Preparing for Nationals: An Interview with a National Champion

With NSDA Nationals quickly approaching in just over a week, we thought we’d sit down and ask the most recent NSDA National Champion, Natalie Schaller, about preparing and competing at NSDA Nationals. This continues from an interview we did last year with the 2016 and 2014 NSDA National Champions, which you can find here. Natalie is currently entering her second year at McGill University and won NSDA Nationals in 2017 competing for Liberty Senior High School in Missouri. The following is an edited interview with Natalie. You can find the full, unedited interview at the bottom of this page. (The editors recommend reading the full, unedited interview for those interested in really preparing for NSDA Nationals.)

1. Natalie, you won NSDA Nationals last year in 2017. 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?

Originally, I’m from Kansas City, Missouri, which I think is a terrific place to grow up. Of course, I really found my home in Liberty High School’s Speech and Debate program. On the team, I competed in LD, OO, and USX for my first year. As a second year, I ended up temporarily switching to Policy for the season. My Policy partner, Stefanie Flood, was (and is) really a one-of-a-kind person. She taught a lesson all debaters must learn: it doesn’t matter if you (or your opponents) have won or lost in the past, what matters is the round right in front of you. This mindset became important as I began a very difficult transition back to LD during my third year. I had a 2-2 record at most tournaments. If I was lucky enough to break, I was usually done by quarterfinals. I never qualified to the State tournament. I felt immensely disappointed and insecure those last two years. But, Stefanie’s lesson still resonated with me. My poor record in the past didn’t have to define my debate future, so I couldn’t give up on myself or the activity I loved so much.

I say all of this because by the time 2017 Nationals came around, I was very much aware that all of the work I had put in to training might not do me any good. This was an intimidating reality, and it created a great deal of pressure as the tournament progressed. Somehow, though, I knew that tournament wouldn’t be like the other ones. I had finally internalized everything my terrific coach, Mr. Timothy Baldwin, had said to me for the past four years. It doesn’t matter who your opponent is or where they come from – the only people in the room that matter are you and the judge. Walk into every round knowing you aren’t alone. If you want something, just go out there and get it. Simple as that. I want other debaters to be impacted by those words as much as I was.

Even with this positive mindset, Nationals was highly challenging and demanding, and each round was closer than the last. Despite the difficulty, I have such great memories from the tournament. My happiest one was when I was surrounded by my teammates and coach as we prepped on the night before finals. There was something so heartwarming about being surrounded by the people I cared about most, working on the activity I loved the most, all of us helping each other. You really do nothing in this world alone, and it’s awesome to be able to learn from other people. That evening was the most humbling reminder of that. If you’re reading this, you should take some time to reflect on the people you’re happiest to do life with, and then go thank them for being there.

The day of finals was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been, and that’s saying something. I was afraid I would buckle under the pressure, so I tried to focus on routine. You prep your binder, get your files ready, listen to some music, relax, then just go out there and do your thing. I told myself I couldn’t do anything differently, and just treat it as another debate round. Keeping up that mentality helped me become focused and relaxed, and then I remember just trying to go out there and have the time of my life. It was the last round I would ever compete in, so I wanted to soak it all up: the cases, the cards, the strategy, the warrants, the rebuttals. I just had fun with it. I also had the distinct pleasure of competing against Nathan Davis, an incredibly sharp and talented debater from the Heart of America district in Missouri. This made the round even more enjoyable, because I knew I had a friend there with me.

To answer the last part of the question, winning Nationals did not feel real for a very long time. It still doesn’t, almost a year later. It’s important to me that I say I did not win. Mr. Baldwin, won. Stefanie Flood, won. My team from Liberty High School won. My sister team from Liberty North High School won. The Heart of America District won. Missouri won. I am not a really great debater on my own. The only reason that win happened was because for four years, I was lucky enough to lose to so many brilliant and talented people who molded me into the person, and debater, I eventually became. That’s what makes debate special – it’s all a community effort. I can’t tell you how blessed and lucky I feel to have such fond memories of that community.

