Be Water, My Friend

It’s odd that some debaters I know have almost exclusively done one or two positions their entire careers, without considering the possibilities of switching around. While I have certainly fallen into that trap, starting out as a whip for a good two years, moved to Prime Minister/Leader of Opposition (when I was younger and only debating in 3v3 formats) then realized I could and should do whichever position was comfortable given the motion and the matchups. It allowed me to dramatically expand my options with potential teammates, to cover their flaws, and at the same time increasing my own win rate. So whenever I encountered debaters who refused to move out of their comfort zones, I’d always ask why and it usually came down to either not knowing how to or that they are ‘not suited’ for that particular position. I’ve always suspected that it was really because people are just comfortable with what they know and they assume that it is too difficult to switch or that they will fail spectacularly when they do. This article will discuss why that is just flat out ridiculous.

Let’s first start with what people believe are the advantages of specializing in a particular position

  1. You have intimate knowledge of a/your position and can perform consistently well.
  2. Different people are just ‘better suited’ for doing a particular position in debates so it’s pointless to move around.

Yup. That’s about it. No other advantages really. Now, I don’t have a problem with 1., but it’s 2. which really annoys me so let’s debunk that.

For debaters to be suited for different positions there are two key assumptions.

a) That the requirements of each position differ greatly and require vastly different skills.
b) That people are naturally predisposed to having one of these skill sets and it is difficult to transition to learn others.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is do positions even exist? Or do they exist in the way we have always understood them to? I’m not going to say that each position in a debate is exactly the same or they have to fulfil the same roles. Obviously, that’s why role fulfilment is a thing that is scored in debating. However, I posit that the base skills are pretty much the same no matter what position you do and even if they aren’t yet, the circuit has and will move towards a direction where the lines between each speaker are increasingly blurred.

To better understand why this is and will be the case, I’m going to use a couple of sport analogies. If we look at the traditional positions in basketball and compare them to the play in the NBA today, you’ll realise that these positions are becoming interchangeable as strategies have evolved. Here’s a diagram of the usual positions.


For the uninitiated, here’s a description of each position (copied off Wikipedia)

Typically, the point guard is the leader of the team when on the court. This position requires substantial ball handling skills and the ability to facilitate the team during a play. The shooting guard, as the name implies, is often the best shooter and is probably capable of shooting accurately from longer distances. Generally, they also have good ball-handling skills. The small forward often has an aggressive approach to the basket when handling the ball. The power forward and the center are usually called "low post" players, who play with their back to the basket, often acting as their team's primary rebounders or shot blockers, or receiving passes to take inside shots. The center is typically the larger of the two.

Basketball today no longer holds these positions as bible truth with the rise of hybrid positions such as the point forward (small or power forward that dribbles and facilitates offense) swingman (player that can perform as the point guard, shooting guard and small forward) as well as stretch four or stretch five (power forwards and centers that have 3-point shooting range). In fact, according to Stanford student Muthu Alagappan’s research, there may be up to 10 different hidden positions in basketball.

Muthu Alagappan via  Gizmodo

Muthu Alagappan via Gizmodo

This along with teams such as the Golden State Warriors philosophy of play (and incredible success in the past 3 years) have ushered in a new era of ‘positionless basketball’ and changed the way the entire NBA approaches the sport.

What does all of this have to do with traditional debate positions?

First off, do they really differ as much in terms of specific skill sets? At its core, debating is just about forwarding arguments, defending them, and attacking your opponents. These skills are the same no matter which position you do. Even when there are specialisations, these skills are not mutually exclusive. For example, case setup and defense might appear to be different things but are in reality, two sides of the same coin. They are extremely complementary skill sets and knowing one enhances your ability in the other. That’s why it’s ridiculous that case setups are the sole domain of PMs. If you have absolutely no idea how to defend these cases, something that subsequent speakers ‘specialise’ in, can you really construct resilient cases? The reverse is true – if you don’t know how the elements of a case fit together, and which parts are the central pillars, how can you properly defend it? It makes no sense to be stuck in a single position when being able to perform in other roles will help you even if you prefer that one position. That’s why there is a rise of traditional big men in basketball (power forwards and centers) being able to shoot the ball from long range – stretching the floor (stretch four and stretch five geddit?) and giving the offense more space to operate.

