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Note from a Coach: Here’s the state of the union: the year has gone extremely well so far—students are very positive about how things are going. However, I still feel totally unqualified to move them forward.

  • [Student1] brought me her case the other day—so excited to share it, which was encouraging—but as I looked at it, I had absolutely no idea what to say to help her. I merely said it looked like she had done great work, and she went away happy. This response just does not seem adequate, but the honest truth is that I have no idea how to assess whether a case is good just from reading it. Now, on the other hand…
  • [Student2] and his partner ran a case at a tournament this weekend. I thought it sounded good before the tournament, but after seeing it run twice—once by them and once by another team—I think a good team at the end of the season could tear it apart. They won all their affs, but as I listened, I thought of several unmentioned arguments which combined with the ones that were mentioned could sink the case if argued well. So in the end—I can assess—but not quickly enough. And now, of course they are looking for another case. Yet again, I am pretty useless at directing them. Maybe this is good. Maybe it makes them do the work and push through the process themselves, but I know that other kids are getting so much more help from their clubs.
  • And I also know that I have other students—like [Student3]—who practically just needs someone to hand them a case, but I don’t know which Blue Book cases to begin to suggest.

Is there any way I can help them that I am missing? Any quick and easy way to assess a case? (I know the answer is no—but I’m grasping for something!) I feel that I can be much more useful once they all have good cases—but I am stuck here.

— Coaches, if this sounds like you, then read on for Isaiah’s answer —

photo-1460518451285-97b6aa326961General Answer for Students 1 and 2

I saw [Student2]’s case the other day. It was structured well –he had internal substructure just like we talked about. Instead of tackling three problems, he tackled one well-developed problem with three subpoints.

I’ve only seen a couple cases this season, being so early on, that are structured well. I think that’s a sign of successful coaching!

I think the challenge now is twofold:

  1. What are you looking for? When looking at cases, you’re not sure what to look for, so you stare at them then say sounds good. Here is a post I wrote on things to look for.  But I would challenge you next time you feel stuck: without looking at any particular student’s materials, identify 4-5 things you probably should look for –then evaluate the case against that criteria.
  2. Overvaluing the Case. It’s common for debaters (and their parents) to think the case is everything. In reality, great debaters succeed with mediocre cases. Because debates are won and lost over the course of cross-examination through rebuttals. A weak start may be improved, but even the strongest start will fall apart quickly against a quality team. If the case is “good enough,” time to focus on other skills: CX, aff backup research, 1ARs, and so on.

I’m cautious of dismissing a case because of arguments you can think of as a spectator. Often it is working through the challenges to refine a case that is the most valuable part of a season. Perhaps [Student2]’s case really is a non-starter, but I’d look more closely into overcoming its challenges.

National champion Patrick Shipsey also wrote a guest chapter in Section 2 of Upside Down Debate, called 21 Steps to a Bulletproof Affirmative. I’ll see about digging it up and giving it to you early!

Don’t Give Student 3 a Script

As for [Student3], I would never give a novice a sourcebook case. I would never give anyone a sourcebook case. I would, instead, try and demystify case writing (that’s part of the intent behind this recent post).

Below you will find an email to my club about case writing, when I had all the novices write one (and experienced people too, many of whom had never written a case before!). I feel “making a case for something” to be a key skill to be had through debate, and don’t believe you even are a debater until you’ve crafted your own. It’s a rite of passage, like memorizing the Scout’s Oath to becoming a Boy Scout.

I’ve seen debaters with 3 years of dependency on purchasing research and arranging it who have kept themselves from thinking, and I’ve seen 12 and 13 year olds never given that temptation who wrote their own cases from scratch. Weak, sure… on paper. But in their hands they can execute it throughout a round far better than something they purchased. That ability to say why one thing is here and another there to prove a thesis statement is the entire point of learning to make a case!

If debaters leave our tutelage and don’t know how to look at a thesis statement and assemble material to prove it, we have failed them. Unfortunately, we too often make this basic thing mysterious and overwhelming. Refining a case is difficult, but making one is simple.

