Lessons Learned Outside of Competition Through Speech and Debate by: Adrian King

I was your classic speech and debate nerd. For three and a half years of my life, I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into the sport that had become one of my greatest passions. Over the course of my Speech and Debate career, I went to numerous camps, outsourced ten different coaches, and heard more lectures than I can count. I attended 35 tournaments, participated in 220 debate rounds, and competed in every event except for Expository. You could say I was obsessed with Speech and Debate. But it wasn’t until my senior year was abruptly cut short by COVID-19 that I truly took a step back from the competition to reflect on my experience throughout my time in forensics. It wasn’t until my senior year that I actually understood the impact Speech and Debate had on my life, in both positive and negative ways. It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized the opportunities I wish I had taken and the lessons I wish I had understood.

You see, no lecture, seminar, or camp could have prepared me for the emotional, mental, and even sometimes spiritual strain that speech and debate would put on me. I know, this sounds like a depressing sob story. Trust me, I wholly and entirely loved forensics. But honestly? I don’t want you to graduate like I did: with regrets. I don’t want your forensic experience to be stained with the blood of anxiety. I don’t want you to enter into this next year without learning these key lessons. Maybe you’ve never heard of them before, or maybe you’ve been told them a thousand times and never truly taken them to heart. No matter where you stand, I want to address you.

Lesson 1: No competitor is perfect; no judge is perfect. I used to walk into rounds, intellectually aware that my judges were human, but subconsciously feeling like my judges were objective robots. I felt like Stoa was a math equation, where one plus one equals two, and two plus two equals four. I expected that the “good” people would win, and the “bad” people would lose. I often forgot that it wasn’t that simple. Your judges aren’t perfect. They all have different perspectives, philosophies, and emotional histories that they bring into your round. On the flip side, competitors aren’t consistent speech-giving machines. Some tournaments I would place first in an event. Others I wouldn’t get a checkmark. And that’s okay. You’re not expected to be the next Taryn Murphy or Drew Magness overnight. But for a while, I thought I was supposed to be. I placed incredibly high standards upon myself, forgetting that flaws are only human. Some speeches are excellent. Others are substandard. We all make mistakes. While we should always put our best into every round, if it doesn’t go our way, that doesn’t mean we’re failures.

For instance, last year, at one of the biggest tournaments of the season, I broke to Semi Finals in several events, including Extemporaneous and Original Oratory. First up was Extemp. The speech was going well, until I shook the judges’ hands. As I went down the row, thanking them profusely for judging, I looked to the edge of the room and had a devastating realization: I had completely forgotten about the fifth judge. I did not look at her once during my speech. I didn’t even know she had been judging me until I shook her hand, red-faced and flustered. After hurrying out of the room, I processed my mistake: there was no way I was making it to Finals. I walked into my OO, a speech ironically on the danger of circumstantial happiness, entirely distant and disconnected from my audience. My mind wasn’t on my speech, it was on Extemp. As a result, it went poorly and the judges did not vote in my favor. When finals breaks were announced, I was shocked to hear that I was going to finals in Extemp, but not in OO. When we’re constantly obsessing about our past mistakes, we ignore our present situation. We rob ourselves of the chance at joy because we believe that because of our performance, we deserve to be unhappy. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Be proud of your platforms, your limited preps, your interps, and your debate rounds. Appreciate the effort that you poured into your pieces, and celebrate the hard work you put in, even if it isn’t perfect.

But even if a speech is as close to flawless as a speech can be, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every judge will appreciate it. Not every topic or line of argumentation will be appealing to 100 percent of people. I have had speeches before in which I received a high ranking and praise from one judge, but received painfully honest disapproval from the judge sitting next to them. Don’t let this faze you. You never know how each individual judge will react to your speech, and that’s completely fine. The only thing you can do is give your best. The rest is up to the judge.

But what if you do get a judge who despises your speech with a burning passion? What if you get a judge who, without a second thought, will mercilessly rip your case apart on your debate ballot? Questions like these used to sear into my mind a blazing red stop sign every time I thought about reading my ballots. I used to dread opening that manilla envelope and sifting through the rainbow War and Peace length stack of papers inside. But after a while, I learned several tips to conquer a fear that is common to many competitors: braving ballots.

First, I would recommend waiting until several days after tournaments to look through your ballots. I know, it’s tempting sometimes to hear your ranking and immediately tear into them the second the doxology ends and the after-parties begin. Not only is this tacky, as your judges may very well be the parents standing next to you, but it also ensures that you will not approach the feedback you were given with clarity. Waiting a couple days helped me shake off my “tournament mode” first and be in a headspace where I could productively implement constructive criticism.

