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Lessons Learned from Participating in Competitive Debate

Throughout my four years of high school I spent every Saturday the same way: standing in a stuffy cafeteria along with anxious teenagers practicing speeches to the walls, desperately finding a response to a nuanced argument rumored to have been run, and the loud voices of assertive speakers continuing their debate outside of the round. If you were involved in a high school competitive debate team, then you know this scene all too well.

Though this environment may not sound like a dream to most, this was the reason that I kept competing every weekend of every year of high school. (Wow, I’m a nerd.)

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Debate gives you the opportunity to travel the country, competing against and meeting people with varied opinions and unique perspectives from anything to the rise of China or the question of whether the voting rights act was correctly struck down by the Supreme Court last year. Though I am not competing in college, as I want to branch out to other activities, my nostalgia over high school debate has made me realize how much debate has helped me in so many ways outside of competition. Because I sound like a cliché promo ad for an expanding debate program, I thought I might as well embrace it and share some of the lessons I’ve gained along the way.

Be Informed

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be knowledgeable of what is happening in the world. I mean, it would be so frustrating to hear someone who didn’t know how many Jonas Brothers Taylor Swift dated, or the implications of the Iranian nuclear proliferation deal.  Now that we are apart of the electorate, we should know what issues impact our everyday lives.

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Be open to ideas contrary to your initial beliefs

Even though you know them to be wrong, it’s really important to listen to other people’s perspectives before assuming that your perspective is the best one. It can be hard to accept that you’re not always right (but you are) when debating arguments that you are passionate about, but realizing other perspectives can build up your understanding even more.

Keep your eye on the prize

I wish I could tell you that competition isn’t about winning—that it’s about having fun and doing what you like. But lets cut the crap—I don’t wake up at 6 AM every Saturday to lose.

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At the same time…

The prize is not everything

Those who I have met through debate are some of the most interesting and interested people. If you are just focused on winning, you miss the opportunity to get to meet really great friends. But be warned, more often than not these people come with extreme emotional baggage. Hence, why they spend Saturdays talking to walls.

Go easy on yourself

One time in a round, I fell over a desk wearing a skirt and heels in front of a judge and competitors.  Another time, I dropped an opponent’s computer and it cracked. Another time, I spilled coffee all over the judge’s papers. Besides the fact that I am a complete and utter spaz, the point here is that when all of this happened, I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean I really laughed. Like for an uncomfortable amount of time. Like people felt weird.

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Don’t get me wrong; debate is an extremely formal setting. But what I have learned is it is never bad to laugh at yourself and crack a smile (or erupt into laughter) if need be. We can’t all be perfect and not break other peoples’ computers, so when you do slip up, take a breath, laugh it off, and move on.  Think lightly of yourself, you are only human. 

Olivia is freshman at Bates College, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Her interests include: fantasizing about what it would be like to not be from Cleveland, Ohio.
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