Debate Help Debate Tips coaching files and advice

Getting ready for your first debate tournament?

For many novice debaters, prepping for your first real rounds can be nerve-wracking. But there's no need to worry-- we can help! Below, check out our Top 5 Best Tips for Preparing for your First Debate Tournament.

If you keep these
hints and tips from our debate experts in mind throughout your practices and on the day of your first debates, you'll be sure to debate confidently and rise above all of the other beginners to claim your first debate trophy (of what is sure to be many!)


1. Read Your Evidence- All of It

Before you ever set foot in your first debate tournament, the most important thing you can do to ensure you're fully prepared is to read through your evidence. That means ALL of it-- including the parts that aren't underlined/highlighted. 

The most common way novice debaters get themselves in trouble in their earliest rounds is by not really understanding the topic and/or their cases.The best way to make sure that doesn't happen to you is to take the time to read through your evidence and educate yourself about any topics you find confusing before the tournament. That means doing an internet search, picking up a relevant book, asking your coach or more experienced teammate for help, or all of the above.

​At the very least, before the tournament, you should thoroughly read through every piece of evidence in all of your cases(1ACs, etc.) until you feel comfortable about your ability to explain the main ideas to someone else.

If you really want to excel at your first debate tournament, you'll also want to read through your other evidence on the topic: the cards in your Frontlines, Extensions, teammates' cases, anything you can get your hands on. 

If you're a beginning Policy debater and feel overwhelmed by the amount of evidence you have to read, remember that you can split the reading up and do it over many weeks or months leading up to your first tournament. Start with your 1AC and the Shells of your favorite Negative arguments, and make your way through the rest of your files a little at a time. If you just try to read a few pages every day, you'll have read everything before you know it. 

The importance of reading and familiarizing yourself with your evidence can't be overstated. Here are just some of the critical benefits of having done this work before your first debate tournament:

  • You'll understand the topic and have thought about the main issues (for both sides) in advance, decreasing your chances of getting caught off-guard or mistakenly saying something foolish.
  • You'll know what arguments are supported by which pieces of evidence, so you can easily find your best responses to opponents' arguments without wasting tons of prep time mid-round.
  • You'll be aware of any weak spots in your evidence, and be ready to defend them if an opponent points them out.
  • You'll have a better understanding of complicated or nuanced issues that may come up, and be able to make smarter, better-explained arguments more easily.
  • You'll be able to replace bad cards and fill in gaps in your files, so you don't find yourself missing something crucial mid-round when it's too late. 
  • You'll encounter arguments the other side might make before you ever actually debate them, and will have time to prepare Frontlines to answer them.

The more you know about the topic before your first debate round, the better your chances of winning.

2. Prepare For Arguments You Expect To Encounter

Many new debaters say that their biggest fear about their first tournament is finding themselves in a round where they have no idea what to say. That's a totally normal worry, but there's an easy way to dramatically reduce the chances of it actually happening: investing your pre-tournament prep time preparing scripted responses to as many potential arguments as you can think of. 

Here's how to do it: brainstorm what kinds of arguments you'd make if you had to debate against your own case, and compile them into a list. Get your coaches and teammates to give their input, too. Once you can't think of any more, try seeing what your parents, siblings, teachers, friends from outside debate, or anyone else whose opinion you value have to add. Search the internet for key words/ideas from your case, and look for any articles that point out flaws or counter-arguments. You can also browse the Open Evidence Project files and/or debate blogsand forums, and see if anyone has posted arguments that you might need to answer. 

Do this for both sides (Aff/Pro and Neg/Con).

Once you have a big list of everything you can imagine your debate opponents saying against you, the next step is to write Frontlines answering each of them.

"Frontlines" are pre-written responses to a particular argument. Each Frontline should contain at least 3-4 distinct answers to the argument they're designed for, including any supporting evidence you might need to substantiate your claims. Great Frontlines usually include at least one point built on evidence you already read in your case, at least one piece of new responsive evidence, and at least one reason why you should still win the overall debate even if your opponent wins this issue

Because you prepare them before you ever get to the tournament, Frontlines benefit you in a number of ways:

  • They conserve your prep time during debates, because you can just pull out something you've already prepared instead of trying to think up answers on the fly. 
  • They ensure you make the best possible responses to opponents' arguments, because you can take your time making them perfect.
  • They keep your speeches organized, because you're reading something prepared instead of just rambling, which makes it easier for your judge to understand your arguments and leads to better speaker point scores. 
  • They decrease your chances of getting tripped up by unexpected arguments.
  • They help you improve throughout the season, because you can revise and expand them between tournaments using what you learned from using them in-round and from feedback from your judges. 
  • They reduce pre-tournament stress and anxiety, because you know you're ready.

You can also carry some generic Frontline templates, in case you DO encounter an argument you didn't think of in advance. These will help you stay organized and remember the right argumentative techniques so you don't get flustered. You can make your own, or
download ours for free here

By investing the time to come up with smart responses to opponents' arguments before the tournament starts, you hugely improve your chances of success in your debates.

3. Concepts Matter More Than Jargon

Another common anxiety amongst debate beginners is keeping track of the intimidating array of words, phrases, and complicated terminology used by experienced debaters. The jargon, however, is much less important than you are probably worrying that it is.

Focus on understanding the basic ideas being expressed, rather than stressing yourself out about remembering the exact technical debate terms. For example, it is more important that you know WHY the Affirmative needs to prove that their Plan solves the Harms they bring up than for you to be able to recall that this concept is called "Solvency."

