5 Tips for Succeeding at NSDA Nationals


With NSDA (National Speech and Debate Association, formerly National Forensics League/NFL) Nationals coming up next week, Debate Central wants to help you be as prepared as possible. We interviewed a number of debaters who have done well at Nationals in years past, and today we’re sharing their best tips for success.


You already know the importance of understanding the topic, of conducting good research, writing blocks, and reading judge paradigms before the round. You should continue to rely on your good debate fundamentals throughout the National tournament. But today we’re focusing on a few pointers that are specific to prevailing at NSDA Nats:


winning debates


1. Strict adherence to professionalism:

Some judges take decorum extremely seriously, while others don’t. Since you will be facing an unfamiliar pool, it’s smart to err on the side of maximum formality, in order to avoid incurring unnecessary penalties. The NSDA pool tends to be full of judges with a wide variety of unusual predilections that may not necessarily be obvious to you. Don’t think you can make assumptions just from looking at someone, or even from reading their judge philosophy card. Preferences that might strike you as extremely odd are often so normal to these judges that they don’t even think to write them down.

Some judges may drop you for violating decorum, but no one—not even the most relaxed judge—will penalize you for being too formal. So, the simplest solution is to conduct yourself as you would in an ultra-professional setting, such as a job interview, throughout all of your rounds. Some recommendations:

  • Wear a suit (ideally), or at least an outfit that is professional and relatively conservative. If you wouldn’t wear it to a funeral, don’t wear it to Nats.
  • Keep your jacket/tie/shoes/etc. on throughout all of your debates. I know it’s hot in Kansas in June, but some people are real sticklers about this.
  • Stand, facing your judge, while you speak.
  • Silence your cell phone, and don’t look at it at all during any round.
  • Keep oral prompting of your partner during speeches to an absolute minimum. Try to keep your mouth shut unless they’re about to make a mistake that will literally cost you the round.
  • Read full citations (this is actually in the tournament rules).
  • Watch your language (minimize slang, maintain a pleasant tone, and absolutely no profanity or words that may be considered offensive).
  • Directly ask for permission for anything you think might be even slightly questionable (such as tag team cross-x, leaving the room to get more water, etc).


This might all sound extreme if your normal circuit tends to be laid-back, but it’s better to be overly cautious than to lose a round unnecessarily. I personally know debaters who have lost ballots at Nationals for taking off their suit jacket, for referring to the president by his last name only (e.g. “Obama” instead of “President Obama”), for their cellphone ringing mid-debate, and for telling a joke that was seen as inappropriate. Don’t be like them.


2. Prep cases for different types of judges:

This tournament has teams and judges from all over the stylistic spectrum. This means you need to be prepared to face any sort of opponent in front of any sort of judge. If you want to be highly competitive, you must be ready to adapt. If you normally debate fast and techy, recognize that you might face a traditional, stock issues team in front of a traditional, stock issues judge. The inverse also applies. Or, you may face a similar opponent in front of a judge whose stylistic background isn’t good for either of you. It is critical that you think about all of these possibilities, and have a feasible strategic plan for all of them. Do not assume you will always pull judges that are sympathetic to your stylistic predilections, because you almost certainly won’t.


3. Sometimes you have to debate for the split:

As you probably already know, preliminary rounds at NSDA Nationals have two judges, and breaks are based on ballot count (it takes 8 ballots to clear). There are no prefs, and the judges are randomly assigned by computer. The result is that sometimes you will have two judges with paradigms that seem almost mutually-exclusive to each other (maybe one is a ToC-style policy judge who wants to hear 10 scenarios for nuclear war at 400wpm, the other is a mom who has never seen a debate before and wants you to speak persuasively). You may be forced to make a judgment call, and consciously choose to pursue one judge’s ballot while basically ignoring the other. If one judge is great for you, while the other is terrible, you might be better off trying to win the first judge’s ballot and not worrying about the other. If you hedge your bets, you risk overstretching yourself and losing both. However, this is only a good strategy in a round where you feel like debating to both judges is likely to result in a failure to please either. If you think you can win both ballots, you should try to. And if you do decide to debate for the split, make sure you aren’t rude or condescending to the judge whose ballot you’ve chosen to sacrifice!


4. Conduct tournament reconnaissance:

Knowing what your opponents are likely to say is the first step to being highly prepared. Looking at the casebook wiki is a good start, but not everyone is on it, and many teams will be breaking new arguments at Nationals. So, get creative:

  • If you have any friends attending the tournament in the same event as you, see if you can set up an intel-sharing alliance.
  • While you’re at your hotel, check out the search history on any communal computers.
  • If you get a chance to chat with any friendly judges, see if they’ll tell you what kinds of arguments they’ve seen so far.
  • You might even try to track down teams who have already faced your next opponent, and see if they will give you any insights. Put your networking skills to work!

Be aware, however, that formal “scouting” (sending students not entered in the tournament to observe debates for the purposes of intelligence-gathering) is specifically discouraged (though not disallowed) by the tournament rules.


5. Don’t be intimidated by your opponents:

If you’re from a small program, you might feel scared or out-matched by opposing teams from large or prestigious schools, or teams that have won big tournaments. But you shouldn’t. Remember, you got to this tournament the exact same way they did. Be confident in your skills!

You can also take comfort in the fact that the size of this tournament necessitates bringing in many judges who don’t watch high school debates regularly. For these people, perceived “rep” counts for very little. Chances are, your judge will go into the round knowing absolutely nothing about either team, and will only be thinking about this specific round. So show no fear! You’re far more likely to lose if you act like you think you’re losing.


Winning Nationals


If you follow these pointers, you will maximize your chances of making a great showing at this year’s NSDA National tournament. Don’t forget to thank Debate Central when you’re up on that stage!


Good luck to everyone competing, and no matter what happens, remember: it’s an honor just to qualify.


Have a tip you want to share? Leave it in the comments!


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