Preparing for Nationals: An Interview with 2 National Champions

With NSDA Nationals quickly approaching in June, we thought we’d sit down and ask two NSDA National Champions their thoughts about preparing for NSDA Nationals. Today, we’re interviewing the 2016 and 2014 NSDA National Champions. Bennett Eckert is currently a freshman at Northwestern University and won NSDA Nationals in 2016 debating for The Greenhill School in Texas, and Lawrence Zhou is currently a junior at the University of Oklahoma and won NSDA Nationals in 2014 debating for Bartlesville High School in Oklahoma.

Both Bennett and Lawrence will be instructors at this years Victory Briefs Institute. Learn more about them and our other instructors here.

Q: Bennett, you won NSDA Nationals in 2016 and Lawrence, you won NSDA Nationals in 2014. Tell us a bit more about yourself. What was your best memory from Nationals? How was debating in finals? What did it feel like when you won?

Bennett: My best memories from Nationals are definitely the times I spent with my friends. If I had to pick one, it’d probably be staying up late and watching the NBA Finals and movies while eating leftovers from the Cheesecake Factory. Debating in finals is another story: it’s very different than finals of any other tournament. I was suited up, mic’d up, and on stage. Fortunately, the lights were set up so that I could only see the front few rows in the audience. Debating in finals was, all things considered, pretty fun—I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I thought I’d be. Winning was also a fun sort of rollercoaster. When they announced that the decision was an 8-7, I’m pretty sure you can see me mouth something I probably shouldn’t have said on stage. Immediately after I won, I said, “I feel quite swell. It feels great ending my career winning…better than the alternative,” and that’s all I have to say about that.

Lawrence: Nationals was long enough ago that I no longer really remember everything about Nationals, but I definitely agree with Bennett that the best memories from Nationals are the smaller moments with friends. I remember less about the actual final round on stage than when we went to get ice cream after finals. I remember less about receiving the trophy than when I stayed up watching Hot Rod with my roommates after awards. Debating in finals was definitely a bit nerve-wracking. It’s especially tense before the round because they hold you in a back room and mic you up and you have a lot of time to just sit and stress. I’m not naturally good at public speaking and my opponent (Nicky Halterman) was much more confident and poised than I was. However, I was friends with Nicky (we lived in the same state) so that helped reduce my nerves. Once I started debating, I forgot I was on stage and just debated like I usually did. Winning for me was more of a “I hope I didn’t lose” feeling than a “I hope I win” feeling, but it still felt good. Plus, Oklahoma had 3 out of the top 4 that year in LD, so that helped.

Q: NSDA Nationals is approaching soon! For many, this is the most prestigious tournament of the year, and for some, this is the last tournament of their high school career. What can someone who has never gone to Nationals expect?

Lawrence: The Nationals schedule is a bit rough, with four rounds everyday against some of the best debaters in the nation, and the competition is tough, with debaters needing to win 8 out of 12 prelim ballots to advance, and then advancing to outrounds where debaters are eliminated if they lose two rounds. This makes Nationals a very stressful tournament for a lot of debaters. The tournament experience is unlike any other. There are just so many debaters and so many judges. You’ll just be one debater among another 250 or so debaters and that experience can be a little overwhelming for some. That being said, Nationals is usually a lot of fun! It was held in Birmingham my junior year and there is a decent amount of good food in the city and you get to meet a lot of cool people from across the nation. Coping with the stress is critical. My junior year, I was a nervous wreck by the third day of competition and I didn’t eat much and mostly just sat in the cafeteria worrying about the tournament. I would NOT recommend doing this. My senior year at Nationals was much more enjoyable because I was better at dealing with the stress of the tournament. All in all, there isn’t really any one thing you can expect from the tournament given its size and diversity. Except nerds. You can expect there to be a lot of nerds there.

