UTSA Debate traveled to Edmond, Oklahoma two weeks ago (shout-out to UCO for always hosting a great tournament). This tournament is often a first for our novices. This year, four novices made their debut. 2 of our older debaters had previously attended this tournament as novices as well.

To celebrate and reflect on novice debate, we have a post this week from UTSA alum Brianna Contreras (Political Science, 2017). Brianna’s first ever debate tournament was at the University of Central Oklahoma in 2016. A year later, she returned in the open division, going 3-3 at her first varsity tournament. Below are some of Brianna’s thoughts about her first tournament and her advice for novices.

When I first started debate, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. My first tournament experience as a college novice was awful, but the yearly trip would become one of my favorites (if nothing else, the snacks are great). I was tired the entire weekend, I was frustrated at constantly losing, and being told I was wrong, and yet, at the end of every round, all I wanted to do was go again and win.

In hindsight, setting “winning” as my only goal was probably not a great idea. Wanting to win frustrated me, and at times distracted me from lessons handed out in my RFDs, but at the time, it kept me hungry and was one of the few things that kept me coming back to the squad room after a 0-6 tournament (snacks and my coaches were the other things). I thought that if I worked hard enough, and kept chasing those elusive ballots, I’d eventually catch one, and then it would be really clear to me whether or not I liked debate or just liked winning.

Over the course of the following semester, I spent hours in the squad room getting to know the ins and outs of my teammates, learning their strengths, discovering how to supplement their weaknesses, pulling on their knowledge bases, and sharing from mine. It took 2 more tournaments, a partner change, and a wildly revamped affirmative before I got a win, but the day I did, I realized that the one thing I loved more than prepping arguments and full force debating was doing all of that and winning. It was gratifying to finish a speech, or a round and not be told that while my partner and I had done well, we were still wrong. It was even more gratifying to finish a round and know that everyone in the room was leaving a little more conscious and slightly more empathetic, if only for the moments following the round.

My partner and I won the novice division of our 2nd tournament together, and from then on my ascent through divisions was pretty fast. I’d cracked the code (for the most part) and learned a few key things. If you’ve made it this far, you probably want to get there too, and while I can’t tell you exactly what steps to take for your own personal journey through debate, I can give you a few key pointers that I was lucky enough to grab onto from my coaches, teammates, partners, and the massive amount of debate friends I made along the way.

1. Really put in effort to learning the fundamentals of debate— I didn’t do this, and honestly it’s probably a big reason why I lost so hard for so long. Once I started paying attention and really asking questions, concepts started clicking. Debate is a pretty logical activity, structurally. Understanding the basics makes it a lot easier to know how and when to refute certain arguments and help you understand your RFDs when it comes to figuring out where you went wrong.

2. ASK QUESTIONS. — You know that phrase “there’s no such thing as a silly question?” It’s wrong. There are absolutely silly questions but being afraid to ask them means that in a worst-case scenario you spend time not knowing the answer and best case you get an answer that helps guide your thought process.

3. There are no rules in debate. There are structures of debate, yes, but in the words of Captain Barbossa of Pirates of the Caribbean, “They’re not really rules, they’re more like guidelines”. Which brings me to number 4, and probably the most important point:

4. Be creative — The best thing I ever did in debate was decide that I was going to go into a round and just SEE what my partner and I could do. We figured out pretty quickly that you can get pretty creative provided you can justify it. That’s sorta the whole point of debate after all, and believe me, going into a room with an unapologetic sense of self and a commitment to having a good time results in fun debates and, often, wins. This works especially well when paired with the last tip I have:

5. Make it personal. There are myriad factors involved with debating that make it more appealing to stay at home and watch Netflix all weekend than to get up at 3 AM on a Thursday to catch a flight or drive for 13 hours but if your arguments are something YOU find real value in advocating for, those things quickly become negligible. It’s a journey, and if I had to point to one thing I did through my time in debate that helped me grow into the debater I ended up being, it would be making my own cases. As my affirmatives grew and changed, I found myself learning things about history, politics, science, and myself that I never expected to find. My affs led me on a path of exploration into what mattered to me, and what/who I was willing to go to bat for. For POC and specifically Black people, debate is one of the few spaces in the world where we can advocate for ourselves and our communities and people HAVE to listen. Utilize your team for this part. Spitball ideas around the room until one sticks, and then run with it. Don’t give up on it, cherish it, nourish it, read and add to it, and you’ll be surprised where it’ll take you.

Are you a UTSA alum? Would you like to share your thoughts or experiences with debate? Contact Ashley Denney at ashley.denney@utsa.edu


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