A marathon not a sprint
For example the World Universities Debating Championship contains 9 preliminary rounds over 3 days, plus the various elimination rounds, and other international tournaments are similar. This makes for a notably difference strategic game and competitive experience than a normal shorter tournament.
The toll that continuous stress and concentration takes on the body and mind should not be underestimated. Doing three days of debating is comparable to the experience of doing several days of exams in a row. And you add to this the stresses of travelling,
While it makes me feel old to say this, remember to look after yourself. As a human you need regular sleep, nutrition, and so on. Caffeine and sugar may substitute for a day or two, but for three days they reach diminishing returns quickly.
Most of these tournaments have nightly social events which are an amazing opportunity to meet new friends and unwind after the days debates. But remember this is not obligatory. Partying every night takes its toll, on top of the effects of the competition itself. So taking an evening off to recharge is often a good idea, especially if you are drinking at the socials.
On a similar note, it is very easy for people to take out their stress and exhaustion on their teammates or debate partners. So taking some time apart can be a good idea. Even if you are the best of friends, spending all of your time together will invariably lead to getting on one another’s nerves.
Within the debate
In terms of the effect this has on debating success, it changes the dynamic of success away from individual exceptional performances and towards consistency.
One piece of advice that has stuck with me came from Douglas Cochran*, who once told me that the teams who do well at major international competitions are not doing anything particularly unique or special, but are managing to get the basics right every single time.
It’s amazing how many champion debaters, when under high stress, forget the first things they teach their novices like: having a clear structure; responding to your opponents arguments; explaining why what you are saying is important; and so on.
*With characteristic modesty Doug reminded me to treat his advice with scepticism, as he never won Worlds or Euros. But you will have to be content with the advice of a mere multiple finalist and chief adjudicator.
The international aspect
So far I’ve mainly been talking about the impact of the size and scale of a tournament. But the international nature of the event also changes things.
When debating in your own home territory you will probably have a pretty good idea of what is and isn’t common knowledge and of what the status quo in a particular policy is.
For example when debating in the USA you could likely reference the second amendment without further explanation, in the knowledge that most debaters in the room would now it referred to the right to bear arms, as it is a frequently discussed political topic and a basic part of high school civics education.
Also, if a debate about gun control does come up, the fact that different countries have radically different status quo policies can make a massive difference. It is easy to assume that your own country is the default case, but there are huge variations in policy even between superficially similar countries. Even seemingly obvious things like the definition of “High School” can vary wildly from country to country. As a result, being precise and clear in your definitions is even more important than normal.
When arguing form a specific example in a specific country it is not enough to merely show it applies in that particular case, but to show why that example is representative of the general case.
Note that this is not just about adapting to your judge. The fact that I as a random individual happen to know a lot about the US supreme court, or the political situation in Zimbabwe, doesn’t mean that when judging a debate I should treat that knowledge as assumed. You still need to explain it.
Topics at international competitions should be assumed to take place in all applicable countries, unless specified otherwise, and should be accessible to an intelligent individual from anywhere in the world.
This is related but distinct to the notion of common knowledge. All human beings have slightly different moral values, and care about slightly different things. But, in broad strokes, you can assume that people from certain countries have similar values. Which means that if you make an argument premised on the assumption that a certain value (e.g. Free Speech, Social Stability, Individual Liberty, Constitutionality) is an obvious and inherent good, but the judges in your room do not agree, you are going to have a bad time.
Thankfully the solution to this is to do what you really should be doing even in your own country in front of an audience of similar values, and explaining why certain values are important and impacting your points. Adding a single sentence to the end of a point can make the difference between winning and losing. E.g. “This will promote individual liberty, which is good because it allows people to make the choices that will result in the greatest happiness for them.”
Even within the same format the norms and trends for how to debate can vary quite substantially, and you need to be aware of those differences.
For example in British Parliamentary/Worlds style: In some countries it is standard to have layers of structure, with explicitly labelled sub points in every speech, in others that would be considered bizarre; In some places not responding to a point is tantamount to conceding it, so people respond to every argument explicitly in turn, in others it is common to ignore all but the most important points of an opponent’s speech; and there are many more subtle variations such as what counts as a sufficiently new extension.
To a large extent there is little you can do about this, as there will always be variation in what judges prefer outside your control. But remember whatever their preferences they are still fundamentally judging on the same standards. The best way to cope is always to remember to be clear, impact your points and so on. I definitely wouldn’t advise trying to substantially alter your own speeches, as you are unlikely to beat someone else at their own game, and will likely lose out on what you are best at.
The main way you can cope with this is in how you react to other teams. Very often when people encounter a team making an argument in an unfamiliar way they dismiss it as a bad argument, and are then blindsided by the clever things that the other team was doing because it didn’t match their mental model of what a good speech should sound like.
Sadly this is very often a particular problem for first language teams debating against second language teams. As they may equate language ability with debating ability or intelligence. Though in such cases one could justifiably say that losing was a suitable punishment for their arrogance.
Finally and most importantly, when you are attending an event such as this it is very important that you know what you want out of the experience.
To put it bluntly, most of the people reading this blog are not going to be world champions. And that is totally okay. There are many other valuable things you can get out of a competition than the trophy or scores.
Debaters as a group tend towards the competitive and perfectionistic, which is a positive trait in many ways, but can lead to unrealistic expectations of yourself and resultant psychological problems. To a large degree your success will be determined by factors beyond your control, and being able to cope with that is important.
It is worth remembering that the mere act of being able to give a speech puts you ahead of 99% of the population, and add on to that the difficulties of the topics, short preparation time, language, etc. To say that participation is what is important does have the ring of a children’s book, but in this case it is statistically true. (There is also a larger argument to be made about how unhealthy and counterproductive it is to base your self-worth on external validation, but that is beyond the scope of this column. If this sounds like you I would suggest looking at cognitive behavioural therapy resources on perfectionism.)
Your goal for the competition makes a big difference to how you will approach things and the decisions you will make. For example, if I have decided the most important thing to me about attending this competition is that I enjoy myself and try to make new friends from around the world, then I might be more willing to stay up late partying, than if I am solely focussed on my results. Or I might prioritise different things in a debate if I am approaching it as a development and training exercise than if I am solely focused on winning.
It’s important to make sure you and your speaking partner are on the same page with regards to your goals. The most common arguments and fights I’ve seen at competitions come from one partner thinking they are taking things more seriously than the other.