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Someone sent me an email asking: “What are the qualities found in national champions?” I was unable to write a direct reply.

It’s the wrong question. Why? Because it assumes that being a national champion is the goal. So if you’re not, what? Chopped liver?

The best debaters don’t always win, nor do the most Christian. But to assume that means the “injustice” of the best not winning has lifelong consequences also underestimates the long-term trajectory of a debater. Debate habits are lifelong, people are hired (or not) based on their reputation, and the offenses a debater made will be remembered for life.

If you’re in debate for the wrong reasons, you’ll hate this post. Here are a few posts you will appreciate a little better, but will still influence you well 🙂

Here’s what I think a national champion SHOULD be like.

Holistic Debater

At Ethos I have always tried to hire our staff BEFORE their success, not after. I’ve hired six future national champions, and at least twenty that “could have” won nationals and got top 10-ish, and a few that “should have” won nationals and didn’t even break at nationals. Compare that to some other debate coaching organizations that only pick people after they get the title. They’re ignoring the lesson of claims vs. warrants.

Don’t listen to the powertag, look to the true warrants in a card, rather than the claim. Winning nationals is just a title. Overcoming obstacles, becoming an expert in many topics, learning to think deeply, and proving habits of helping new people is the real thing.


Debating is not a template activity – “do the most PERFECT template to win.” It’s a fluid, adaptive, thinking, listening activity. See national champion Rebecca Frazer’s short post on Bob the Robot.

Only those who listen well and think deeply consistently rise to the top again and again. Occasionally the smartest person in the room will have a good tournament, and sometimes that will be nationals, so this is a trend not a law.

Not Defined by Nationals

Nationals is a crapshoot. That means it’s somewhat random. Think of it this way: is going 4–2 at nationals hard? Yes. Is going 5–1 hard? Yes.

Well to win nationals, you have to go 5–0 after breaking to outrounds. If you went 6–0 in prelims and won two of your outrounds, there’s likely little difference between you and the national champions besides variety of quarterfinals factors: tiredness, the particular audience, the case, AFF or NEG, personal feelings about the other team, and location of tournament.

The best debaters know that winning nationals does not their reputation make. And if they spent their entire debate career aiming solely at winning nationals, whether they do or don’t their reputation will be exactly the same: they gave everything to try and win a high school debate tournament (lol!).


Lifelong champions help others. They don’t take take take, they give give give. They were surprised, then, to realize that in openly sharing info with novices, investing time with them, possibly partnering with them, was a better teacher than simply acquiring knowledge and not sharing it.

Those who never tasted the benefit of helping think this sounds crazy and always will. They’ll be executives negotiating nickels and dimes from every employee, constantly trying to maximize every negotiation, and generally stressed out about getting more of their way than the next guy. The lifelong champion is much more carefree and trusts that investing in people, giving more than receiving, engaging in the world of ideas…

Well, let me tell you a quick story. The eventual President of Pixar was one of the only people in the 70s sharing his methods for improving computer animation. Most companies were keeping it a safe-locked secret. He was openly sharing it, even if it meant others competed better (in business, for real dollars), and went to academic conferences sharing and talking about it, and so on.

Guess who got found and flown to Lucasfilm to help some guy named George Lucas make computer stuff for some movie called Star Wars. Not the small-minded people, that’s who.

Use their personal strengths

Debaters have highly individualized strengths. They don’t spend all their time trying to “be like” some idealized debater, what a book or opinionated coach says makes a great debater, or last year’s national champions.

Great debaters find their personal strengths and maximize them. They identify their weaknesses and mitigate them. We wrote a post on how to use your ballots to help you do that, but it’s less analysis and more long-term experimental implementation that gets you there. I’d hire you if you did something like that. And so would Regina Hartley.


Don’t condemn yourself to the community of people who only work on titles, money, power, authority, and the paper trail of checkboxes that make up their life. They never know there’s another life going on.

Lifelong champions make it out of Plato’s Cave.

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