Example Novice Case

I partnered with a novice the other day for her first debate with her AFF, in-club. Before the round, she emailed me in the week with her case outline and the quotations she’d found. Arguably, pretty weak quotations, but that was what she had. She wanted help putting them in the right spot.

Step 1: Outline + 3-5 Cards of Research

Take a look at this version that she sent first. Taking only what she found, we re-organized it into the structure of the case, while also asking “what did this research really prove?” and retitling some points.

Step 2: “Good Enough” Case

This is the case we produced after arranging some of the quotations. I was 1A. It worked just fine. This novice made a case for something! Huge! Life skill.

Step 3: AFF Backup

Before the round, we spent one hour on a Google Hangout building an AFF backup research file. We also added a weighing mechanism based on the most recent club’s lesson (weighing mechanisms). The goal was to find 3-5 cards from new sources that we could use to support our initial arguments. Coach + student researched together in a google doc and came up with this file – our complete 1AC and AFF Backup.

Notice how we’ve taught a repeatable life skill:

  • Take thesis
  • Find some initial research
  • Arrange it
  • Back it up

Email to Club on Cases

Note from the Coaches – Oct 6, 2016
Isaiah McPeak <isaiah.mcpeak@gmail.com> Thu, Oct 6, 2016 at 1:14 PM
To: Lone Star – TP, LoneStarCC-LD
Here’s what I still remember from the first debate camp I went to, a 2-day seminar at Cedarville University led by Jeffrey Motter (the coach of Christy Shipe): there are four stock issues, and here are their names – topicality, significance, inherency, solvency. I didn’t know why they were stock issues, what made them stock, why they really mattered, or really what they meant – it was like here are four rules of debate, and I was left thinking: do those “rules” really work?

Here began the quest to make sense of debate. 15 years later, I don’t think you have to learn those words to be good at debate. The goal here is to transfer debate skill into life skill, and many parts of college debate trickling into high school debate hinder more than help. For example, here’s a list of all the most complex words in debate and their “normal” real-life equivalent.

What follows are points on some areas of discussion and perceived need in club – please read. There is an assignment in the Resources section – it’s not terribly lengthy.

Why we don’t purchase research early in the season

Here’s a syllogism (a case):

  1. If brief exists, someone put analytical thought into an approach, arranged it according to strategy, and used research skills to find information.
  2. If you purchase that brief, you did NOT put in analytical thought, strategy, or research.
  3. We are learning to think, mastering strategies that transfer to the rest of life, and learning key skills like researching.

Therefore: Purchasing briefs/cases hurts you in the long run; the earlier you do it, the worse it treats you. It’s a self-imposed plateau or rut.

Here’s something interesting I’ve noticed. Their first year at nationals, many teams have around 4,000 pages of research. I know we did my first time, with two rolling suitcases full of research – one for AFF one for NEG. Their last year at nationals, many teams (including three national champion teams I can think of) had just one or two three-ring binders. We had two five-inchers when we got third in TP, and Josiah and Patrick had just one when they got first.

It’s because 95% of debate strategy is brainwork, not out-researching the opponents, as you analyze their own proof, agree with 90% of what they said, and disagree on the 10% that matters.

Why it’s important to learn to think.

I didn’t want to write this one, because I think it’s an assumption of why you’re here. But let’s consider the advantages of learning to own your own thinking, which is a purpose of rhetoric-stage learning.

  1. Leader vs. Taskrabbit – Later in life, those who only solve problems according to other people’s directions and structures will not make key guiding decisions. Rhetoric teaches us processes of thinking through problems so that we can do more than react, and take positions of leadership.
  2. In the Moment – I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had where success or failure depended on rapid-recall of something learned through debate. From how to go on the offense (disads, topicality, counterplans), to collapsing points (clump and dump), to agreeing with the problem (significance agreement), to identifying root causes (three types of inherency) – trying to really understand different thought patterns from debate helps you be ready for any moment.
  3. Confidence – You’re actually going to learn (over a couple years) a comprehensive approach to all types of deliberative and judicial rhetoric, which are the two main types of rhetoric used in your lifetime. You’ll pick up habits of rapidly identifying and classifying types of argument, and all those parli rounds you had will prepare you and remind you which types of responses work and which don’t against types of arguments. You’ll be the person in a group who can say “sure, I can take point on that” because you know there are a limited number of standard approaches to communicating it, and you know them all!

