Debate is not a sport. Debate is not a physical competition where the strength and stamina of your body is tested against that of someone else’s body, rather, it is a test of your mind and communication skills. But with that being said, we need to remember that the mind depends on the body to function properly. If you are seriously committed to outperforming the competition, maintaining your physical body should be one of your top priorities during tournaments.
Before I jump right into my tips for staying healthy before and during tournaments, I want to really drive home exactly why this is so important. Let’s say you have two debate teams with identical experience, research, and skill levels. One team has barely eaten for the entire tournament, and hasn’t had water for several hours. They’re tired, unmotivated, and unable to concentrate. The second team has had plenty of food and water, and are eager, energetic, and at the top of their game. There is a clear divergence between the two teams, even though they are equally skilled at the act of debating itself. The only difference here is physical, not mental. I’m not trying to be your mom– there are serious benefits to taking care of yourself, benefits that can show up on your ballots.
Food & Water
Your first consideration should be staying hydrated and consuming plenty of food. Without food and water, it doesn’t take long before your brain and your mind immediately start to suffer. We’ve all experienced this: your mood instantly plummets, you’re unable to focus on one thing for very long, and you just generally feel like garbage. Depriving your body of the nutrients it needs for too long can even result in headaches and other pains… not something that is particularly helpful during your late-night break round.
Staying hydrated is clearly the easier beast to tackle. Carry a reusable water bottle with you, and a sip here and there will go a long way towards helping you stay at the top of your game. Not drinking may not seem like that big of a deal when you aren’t thirsty, but you need to drink before you get thirsty, not after. By doing this, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain. To take just one example, scientists have found that driving while dehydrated can be just as bad as driving while intoxicated. My biggest piece of advice to prevent dehydration, therefore, is to drink a little, often, instead of drinking a lot, less often. Doing so is proactive, by preventing thirst and dehydration, instead of being reactive, by trying to recover after the damage has already been done.
When it comes to food, however, things get a little more tricky. It’s not always possible to eat between speeches and debate rounds, so many competitors simply find themselves too busy to eat. In fact, I myself have found myself using this same excuse. The thing is, while I “don’t have time to eat,” I seem to have plenty of time to hang out and talk to my friends. Any time you have down time, you need to ask yourself if you should eat something. More often than not, the answer will be yes. Also, you can read a great article here that does an amazing job of explaining what a good tournament diet looks like.
While it’s very different than consuming nutrients, sleep is likewise essential to ensuring that your brain is functioning correctly. Unfortunately, truly good sleep is incompatible with the tournament environment: late nights, early morning, high levels of stress. While it may be impossible to match the levels of sleep that you normally get, there are a few changes that you can make to limit the effects of sleep deprivation.
The first thing that you can do is to make sure that you get plenty of sleep during the days leading up to the tournament. While it’s extraordinarily tempting to stay up and get in a few additional hours of research, it’s going to be better (think net benefits, policy debaters) for you to spend that time getting the extra sleep while you still can. Not sleeping well during a tournament is bad enough, why would you make it worse for yourself by not sleeping well before it?
Secondly, never underestimate the incredible benefits of power naps. Taking 10-20 minutes to relax can yield truly impressive results. Just like turning off your computer and turning it back on again, short breaks that relax your brain allow your mind to restart and come back far better than before. There’s no need to lose consciousness, just getting a break and stepping away from the stress will probably make you feel a thousand times better.
As you may already know, getting your heartrate up immediately before one of your speech and debate rounds can actually improve your performance in a purely mental activity. In fact, studies have shown that exercise can actually boost test scores. Waking up your brain and giving your body the rush of energy it needs right before the round can really set you apart from exhausted, sluggish competitors that the judge may be comparing you to.
I know I’ve titled this section “exercise,” but obviously jogging and suits don’t go together. Instead, I would recommend maybe jumping up and down a few times, doing a few pushups, or going on a short walk at a brisk pace– basically, whatever you can do to get your heartrate up without getting sweaty and gross.
If you feel that your research and communication skills are already excellent, maintaining yourself physically during tournaments can be a great way to give yourself the extra boost you were looking for… The small steps add up, and can leave a huge impression that sticks out in your judges’ mind. And even if it doesn’t, it will still be worth it! You will enjoy the tournament more, and have more energy to dedicate to your friends and those you are around.