2. 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 Florida this summer in terms of adapting to so many different judges? In your opinion, what is the most important thing to do in order to make it to outrounds and succeed at NSDA Nationals?

There is no exact science for this, but I recommend reviewing all the judge paradigms you can whenever your judges are released (and do this early – you don’t want to be scrambling five minutes before your first round starts to learn what you’re about to get yourself into). Get a piece of paper, make a section for each round, and take notes on the paradigms of Judge 1, 2, and 3 (and so on, if you’re in outrounds). Figure out the stylistic preferences of the majority of your judges in any given round, and then tailor your approach to the majority. You might not be able to win over one judge, so try for the other two. Of course, this does not mean you should abandon the preferences of your third judge. Still try to incorporate some things they want to see in the round, because otherwise they’ll feel as though you’ve ignored their paradigm sheet. So, strike a balance, but bear in mind the majority when need be.

A final note on judge adaptation is that it doesn’t end when you’re done looking at the paradigm sheet. Debate requires you to constantly be alert of the folks in the back of the room. Study their facial expressions and body language as you speak. Are they nodding along and eagerly writing? Do they look alert and focused? Or, are they shaking their head and only writing when your opponent is speaking? Cues like these can help you determine if a judge is buying what you’re selling. If they’re not, try to either win over the ones who are, or adapt your argument in a way that they respond better to.

3. 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 Florida this summer on how to survive Nationals?

A few pieces of advice come to mind here. Of course, caring for your health is important. Don’t goof off – get as much sleep as you can, drink water, don’t go overboard on the coffee, and try to find some healthy meals. What’s more important is staying mentally strong throughout the tournament, because Nationals really is a mental game. I have to admit, I cannot take credit for the advice I’ll give here – they’re all tips that Mr. Baldwin gave me throughout my debate career.

First, focus on what you can control. Don’t get caught up in the kids that will loudly talk about their argumentative prowess or their latest debate achievements. People are trying to intimidate each other, but don’t let that get to you. It doesn’t matter where your opponent goes to school, which tournaments they travel to, etc. Use your energy to just think about executing your strategy and playing the game, one round at a time. If you just focus on what you’ll say, all of that background noise fades away, and you’ll find yourself in a really terrific headspace.

Second, you have to abandon your fear of failure. I found that I performed worse whenever I psyched myself out before a round while thinking about how epically I might lose. When you acknowledge that you might lose and you prepare yourself to be okay with that, it’s much easier to enter the round and know that there really isn’t any pressure on you. Your only obligation from that point on is to do your best and to trust your training.

Third, speaking of trust – you must have an unwavering faith in yourself and your abilities. When you walk into every round, you have to know that there’s no argument that you cannot answer. You have your brain, and that’s really all that you need. Actually believing this creates immense relief at the tournament, because you trust yourself so much that you will not falter when you encounter an argument/case that is unfamiliar.

Fourth and finally, walk into every round with the knowledge that you are never alone. I think this is true for everything you may face in life, but it’s especially true in debate. Each time you enter your round, you go in with your coach(es), your teachers, your teammates, your greatest friends – and all of the people who have ever impacted their lives, too. You’ll feel empowered if you remember this, because at any given point in time, you know you’ve got a whole army on your side. They’ll be with you every step of the way.

4. Success at Nationals isn’t just about competing at the tournament itself, but also about preparing for the tournament beforehand. How did you approach preparation before Nationals? Did you spend a lot of time doing drills or practice rounds or did you do something entirely different?

For the first week to week and a half after the topic has been released, do as much research as possible. I think I averaged around six hours a day of just combing through databases and law reviews, attempting to find compelling arguments and case studies. This research needs to be done diligently: you cannot be distracted if you want to absorb and process such a high volume of information so quickly, and you certainly cannot be lazy.

