I sat alone in my room as I anxiously awaited the results. I had just finished a round of the 2020 high school debate Tournament of Champions (TOC), and because of the pandemic, I was debating without my team and coaches by my side. The atmosphere was tense and, on an otherwise silent Zoom call, a pen drop from an unmuted spectator would shoot my nerves through the roof. My opponent, the spectators, and I were waiting for one of the judges to unmute and announce the decision.
Almost half an hour later, the judges turned their cameras back on and congratulated my opponent and me for making it to the first elimination round of the TOC. Immediately after, they announced that I lost on a close 2-1 decision. I was stunned and hurt. I clearly won the round; what could they have possibly voted against me for? Was my goal of the season (winning the first TOC elimination round so that I could automatically qualify for the 2021 TOC) actually over? It was not until months later that I began to appreciate this moment of defeat and realize there were things that I could improve on. It encouraged me to focus on improving on my areas of weakness by deepening my knowledge of future topics and working on being simultaneously efficient and clear, skills I would need to be even better at the TOC the next year.
These days, I explore my interests and emotions and acquire knowledge through debate. But until my sophomore year, I was always playing sports. My summers were typically spent doing football drills, running a lot at track practice, or perfecting my high jump. Now, I spend my summers at debate camp. That’s not to say I’ve forgotten what I learned in athletics. In fact, my approach to debate is unique because I approach the activity as a sport.
Sure, debate is vastly different from physical exercise, but at the same time, it requires intense mental and emotional toughness, and it is a competition. The possibilities for learning, achieving, and gaining exposure are unmatched by other high school extracurriculars.
Although debate has helped me find my passion and strengths in reading, researching, and writing about African American Studies, it has also forced me to navigate spaces that may be unrepresentative of or challenging for Black students. Participating in a competition as the only Black debater was typical, and it was exciting to even see three Black debaters in a competitive pool of 100 or more people.
A year later, while preparing for the postseason, I thought back to my moment of defeat in 2020. I truly believe that the amount of research, practice speeches, and discussions I had with my coach leading up to the state and national championship tournament or the TOC was more than anyone else on the competitive circuit was doing. As a junior competing against a lot of seniors, I knew that I had to work harder to close the experience gap and be cautious not to have a 2020 repeat.. However, I have learned the value of appreciating losses, finding ways to get better from them, and using those moments to fuel me to work harder and be better at my craft.
Through preparing, competing, and succeeding at this competition, these are the five keys to productive civil discourse and argumentation that I learned on the debate stage:
Prepare – A debate or argument is won before it begins. The research, sources, and rehearsal ahead of time are necessary to have the knowledge and strategic vision needed to win an argument. The speech I gave in the final round of the TOC was a speech I had given at least half a dozen times before that weekend. Outside of debate, preparation comes from your ability to have a command of the topic you are discussing.
Listen – Understanding what your opponent is saying is crucial to making a counterargument. We often see discourse with very little listening to one another in current political debates or events. If two people are talking past each other and not to each other, that is not discourse; it is simply a monologue.
Persuade – If you cannot convince the judge or audience that you are right, you have lost. Argumentation and discourse are not about whether you believe the argument or that you are winning it; it is about your ability to persuade others your way. Persuasion is won by clarity in your points, a balance of control and politeness and an abundant amount of knowledge about your topic.
Perfect your skills – Debate and argumentation are like anything else; they take skill to master. You can practice specific skills to enhance your ability to win arguments. Examples of such skills include [A] concession and refutation: Conceding the validity in your point to further disprove the issue or their conclusion. [B] Collapsing: Strategically choosing specific points that they have undercovered or are your best arguments to focus strongest on. This is debate terminology, but it can still be valuable in any form of argument. [C] Flowing: Keeping track of the arguments your opponent is making and how you want to respond by writing or typing it down. This is also debate terminology, but I believe no actual argument can be won if you do not track the conversation.
Embrace your losses – My favorite! You do not lose—you acquire knowledge and get better. This is my favorite because it is one of the biggest things I point to when people ask about my success. Naturally, nobody is excited about losing, but every significant jump I’ve made in my skill and every significant accomplishment I’ve had in debate followed a loss. If you take a loss and study it, understanding where you went wrong, where you can improve and how to not make those mistakes again, then you are setting yourself up for success.
This postseason was drastically different in 2021. At the state tournament, I was undefeated, earning the “triple crown” title by being the top seed in prelims, top overall speaker and the tournament champion. At the TOC, I became the first Black debater to win the tournament ever, and I was only a junior.The Tournament of Champions is the most prestigious high school debate tournament with the top debaters across the nation, and the Texas state tournament is one of, if not the, most competitive state tournaments in the nation.
Civil discourse or the engagement of thoughts and ideas amongst community members to seek out productive ways to make society better is an excellent avenue to improve policies and norms and understand different perspectives from your own. Reflecting on my moment of defeat and my growth from it, I am hopeful that the younger generations can and will use discourse to better understand and approach complex social and political issues.