In the last article (found here), we covered why over-practice is a real threat to competitive speech & debate success. That article wasn’t saying that practice is inherently bad. It isn’t. Practice is fundamental to improving at anything. But there are helpful and harmful ways to practice for speech & debate. In this article, we’ll explore a method I’ve created that has helped me make the most out of my time and avoid burnout. I call it “Purposeful Practice”
What is Purposeful Practice?
At its core, purposeful practice is having a specific item you’re trying to improve through your practice rather than practicing blindly. At the beginning of my second year in speech & debate, I decided that I needed to improve my efficiency. I remember that during my novice year I’d constantly see people debating who’d be able to get through the entire flow, speak at a decent speed, and still be able to get to logical links in-depth. I wanted to be like that. So at the beginning of that year, rather than focusing on speaking tone or non-verbal communication, I’d hone in on my efficiency.
I’d practice drills where I’d have shorter than normal speeches or practice specific responses in short spans of time. My efficiency improved through picking precise words and having stronger logical links, rather than just speaking fast. Near the end of the year when I was at the NCFCA national championship, I was best known for that efficiency. By focusing on the theme of efficiency, I was able to make the most out of my practice and avoided over-practicing because I had a specific goal and metrics for success.
That’s what purposeful practice is. Finding a problem, creating metrics, and focusing on practicing to solve that problem specifically. Let’s break this theory down into four concrete steps.
Step 1. Identify Problems First
Diving straight into practice without identifying what you’re working on is a sure way to over-practice because you won’t know what it is you’re trying to improve. Without having a problem you’re working on through practice in mind, you’ll burn out or simply solidify bad habits. The first step to practicing with purpose is identifying what you’re working on. For me at the end of my novice year, it was efficiency. If you’ve competed extensively in speech & debate before, the best resource to identify problems is looking through old ballots. If you’re not sure how to improve or lack enough ballots to identify problems, I’d recommend recording yourself giving a speech and looking back over it.
A crucial clarification to this step is that it’s reoccurring. As you practice to fix the original problem you identified, review your practice often to see if that problem still needs to be fixed or has been solved. In my second year, I sadly failed to do this and ended up burning energy near the end of the year on a skill I already acquired. Identify what needs work and what doesn’t before practicing.
Step 2. Create Metrics
I’m a massive fan of to-do lists. Mainly because of how satisfying it is to cross tasks off your list when you complete them. Practicing with purpose requires a “to-do list” of sorts, specific metrics to know when you’ve achieved your goals. Set goals that will objectively indicate whether the problem you were trying to solve is already fixed or needs more work. For instance, when I was working on efficiency, I set a metric to not drop a single argument in prelims at my first tournament.
Instead of only setting placement-based goals such as “win 1st” or “get 29 speaker points or more”, set metrics specific to analyze what you’re working on. If you’re working on improving your delivery, a metric might be “Have 3 or more ballots that compliment my delivery per tournament”. If you’re trying to speak slower, a metric might be “complete the tournament without a single ballot telling me to slow down”.
These metrics can also be set outside of tournaments. You could use these metrics when asking for feedback after practice rounds online or at your debate club. Create ways to measure if your practice has been successful or not.
Step 3. Find Ways to Isolate
When you compete in speech & debate, you might find that you go on “auto-pilot” sometimes. You might have to focus on explaining an argument, so you default to a sloppier delivery, or you focus so much on delivery that your hand gestures become unnatural. There are so many aspects to a speech and it’s hard to focus on one item. That’s the challenge to purposeful practice. The way you overcome that challenge is by finding ways to isolate what you’re trying to fix and practicing that.
I isolated efficiency by cutting down the time I had to deliver speeches when I practiced. I practiced giving three-minute 1ARs for LD rather than four-minute. If you’re working on delivery, practice a speech you already have memorized and focus on how you sound. If you’re trying to improve flowing, then watch other debate rounds and focus on how you take notes. Find ways to isolate the specific problem you’re trying to fix so you can focus on solving that issue.
When you’ve done this enough, that skill will become second nature which will allow you to focus on improving other facets of your performance.
Step 4. Know When to Stop
This is critical. Even with all of these steps, it’s still technically possible to over-practice. Over-practice isn’t useful, it undermines your ability to compete. When you find yourself burning out, or getting tired of practicing to solve one specific issue, take a break. You can take a break from practice entirely as long as you set a day that you plan to start up again. Alternatively, you can take the process from the beginning and find another skill to work on so you aren’t burnt out working on one item.
Don’t practice blindly. Practice with purpose.
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.