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“A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.” ~ Larry Bird

As a high school student, Larry Bird practiced free throws constantly. He practiced in his driveway late into the night. He arrived at school early to practice. He stayed late to practice. He shot free throws until that shot and that basketball became second nature to him. He practiced until he knew where that basketball would rebound, how fast it would rebound, and at what angle it would be at. That is a LOT of practice. He once said “First master the fundamentals.”

On first glance, basketball and Larry Bird seem to have very little to do with debate. The skills certainly aren’t transferable. What is important is that Larry Bird found the secret to success in what he chose to do and that secret is transferable to other sports, other activities, and even our day to day lives. First master the fundamentals.

We try to race through our lives and find shortcuts and somehow, we think that these shortcuts can be a substitution for practice and hard work.

I recently had a discussion with a debater who was upset with a judge’s decision. This debater had run a counterplan during the round. He knew all the debate terminology. And yet, he said while he understood parametrics in his head, he couldn’t really explain it. I understand free throws in my head. I can even shoot a few. That sure doesn’t translate into being able to make that shot whether against a team that is at the bottom of the league or against a team to win a championship. Larry Bird made sure he understood that shot inside and out. He made sure he understood it so well that it became second nature – a part of him. This innate understanding is called mastery and mastery is the skill debaters need to develop with theory.

Are you a master? Can you run a proper and understandable topicality argument without using debate terminology – just plain common sense? Can you run this argument at any time under any pressure? Can you easily explain any question you are asked on it? Can you discuss what fiat power is in easy terms? Is it second nature to know why it is important, how to rebut it, and all the angles that it could be attacked from? How many of you can explain inherency in 15 seconds (without using the term)? This is called mastering the fundamentals. It is very difficult to build an argument and then explain the argument if you cannot communicate easily the basic foundations of that argument.

The Mastery Challenge: write a set of comprehensive 15-second theory blocks. A 15 second theory block is your, common-sense, simple-language explanation of every bit of debate theory you ever plan to use. The 15-sec block is how you explain what you are doing without using jargon.

In 15 seconds, define topicality without using any special terminology. In 15 seconds, explain why topicality is important (without using debate terminology). Think of all the times in a debate that topicality comes up. How would you respond and why? You need to internalize the terminology so that it becomes second nature to explain and walk through your logic. This is mastering the fundamentals. Do this for all the stock issues. Do this for all the Latin words. Debate is all about language, so debate fundamentals involve having a deep understanding of that language and the logic behind – a mastery of the language.

Mastery Practice: Never use jargon in a round. Practice the fundamentals using your 15 second theory blocks in club and at every competition. Refine your thoughts and practice more. Mastery takes discipline, practice and consistency.

Practice those arguments on your parents, your grandparents, your neighbors, your friends, your coaches…basically, anyone you haven’t completely alienated at this point (they say Larry Bird’s neighbors grew quite exasperated with the late night sounds of the ball hitting the backboard!). Have them ask you tough questions. Have them make you explain your positions (and remember – you aren’t allowed to use debate terminology). And remember, any discussions at the dinner table are quite often similar to friendly debates. You can practice the ideas behind these arguments in real life as well.

Having “flash” can win rounds just like the “hot dog” on the basketball team can occasionally win games. However, the secret to winning championships isn’t in the flashy play or the flashy arguments. Success is mastery of the fundamentals. When you have your fundamentals down, then start the same process with kritiks, counterplans, parametrics, etc. Do not ever run arguments you haven’t internalized and can’t easily explain. Just like in basketball, if you haven’t practiced the three-point shot and you only occasionally hit it, it isn’t your first option during a game (or a round).

If you want to be great, the secret is fundamentals applied consistently over time – this is the definition of mastery.

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