced by the fact that TOC qualed debaters don’t always break at Nationals and why debaters in outrounds at Nationals don’t always break at TOC qualifiers.

        I know that the difference in choosing one type of debate over another does play a role. There are some very traditional debaters that just don’t want to learn circuit, and vice versa. The hope is that all debaters recognize the value of each type of debate.

  • Retired debater

    I’m pretty sure this is the 100th time that basically this thesis has been posted on this site and maybe the trillionth time it’s been made generally.

    • Josh Roberts

      And yet debaters still lack fundamental communication skills…

  • tell me im wrong

    Fantastic article. debate, at least in my event which is public forum, has lost all sense of original thought. If you explain a rebuttal without citing a “card” some judges just wont listen. It was not always this way, and in fact it was never supposed to be this way. Public forum was created to appeal to common sense, sadly it has severely lost that appeal.

  • Josh Roberts

    I really like this article. Nationals is one of the most fun tournaments that I’ve ever been to. It’s a marathon for sure, but I could not agree more with Lawrence’s points. If “circuit” debaters learned to communicate better I guarantee that they would see huge benefits in front of judges that they consider “legit.” At the end of the day, debaters job is to convince a judge to vote for them, this requires being able to tell a story and if you struggle with fundamental communication skills then that becomes much more difficult.

    • Lawrence Zhou

      Thanks so much!