What you’re trying to do is pick up habits. And classical education teaches us that learning works like this: look at the whole, divide it into pieces, practice the pieces, put it back together, practice again, acquire habit.

What about the upcoming practice tournament?

“Peak at nationals.” That’s the mantra we adopted on the Patrick Henry College debate team. It means don’t succumb to short-term thinking that limits your long-term success. Purchasing a brief/case so that at a super early tournament you can feel better is a shortcut that skips skill, strategy, and research.

Do you want your foundations of success and habits in life to be like that? Imagine being asked to present your essay in class or your business idea at a meeting, and saying “I need to go buy an essay/idea.”

We hope you lose the first practice tournament, from a win-loss perspective. There’s no glory in winning at a practice tournament – you’re there to learn. (But we’ll make sure you don’t get clobbered!) You’re going to it to practice your skill, start seeing what works/doesn’t, setting a benchmark for where you are, and finding questions you need to get answered to succeed. False success from someone else’s thinking will prevent you from discovering these points of needed growth.

It’s not that scary! A natural approach to case-writing

If you haven’t written your own case from scratch before, don’t worry, you’ve already made a thousand cases in your life… every time you give some reasons for an opinion you hold or something you want to do.

What’s a case? More importantly, what’s a “prima facie” case for the resolution? It’s an argument that “demands reply” (legal meaning of prima facie), because it seems to support the resolution. That doesn’t require rocket science – think of it as organizing a normal speech for a position.

You don’t have to use twenty buzzphrases that you’re going to need to unlearn later anyways. It’s more like writing an article or preparing a business pitch: can you articulate your position?

“I think the USA should restrict China’s solar imports because it hurts our strategic energy interests.” If that’s what you think, then building a case to support your position is pretty straightforward:

A. What USA’s long-term strategic energy interests are

B. How China’s solar imports hurt that

C. Propose to restrict solar imports

You’re going to learn in the next couple weeks that building a case is not as difficult as you thought, if you have a foundation in research FIRST – it’s pretty easy to structure an idea once you have one. By thinking a case is an insurmountably difficult thing, or by purchasing finished products, we unfortunately train ourselves to not learn the skill of starting one from scratch.

But case-making is a life skill. For example, this is a business explanation of the plan-meet-need case structure, which I use every day at work.

There are only 8 basic case structure, and 3 of them are silly, so learning to structure cases is not that difficult. Even simpler is writing your first one: you don’t have to reach a prescribed format. The formats are actually deductions of case types people make! You can’t help it – when you say why you want to do something (a case), you’ll fall into one of the structures. We’ll then give it a name and you can consider others.

Why Parli?

Because parli is where you have to apply debate skill (and learn debate skill) without hiding behind briefs. Parli tests your debate strategy and gives you an opportunity to try new approaches, that scripts and briefs and cases on the topic are too restrictive to allow.

100% of 1st place nationals debaters that I have coached were good at parli. One of them won both the parli national championship and the team policy national championship. That’s because parli teaches you the adaptation skills needed, like in this case study and this case study for clutch outrounds at nationals.

Remember all the habits in the why to think section? Parli gives you a chance to pick up ALL the habits because it is ever changing and ever adaptive. You can’t expect people in life to communicate in pre-fabricated forms (“will you please use a harms, inherency, plan, advantages outline for this presentation you’re giving?”), and parli gives us this adaptive confidence to look to the substance of the issue and classify its type, without relying on someone else to name and structure it for us.