I recommend keeping a research journal to keep yours searches focused and fruitful. To start, brainstorm a master list of search terms, adding more as you discover new terms in articles and journals. After you’re done with each term, write down the major arguments and case studies you found, as well as whether or not the term was useful at all. Doing this allows you to keep track of new discoveries, while simultaneously preventing you from searching the same things over and over.

After this phase, spend the next week writing cases. This process looks different for everyone, so I really can’t speak to best practices here. I will say, however, that it’s important to keep the big picture of the debate round in mind. Given all of your research, what do you want to be able to say in the 1NR and 2AR? What will the themes of your voting issues be? How will you tell your story? Start from this endpoint and then work backwards (filling your case with the arguments that will get you where you need to go in the rebuttals). Also, keep in mind that you want to hide some impact defense or turns in your case (if it works well with your framework/contentions and won’t sacrifice more important arguments). For example: this can be as simple as adding two or three lines to the end of a contention on your aff that will likely diffuse the neg’s largest impact.

The remaining time before Nationals should really be spent on cross-ex prep, answer-to blocks and practice. My advice would be to spend about a week on a master list of answer-to blocks, and then move right in to practice drills and rounds. I genuinely believe that rehearsing delivery made all the difference for me at Nationals. If you’re able to, film yourself doing all of the drills so that you can review your delivery and tailor it as needed (and, of course, practice in front of a coach/teacher/parent). I found a few drills to be especially useful:

  1. Practice rehearsing the major theme of your case. If you had to sum up the aff/neg in thirty seconds, what would it be?

  2. Write down a list of five arguments at a time (either all aff or all neg), and then practice answering them. Just go down the line, one by one. The purpose of this drill is really just to familiarize yourself with answering common warrants and impacts. You can include answering different values/value criterions here, too.

  3. Debate yourself. This sounds a bit crazy, because it is. But I mean – flow both your aff and neg, deliver your aff, sit down and write case answers, stand up and read the 1NC and answer the aff, sit back down and write neg answers and aff case defense, stand up and give the 1AR, and so on. This is the best drill, in my opinion, because you’re debating your best opponent – you! You know all your tricks and winning impacts, so you are forced to answer the arguments you naturally find most threatening.

  4. Debate other people. If you can, try to set up practice rounds with kids from schools nearby (I always found this to be more productive than doing rounds with students on your own team). Have a coach watch these rounds, too, because they can likely help you catch some major argumentative errors you might have been missing.

The last thing I’ll say about practice drills is that they’re not a one-and-done kind of ordeal. You should do them for about three hours at a time on any given day, and you need to do them over and over until you get it right.

Finally, in order to go far at Nationals, you have to work harder than you ever have before. You cannot skate by. Be prepared to give it your all and stretch your limits.

5. Any last pieces of advice for those competing at Nationals this year?

You cannot win a national championship if you’re in it for the trophy or for the recognition. In fact, this approach will likely damage your efforts. Your ego will not carry you through when you have hardly eaten or slept in days, you’re down one round, and you’re about to debate some of the most brilliant minds in the country. What will keep you going is heart.

In those most difficult moments at the tournament, I remembered everything about my debate career – start to finish. I remembered the first time freshman year that I got goosebumps because I found the perfect argument in my research. I remembered being in a Policy semifinals round during my second year and finally getting the intrinsicness perm argument right. I remembered the pep talks my debate coach would give my team the night before districts, telling us that nobody and no situation could ever take away our hard work from the season. I remembered how my infinitely compassionate and genuine teammate, Lexie Cree, sat in the back of my rooms during outrounds at Nationals so I felt less scared and alone. I mainly remembered that no matter what was happening in my life at any given point in time, debate felt like home, and nothing had ever made me so happy.

If you have that love for the activity and you are consumed with how incredible and exciting and empowering it is, you can do anything and win any round. You can overcome any obstacle because you have the heart to do it. If you just remember that feeling and run headfirst into each round, having fun and doing what you love – well, you really can’t ever lose, can you?

Special thanks to Natalie for her answers.

Download the full interview here: Preparing for Nationals Natalie Answers