Harris Layson, a junior at Lake Highland Prep in Florida, currently holds the number one ranking in Lincoln Douglas debate nationwide. He has participated in eight tournaments, securing six bids, reaching five final rounds, and maintaining a prelim win rate above 90%. He stands out as the best of the best. When I was a debater, learning from someone like him would have been a dream. That’s why our mission at Debate Land is to democratize data in debate, and that doesn't stop at the quantitative level. Through this new Champion Series, we aim to provide the previously intangible qualitative data of what makes a debater great. Harris is the first installment; in each one, we will delve into their journey of how these champions climbed to the top of the rankings and the valuable lessons they learned along the way.

A debater for four years, Harris did not start at the top. In eighth grade, he wasn’t a routine competitor. He shied away from tournaments because he felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of knowledge necessary to compete. While he did begin attending national-level competitions during his freshman year of high school, success was not following. He “wasn’t breaking” and consistently finished with a 3-3 record. Harris was itching for progress. Many competitors know the frustration—the feeling of stagnation, being left behind by friends, or just not reaching the level of excellence that many debaters become accustomed to outside the activity.

Over the summer before his sophomore season, he decided to make a change. He attended NSD camp and, throughout the entirety of the break, spent extensive time drilling. His goal was to become great at a singular position. As he explains it:

"My improvement can be attributed to the amount of time I spent on drills. I think that people put too much emphasis on how much prep they cut and how much they want to know about debate. But I feel like I put a lot of energy into memorizing and learning one position…and I would just drill every day over the summer, and then I just memorized responses to everything. I think that getting good at one really small area of debate helped me get good at the other areas as I slowly branched out."

That next year, he won his first tournament and honed his settler colonialism kritiks. By specializing in a particular area, Harris built out a structural advantage that very few other debaters could compete with—a strong specific knowledge base. His dive into the world of settler colonialism began simply "with just understanding the actual historical substance in the events that are the basis of the critique, and it helped explain everything." The key was not to muddy the waters but to build a solid foundation. For instance, during his sophomore year, he never read ontological arguments. In his mind, learning the basics was the key to successfully expanding into more technical territory.

As a new debater or someone aspiring to boost their competitive edge, it might be tempting to jump straight to the endgame—running complex and often bizarre Ks or cramming as many convoluted arguments as possible into a single 1NR. While the approach may yield some short-term gains, it is unlikely to lead to sustained success. The key lies in discovering the argument you want to embrace, thereby becoming your niche.

To be clear, it's not going to happen overnight. In our interview, Harris discussed a year-long process of finding his argument. He began with being obsessed with Deleuze and only stumbled upon his now preferred K through one of his coaches before a round. He believes the key to landing on your arguments and style is experimentation. One of the best ways to "break through" is to attempt new positions. Once you do find that K or DA that sparks your interest and you understand it well, the next task becomes implementing a successful strategy to win.

That requires round vision. One of the most difficult aspects of running only a handful of arguments is keeping your options open. The two can seem mutually exclusive. A small number of positions should mean only a couple of different paths to a ballot, but if you write the case effectively, it should be the opposite. As Harris explains:

Understand that your arguments have a lot more implications than the ones you might intend. So, you need to have multiple visions of how you want to end the round and how you want to access different parts of it and then find commonalities between the ways you can do that."

Creating those paths and understanding when to choose them takes time; it will require hours of drilling—Harris preps for 2 hours a day with additional time spent on weekends. In the end, it will pay off. No debater got to the top by practicing only when the rest of the team was. If you take nothing else away from the article, keep your arguments simple and "know what you are talking about." It should say something that Harris's one thing he could change would have been to focus on the basics earlier. 

Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.