Bennett: Nationals is unlike any other tournament I’ve ever attended. I competed almost exclusively on the national circuit for my sophomore and junior years of high school, so Nationals was a complete change of pace. The judge pool is far more diverse than most other tournaments. For example, I was judged by everyone from national circuit judges I know and love like Bailey Rung, Martin Sigalow, and Daniel Shatzkin to people I’d never met before that primarily coach speech events. Nationals is also, for lack of better words, a spectacle. The awards ceremony is a huge deal (which wasn’t the case at most tournaments I attended), the number of competitors is massive, and everyone actually dresses up. All in all, there’s no one thing that you should expect from Nationals, but it’s definitely a very unique tournament.

Q: Nationals is a tournament like no other because of its large pool of debaters and brings in so many judges from across the nation with different perspectives. What advice do you have for those preparing for Nationals in Birmingham this summer?

Bennett: Prepping for Nationals is very different than prepping for most national circuit tournaments. There’s no need to have several affirmatives, copious amounts of cards, and a counterplan for every conceivable aff. Instead, you should just have a few core arguments on each side. For example, I read one aff and one neg (each with two contentions) throughout the entire tournament. Because you have to appeal to a very wide audience at nationals, the best arguments are the ones at the core of the literature that everybody can understand and (potentially) agree with. This will also ensure that you are very familiar with your own case: there’s no need to spread yourself too thin.   

Lawrence: I have one specific piece of advice for everyone, which is don’t underestimate the importance of sounding like you’re winning. At a tournament that sees judges of all experience levels and from all around the nation, you need something that can universally appeal to judges and that something is simply sounding like you’re winning. One thing you can tell about the last generation of winners from Nationals is they all sounded like they were winning. Not every judge is going to think like you and they way to get around that is to simply sound like you are winning. To this end, I recommend watching videos. I think you should watch videos of good debaters and what they did that was successful to sound like they were in charge and winning and emulate them. I also think that you should watch videos of good speeches. Historical speeches that were memorable and universally acclaimed are good speeches to watch and learn from. See what made those speeches powerful and draw inspiration from them. While practicing debate speeches is important before Nationals, neglecting to practice how to give a persuasive speech before Nationals can mean the difference between a 2-1 in your favor in close outrounds and a 2-1 against you.

Q: Nationals is also a tournament like no other because it is a week long. For many, this can be really stressful and tiring. What advice do you have for those competing at Nationals in Birmingham this summer on how to survive Nationals?

Bennett: Nationals isn’t the sort of tournament where you need to stay up late cutting cards or giving redoes. At most, you just need to be going over key arguments and (maybe) giving a speech or two at night. Instead, take some time to enjoy Nationals. My favorite memories from Nationals aren’t debating or even winning: they’re watching the NBA Finals (it was a great series), walking around Salt Lake City to find good sushi, and hanging out with friends between debates. Winning is great, but it’s important to enjoy Nationals while you’re there. Don’t think of it as some stressful, intense last tournament (especially if you’re a senior). Think of it as a last hurrah to celebrate the end of your career or year.

Lawrence: Yeah I second the advice about over-stressing. Don’t work yourself out to death. If you properly prepared before the tournament by giving plenty of practice speeches, having practice debates, and doing research, then you should be fine during the tournament. Don’t be afraid to give a redo or two during the tournament or find another piece of evidence if you need it, but you shouldn’t be doing too much of that. Instead, focus on relaxing, meeting new people, enjoying debate. So many people burn out within the first two days of competition and lose the first elimination rounds because they pushed themselves too hard. It’s much better to do the preparation before Nationals rather than during it and instead focus on the experience of Nationals. It’s the largest academic competition in the United States, take the time to meet some cool new people or hang out with the cool people you already know!

Q: Any last pieces of advice for those competing at Nationals this year?

Bennett: This advice is for seniors. After your last round, don’t be upset about the decision or worry about every little thing you could’ve done differently if you lost. I can’t speak to Nationals specifically in this case, but I did lose my last ever national circuit debate. It’s never fun to lose, but there’s no point in going out of debate with regrets about what you could have done differently or complaining about judges. As Dr. Daniel Faraday said in LOST, “whatever happened, happened.” Debate is pretty great and Nationals should be a fun end to your career regardless of the tournament’s results.

Lawrence: Don’t stress too much, it’s more fun when you take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. And make sure to stop by the Victory Briefs table, we’d love to chat with you! Good luck to all those competing this summer!