Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gaining a stone in strength...

In the unequal challenging game of GO, a very elegant and simple handicap system exists. For those who do not know what I am talking about: GO is an ancient Chinese game, played by two players, which is purely strategical/ tactical. Like in chess there are no hidden information and no luck is involved. Both players consecutively put white and black stones on a simple board consisting of 19 x 19 intersecting lines. The game has only three simple rules, but the complexity that emerges out of this setup is so vast, that the game has yet to be conquered by the computer and the main skill required is not calculation, like in chess, but balance & judgement. Two principles that make a good foundation, not only in GO, but general for life as a whole. But back to the handicap system of GO. If a weaker player faces a stronger one, the weaker player gets to put additional stones on the board before the game even begins. They are called handicap stones and the number depends on the skillgap between both players. The skill is measured by a system of grades, similar to the ones found in martial arts. So the closer both players are, the lesser stones the weaker player gets to place on the board. If someone makes a significant advance in skill, it will eventually lead to him getting one handicap stone less against a stronger opponent and this is called “gaining a stone in strength“.

So this is a post on training. It is for those of you, who ask themselves if and how they are making progress in the art of debating. For those of you, serious about getting better. The question I want to talk about is: How can you “gain a stone in strength” in that art ? That is, making one step from the level you are on now – upwards. I felt this is a topic most often neglected in the debating community. But it is such an important one for all of us. Why do we debate every week if not at least for the purpose to improve ourselves ? And if that is one of your core motivations as well, then you might also think about the process and the methods that actually might help you to improve.

So what is out there ? It is probably agreed on by a lot of good debaters that debating a lot and especially competing in tournaments will help you grow. There are also some methodical things that will cross your way more or less often in feedbacks and tips. Things like: structure, s-ex-i arguments, general strategics for certain fields of motions and so on and so on. But all these things are scattered, loosely connected and never really embedded in a deeper thought on how to really use and implement them to make YOU better. So just doing debate after debate is maybe considered the best way to improve by many and this is so right and yet so wrong at the same time. By the end of this post you hopefully understand why I think so. I want to outline some thoughts on the topic of getting better and how to help people getting better and you will find some outlined parallels to getting better at the game of GO. But let's start, shall we ?

1.) In the beginning

When you are new to GO you are faced with an overwhelming amount of material to learn from. Even though the game has only three simple rules, what emerges out of that is just so complex on so many levels, it is hard to describe and grasp. So you will find yourself tricked over and over again by the game mechanics, when playing stronger players, because you just weren't able to see through all the possible outcomes of the current board situation. And on top of that, most of the time you will not even be able to tell, where you lost the game in the end and what were the mistakes. You will need someone stronger than you to point them out for you, most of the time. That is why people will tell you to put all the material aside and just play a thousand games, before you come back to it. The reason is simple: We learn like that. In a thousand games we will start to see patterns. Some we will notice consciously and many more will be adapted in an intuitive way. And that will make you better, it will get you a feeling what matters and what is important.

Same with debating. There is no need to go to much into the details of methods, strategy or rhetoric when a person starts debating. Just give them some basic rules and one or two tips how to organize and present arguments and throw them into the debate. Let them do it over and over again and they will also start to see and adapt patterns that are successful. Combine that with some quality feedback of experienced debaters afterwards, which is the same as a stronger GO player pointing out mistakes, and they got themselves a good base to improve. That is why I feel it is so important for adjudicators to give useful feedback. It is certainly not enough, just to summarize who won or lost and why. I feel it should always be the responsibility of the adjudicator to give personal feedback on what he or she thinks would help the debaters improve. And that is where “your structure wasn't that good” just is not going to cut it. Try to give the person an example of how you would have made it better. Because he might be able to recognize that it wasn't good, but not have a clear idea on a better version.

But as said, doing a lot of debates, seeing successful patterns, applied by better speakers, combined with quality feedback will make you grow eventually. That is one of two factors why tournaments are so great. You will have as much debates as you normally do in a month or two on one weekend. most of the time you will find better speakers to learn from, and get some good feedback. The second factor I'd like to call focus but we will come back to that later.

You will soon experience, that what you gain from just doing debates will at some point inevitably lessen a lot. As you have learned more and more the steps are getting smaller and at some point they seem to be so small that you feel as if you stagnate overall. I have talked to some good debaters and come across that feeling and maybe that is why some people just stop at some point. Because they feel that they have achieved “enough” which I think translates to: “I don't see this going anywhere else anymore”. They just do not feel that they will improve much more any longer and thus there motivation fades away. And this brings us to our next point.

2. ) On the plateau..

In GO you will also eventually reach a point where just playing isn't really going to improve you anymore. You have reached a plateau phase in your development towards mastery, it feels like progress stagnates. This is the point where you go back to study all this crazy materials on fuseki, joseki, tesuji, tsumego and so on and so on. And at this point you will understand much more of what is actually described and taught there. You wouldn't have been able to see this when you were an absolute beginner.

And that brings us to the point: Once just debating over and over isn't going to really make you better anymore you have to look for actively training specific aspects of it.

That is what I believe in. Unfortunately in contrast to GO much less good material exists or at least it isn't really spread enough. Sometimes you might have a seminar dedicated to things like structure, how to present and extend an argument or a seminar on strategy. But they are rare, much to rare. And even if there were a lot more seminars, that alone is not going to make you grow. You have to apply and train what you learn. And that is a matter of focus. Remember focus ? The second factor, that I claimed was making tournaments such a good place to grow ? So what do I mean with focus..