But braving your ballots doesn’t just include knowing when to look at them, but how to look at them as well. We have all had those judges who give comments that make no sense. I once had a judge tell me, after watching my speech on being happy, that my red heels didn’t match my definition of happiness. I’ve had other judges tell me that my lipstick was too distracting. I’ve had judges, when after seeing speeches in which I was the most honest, raw, vulnerable I’ve ever been with forensics, tell me that I seemed fake and disingenuous. Inevitably, every competitor will receive notes like this at one point or another. Don’t take them to heart. Don’t let the comments a judge writes affect how you see yourself.

But sometimes, the hardest ballot comments to receive aren’t the ones that make you laugh because of their insanity. The hardest comments are the ones that have real validity. I’ve gotten ballots in which judges that I deeply admire and respect have given paragraph-long comments so harsh, they could make someone cry. If you let these kinds of comments get to your head, you might think of yourself as a horrible competitor. Remember: the judge is not there to harm you, ridicule you, or make you feel any less than you are. The judge is there to help you. They volunteered time out of their incredibly busy schedules just to listen to what you have to say and give you comments on how to make your rhetoric better. They want you to succeed. Yes, there might be an occasional judge you encounter who wants to spite you for beating their child in outrounds. Yes, there might be people who walk into the room with emotional baggage and trauma related to the issues you discuss in your speech that you couldn’t have prepared for. Yes, there might be a couple of alumni who violate judge intervention standards because they think they can. We are all going to get wildcard judges, and we are all going to eventually get wacky ballots. But I’d urge you, take the time to look at your ballots as a whole. Take the comments that come up most consistently and implement them in your speech. Look at those comments as a whole body of feedback, not as individual remarks. In doing so, you will improve your speeches without feeling downtrodden by the notes of specific individuals. Don’t let what a judge says about you affect what you say about yourself.

Lesson #2: Re-evaluate your reasons. Ask yourself, why am I here? What is the point in competing? Often, as Stoa and NCFCA speakers, we tell ourselves and others the same thing every time: “I’m here to grow in my communication skills in order to use them to glorify God.” While that is a perfectly admirable answer, it’s often given without true implementation into the person’s life. Take the time to step back and re-evaluate the reason you participate in forensics. I’ve found that the best way to make that often-disingenuous answer true for myself is twofold.

First, I encourage you to mark your motivations. For every speech that you give, sit down and find a reason why you want to do the speech in the first place. Hint: the reason shouldn’t be because you want to win. As it is a competition, wanting to succeed is something that you should strive for. You should always push yourself to be better. However, that should not be the only motivation in delivering a topic to your judges. I learned this through one of my former persuasives, a speech on the dangers of perfectionism. As a brutal perfectionist myself, I wanted to tell the judges why they should avoid torturing themselves over imperfection, but should instead embrace the person God made them to be. My reason for giving this speech wasn’t simply to win, but to touch the hearts and minds of my judges, and hopefully, to give them a true perspective on how they should be seeing themselves. This enabled me to truly mean it when I told someone that the goal of my speech was to make a difference.

But next, you must set your standards. Based on the motivation for each speech, ask yourself, what has to happen in order for me to be satisfied with this speech at a tournament? Once again, if your only answer is first place every time, you are very likely setting yourself up for circumstantial happiness and perpetual disappointment. I learned this the hard way with many of my events, but I finally got it right when it came to that persuasive. My standard was simply that my motivation was actualized. I would have parents come up to me after my speech, telling me that their child was a perfectionist, that my speech inspired them, and that they wanted their child to hear my speech. And it was those kinds of comments that reminded me why I was there. Suddenly, a plastic trophy and a standing ovation didn’t really seem as appealing as the incredible reward of being able to touch the lives of those I addressed. My attitude entirely changed, and it changed for the better. I only wish I had done this with more of my speeches. I urge you, set those standards and remove the belief that you have to place first to win. Take the opportunities you are given to make lasting change in every room you walk into.

