I remember being one of those debaters sitting in the back of the room in late outrounds. I would text my partner, teammates and friends about how good the speeches were, laugh at all the debater jokes that are really only funny in round, and think to myself “WOW I wonder what it would feel like to be THAT good.”
The debate circuit likes to comment on everything: arguments, teams, tournaments, memes, etc. People like to predict who will win, who will succeed, and who frankly, won’t. For most of my debate career, I’ve been in that last category. Teammates told me that my issue with explaining things was “unfixable”, and opponents told me I was only good because of the prep our other team did. Coaches told me that I stuttered in my speeches, and lab leaders noticed I needed “more work” than my partner. It’s common for us to constantly pick at rounds that didn’t go right, or things that we can improve on. I rarely walk out of rounds thinking we did everything right. But it’s also common for us to get weighed down by the comments and the common belief that improvement happens in the same way for everyone. These things often get intertwined; after a bad round, I think about the stuff people have said to us because my insecurities about being “bad at debate” are related to people directly telling me that.
As I was described by some as “fundamentally behind” or somewhat “lacking in potential”, it was easy to believe that everyone was right: that I would never be “good” or “successful”. One of the reasons that the comments that femxles receive is so harmful, is that even if you shrug it off and move on, after bad rounds or bad tournaments, it always comes back. Sometimes you even start to believe it.
But that’s the issue entirely. I see people around me view success in debate as a binary: either you have it or you don’t, and there’s no changing that. You may WANT to be like one of the teams you are watching, but you never really think you CAN be. At one point, I walked into most rounds expecting to lose, and thought that those debaters in late outrounds had something about them that wasn’t something I could ever have. It was like they were on an entirely separate playing field that I was trying to figure out how to reach.
So here’s the truth.
There is nothing separating you from the debaters you idolize, or want to be like. They started somewhere too. At one point they lived the life I used to live: dropping turns, losing rounds, being underprepped, and feeling like the streak of losses would never end. The reason those teams are successful is because they have put time, hard work, and lots of resources into the activity (debate is very expensive). Often times it’s recognizing our mistakes and learning how to fix them that make us better.
Traveling or competing is scary at first, and that’s because we’re all afraid of what “important” people (circuit debaters, coaches, etc.) think about us. The reason I often felt bad after rounds or was afraid of my lab leaders (at times) was because I was terrified of them thinking we were bad, or judging us. I think that sometimes we need to accept where we are in debate and be okay with it. It’s easier for me to perform in rounds when I’m not terrified to lose or mess up because then I can focus more on the round itself. I’ve also found that it’s easier for me to improve when I’m comfortable, when I’m no longer concerned with proving myself to others either because I know my capabilities, or because I just don’t care about what they think.
This is the question I think everyone should ask themself: Why not you?
Why couldn’t it be you on the stage debating finals at a local, national, or national championship tournament? Why couldn’t you be the team to finally beat that team who people consider “unstoppable”? There is no answer. It could be you; you could be “that team.”
Now don’t get me wrong; it may not happen today or tomorrow or next tournament or even next year. It may never happen at all. And yes, there are a lot of factors that go into these things, some of which you (to some extent) cannot control; gender, access to resources/coaching, race, sexuality, and a lot of other things create disparities in debate. But I want you to know that just because things may not be happening for you now doesn’t mean that they never will. (One of the people I respect most told me that it takes 1000 no’s to get a yes.) In other words, you can accomplish anything with time and hard work.
But even more so, I don’t care if you are winning tournaments or losing every round. You deserve respect as a debater, and deserve to be proud of yourself for the things you do right. You don’t deserve to be ignored or insulted, or for people to shut you down because you are younger, less experienced, or not as successful. In the same way that you could be one of those teams you look up to, you also don’t deserve to be treated poorly based on something as arbitrary and unimportant (in the long term) as success. (Also, if you are in a position of reasonable influence in the community, please use it wisely.)
Everything in debate is temporary, and even though it sometimes feels like the universe is working against you, YOU are in control of how hard you work, how you treat other people, and how you view the activity.
Believing in myself made me less scared in rounds, more eager to reach out to people I didn’t know (who are now some of my best friends), and made me much happier. I no longer needed the validation of doing well at tournaments or having people think I was good – I just didn’t care about these things anymore. (It’s okay if you still care about those things, I know that sometimes it’s hard.) In-round confidence isn’t only about faking a smile, or quickly asking a question so your opponent will stop talking – it’s also about feeling okay about who you are as a debater.
It’s hard to hear people tell you that your voice it too shrill, that you’re too assertive, or that your partner carries you. But know that there are people out there who look up to you, who care about you and believe in you in this activity. Know that to someone you are one of those teams who everyone wishes they could be like. Everytime you start to feel inadequate, worthy of mean comments, or like you are behind or lacking in potential, realize that everyone has experienced that at some point. I was there too. Ask yourself what I wish I would have: Why not you?