Ever met one of those debaters that just seem to get it? You know, the ones that come in at twelve years old and within a year are winning tournaments along with the hearts and minds of their audiences? Well, believe it or not, it’s not always talent that sets these prodigies apart. A lot of the time, it’s just that they work smarter than you, and therefore improve faster.

Greater time spent working on debate does not always equal greater success, so going into the beginning of the year it’s important to make sure that the time you spend on debate isn’t time wasted. Improve like the twelve-year-old prodigy you always wanted to be by stepping back and focusing your time on things that will have a real impact on both your own personal growth and your judge’s decisions.

1. Set Goals

Trying to improve without setting clearly defined goals first is like trying to drive to a tournament without finding out which roads to take. You may know which state you want to end up in in the long run, but without knowing which steps you need to take in between you’ll never get there.

Everyone needs goals to improve.

Sound intuitive? Well, that’s because it is. We all know that goals are one of the most important parts of success. And yet, most of us seem to start the season with the vague goal of, “I want to be better”. And that’s it. That’s where it usually ends. No specifics, no timeline.

Believe me, I’ve been there before. It’s easy to think that if we put in enough work, goals like “I want to be a better speaker” will eventually become a reality, but the problem is, goals like this simply aren’t specific or realistic enough to actually be useful or achievable in the real world. So what does effective goal setting in debate look like? There are a few major components.

An Education Focus

Why do you debate? It’s my personal belief that all of your goals should be centered around learning and growing both as a person and as a debater, because, to me, that’s simply where the most value is. Winning a tournament might qualify you to nationals, but learning to inspire your audience will allow you to motivate those around you. Breaking at nationals might get you recognition in high school, but learning to communicate effectively will get you a job after.

And while you may automatically achieve some of both no matter which way you decide to go, being focused on education guarantees that you’ll get the most out of competition. To me, the choice is mainly a practical one.

A Realistic Approach

Whether you’re in it to win it or there for the education, it’s important when setting goals to realize that in debate, the only thing that’s guaranteed is that everything is subjective when it comes to results, down to whether you get a four or five rating in persuasiveness. In other words, nothing is guaranteed except that nothing is guaranteed.

Does that make sense? I hope so.

Since debate is subjective, the last thing you want to do is set an objective goal and set yourself up for failure. So what do you do? Easy. Instead, just set your mark based on personal growth instead of actual success. For example, instead of making it your goal for the year to get a green check or qualify to regionals, make it your goal to be capable of getting a green check or qualifying to regionals. Since the only thing you can control in debate is yourself, center your goals around actual growth and those objective achievements will follow.

A Tailored Mindset

Okay. So we have a long term objective, as well as a realistic approach. The only thing that’s left is to make sure our goals fit us personally as debaters. What do I mean by this? Well, it’s simple really. If you’re really good at speaking, setting season goals centered around getting better at speaking won’t grow you as much as really focusing on learning to argue better. Having a tailored mindset really just means making sure your goals strengthen your weaknesses and fit with who you are as a debater.

Which transitions very nicely into the second main step (isn’t that nice?)…

2. Find Weaknesses

Quick. You have fifteen seconds. List all of your biggest weaknesses as a debater. Ready? GO.

Was that easy? If so, good for you. You’re already ahead of most of your competition. No? It’s okay. There’s still time.

In all honesty, finding where you’re weakest is simple and most of us do it to some extent, so I’m not going to try and present this like it’s revolutionary; it’s not. The problem is, the seemingly simple task of tracking where you’re lacking (ooh look at that rhyming) can be done well, and it can be done really well. I want you to do it really well.

How you ask? Think of debate like a business. A business that you want to be successful. Successful businesses keep fancy charts. They watch cool statistics. They have sexy spreadsheets. You should too.

Start off by using your ballots and Isaiah’s super long and totally awesome in depth list of debate skills to figure out what you’ve been missing. Then, put it all on a spreadsheet and keep it updated throughout the year. Done? Nice. It’s that simple. The problem is, nobody does it. Well, almost nobody.

The people that do usually end up successfully improving year after year, while the rest of us keep putting in useless hours and getting nowhere. Don’t be like the rest of us. Find your weaknesses, and improve like a professional.

3. Drill to Perfection**

Last but definitely not least, put your spreadsheets and newly tailored goals to good use and get to work improving. And I don’t mean just do drills every time club rolls around; I mean put in work. Like a lot of it. Because no matter how hard you think you’re drilling, there’s probably

(definitely) someone out there drilling harder and improving faster.

Want to have better arguments? I once met a debater that had full debate rounds against himself daily to test out his own arguments and see where each of them would end up at the end of the round. He then went back after each round and researched each argument even more so that he could go even deeper the next time around. And he didn’t just do this for his affirmative, he did it to prep neg against every case he thought he might go up against the next tournament. Want to have better arguments? Drill harder.

Want to be a better speaker? I once met a debater who would lock himself in his room every night and force himself to give speeches on random topics without any prep time and somehow make each of them motivational. He then would record himself and listen to the recordings later to see what he could do better. He did this every night for over a month. Want to be a better speaker? Drill harder.

Want to be more likable? Be nicer and get a better haircut.

The results of your goals and fancy spreadsheets depend upon this final step (the drilling, not the haircut). The more you drill, the better debater you’ll end up being when it counts.

Where to find effective drills? Well, our website is a good place to start. Can’t quite find what you’re looking for? Contact us at contact@ethosdebate.com! Or, feel free to make drills up! Often, the best drills are the ones you create to fit your own specific needs. 

The most effective way to drill is with quick feedback. Sign-up for Ethos XL and our coaches will help you find the perfect drills to improve and work on them in sessions with you.

Don’t spend hours running up the escalator backward. Work smart and you’ll rise to the top in no time.

**Note: Please don’t take any of this section as my saying I’m perfect and everyone else needs to step things up. On the contrary, I can be pretty darn lazy when it comes to drilling. But the times I saw the biggest personal growth were the times where I drilled the hardest)