Personal Qualities and Resources of Great Debaters

Welcome to Policy Expertise! As with any event, sitting at home and waiting for results while the national tournaments happen can be frustrating. After all, only the best in the country can participate. While graduating seniors have moved on to the life beyond high school, those who remain have a whole new year of debate to look forward to. With the off-season and a new resolution, everyone begins at the same level again.

These expert articles on Policy Debate will explore how to improve Policy skills and earn a desk and chair at a national tournament come next spring. Whatever one’s ambitions--to qualify for NCFL or NFL, or perhaps even to collect a pair of bids to the TOC--a debater cannot satisfy them without putting in a great deal of work over the summer.

These articles will be a very simple primer. There is only so much that can be taught in eight entries. In fact, there are many things that cannot be taught at all. This first article will go over three of the fundamental personal qualities that most successful debaters have. These may sound pretty rudimentary, but it cannot be stressed enough that they are of critical importance. If a debater does not possess one of these traits, yet wishes to qualify to the TOC or Nationals, try to acquire which is lacking.

Work Ethic

When it comes to personalities, Policy debaters come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some are incredibly nice and caring individuals. They treat debate for the game that it is and never fail to put their relationships first. Other debaters have personalities that stray towards the abrasive side at times. But what all successful debaters have in common is a shared sense of work ethic.

Not surprisingly, “work ethic” in debate involves, well, work. It is no secret that the top debaters put in hundreds of hours over the course of each season doing nothing but cutting cards and writing blocks. It is not always fun. Some nights, we would rather be out with our friends doing non-debate stuff. But the stark reality is that (s)he who puts in the most effort before the actual tournament usually wins. If debate is a battle, the front line is almost always the research. (Pardon the pun).

A lot of inexperienced debaters fall into a trap. Basically, they do not want to do any work. That is unfortunate because having the responsibility and the maturity to complete assignments is a prerequisite for competitive success. It happens on squads throughout the country--a small handful of people do most of the work, and as a result they excel competitively, while others simply ride their coattails to mediocrity.

Work ethic cannot be taught. No one can force a debater to sit in front of their computer for hours on end. They must have the resolve to put in the extra effort. This is not to suggest that an excellent debater must be completely deprived of a social life, but if chasing bids is truly what one wants, then be prepared to experience the joys of card-cutting marathons.

Competitive Drive

But why? Why do debaters devote so much of their time and energies towards this singular goal? Work ethic alone cannot explain it, because work ethic is irrelevant if there is nothing to work for. There has to be some sort of motivation, an internal fire, a competitive drive.

In sports, we often hear about the concept of wanting it more. One team pushes themselves to the limit and obtains the victory, while other team coasts and finds themselves over-matched. The first team wanted it more. Players commit themselves to a rigorous workout regimen and show up to training camp fitter than everyone else, because they wanted it more.

It is not enough to just be satisfied with debating as is. A good debater has to want to improve to get better. They have to challenge themselves; push to do more than the minimum. The motivation comes from a desire to be the best. A person does not have to come from the richest school or the most storied program to do that. Anyone with a fierce desire to dominate can do so if they are truly committed.

If a person just does not have that natural fire, what can one do? Start by setting goals. For example, at UCLA (my university) our debate team was only recently resurrected. This past season was only our second season. In our first season, we cleared one team at NPDA Nationals. This season, we cleared three teams and took 15th in the sweepstakes awards. Next year, our goal is 5th. The year after that, 1st. Most might think it is crazy to expect to go from literally not having a team to national champions in four years. I do not think it is crazy at all. It is called being ambitious. When anyone thinks ahead towards their next tournament, never psychologically settle for just clearing. Make it a goal to go deeper than the tournament before. A debater has to want to win the tournament for it to happen.


Finally, if a debater really wants to master Policy Debate, they need to be a leader. Obviously, “leadership” is one of the most overused clichés out there on the college admissions market. But it also has a role beyond just looking good on paper. Leadership opportunities provide insights and experiences that debating in a vacuum will not provide.

Of course, nobody can force anyone to be a leader. But leading and inspiring not only helps others but helps on a personal level as well. Mentoring younger debaters might not fit the ideal job description. But it will help increase maturity level and increase the understanding of how other debaters actually think. Judging practice debaters after school also might sound like a waste. Yet, judging rounds is actually one of the best things to do because it helps to develop a judge’s mindset for when competing in a round. Why do so many judges get frustrated when a round features no impact calculus? After judging a round, it will become obvious.

Debaters have to be able to take initiative and put themselves in a position of responsibility. If they cannot handle that responsibility, they are going to miss out on the benefits and run into problems later.

So then…

If a debater possess all three of these characteristics, great. They just need to commit themselves to following through on their potential. If not, do not worry. These qualities can still be acquired. But remember, no one can teach these traits. It has to be of one’s own volition. Personal decisions regarding the opportunity costs of debate are…personal. If a person values debate enough to make sacrifices, fantastic. They are well on their way to making big strides in improvement. If not, I wish the best of luck, but just know that a chance was missed to maximize debating potential.