Few things make me quite as nostalgic as a debate tournament. Now, I was never a fantastic debater. While winning two out of three rounds wasn’t a huge shock, it was still often a surprise. But I loved it.
I didn’t fall in love with debate right away though. My first tournament was epic. A thing of legend. It was terrible. My partner and I were both first year debaters and we really had no idea what we were doing. She didn’t seem to care that we were doing so poorly, and it drove me insane. But since she was more comfortable speaking and I just wanted to sit in the corner and pretend I was somewhere else, she gave two of our three speeches. I spent most of the time staring at my paper trying to figure out what to write down. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, thanked the judge, timekeeper and peanut gallery, read the few words I may or may not have written down, stared at my mostly blank piece of paper for a minute or so, said “um” a lot, and sat down. That first tournament I got 1 out of 5 points in nearly every speaker category, in nearly every round. I swore “never again.” I was done with debate, speaking, everything. That was my first tournament, and I was determined that it would be my last. My parents had other ideas. I had to finish the semester and compete in the rest of the tournaments, but after that semester was over I could be done.
It still irks me to say this, (what can say? I inherited my parents combined stubbornness) but I’m so glad that I finished that term.
I learned so much in my time as a debater. It’s not just the obvious things you would think of either. Everyone expects that, of course, public speaking is a nearly universally useful skill. You use it in almost every profession, as well as jobs that lead up to whatever career you pursue (“Would you like fries with that?”). The critical thinking habits are obviously invaluable. But those aren’t the ones that meant the most to me. The lessons that meant to most to me were ones of confidence.
The thing about debate is, sometimes your team can win a round without actually being the better speakers. A first year debater can destroy a seasoned team by pointing out one logical fallacy. A timid speaker can turn a theatrical orator’s case into a colander with the right points. The confidence boost of a win, or even the possibility of a win, is indescribable and addictive. I’ve seen this happen as both a debater and as a judge, and it’s awesome.
When I first started debate, all I wanted to do was melt into the wall. By the end of my senior year, I was often in tears because I didn’t want it to end. Debate can be an amazing activity, but remember five things for me.
- Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t feel bad when you make one, but when your opponent does, nail ’em. Politely. With a smile.
- Conversely, when your opponent nails you for a mistake, don’t take it personally. Still be polite and try to remember to smile.
- You will lose rounds. It’s not a reflection of your worth as a human being.
- You will think of what would have been the winning argument for those rounds on your way home from the tournament. File it away and be ready for next time.
- It’s just a game. You are not a lawyer. No one will die or go to prison if you mess up. Have fun.
And parents, please remember that these are kids. Don’t berate them for making mistakes. That’s part of learning.