Dealing With Nerves In Debate Rounds

By Amelia Koby, William & Mary ’18

Learning a form of debate that emphasizes spontaneity makes even the most confident people nervous. Whether you’re just starting debate now, or did four years in policy in high school, the right mental state going into a tournament or a round can make a huge difference in your performance and enjoyment of the experience. Everyone gets nervous and insecure in debate and in life. This article will hopefully give you some strategies to deal with this.

As for nerves in general, I and others have developed a few ways to deal with them. The first way I make myself more confident in rounds is to practice outside of tournaments when possible. It’s much easier to be confident when you aren’t doing something for the first time in front of strangers. For those of you without the support to do practice rounds with your own team, reach out to the Novice Mentorship Committee. We can either do rounds with you or connect you to others in the same situation to help practice. At the tournament, talk to the other people in the round before it begins. When you can have small talk, or laugh about something, the activity seems less adversarial and high-stakes. The most important thing to remember is that everyone who does this activity does it to learn. Yes, winning feels good, but we are giving up our weekends to have conversations about things we think are important. That’s why we all are here. Try to make learning as much as you can and contributing to the discussion your objective whenever you go into a round, which is something to get excited about.

The next part of the article will deal with specific situations you may be nervous about.

Sometime in your novice year, you will be debating against people who have been doing this activity for years, and you may have been told are very good. This can be stressful. When you’re in this situation, the most important thing to remember is that no one’s ideas are automatically better than yours. Each and every round you go into you have a chance of winning, and you should try as hard as you can to win. The best way to do this and not be stressed is to have a plan. Listen carefully to what the other team is saying. Often despite the smoke and mirrors a case boils down to a few offensive claims. If you can pick them out, worry about addressing those rather than how quickly or eloquently you’re talking. Additionally, don’t be afraid to change the debate to where you feel confident. If a team is spending all their time talking about epistemological truth, they might have ignored intuitive pragmatic problems with their case. No matter how the round goes, afterwards it can be helpful to approach the other team to talk about the round and ask for feedback. The vast majority of debaters will be willing to help you, and it is a good way to get ideas of what you can improve on.

If you’re speaking a new position, the first thing is to think about what the position you’re about to speak should be doing within the round. Other articles on this website will help explain this, but coming into a speech with a plan of what you are going to do will help with nerves. Another thing that helps is again to practice the new position outside of a tournament situation. Reach out to this committee if you need help with that. If you have given a speech in a new position that you don’t feel good about, talk to your partner. Tell them why you don’t feel great, and help them plan how to deal with things you may have mishandled in your speech.

Finally, how to think about your first outround. There will be a multi-judge panel and probably some observers watching the round. Though the stakes may seem to be higher because of more people in the room, try to remember that this is just another round. Even if you’re hitting a team you know to be good, remember that you are just as qualified to be there as they are; you went through the exact same process to get there. If you’re goving, run a case you know well, and make sure to get feedback from the panel, which will likely be more qualified than the judges you had in other rounds.

Though debate may seem intimidating, it gets easier, and you have a huge network of people willing to support and help you on the league. Good luck, and see you in GA!

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