In my novice year of Speech & Debate, I had an After-Dinner speech in NCFCA. After-Dinner was a comedic platform event that was sadly removed the year after I competed in it. I loved that speech. Well, at the beginning at least. When I first gave it, it was clear that I enjoyed delivering the speech. That enjoyment showed in the performance and I made finals with it at four tournaments in a row.
This was my shot to nationals. I just had to do a little bit better at regionals. I had hit a ceiling with it and unfortunately landed consistently near the bottom of the top eight. My first instinct of what I needed to change came in one word… Practice. I started practicing the speech three or more times every single day. I remember the day before regionals I practiced it eight times. I had my hand gestures down cold, my tone all thought out, and knew the script better than the back of my hand.
My placing didn’t improve.
I didn’t even break. All my ballots were fifth and below. They all had a similar comment: It seemed TOO practiced. My delivery felt too canned. My enthusiasm seemed fake.
The most common answer we hear to any speech & debate problem is practice. If you’re having trouble with your delivery, you’re given drills. If you’re having trouble thinking of arguments on the spot, you’re told to practice. Now, practice – to a healthy degree – is good. I’m not contesting that.
However, when practice gets to a point where it feels like a chore without direction, that’s when you need to think twice about practice. In this post, I’ll lay out three reasons why over-practice is such a significant issue, and in the next article, we’ll discuss the solution.
Reason 1. Burnout
In speech & debate, your mental state will directly affect your results. No matter how much you practice, if you’re not excited and happy to be competing, the judge will notice. If you’re practicing so much that speech & debate loses its fun, that will show through in the round.
In debate and limited prep events, how fast you can think is incredibly important. Practice to a healthy degree will help you improve your thinking speed, but over-practice will create mental fatigue that harms your performance at tournaments. If you’re over-practicing, you won’t have as much mental bandwidth to focus in the round.
The burnout from over-practice even harms your pre-tournament preparation. Especially in team policy, having the energy to research cases can make or break your season. Over practice detracts from that energy which can lead to further burnout and weakened performance.
Reason 2. Canned Energy
We all appreciate a conversational speaking style. Stoa takes this even further by including “Conversational Style” as a category on most of their speech ballots. Over-practice will detract from your ability to create a real connection with the judge by making you sound canned.
It’s only recently that I realized my errors from my novice year. At first, I thought the problem was that I needed to practice even more to make myself sound more enthusiastic. The next year I created a persuasive speech that I loved. Again… only at the beginning. I won the first tournament where I used it and advanced with it at another early tournament.
Then I never broke in the event again. After I won a tournament with it, I thought “Wow, I could do even better if I practice more!”. This mindset led to me delivering the speech daily and by the time the next tournament came, everything felt so scripted and fake that the speech could no longer create a connection. This turned to a cycle of burnout where practicing was only making me feeling increasingly fatigued and sounding increasingly canned.
Reason 3. Bad Habits
If you’re practicing without direction or doing it as a chore, you won’t perform as well when you’re practicing. That’ll lead to bad habits being reinforced. Two years ago when I competed in Lincoln-Douglas at NCFCA nationals, I had practiced my cases countless times and put together responses to the most common arguments.
However, because I was so used to giving those responses a certain way from my practice, I had trouble recognizing when something needed to be adjusted. This created disconnects in my themes and problems with my analysis. When I debated cases with arguments I had never heard of before, I tried applying my pre-thought responses which never worked. Practicing so much locked me in a mental box where I couldn’t adapt.
Speech & debate is unpredictable and spontaneous. That same year, the affirmative case that made LD finals was using a definition that no one else had used the entire season. If you’re relying on past practice rather than your ability to think on the spot, when you get caught off-guard, you won’t be able to respond effectively. The ability to rely on what you think of in the round rather than canned responses can save your career.
Luckily there’s a solution: Purposeful practice. We’ll discuss that next article.
About the Author
Kyle Lee has competed in both Stoa and NCFCA. His accomplishments include over one hundred top-three finishes, first place on Stoa speech ranks for the 2020-2021 season, and the record for the most first places won at a single NCFCA tournament (seven firsts in one go at the 2020 Bothell WA, NCFCA Qualifier). He coaches actively through his organization Conclusive Edge. Outside of speech and debate, Kyle is an avid rock climber, holds a second-degree black belt in Karate, and enjoys writing music in his free time.