Lesson #3: Impersonal competition does not equal personal comparison. Stoa and NCFCA alike are both amazing communities. You will develop lifelong friends and colleagues throughout the speech and debate process. That being said, you will inevitably have to compete against those friends. When you compete against them, don’t take the process personally. I could give you an incredible amount of examples concerning this. Last year, I was eighth place in the nation. Among the people ahead of me were three of my good friends, one of which was a former clubmate, and another of which was a current clubmate. Not to mention, first in the nation was my boyfriend. In Apologetics last year, I placed fourth overall. Third place was a close friend and clubmate as well, second place was another good friend, and first place was once again (drumroll please…..) my boyfriend. All this to say, I lost to friends fairly frequently. I debated my boyfriend nine times. I lost eight of those times. The only round I did win was in a Parliamentary debate where I had a partner to help me out. Every single time I debated him in Lincoln Douglas, I lost. But trust me, taking these losses to heart doesn’t help you. It only encourages comparison, jealousy, and frustration. I wish I would have taken losses like these far more lightly than I did. Don’t let your happiness be determined by how much you are beating your friends by.

On top of that, if you think you beat one of your friends, don’t parade around telling people you did. Talking about people outside of rounds never bodes well, whether they are your bff, worst enemy, or even a stranger. This is something I used to struggle with. I would blurt out how I thought my rounds were, oblivious to the fact that it could very easily get back to the person I was talking about. As a result, my friend and I put Proverbs 21:23 on the back of our phone cases for NITOC. Doing something as simple and easy as putting a Bible verse on something I use often at tournaments was an effective way to ensure I was constantly reminded of the importance of discretion.

Lesson #4: Rankings don’t equal happiness. If you find your joy in what SpeechRanks says about you, you will never be truly happy. If you take every competition loss as a personal one, you will be constantly fracturing and re-molding your identity until it becomes shattered pieces of insecurity and grief. I’ve gotten the rankings. I’ve been in the top ten in the nation. I’ve placed first at tournaments. Sure, those things, for a brief second, felt like the rush of adrenaline you get from a sugar high. But then I would lose. And I would crash. It never made me content. I used to think: “If I could just get a checkmark, I would be happy.” Once I got the checkmark, it became: “If I could just break to finals, I would be happy.” Once I broke to finals, it became: “If I could just win I would be happy.” Once I won, it became: “If I could just make top ten in the nation I would be happy.” The cycle went on and on. Spoiler alert: I was never happy. Instead of asking God for everlasting and infallible joy, I asked myself to perform at a level that would result in, at best, small fluctuations that felt like a whisper of circumstantial happiness. Please, don’t fall into that cycle. Don’t spend your years in forensics wishing you could win. You’ll end up spending the years after wishing you could have had joy.

Lesson #5: The root of your identity. Ask yourself: is your identity in trophies, or in God? Are you defined by a ballot, or are you defined by your Creator? Does placing first make you any different in the eyes of God than the person who placed last? I would urge you to think about these questions, and be wholly and brutally honest with yourself. Place your identity in the Creator who loves you more than anyone else does. Place your joy in the Prince of Peace who will give you the hope of heaven. Place your foundation not in your predicted rankings, but in the promises of the Bible. Then you’ll be truly joyful. Because at the end of the day, that is what we are here for. Not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God.
And in all those years I competed in Stoa, I learned a lesson or two. But no lesson is as important as this one. As a now-alumni, I know. And as your sister in Christ, I know that if you take this to heart, if you truly trust in God for your peace, you will find what you are looking for. Trust me.

Lasting Impact! is proud to announce one of our newest coaches! Adrian King is a Stoa alumni who competed from 2017-2020. She competed in and qualified for NITOC in all three forms of debate: Parliamentary Debate, Lincoln Douglas Debate, and Team Policy Debate. She also competed in every speech event except for Expository. She earned the Founders Award three years in a row. At NITOC 2019, she was a silver medalist in Lincoln Douglas. In the 2019-2020 season, Adrian was eighth overall on Speech Ranks, fourth overall in Apologetics, and seventh overall in Extemp. She placed third at Fall Into Debate and fifth at Veritas Veterans Day Challenge in Lincoln Douglas, earning first and third in speaker awards respectively. That same season, Adrian and her Parli partner, Madelyn Fritz, placed in the top ten at every tournament they attended. In Team Policy debate, Adrian and her partner, Eugene Kong, placed first at Point Loma Classic. With another partner, Dylan Jacobs, Adrian placed second in Team Policy Debate at NIHD’s National Virtual Debate Championship. She has now moved on to college competition. She is dedicated to mentoring the next group of debate competitors and hopes to assist them in growing and flourishing in their skills. Schedule a coaching appointment with Adrian today!