While you will need to master debate vocab eventually, it's just not that critical at your first debate tournament. Moreover, pretty much everyone agrees that you'll pick it up naturally over time without too much struggle. 

Think about how babies learn to speak their native language. They piece things together and expand their vocabularies gradually over time, just by being immersed in other peoples' speech. They don't go from unable to speak to expert orators overnight-- language acquisition is a process that takes time. But it happens naturally and easily, usually without anyone thinking very much about it. 

That's pretty much how novices master debate lingo, too. Through going to tournaments, having debate rounds, discussing those rounds with friends, coaches, and teammates, and reading debate guides (like this one!), you'll pick up the terminology fairly effortlessly.

If you're really worried about messing up the jargon at your first debate tournament, you can print off our Basic Debate Terminology Cheat Sheet and bring it with you to look at during your rounds.  

And, if/when you do encounter words you don't know, you can always look them up in our "Debate-ipedia" Glossary!


4. Always Fill Your Speech Time

When they're first starting out, it is common for debaters to find it difficult to speak for the entire time allotted for their speeches. However,
ending your speech with time left on the clock is almost always a mistake

​Debates are won by the team that does the better job explaining their arguments, refuting their opponents' arguments, and persuading the judge that they are more likely to be right about the key issues in the round. What do all of these imperatives have in common? They all require you to provide substantial, in-depth analysis. And high-quality, in-depth analysis takes time

Since the judge will ultimately vote for whoever provides better explanation and analysis, why would you ever want to give up your opportunity to say more?

If you find yourself finishing what you planned to say in your speech before the timer goes off, don't just end your speech. Try these techniques instead:

  • For issues where you and your opponents have both introduced evidence making opposite claims(e.g. "the economy is strong now" vs. "the economy is struggling now"), explain why the judge should believe your evidence over theirs.
    • (Examples: "our evidence was published more recently than theirs, so our information is more up-to-date," "our evidence is from a college professor, whereas theirs is just from a blog, so ours is more credible," "our evidence is more specific to the topic than theirs..." etc.)
  • Explain the warrants in the evidence you're extending with as much detail as possible. Walk your judge through each step of your arguments' logic.
  • Explain how various points in the debate fit together, and why those relationships mean you should win the round. Which issues are fundamental, and why are you winning them?
  • ​Explain why your Impacts outweigh your opponents'. If both sides' Impacts turned out to be true, why would yours still matter more than theirs?
    • (Example: "preventing the coming war between [country] and [country] outweighs their global warming impact because (1) warming won't become deadly for decades, whereas huge numbers of people will die immediately in the war. (2) When countries are at war, they focus their attention, resources, and budgets on national defense, which means they're less able to enact environmental reforms. (3) This is especially true in the case of warming, because meaningful measures against it necessitate international cooperation, and nations at war are unlikely to work together, especially on environmental issues that require them to restrict their behaviors. (4) Wars involve tanks, aircraft, etc. that require the use of fossil fuels, meaning a new war would accelerate the emissions that cause warming, which turns that impact. (5) It would be better to worry about stopping this war right now, then we can work on stopping warming over the coming decades, once the most urgent threat is eliminated.")
  • Try to preempt what you think your opponent will probably say in their next speech. (Example: "They will probably come up here and argue that [whatever], but don't believe that because.."
  • Make any additional arguments you can think of that answer your opponents' arguments, even if they're not as strong as the responses you already made. You don't have to extend every point in every speech, so it's ok to "throw things at the wall and see what sticks."
  • If you're still early enough in the debate that it's allowed, you can always just read any other relevant evidence you might have available. Even if it's just more cards that make the same claims as other cards you already read, it doesn't hurt to show that lots of experts agree with your argument. Just make sure not to accidentally read something that contradicts something else you already said. 

What you DON'T want to do if you have time left over is go through and repeat the exact same things you already said. You can go back to issues you already covered and add more explanation/analysis/comparison, but you shouldn't just re-state arguments without improving them. Your judge already heard you make that argument, so making it again the exact same way doesn't help you, and may actually annoy the judge and hurt your speaker points. 

Finally, rest assured that difficulty filling your speech time is a temporary problem. As you learn and develop as a debater, you'll quickly find that you have PLENTY to say. In fact, ask any experienced debater you know, and they'll tell you that they wish they have significantly MORE speech time, not less. 

5. Be Confident!

Easier said than done, I know. But having read through these tips, you are already several steps ahead of most of your opponents! In fact, every minute you spend working on debate before your first tournament increases your head start over all of the other beginners.

Even if you're a nervous wreck on the inside, though, do what you can to fake confidence. When you seem like you think you're winning, your opponents and your judge are more likely to think so, too. Especially if the round is close, the judge might vote for the team that "seems better"-- a highly subjective evaluation that is often largely about who looks more confident. 

Even if you don't win the round, pretending to be confident even when you're not also usually leads to receiving better speaker points scores. Since win/loss record ties are usually broken according to who has higher speaker points, this can actually determine whether or not you advance into the tournament's elimination rounds. So, try to keep a brave face and a strong, cheerful demeanor even if you do fall behind in the debate. It might pay off later!

Finally, always keep this in mind: the author of this guide is just one of countless people who can say truthfully that they crashed and burned at their first ever debate tournament, but then went on to have highly successful debate careers. Having a rough experience-- or even several rough experiences in a row-- when you're just starting out says absolutely nothing about your potential to grow into a fantastic debater. So if your first debate tournament winds up not going as well as you hoped, don't be discouraged. If you channel that energy into more practice and preparation, I guarantee you'll improve your performance the next time around. 

Good luck!

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Top 5 Tips For Prepping ForYour ​First Debate Tournament