The Art of the Flow - Taking the Right Approach

"You cannot refute an argument your opponent has presented if you do not know what their argument even is."

Flowing is like oxygen. We need it to breathe, survive, to live in the world that is debate. Without it, we simply suffocate until we wither away and die. It is so fundamental to the activity that those who do not become proficient in it are inevitably bound to fail.

I use this strong phrasing not to scare you, but because it is absolutely necessary to emphasize the universal importance of good flowing skills. When I say universal, I mean that flowing is a prerequisite to success in any debate format, in any setting, and in front of any critic. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to win the Tournament of Champions or if your goal is to win a few rounds at some poorly-run tournament in the middle of nowhere - you must learn the fundamental skills that flowing entails in order to realize your aspirations of competitive success.

Many young debaters who are first starting out develop a preconceived notion that flowing is merely a nuisance to be tolerated halfheartedly. That sort of thinking is not only wrong, it’s also counterproductive. The more you consider flowing to be a chore, the less likely you are to take steps to improve your flowing, and therefore, the less likely you are to acquire a critical component to competitive success.

The way in which you approach the flowing should instead be similar to the way in which you approach your speech skills - something to be improved upon with an investment of time and practice. As a speaker, you might spend a substantial amount of time committing yourself to completing rebuttal redo’s and speed/clarity drills. That sort of dedication produces immediate results, and it’s easy to notice them. You will feel more confident during your speeches and you will have the capability of making smarter, more strategic arguments.

Flowing, though, has much more subtle underlying impacts - but regardless, they have a profound influence on your competitive success. When you enter a tournament having improved your fundamental flowing skills from the previous tournament, a few things happen:

1) Your ability to follow and understand your opponents’ arguments improves
2) Your ability to identify and refute your opponents’ arguments improves
3) Your ability to structure and organize your speeches improves
4) Your ability to identify potential winning arguments improves
5) Your ability to become a more efficient speaker improves

That is just a very brief laundry list, and there are literally dozens of additional positive outcomes. The outgrowth that results from flowing is well worth even a nominal investment of time and energy.

The reason why it is important to approach flowing as an important skill rather than a necessary obstacle is all about two things - mindset and motivation.

If your mindset with regards to flowing frames it merely as a hindrance or as some other negative term, you will lack the motivation to work hard to improve at it, and you will not put forth 100% when opportunities to get better present themselves. For example, if you have been eliminated from a tournament and you are watching one of your teammates’ outrounds, a debater who is not motivated to improve their flowing will daydream or surf Facebook instead of flowing and paying attention to the round.

Conversely, if mindset of flowing treats it as an essential talent, then you can motivate yourself to put in the effort required to improve it. Not only will you jump to participate in extra opportunities to flow, you will actually start to enjoy them. If you have a teammate in elimination rounds of a tournament, you will flow the round just as intently as if you were actually debating or judging. When your coach tells you to do flowing drills in practice, you will put in the maximum effort you are capable of delivering. From that perspective, you will quickly become adept at the flow, and the results will show.

The biggest mistake I made as a novice debater was not taking flowing seriously. As a result, although I was often a persuasive and logical debater, I consistently lost rounds because my arguments did not clash with those of my opponents. It was only after I began to treat flowing seriously that I finally tasted some competitive success.

It is only after you understand the correct perspective on flowing that information on how to improve your skills will become useful. With that in mind, I want you to do several things sometime during the next week or so. First, evaluate both your mindset and your current level of commitment to flowing. Be honest with yourself, because this isn’t something you’re doing for a grade. Second, make a pledge to yourself to improve upon that mindset and your level of commitment. It can be big or it can be small, but it must be an improvement.

Once you have done that, post a comment to this blog to discuss your thoughts and your feelings. If you choose, you can even make your pledge public as an added incentive to stick to it. Once that is said and done, I will start introducing some flowing drills and tips to help your fulfill your commitments and improve your competitive skills.