So it’s a form of debating where you can’t hide behind lack of skill, as it exposes pure skill – instead of how many briefs you’ve got in your box that you can read from to sound presentable even though you already know it’s not a real winning strategy. It’s the “nobody got fired for buying IBM” mentality. As long as you do what everyone else is doing, even if you lose you know it was sort of respectable.

Aside from Coach Sarah: Are you here to learn LIFE skills or just high school, team policy or LD debate skills? We’re here to learn to be better critical thinkers, aiming to interact effectively in the real world. Focusing solely on the compact game of TP or LD is not as effective, and often glosses over the real skills you’re trying to acquire. When you debate like that it’s not very surprising to see debaters who know how to argue on a finals stage but can’t problem-solve in real life. Parli breaks that down.

So I like to use parli in TP and LD groups as a way to get you to really think and understand. And this ultimately helps you acquire the skills for real.


If you have ever debated for a season or seen a “brief,” you need to read this Briefs Aren’t Strategy post. If you’re new to debate and find this entire discussion weird, that’s because it is! Some people teach and learn debate in a box with special words, and we’re undoing some of that – you are skipping a couple years of pain and learning to debate normal.

Why did debate get weird? It’s a great question. It’s because most of debate coaching comes from debaterland – college debate. I just produced this short, funny video on college debate. Inherency, parametrics, condo-plan-inclusive-counterplans (the Condo-PIC), and so much more trickle into your debate leagues from these mainstream debate leagues. What we’re doing in club reaches deeper, past 1980s debate theory and into thousands of years of classical rhetoric, where nobody had to learn “inherency” to have the right to propose a policy change.

We will learn some of the 8 case structures next week, but YOU NEED TO READ THE ASSIGNMENT:

(optional) Common case structures outlined

(required) Excerpt from Upside Down Debate on how to write a case

Note: this week in club we’ll talk more about building a case. You won’t have to write one until after our next meeting.

Club vs. Class

Debate is a rhetoric-stage learning activity. It means your ultimate goal is to “learn to learn.” That’s why it’s not a class, but is instead a club. Our long-term goal is to be more than just a speech and debate club with competitive events, but help professionals ready for business presentations, do mock interviews so you learn to handle behavioral interviewing for college or jobs, and so much more.

So coaches expect you to put learning into your own hands. Doing the bare minimum of assignments certainly keeps you up to speed in club, but it’s not going to “teach” you everything about debate, which would be a waste of much of that time we have together – because the teaching part is straightforward and easy and can be acquired on your own!

If there’s a particular skill or area you’d like a resource in, just drop a coach a note or ask a mentor because we can schedule a Skype call outside of club to teach you, point you to a ton of videos and articles that address that very thing, and more. If you feel you’re missing some foundations, grab a copy of Upside Down Debate. For example, all six main NEG strategies and the six main refutations are treated there. We’ll definitely focus on some of them later in the season, but we’re not going to methodically go through them as a club – because we’re a club, not a class.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information

Don’t fret about all of this. You don’t need to read all those links. Just do the club assignments and keep moving forward – we’re progressing with a more deep than usual foundation to start the season in the world of ideas, and will catch up and surpass those who just spend their time writing briefs and practicing. Just keep swimming!

This email is more for people who expected to buy some research and use it, who find splitting topic (TP/LD) and skill (parli) pretty different, and are worried about an upcoming tournament.

If you’re an experienced student

I highly encourage you to grab a novice and partner with them for the upcoming practice tournament. You will grow SO MUCH as you realize how much complexity you may have brought into debate that neither your judges nor your partner know (or need to know). I spent one season in college debating with a new and different novice at every tournament. It was one of the best seasons of my life. Novices also get to skip through a whole bunch of figuring out which way is up, how postings work, and flowing, as you guide them.

We’re one email away!

We are here to help you. But you gotta email and get engaged for that help!!

isaiah.mcpeak@gmail.com, Sarah Stokes <sarahbeccastokes@gmail.com>, Elijah Schow <elijah.schow@gmail.com>, Anthony Severin <reflectionx@att.net>, Abbey Lovett <abigail.m.lovett@gmail.com>

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