The Incredible Sport of Competitive Forensics by: Eric Meinerding

On September 6th, 1998 one of the greatest quarterbacks football has ever seen started his first game. Peyton Manning, the first pick in the 1998 draft out of Tennessee, lost in his first game as a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts. Unlike many of the star first round quarterbacks of today’s football, Peyton Manning was never known for his strength, speed, or agility. While he certainly possessed the physical characteristics one would expect from two-time Superbowl champion, that didn’t define his style. He wasn’t one to consistently roll outside the pocket to extend a play or hurtle a ball downfield on sheer talent alone. Peyton Manning’s study, awareness, and preparation allowed him to become the football legend he is now known for today. That notion of skill development and preparation extends so well into the world of competitive forensics. It is one of the many reasons competitive forensics ought to be considered a sport. And it would behoove competitors to think of debate as such.

According to a sport is, “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.” Now many may jump on the potion of the definition talking about physical prowess. And if that really is a deal breaker, just ask anyone who has had to wear heals while walking non-stop across an event center for five days straight if they are physically exhausted. But for all the people who love a good definition debate, notice there is an “or” rather than an “and” between skill and physical prowess, meaning both aren’t required. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of useless semantics, but the emphasis on skill and competition is present throughout traditional sports. And if ESPN is willing to televise poker and chess as sports then forensics certainly should be in the conversation.

Forensics as an activity requires a variety of skills: speaking, researching, strategy, posture, critical thinking, note-taking, the ability to read body language, improv, acting, and at one point, acrobatics. Competitors do not master these skills without hours and hours of practice either. While a swimmer may go to the pool to practice laps, or a runner runs the local track, speakers run through their script for hours on end at home or at club. A football player works out at the gym to strengthen their body to lay down a game-winning block in their next game, likewise, a debater may read fifteen different policy reviews to sharpen their mind for the upcoming competitive season. A consistent theme between traditional sports and forensics is preparation. No one walks into a national finals room without hours of diligent study in order to hone the skills necessary to present a first-place winning speech. It is the dedicated training and preparation that sets champions apart.

The competitive aspect cannot be understated either. Speech rooms are ranked one through eight across a variety of categories. This method of somewhat subjective ranking finds its place in even Olympic sports. Gold medalist divers and ice-skaters are judged by a panel of judges who are gauging their ability to perform according to a list of specific criteria. These Olympians’ goal is not to simply “beat” the other divers head on. In a room of duo interpretation, there are certain types displays of skill that coaches and competitors know will score more points with judges. Turning to debate, the competitive analogy becomes even tighter. Debaters clash against other teams in order to win the round. Most tournaments feature extended single-elimination brackets to determine the winner of the competition. In addition, debaters’ speaking ability is scored by a numerical point system that can contribute to seeding and give debaters individual awards. In moot court, those speaker points literally determine who wins or loses a given round. Scoring points, out-performing your opponent, surviving a tournament bracket, this description could almost summarize college basketball’s March Madness. Much of the tournament season takes place in March, so hey, maybe forensics could go by the same name.

Discussing whether or not forensics is a sport is not just a conversation with friends for Steak n’ Shake at midnight after a long tournament. The way competitors think about debate critically influences how they both prepare for and compete in the activity. Competitive sports are no casual affair. Whether they are in high school or college teams or on a professional team, athletes sacrifice substantial amount of time and recourses to ensure they have the best possible chance of succeeding on game day. It is that kind of thinking that is so import. Knowing that forensics requires time, it requires sacrifice, and that it’s supposed to be challenging, can alter a student or coach’s entire paradigm about the activity. But all the while, don’t forget sports are simply games with more on the line. They are still supposed to be fun. Games reward creative people who can find unique styles within the rules. Games are ultimately not a reflection of one’s real world character either. While most people normally wouldn’t tackle someone to get what they want, that is a linebacker’s job in the NFL. In the same way, debaters shouldn’t feel pressured to only argue what they believe in and interpreters don’t have to exclusively play characters they like. Forensics is a high-stakes sport where you are supposed to have fun and meet new people while challenging your mind and body to become a better communicator for Christ.

The importance of the sport of debate extends so far beyond tournaments and trophies. Like other sports, speakers and debaters can go to college with scholarships for their abilities. The world of collegiate team-policy debate is full of students on full ride scholarships. And the value of forensic skills doesn’t stop when the timer goes off either. So many tactics and abilities competitors hone while in high-school and college are invaluable in the “real world.” The social atmosphere of tournaments provides students with an opportunity to develop interpersonal skills relevant to relationships in both professional and private settings. Communication’s worth as an asset stands far and ahead as one of the primary factors in making a job application stand out. Landing in-person job interviews due to the communication skills developed while competing in forensics is not uncommon for alumni of the sport. The health of an Olympic athlete will benefit for them years after their medal finds its way into a storage box in the attic. The long-term benefit to sports are not the trophies, but the skills.

Competition drives so many youth all across the globe to do and be better at their craft of choice. It’s one of the reasons organized sports enthrall our culture. Because society loves to celebrate those who work incredibly hard to become better at some challenging skill and succeed because of that hard-work. Competitors should embrace that competition. They should embrace it while still taking heart in knowing that competitive results don’t define a person. Only God defines a person. But rhetoricians ought to apply themselves to the sport of forensics. They can prepare and study their craft the way Petyon Manning studied and prepared for the Superbowl. Forensics makes people better at so many different skills that can be applied to so many walks of life. The winning and losing eventually fades away, but the ability remains. Those who choose to participate in walk into each tournament seeking to compete, overcome, and win the day, thus, they should prepare for the day like any professional athlete would: with diligence and hard work.

Eric Meinerding is one of our Lasting Impact! Coaches. He is presently attending Liberty University and will go on Law School. He teaches Team Policy Debate and coaches Limited Prep, Platform Speeches, as well as Moot Court and LD. Schedule a coaching session with Eric today.