How to prepare for nationals

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Saint Jerome in His Study

The pinnacle of a quizbowl player's life as a competitor is their performance at nationals. It is, for better or worse, the metric by which many judge their career (or the careers of others).

This guide was written by User:Kevin Wang and thus reflects their particular thoughts. It is an elaboration of their How to study guide which discusses general methods of preparation - it is recommended that one read that one first. It is intended for players at both the college and high school levels - some advice may be more applicable to one group than the other and will be labeled accordingly.

Preamble

"Studying for nationals" is something of a misnomer - most players are studying for nationals all the time, whether they call it that or not. If there is a major difference, it is in mentality - flipping that switch and deciding "this is for nationals" entails reshaping your methods and steeling your resolve.

The goal of this guide is to provide specific steps to take for the individual who is interested in preparing for nationals. Reading this page and performing the exercises should provide a strong jumping-off point.

If you are not interested in the pontificating, skip straight to the exercises.

Here are some older guides on the same subject:

Step 1: Establish your goals

Nationals offers the highest possible level of competition, making it an excellent environment to set goals and aim to meet them. There exist realistic and concrete goals for players at every skill level:

  • first-time attendees can aim for a few powers, a 30 on a bonus in their category, or even a single good buzz
  • one can aim to outperform against a regional rival, or even hope to beat them head-to-head
  • a team can try to improve on their previous year's performance or the high watermark set by a past team
  • players can aim for a personal benchmark of performance, like getting above a certain number of powers or keeping below a threshold of negs
  • top teams can aim for the trophy

An important part of setting a goal is to try and assemble a team of players who can commit to the goal, especially for the loftier goals like winning a title. While it is possible for individual players to comprise the bulk of a team's scoring potential, it should not be a surprise that this is more difficult than splitting a load among several people. Additionally, having the support of one's team can make preparing and competing less stressful. That being said, it is not always the case that everyone will be on the same page; this is life. Respecting the choices of others and accepting what one has to work with is part of this process.

Who should aim for the title?

The most obvious goal for nationals season is to come back with the belt: to win it all. Though it may feel like only a few teams are in contention any given year, the number of teams which should have this goal is much greater.

Why? Some reasons:

  • Setting long-term goals is important. Choosing to prepare more this year will make attempts next year (and the year after that) more viable.
  • Upsets happen. Many players dream of the Cinderella run, where every question falls their way and they effortlessly defeat a team they thought unbeatable. This sort of strong performance is a realistic possibility for a team well before they become favorites to win. Besides, developing the skills to play at a higher level is in many ways the realization of this fantasy; they just stop being called "upsets".
  • The top bracket is messier than you think. The "muddy battlefield" is the idea that a tournament will struggle to differentiate both the best and median teams, meaning that one of the groups will have to scrap it out. Though the consensus is that the collegiate nationals suite is difficult enough to challenge the best teams, high school teams routinely perform well enough at HSNCT and NSC that final placement can hinge on marginal factors like "which team first-lined more questions in their match?" or "which team stole enough hard parts?". Being good enough to get into the fray can sometimes be enough to earn a strong finish.

Remember: it is unreasonable to think that one can waltz into first without putting in the requisite effort. One has to want to become champion before they can do it.

Here are some concrete thresholds for when one should seriously begin thinking about winning nationals as a realistic goal:

High school

  • the best teams can break an IS set PPB of 25; 20+ is a great start
    • this is a mark that most teams can hit after a year of solid work
  • five powers a game on an IS or other regular difficulty set
  • one power a game on any non-novice college set

College

  • a PPB above 20 on a three-dot set (ACF Regionals being the benchmark) is good enough to win nationals. 18+ is a top-bracket contender; 17+ is enough to dream.
    • while top teams perform well at easier sets, the lower difficulty also means that the performance is less indicative of nationals performance - 20+ is probably a reasonable number
  • 4 powers per game on a three-dot set (DI SCT) is top tier. Above 2 P/G is excellent and worthy of consideration.
    • a caveat is that the team should also be winning games - 4 powers per game + 0 gets per game or 4 negs per game = rethink your strategy

Step 2: Look for appropriate study material

If you've previously spent time studying (or read any other guides) you'll have some experience with reading past questions from the archive. While this is (and should remain) a core part of any preparing strategy, there are additional considerations to make when aiming for nationals.

A common pattern that players find themselves in is one where they practice at the level they intend to compete - to prepare for a local tournament, a high school team might read IS sets at practice and play level three questions on QBReader and a college team might look at ACF Regionals. The logical next step is to study for nationals by reading nationals-difficulty questions. But hold your horses!

The core advantage of this strategy is that the conversion rate on clues tends to be very high - one can almost guarantee that two questions on the same answerline at the same difficulty will repeat at least one clue, meaning that developing a comprehensive knowledge of the canon at that difficulty is an efficient way to prepare for questions on the same answer. A dedicated high school team can attend upwards of ten regular-difficulty tournaments in a given season, affording them ample opportunity to reap the benefits of this shortcut (college teams can do pretty well on a less-packed schedule as well).

