Debating, like any other competitive sport, is game where competitors seek out any advantages and edges over their opponents in order to beat them. There are many passionate, hardworking and enthusiastic debaters out there who invest thousands of dollars and hours of time trying to become the best possible version of themselves, but they do not consider how to efficiently maximize the results of their efforts.
Let’s start by looking at professional tennis. As many of you probably know, Roger Federer is the most dominant tennis player in recent memory (and probably of all time). He has been unstoppable this year winning two Majors and multiple other premier ATP events. What you may not realize is that he actually lost two matches this year to opponents ranked lower than 300 in the world, Tommy Haas, and Evgeny Donskoy.
In most professional sports, upsets happen on a regular basis (a shout out to other Liverpool fans like me out there). A skill advantage alone is never sufficient to guarantee a victory, in kopitiam uncle terminology, “the ball is round”. A debaters performance in any round is subject to a wide variety of factors, including but not limited to:
1) their mental/physical state
2) their knowledge and understanding of the topic being debated
3) the motion, whether it is deep/narrow or biased/balanced
4) team dynamics between partners
Even world-class athletes have off-days. Let's assume that any debater can achieve a skill rating of a range between 0-100, and a world class debater can average a rating of 80 for any round. This doesn't mean that he/she will debate at that level in every round, because of aforementioned factors that introduce variance. The true distribution of a speaker’s performance probably resembles that of a normal distribution curve. (For those of you who are hopeless at math, this means that you average around 80 but around 70% of the time you score between 70 or 90).
This also means that sometimes, let's say around 5-10% of the time, a speaker may perform at a skill rating of 30-50. (You can find many video compilations of epic fails by any athlete in the world).
This means that even if you are a mediocre, amateur or even inexperienced debater, on the right motion, the right side and the right topic, you can possibly even beat the world’s best speaker. I have taken 2 wins out of 8 rounds against Ashish Kumar since he became the best speaker in the world and have similarly taken losses to 14 year old students in the past 3 years. This is despite our skill gaps and experience levels being quite massive. In almost every sport, there is an expression for teams and athletes who have a magnificent record against much better opponents, the “giant-killer”, these competitors had a far superior record against the best, commentators would claim that they would “raise their game”, “relish the challenge” and “revel in their underdog status”, playing with “nothing to lose”.
Similarly in debates, some average debaters have a decent record of beating opponents better than them while others wilt consistently against better opposition. What accounts for the difference? As a debater I could always tell whether my lesser opponents were dangerous, I could see it in their faces after the match-up was announced whether they were excited about the round or they had already mentally given up and had started complaining to anyone near by who would listen. “It’s fine, there are still many rounds left, we will win the next round.” They would say to each other. After the round they would bemoan their luck, “of all teams, why did we have to draw THEM?”, their seniors and coaches would tell them, “it’s okay, you will meet an easier team next round.” I would never tell my students or juniors that.
The reason why some debaters have atrocious 0-30 records against teams better than them is simply because they have given up before the round has even started. They have this strange view that the result of every debate round is preordained, they take it for granted that they will always beat teams worse than them and always lose to teams better than them. I often wonder, if that’s the case, why do we bother competing at all? What is the joy of this activity if the result had already been determined before the match starts? This mentality can be best described by the Chinese idiom “those who fear the strong but bully the weak”, most commonly used to describe cowards.
As mentioned earlier, even the best speakers and teams in the world can have an underwhelming performance; but it doesn’t matter if they perform badly, say 30 points below their usual skill rating if their opponents never believed an upset was possible to begin with. Their rebuttals become tokenistic, their arguments lacking conviction, their clashes become non-comparative, almost as if they were actively trying to lose the debate, when they would have easily won if they had performed to their usual standards.
I haven’t even begun to analyze the role of the adjudicator, who are after all, imperfect, often irrational human beings with different subjective opinions and standards. Since the inception of the United Asians Debate Championships, the Grand Finals of every iteration has resulted in a split decision, the last two ended in a 5-4 split. Even the Grand Final of MMU UADC 2012, one of the most one-sided finals i have ever witnessed, ended in a 7-2 split. This also means, that the team that lost had a 28% chance of winning if there was only a single judge. The presence of an adjudicator is the greatest equalizer, as long as a team debates with conviction and flair, maintains aggression throughout and never shows any hint of weakness, there is always a significant chance that the judge may be swayed. Consider Manny Pacquiao’s recent fight against Jeff Horn, which ended in a unanimous point loss as adjudicated by the panel of 3 judges. Every statistic of the fight suggested that Pacquiao had a significant advantage, the referee even told Horn “show me something or i’ll have to end the fight now” during the final stages. While the result was highly controversial, it was clear that Horn fought valiantly and never gave up or looked defeated.
The sure-fire way to convince your judge to give you the loss is the look of resignation in your faces, that is when the contest becomes an embarrassing waste of time, where the judge basically won’t be able to find a way to justify giving any other result. Trust me, no judge wants to justify a decision which BOTH TEAMS are likely to disagree with, that’s just a recipe for receiving complaints, especially since the shock result is likely to reverberate through the entire circuit. “Even our opponents thought they lost!” is the most common complaint heard by an established team after receiving a shock loss.
Any team, under the right set of conditions, can beat any other team (well, there are exceptions, but it’s best you assume they don’t exist). Always perform to the best of your ability, stay aggressive and engaged throughout and never give up. Never underestimate weaker opponents or deify stronger ones, or you will become that “unlucky” team that is always on the wrong end of shock results. In debates, and life in general, you make your own luck.