When I am at a tournament, it feels like a different world, separated from my normal life. While I am there, I keep talking to people about debating, about technique and strategy or about rhetoric and what I think is good and bad and so on. And because of all the debates with feedback so close to each other, we are finally able to mind our gaps revealed in one debate in our next one. Thus giving us a training effect we might not have had during normal debating in a club, because feedback is long since forgotten a week later with life just occurring in between. So this mental dedication is what I like to call focus. And it doesn't need to be exclusive for tournaments. But it is an active effort to get this kind of focus during your normal week with maybe one or two debates in the club.

3.) Focus

So how do you do it ? At first you need to analyse yourself, to find your gaps. To be able to do that you need to remember. You need to remember what went wrong the last few times, you need to remember the critics you got during feedback in the past and you need to have an idea on what to do, to close the gaps. If you feel that memory is slipping away during the week until your next debate, write it down, keep notes. If you feel you have no idea on how to improve a certain aspect, ask people, you think are doing better than you. Ask them all. Most of the time people with talent who just happen to be good at certain things will not be able to really tell you how they got there exactly. But by asking a lot of different people you might eventually get enough perspectives to form an idea on your own. And that is very important. You can just wait for someone to tell you what to do and how to improve or what to improve or you can just start looking for it yourself. If you do the later it will be much more beneficial to your development. Because you yourself are with yourself all the time. If it comes from within, it will be present in every debate you do thus making you independent of the fact if there is someone better than you, who can point out your mistakes.

Then you need to observe. Observe the point in question in every debate. Most of the time we run on autopilot when we speak. It just seems to flow, without much thinking and that for amazing seven minutes. Cool stuff but also limiting our improvement, because we do not really consciously get even half of what happens. For example I used to say “ladies and gentlemen” far to often as filler in my speeches, maybe I still do. If I'm not actively deciding to watch for it in my speech I won't notice at all, I never did before someone told me in the first place. So I observe myself, even though this may impact my overall performance on other ends. People told me “but if I do that I might hold a worse speech because I cannot focus on the other important things”. My answer: “So what” ? If you want to become better you shouldn't be concerned about how you look like to others much. If you feel that you have to be at your best and looking cool and in control and such in every debate you will never have the freedom to walk different paths. And you will be pressured, to perform “good” thus restricting your mental freedom and taking away focus on improvement.

Try to let it go, I personally think that is not as easy as it seems but try to let go what the others in that debate might think of you, if you fail. Those paths that may end in some failures or even epic failures on the way may actually make you better and look even cooler sometime in the future.So observe what you identified as a problem in your debate and whenever you feel as if your are making the same mistake notice it. If you noticed it afterwards, then think of how you might have been able to avoid it or what you would like to do instead of it next time. If you notice it right before it happens, make a conscious effort to avoid it. That can be simple things just like not saying the ladies and gentlemen phrase or replacing it by a more direct addressing of the audience, or trying not to move your feet and go into a body rocking state that just looks nervous most of the time. Whatever it is for you – first observe, than try to change it. Put your focus on that point. Remember it and work on it over and over again. And eventually someday it will become natural and “flow” again and you can move on to the next thing.

4.) ”I do not teach, I simply reveal.” - Enlightened Tutor

I have been doing Karate for 18 years now and taught a broad spectrum of students in the art. From little 5 year old kids up to 50 year old adults. Beginners to intermediate levels. And in the Karate community I am in, there exists that idea, that by actually teaching your knowledge you will get on a whole new level in skill. So why is that ? The reason is simple, to really being able to explain how things work to someone who doesn't know about it, requires you to have a much deeper knowledge and firmer grasp on that specific issue. Because you need to be able to identify key aspects, to break down complex things into parts and again explain these parts in a comprehensive way so everybody can understand. That is why talented people who just happen to be able to do things are not the best teachers most of the time. They just cannot explain the how, what or why. If you can, it will get you a huge step forwards yourself.

So if you are answering questions, or giving feedback, again look at yourself. If you can get across what you want to explain and teach or if you can explain it in a simple way, easy to grasp, then you probably know what you are talking about. This is somewhat a little counter-intuitive especially in debating. One would think that highly complex, complicated and sophisticated analysis are somewhat those most intelligent and thought through. They certainly most of the time sound that way, but they are not. Most of the time they are just a mask to cover up for not being able to reduce it to the relevant core. So try teaching what you think you can do to newer, less experienced people. And try to break down even complex issues to key parts and concepts and explain it with words that even a school kid can understand. Might not be possible all the time, just get as close to it as you can.

This may also help your argumentations in debates - a lot.
I dare you to try it out.

In the End

So that is it for now, I could write so much more about specific things that I find important to look for during this process of learning or specific strategies, methods I find important in general, but hopefully that will appear on that blog sometime in the future anyway. So if improving yourself is one of your core motives for debating and/or if you struggle to find yourself a motivation because you feel you are not getting better anymore, you might want to give all this a try.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great analysis on debating improvement. Especially this contrast between subconsciously adopting patterns and actively focussing on gaps to get better might be a good starting point for developing new training methods.

    Thinking in categories one might focus on, I think you can split up debating broadly in "matter and manner".

    For the first, subcategories to focus on might be: "mechanisims and principles" - "structure of your argumentation within your speech AND in contrast to the material that might come up on the other side" - "prioritising arguments concerning their relevance".

    For the latter, I'm waiting for your suggetions...

  3. In other news: practice, it seems, makes perfect.
    (Indeed, 10,000 hours of practice, if you believe Malcolm Gladwell).

    Now, if there were only some pseudo-philosophy that could justify the countless hours I've spent playing Frogger, Tetris and various flavors of the Mario Brothers...

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