This weekend, I will travel to Indiana for the first NPDA tournament of the fall semester with the Grove City College debate team. Debating with Josiah (my incredibly knowledgeable, skilled Californian partner) is nothing if not a privilege. Argumentative clash always satisfies. Winning never disappoints. Losing always improves.
But this tournament commences my ninth consecutive season of competitive debate. In nine years, I have argued in hundreds of debate rounds, delivered nearly twice as many individual speeches, produced at least as many pages of research, read scores of ballots, and competed with almost a dozen partners in four styles of debate. I still have to learn just as much as any other debater, but I have come to realize one very important truth (via experience and observation): burnout is real and terrible.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Contracting debate fatigue is extraordinarily easy competing season after season under year-long resolutions in leagues like NCFCA and Stoa. Almost any debater, however, can become marginally disinterested in debate irrespective of format after more than a couple seasons. Adequately refuting arguments becomes a chore more favorably substituted with ritualistic (or outright pathetic) responses. Practice debates are bothersome. Winning is alright.
Worse than wholesale fatigue, however, is adaptive burnout. Debaters experiencing adaptive burnout continue to register for every tournament, monitor their opponent’s performance and cases, and occasionally win titles and trophies. But both the intellectual activity and argumentative excellence of these debaters begins to decline, eventually plummeting faster than the 1929 stock market.
Absent intellectual activity and substantive refutation, any debate will, at best, deconstruct into a montage of formulaic responses and rehearsed catch-phrases (at worst, a torrent of nonsense).
The importance of self-evaluating for this strain of burnout cannot be overstated. Thus, every debater should run a preliminary assessment of their condition using the following two-question litmus test.
“Am I learning anything?”
Yes, I probably did a lot of research at the beginning of the season to understand the resolution. But remembering that the purpose of debate is to trigger argumentative clash and the subsequent refinement and development of ideas, am I really continuing to learn? If not, I’m strictly reciting a polished script from several weeks or months ago.
“Are my arguments maturing?”
Of course, some cases or teams need constant research and updated refutation. But I know all the good arguments to run against some teams who are mind-numbingly easy to defeat. Or am I just pretentious? Surely, I know that the academic narrative and body of knowledge on X, Y, or Z argument have not been abruptly stunted since I first developed my argument. How can I extend the width and depth of my arguments?
Debate does not intrinsically stimulate the disinterest or apathy of exhausted debaters just like the feelings of discomfort or nausea after eating seven slices of Grandma’s apple pie are no fault of the pastry dessert. The Socratic hierarchy of disciplines names debate (the dialectic discipline) as the crowning intellectual pursuit. Argumentation is both an art and a tool that deserves academic excellence when exercised.
How then is burnout remedied?
At the risk of pointless complicating a seemingly unambiguous idea, I submit that burnout can be cured in any of four ways, each stemming from a correlated variation.
The premise of material burnout mirrors the aforementioned need for constantly expanding a debater’s knowledge base. Running the same surface-level negative arguments ad nauseam or reading the same pithy quotes in an affirmative constructive is boring and an intellectual inhibition. Learn something new and argue with it.
Debating against the same schools every tournament and having the same tournament schedule every season turns the intentionally animated sport of debate into a routine performance where the strategy, style and aptitude of every team is foreknown. Continually participating in the same style of debate similarly limits growth.
Initiate Skype debates with debaters around the country. Attend tournaments in different leagues or learn and compete in a new style of debate. Sun Tzu’s famous charge to know your enemy is wise, but maturation comes from routinely pursuing new enemies to know.
Partnerships that span multiple seasons frequently lull both debaters into a dangerous relaxed condition of intellectual complacency by forging a static team that requires each partner to exercise a few strengths and fix a few weaknesses, but eventually nothing else changes.
Partner with someone new, and uncover your heretofore ignored or hidden weaknesses and grow. (The context of this remark changes across debate styles. For example, year-long resolutions generally—but not always—require year-long partnerships. Resolution patterns like American or British parliamentary debate allow for much more partnership flexibility.)
When preparing for an exam, coupling an intense study session with a subsequent mental rest period allows a student to test much better than a counterpart who studies relentlessly for as long as possible. Bodybuilders know that a one-to-two week hiatus after three-to-four months of continual strength training builds an exponentially larger amount of muscle compared to continuous lifting. Debate is no different. Most likely, poor verbal or intellectual performance stems from attending too many tournaments. Take a break and do not debate, then return and observe the outstanding improvement.
Anecdotally, Josiah and I only attended one tournament in the spring of 2015 because, quite frankly, we were tired of competing. Our debating was not poor, but it was far from excellent and we lacked any desire to excel. The one tournament we attended was the National Christian College Forensics Invitational tournament, a moderately-sized national championship comprised of all Christian colleges in the NPDA. Not only did we both win speaker awards within the top ten placings (exact awards escape my memory at the moment), but we also won the tournament with a unanimous finals decision, subsequently besting thirty other schools by a margin of over twenty points (a large margin) to win the “quality” award for Grove City—essentially school sweepstakes. Big things can follow a brief respite.
Approaching debate as an opportunity for constant intellectual growth should ostensibly save debaters from burnout. But disappointingly, everyone—including the best debaters—is susceptible to degenerating into shallow, stilted dialogue. Knowing that the lifeblood of a healthy intellect is an insatiable appetite for learning, everyone should feast on the ever-expanding buffet of knowledge prepared over centuries by humankind’s best minds and brought to our fingertips by Larry Page. Avoid burnout by learning something new and arguing with it.