Second, debating has evolved over time. It has become more demanding at every position. You have to be good at almost everything in order to be successful. Bad at rebuttals? In the past it would mean you would go exclusively PM. Like I mentioned above, if you’re bad at responding to your opponents, how can you safe guard your case from attacks? We’ve even coined the term ‘prebuttals’ to describe the trend of PMs preemptively responding to the most obvious opposition attacks during their speech. Whips have moved from pure response speakers, to evaluating clashes, and now they need to be highly comparative. Even that has moved up to earlier speakers with first speakers weighing out burdens and explaining why they are willing to make specific trade-offs, before they are forced to do so by the opposition. If the rest of the circuit is becoming more versatile, your specialization will become obsolete.

I’ve even stopped coaching my own students as pure first, second and third speakers in a debate, but grouping them up into broader roles that allow them to switch depending on the situation. I’ll stop short of sharing what exactly I think those categories are, simply because the success of my students and my livelihood depends on it, but it’s useful for anyone reading this to think about and formulate their own ideas.

But what about the second assumption? That people are predisposed to performing well in specific roles and it is difficult to transition to others? Well, in traditional sports, it’s often based on immutable physical characteristics. If you notice, every position in basketball is determined by size. But as we’ve now learnt, even that has changed with undersized players (Draymond Green, a short power forward playing as center) and taller players (Kevin Durant, having a center’s height but playing at small forward) doing amazing things on the court. Is there even a natural position in debating? What determines it? How you sound? How you phrase arguments? The way you think? The thing about debating, is that there are none of these immutable characteristics. Everything is mental. You can’t add a couple of inches to your height, but you can definitely change the way you think, or approach debating in general. There’s just no reason why you can only do whip because you need time to process the debate when that speed of thought can be enhanced through training. Debate has no physical limitations for you to be defined by. A point guard could never play center, but there is just absolutely no reason why a whip couldn’t move to PM.

Maybe you aren’t convinced that strict positions mean less in debating. That’s fine. I could be spouting some made up theory and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Assuming these positions are fixed and extremely different, and different debaters will perform differently in different positions, here’s why you should still switch around to get experience and exposure.

1. You might not even be in your ‘natural’ position. Think about why you do the position you do. The most likely reason is that someone, on some day, probably your coach, said that you should try something and you just…stuck with it. Might be worth exploring various options, especially as you develop as a debater and probably aren’t the same as you were one or two years ago.

2. Your options for teammates will be restricted. Far too often teams and partners are decided based on what’s the best possible lineup. Options are unnecessarily blocked based on your ability to do only certain positions. This means you can’t always team up with the best debater in terms of pure skill alone. It’s difficult enough finding teammates as it is, with club recruitment constraints, attrition, ‘team dynamics’ whether you can tolerate being with the other person for the duration of an entire tournament, whether you have fun debating together, your evaluation of your teammates skill and suitability, their evaluation of you. Add to that mess, the positions that you feel comfortable doing. And that, often is the deal breaker as most other things can be worked out.

3. Removes one limiting factor in maximizing team performance. You already have constraints based on motions. It is unlikely, given the plethora of issues discussed in debating, that you will have the same amount of knowledge in every field. Ideally, you and your teammates will have complementary strengths and cover each other’s gaps in knowledge. But that also means if you’re stuck doing PM, and a motion on economics comes out which you have absolutely no idea about, it’s inefficient to expect your teammate to feed you the entire case rather than he/she just setting the case up in the debate and you following along. But that requires each person in the team to be comfortable switching around. In addition, when there is a disparity in skill and experience between debaters in a team, switching around might be important based on the matchup. You might want to ensure that your strongest speaker goes after the opponent’s, because that gives you the greatest opportunity to diminish the persuasive impact of their arguments, again maximizing the performance of the team.

Flexibility is key to consistent success. If you’re rigid in the way you debate, people will exploit it, and you’ll lose more often than you like. Be water, my friend.

The Art of War

Athletes train... using videos