They practiced speed drills, studied films of their opponents and outlined strategies — all to ensure that when the tournament began, they would be ready to perform.
That is why the Howard County-based Capitol Debate team is one of the best nationally in a contest that is just as intense and competitive as any sport. They're hosting their fourth-annual Fall Classic Tournament at Centennial High School, starting Saturday and ending Sunday.
The contest matches teams from Maryland as well as those from seven other states — including Florida, New Hampshire and Alabama — and Washington, D.C. It features policy debate, with more than 60 two-member teams competing.
Capitol Debate has long been one of the premier debate teams in the country; its middle school team is the defending national champion. And founder Ronald Bratt says that debate is similar to that of most sports — particularly gymnastics and figure skating — where one trains religiously, aims for a top-notch effort during the contest, then awaits a decision from judges.
But they also spend much time scouting their competitors.
"The key is to know everyone that's going to be in attendance, know what they're going to argue, because we've seen them before, and have our research and our position ready to go against them," said Bratt, who added that teams also pay attention to judges to see if they're nodding in agreement or shaking heads in disagreement.
"Like [teams] watch videotapes in sports, videotapes have become big in finding the weaknesses in other [debating] teams," said Bratt. "We'll look at what arguments the other team is weak at answering. We'll see, on a two-person team, which is the weaker of the two debaters and overload them with arguments.
"We tend to know what arguments they're going to go for," Bratt added, "so we know we need to spend more time answering and addressing those arguments."
Capitol Debate member Dan Li, a senior at Centennial High School who once played organized tennis, says debate is more fiercely competitive than any sport.
"Winning is obviously a very exhilarating feeling. But I think … sometimes the worst thing you can experience is a big loss in a debate," said Li. "If you enter a tournament with high expectations and if you win, it's more of a relief than it is a joy."
Still, he says, the competitive nature of debate keeps him coming back. "It's something that school or other academic functions don't really provide," he said. "You can have good grades, but that really doesn't provide much of a competitive atmosphere."
Among the drills the debate team performs in practice is "speed reading," a form of oration that is similar to what one would hear at a contest. The students read text as fast as they can, with virtually no pause between sentences or paragraphs, while still sounding concise and articulate.
It's similar to the fine-print reading at the end of an automobile advertisement on the radio.
"If there's an argument that you know you have to make over and over again, because someone will always say, 'X,' and you need to say, 'Y' in response, you're expected to be able to say that in a very precise and eloquent manner," said Capitol Debate member Alix Arungah, a senior at Howard High School.
She added, "We have at least one practice debate almost every practice. We're expected to do work at home, the same way you're expected to go to a gym and build your muscles. We have to research our arguments, know our opponents, create strategies for them and not just go in like you're blind."
Bratt said that the judges, too, bring their best effort, because the notes they take throughout contests can serve as a virtual instant replay.
"In figure skating, you might get a 5.8, but you don't know why," Bratt said. "But here, it's an intellectual game, and it's a high demand on the judge to articulate a reason why. They've got to defend. Debaters will ask them questions [after the match], and they have to be prepared to defend their decision."