This statistical approach struggles to achieve the same payoff at the national level, where there are fewer questions to model off and many fewer that one will actually play. In addition, it should not be a shock that, when an answer does repeat between years, there will rarely be significant clue overlap. Another major downside is that this is the most obvious strategy and thus every other top team will be racing you on the same clues.

Don't get me wrong; studying previously written national-difficulty questions is essential to a good performance. But to get the marginal advantage that is necessary to come out on top, one needs to do more.

Anticipate!

To answer a question earlier, one needs to anticipate what will come up. This means predicting clues, answerlines, topics, before they happen. This doesn't need to be an active process - a bingo card is not necessary. But one preparing for nationals should focus some fraction of their attention on learning novel information that will get them early buzzes.

Starting around high school nationals difficulty, the leadin (and often more) of questions will have a chance of appearing for the first time at that difficulty. Teams that don't study hard enough sets will be forced to fight over the late clues; the first lines will be the sole refuge of the well-prepared.

High school

A huge advantage of high school quiz bowl being in the same community and same difficulty spectrum as college quiz bowl is that players have access to a wealth of questions which are harder than the nationals that they play at.

Sets at the two-dots level are on par or harder than NSC - sets at three-dots are harder in every respect. Learning clues from these harder questions is a means of glimpsing the future of hard parts. This principle works even for significantly harder sets - a strong performance at college nationals is not necessary for a strong performance at high school nationals but the two do correlate.

Aim to be efficient, though - in general one will not need to master hard parts from harder sets do the same at easier ones. The goal should be to expose oneself to the upper-level canon, not become a proficient college player (though doing so will certainly help in one's later career).

College

In many ways, the defining characteristic of collegiate nationals difficulty is the use of entirely novel clues in the first half (or even further). It is important to give attention to this slice, as it takes on a newfound importance at this level of the game. The thing about novel clues, of course, is that they have not been used before - where does one find them then? The key here is to recognize that questions are written by other members of the community.

The simplest way to engage this part of the brain is to simply write hard questions yourself. This can be done with the structure of an overarching writing project like a full housewrite, but writing for lower stakes things like single vanity packets or purely for study can get many of the same benefits without the pressure of a deadline. Some things to focus on:

  • Though you may not be paid for them, these questions should still be good. A simple proof: the people writing nationals will endeavor to write good questions. Bad questions share few clues with good questions. ∴ writing bad questions should be avoided from the practical perspective that they will not help one prepare for nationals.
  • The biggest comparative advantage from explicitly preparing for novelty comes from anticipating a brand new answerline or totally unique angle. While there's still benefit from only learning a small amount of information about them, learning a full question's worth of clues increases the chance of overlap (and getting a buzz).

Writing questions can help prepare for all difficulties and all varieties of clue, including better-trodden content. For more information about how to write good questions, visit the guide on how to write questions.

Here's a quote on this subject from someone more qualified than me to talk about preparing for nationals:

Alright, so, anyway. I wrote some mythology questions because I was a mythology specialist at that time. I had this doc on my laptop called VETO.doc, and whenever I came across a topic where I thought “oh I don’t know very much about this,” I would write a seven-line question on it, and I would have this question in the doc. I specifically remember, one day I was just like “I don’t know anything about Strom Thurmond.” And I wrote an eleven-line tossup on Strom Thurmond. This had two benefits. First, when you’re writing a question you have to read enough about it so that you understand the context, the significance of whatever the topic is you’re writing about, and you have to understand how the clues relate to each other. And the fact of having to phrase your question as a clue kind of burns it into your memory more because you have to think about it hard enough so that it sticks more. And the other thing is that I got through a lot of bad writing habits in these questions that didn’t mean anything. For that Strom Thurmond question, I read fifty pages of a biography on him, taking out random quotes he said and random things he did on the senate floor, that was like six lines of the tossup. When I was writing actual questions that mattered I wasn’t doing that anymore. So it was a useful exercise in that way, and it was a very effective manner of study.

-Matt Bollinger, 2019 David Riley Player and Coaches Conference[1]

Step 3. Steel yourself

The competition at a local tournament is not on the same level as the competition at nationals. The median team is better prepared, more experienced, more resolved. If you are preparing to make a deep run, you must approach the task ready to face others who have the same goal and who are equally (if not more) committed to the task as you. But this should not be a surprise.

Performance on the day of is certainly an important part of a strong performance, but being a scrappy player who's first one into the game room and last one out won't teach you new clues. That has to happen in the days (and months) before.

References

  1. 2019 David Riley Players and Coaches Conference - LOCATION CHANGE by Perturbed Secretary Bird » Thu Jul 04, 2019 10:39 am