Do You Struggle to Beat Non-Traditional Teams? Read this now.

Two days ago, HSImpact published a fairly in-depth post about debating non-traditional teams. With many more teams talking about the topic in unconventional ways (employing poetry, personal stories, changing frameworks, or even new angles on time-tested tricks) it’s especially important to have the conversation about how to deal when you see something in a debate round that you’ve never seen before. This got us thinking – what is the single most important way for debaters to address something new and potentially intimidating?When we were reading the HSImpact post, one line in particular stood out to us,

So how should you act in cross-x? You should act the same way you would act normally– you should ask pointed questions, press people when they don’t give you satisfactory answers, answer questions directly and confidently etc. Via HSImpact.

Too often, when we’re faced with something that challenges the norm of what should be happening in a debate round, we start acting and debating in ways that in no way resemble the ways in which we would usually act or debate. We lose our focus and, with it, our fundamentals. About to debate a non-traditional team? First, make like Jackie Chan and focus.

Chill out, calm down, and remember it’s a debate and that debate is something you know how to do. Once you have your nerves under control, center your strategy on the same fundamentals you used as a novice.

1. Ask questions when you don’t understand. When you were a novice, your coach probably told you that the best thing you could do was ask clarification questions when you needed to do it. Over the years, you probably do this less and less because you don’t need to – after a few seasons, you probably don’t have to ask things like:

“What is this ‘politics’ disadvantage? Can you explain it to me?”


“Why is morality an important value?”

You don’t ask because you know the answer. Why? You’ve seen it before. The reason your coaches wanted you to do it back then, however, was so you wouldn’t lose a debate just because you didn’t understand something that you could have easily understood (and beaten!) if you had just asked.

Debaters don’t do this when they’re debating non-traditional teams for a variety of reasons, including:

  • You don’t want the judge to know that you don’t understand the argument (trust me, they will figure it out in other ways if you don’t ask and are still wrong).
  • You don’t want the other team to have the ethos moment of explaining something to you that they understand and you don’t (let them – the more people underestimate you, the more they’ll commit to in cross-examination – the more they commit to, the more links you have to arguments)
  • They don’t want to admit to themselves that they don’t understand (self-awareness is a debater’s biggest asset, so cultivate it)

Make like a novice and ask. Ask them before the debate what they say. Ask follow-ups. Ask questions until you understand. Often, non-traditional teams are happy to explain their arguments to you. Their own explanation will be more helpful than their wiki page because honestly, they probably won’t read a lot of evidence and won’t have a ton of citations posted. Most of the debate will be their explanation, so think of this as a sneak peak.

Ask them during the debate what an argument means. Ask what their links are. Ask how arguments relate to other arguments. Don’t ask just for the sake of asking, but if you don’t understand – ask questions.

Ask other people they debated this team to fill you in on what they said. Ask the judge how you could have done better. Cultivate curiosity and be rewarded with knowledge.

2. Figure out the relation of their argument to the topic. Again, when you were a novice your coach probably had you sit down and write “link stories” to explain how your disadvantages interacted with affirmative arguments. They taught you this fundamental skill so you would be able to explain how generic arguments applied specifically to certain affirmatives. They wanted you to be able to figure out relationships between cause and effect so you would be able to win debates by drawing parallels like “We may not have a specific link to our politics disadvantage but we do have evidence that the GOP hates spending money — and the plan would be really expensive, just look at their 1AC evidence..” etc.

Many non-traditional teams will still talk about the topic or topical themes in some way. Ask them what their connection to the topic is and start there. Assuming they don’t say something along the lines of, “We have absolutely no connection to the topic and don’t even try” (which, some will, but most won’t — and the ones who do will probably lose to topicality, theory, etc. all the time), consider what that means. Do the same thing you do when you hear any new argument: Ask yourself what parts of the topic the argument relates most closely to and build your strategy from there. Consider (not a real aff, by the way — something I made up):

“We relate to the topic by discussing what the idea of what “economic engagement” means by reading narratives written by Cuban defectors.”

So ask yourself – what can you say about this? Do you have a file about the embargo? Take a look through it – do you have some, say, capitalism links that say using the embargo as a starting point for discussion about US-Cuba relations is bad?

Think about what they’re saying, as well – even though they’re reading narratives, they’re essentially arguing that the embargo has torn families apart, etc. Do you have cards that embargo is better for Cubans?

Use the novice skill of bridging research gaps with explanation rather than assuming you have nothing to say. This is no different than any other situation where you don’t have a specific link – only slightly more challenging.

3. Write a comprehensive round report and research a specific file for the next time. As with any other team, you will want to type up your best explanation of their arguments as you understood them so that you can talk about them later with your team. You’ll then put together a specific file that integrates what went well last time and corrects what didn’t. Cut new cards. Research their authors. Ask your coaches questions about what they said.

Since non-traditional teams do something different, it’s easy to want to deal with them differently, but you shouldn’t. Setting aside whether or not non-traditional arguments are topical or should be allowed in debate at all (you can make those arguments as part of your strategy – if you want to – but must accept that debate is evolving and these arguments probably aren’t going away), consider:

  • You would never group every single “Cuba” affirmative on the topic together and say “This is what we say to Cuba.” You’d have specific files for different plans and front-lines for advantages. These might include many of the same cards but with different extension blocks and new angles. So why would you ever have a single file and say “this is what we say to everything non-traditional.”?
  • You would never take an entire area of the topic and refuse to do work in that area because it was too hard or you didn’t think it belonged. So why would you do that with non-traditional arguments?

Essentially, you learned a long time ago that you had to prepare thoroughly for every argument that’s being read. Even if your strategy is just to go for topicality or a framework argument, write specific blocks, read their cards, and make an educated case for why you’re right. Hard work still pays off, no matter what you’re debating.

4. Watch the people who are winning. When you were a novice, your coaches made you watch debates so that you would get better. They hoped you would see how more experienced debaters executed specific strategies, get ideas for what to research and how to phrase things as well as hear what judges had to say at the end. Keep watching debates.  If you aren’t sure how to beat a team, watch other teams debate them and see what works (and what doesn’t). Just because you’re older now doesn’t mean you can’t still learn from your peers. Take advantage of these opportunities.

The point of this post is that non-traditional debates challenge a lot of the conventions of debate on which you’ve come to rely. That can make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and forget that you still know how to debate. Non-traditional debates are tough, but you’ll do much better if you focus on fundamentals. There’s a reason why all coaches teach novices similar basics – they work. Don’t forget — and good luck!



About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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3 Responses to Do You Struggle to Beat Non-Traditional Teams? Read this now.

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