How to Prep for Tournaments: Before, During, and After By Raffi Piliero

Raffi Piliero debated for Harrison High School for 4 years, clearing at the TOC twice, and finishing as bid leader his senior year. He also won several national tournaments and several top speaker awards, and now debates for Georgetown University.


Previously, I’d written an article about what to do to get ready or the season to start during the off-season. This article will instead focus on what to do during the season to get ready for tournaments. Specifically, we’ll go over optimal ways to do in the weeks leading up to that next big tournament, the day before, during the tournament, and recovering successfully from a draining weekend.


This section will examine both what you should do in the short term before a tournament (i.e., the night before, the morning of) but also in the more medium to long term before a tournament, in terms of how to prioritize what prep to do.

  1. Set goals. This can help both motivate you before the tournament, but also create good benchmarks to see improvement. My coach, Mr. Hertzig, always used to have me create an index card the week before a tournament where I’d put 3 goals for the tournament, and then 3 specific actions to get there (e.g., I’ll do 4 practice rounds, 5 1AR redoes, etc.)
  2. Go through the NDCA Wiki and make sure you’re set on every major broken position. This sounds intuitive and obvious, but a surprising number of debaters seem to walk into tournaments without a very sophisticated understanding of positions that have been read previously, and are caught off guard when seeing them or the first time pre-round. I’d suggest making some kind of Google Doc that includes both what the major AFF and NEG positions are for anyone entered in the tournament, as well as a constantly updated list of things that need to be cut to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.
  3. On a related note to the above, having specific case negs/strats to the most threatening positions and debaters is also helpful. While it likely wouldn’t be worth the time (or possible) to compile extensive files to everyone in the pool, you should have extensive files for the most common positions, and specific evidence/scripting against positions you’re most worried about. This helps take some of the pressure off pre-round, and helps avoids that moment of terror when you realize you’re Neg against an Aff that you really don’t have a good strat against.
  4. Be familiar with your prep – this is a super simple and easy thing for most people to alter that has a substantial impact on both knowing what prep to do and being able to explain arguments in round. You should be able to delve into what your evidence says beyond just what the tag (or even the highlighted components say) and be able to talk intelligently about an argument. One additional suggestion is to highlight all of your own cards – this is something that happens in college debate much more frequently than in high school, but I’m all for it – while a bit more time consuming, it ensures greater familiarity with the evidence set you’re likely to be reading.
  5. Be ready for new positions to be broken. The best debaters are proactive, and not just reactive. You should have a set of generic positions (process/agent CPs, DAs that link to most Affs such as politics or federalism, NCs, Ks, etc.) that you can pull from if someone breaks a totally new Aff. This is especially true leading up to major tournaments where people have had months to prep and find new angles on the topic. Additionally, it’s also good to have tricks up your sleeve and new things to say even if they read something new! For example, leading up to TOC, I encouraged the kids that I coach to read some new CPs that nobody had read on the topic, and some tricky new politics DAs if the situation called for it with a new Aff – this was intended to ensure that the Aff could be equally caught off guard.
  6. Do speeches and drills. Daily speaking drills are definitely important to ensure that you maintain clarity and build speed as time goes on in the season, but additional speeches/practice debates can also be helpful. Whether redoing a speech from a round you lost earlier in the season or just practicing a 2NR on an unfamiliar Neg position vs a strange Aff, practice is essential. Ideally, you’re never taking a totally new strategy for a trial run in an actual debate but have practiced it beforehand in front of coaches or teammates. Similarly, doing practice debates with teammates or friends, with someone giving feedback is extremely useful. This gives the perfect opportunity to try out new strategies without the pressure of a tournament, and a great chance to hone weaknesses. As the great Marshall Thompson once told me, “If you’re winning practice rounds, then you’re doing something wrong”; trying new things that you’re bad at ultimately should be the goal to improve.
  7. Strike a good balance between prep and drills. Both are important, but there’s a point in there can be too much of a good thing. It’s probably not worth it to redo that 1AR an extra 10 times if looking at your files, you realize you still don’t have full 1NC to the biggest Aff of the topic. Similarly, there’s a point of diminishing marginal returns to making 10 case negs to 10 iterations of the most common Aff when you could be doing a set of practice debates in that same timeframe.
  8. Stay healthy. This is probably the suggestion that people will brush off, but it’s far and away the most important, especially in the day or so leading up to the tournament. Eat healthy and get sleep in the week before the tournament – tournaments have incredibly nutrient-deficient food and sleep is sometimes hard to come by, which makes it all too easy to get sick during a tournament. As much as we all pretend debate is a sport, it’s not, and exercise is good/healthy, too!


This section will focus on what to do from when you arrive at the tournament to the moment you leave, and how to maximize your time there.

  1. Warm up. Nobody is going to sound their best at 7AM in the morning, and the best way to counteract that is to do speaking drills when you warm up. By this I don’t mean sloppily reading through a couple of cards and calling it a day; you should probably spend 20-30 minutes making sure that you sound as good as possible to get off to a good start early on.
  2. Stay on top of what’s happening with new prep. Unfortunately, you’re probably not the only person who thought to cut a sweet new Aff before the tournament, and when other people are reading new prep, you’ll want to know. Check the NDCA Wiki constantly during the tournament, and stay on top of what people are reading.
  3. Be productive in between rounds. While waiting for the pairings, it’s good (and important) to decompress from the last round, but you should also aim to be productive, either in terms of getting prep done to any new positions or just making sure your existing files are good to go.
  4. Get ready effectively for each round. When the pairing comes out, the first thing to do is to figure out the Aff if you’re neg, or past 2NRs if you’re Aff. Then, the rest of the time before the round should be spent pulling the necessary cards, cutting any that seem missing, and writing blocks/extensions/scripting for rebuttals to save time in round and to make arguments as powerfully worded as possible.
  5. Use decision time effectively. After the 2AR ends, you could have upwards of 15-20 minutes (or longer) to do the aforementioned checking of the Wiki, write blocks, or, in an elim, prepare for the next debate.
  6. Stay healthy. This is just as important as it was in the above section. Don’t forget to eat meals, stay hydrated, and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. There’s no card that could be cut at 1AM that’s worth not just cutting in the morning – trying to get around 8-9 hours is really, really important in terms of being able to execute well the next day.


Once you’ve left the tournament, what next?

  1. Catch up on life. Whether this means making sure any homework is done, eating a good meal for the first time in days, or just sleeping, do it.
  2. Think about what went right and what went wrong. Did you meet goals that you’d set out for the weekend? Did you give any especially good speeches, or any especially poor ones? This can help you orient how you approach the next tournament.

Hope this helps! Best of luck!