Eight Things I Learned From Debate

An Anonymous blogpost:

Mental health is a constantly agonizing battle and I’ve struggled through worse ends of it then I would like to admit. While I am high-functioning to the point that most debaters don’t know how hard some days can be for me, my lack of openness on my mental health does not mean it’s nonexistent. It exists, and it sucks. 

            I also don’t like to admit that debate has contributed to some of the worst days. In a world of exclusion, competition, and the heavy lack of balance of academia and debate work, this activity has no doubt caused countless hours of lost sleep, breakdowns, and tears. All the toxicity was compounded by my bad habit of constantly prioritizing others over myself in this activity; I would lose time over my team, my underclassmen, and the younger girls that I craved to be role models for, pressuring myself to prioritize the people around me over my own “success” in the activity. 

            I want to make it clear that a lot of what I describe above is an unhealthy relationship between me and debate. No romanticization should exist of the dark circles and breakdowns that I experienced due to this activity. My story, however, is valid, and I like to think that I learned enough from it that I can suggest healthy coping mechanisms and advice to help you on your debate journey. 

*In no way is my compilation of advice a replacement for professional advice/ counseling if it is something that you need! I talk about this in my last point more :)*

1. It’s okay to care about the wins but attempt to seek a measure of happiness in this activity other than your wins. All the advice of “ don’t care about the wins” never really stuck with me. Debate was an activity that I often poured my soul into, and not consistently seeing results and being upset about it seemed natural. In some ways, yeah, caring is absolutely fair. You have every right to be unhappy about the lows and losses in this activity and to care about the wins because debate is inherently a competitive activity where debaters want to see results; the trick for me has just become recognizing that losses and loving this activity are not mutually exclusive. There is so much to debate than the ballots that you pick up and the thrill of doing well, there is so much fun inside of debate rounds, the strategic decisions that you get to make, the beautiful crossfire that you just gave, and that awesome speech that you never thought you could give. 

2. Know when to reach out to support systems. Feeling alone in this activity is terrifying. Ultimately, there’s a lot of other people in this activity that feel the competitive pressure and the downs and lows of this activity, and often a lot of people that do want to look out for you. Whether it’s your coach, friend, or debate partner (if you have one that is) — they know that this activity can be hard too. 

In the case that you can’t find people to talk to about your experience BR and initiatives like NotDebatable can pair you up with mentors to talk about this activity together (through our Mentorship Programs found here and here), and you are absolutely always free to reach out to BR staff no matter how weird it may seem. We are there for you in this activity. 

3. Know when to prioritize yourself. You matter. Your happiness matters. Don’t always do things for other people, and don’t ever feel guilty for prioritizing yourself. 

I never did this enough and I will say that the best moments of my debate career were when I actively chose to do debate for me, and when I chose to take care of myself in this activity. 

4. Don’t let others define you. I grew up in this activity in an unsupportive boys club that no doubt said things about me that stayed in the back of my mind for a great portion of my debate career. I wish I had the mentors in this activity when I was younger to tell those nagging voices of “what if’s” and doubt off. One of my favorite experiences in debate was a lecture by Carol Green at ISD, where she talked about the psychology of debate and winning and finding a mantra to put yourself in the “zone” of focus. My doubts affected my in-round moments. I would freak out walking into elimination rounds knowing that the audience already expected my opponents to win. I would freak out and blank out and not debate like I knew I could. 

My mantra in debate as I grew up became “what if I can?” in response to the nagging voices of “what if the boys club is right? What if I can’t?” 

I learned to disapprove of the circumstances regarding the environment I grew up around, and the self-doubt that I walked into this activity with. I don’t hate and despise my circumstances, because all I can control now is how I choose to move forward from it.

5. Don’t do everything if you do have the capacity to control your schedule! This is the hardest advice that I never took in fear of not meeting my parent’s expectations and my dreams for college. The downside of doing everything? You feel mediocre at everything because there’s no time for everything. Spreading yourself too thin can be, worse than it may seem. I know, trying to do everything at once sounds fun at all but? Sleep can make a debate tournament beautiful. Colleges love a well-focused student that learned how to adjust their schedules. Sleep. Please. 

6. Appreciate the highs. Do it in whatever way you want. I keep a list of the things that made me happy in this activity. I love reading through it, it’s a reminder when the world seems half glass empty that there are also moments of overflowing cups.  

7. It’s okay to take a break for as long as you want. If you choose to come back to debate, it will be waiting for you. 

8. Lastly, reach out to an adult if you need to. Your teachers and your coaches are there for you (or are supposed to be). Here is a compilation of links and sites to help you if you feel that you need to seek professional help/ don’t feel comfortable talking to an adult in your life. 

Debate is an activity that I don’t regret being a part of in the past several years of high school. None of what I say will remove toxic practices and toxic people and groups that may exist in your community or mine, or cure any experience that I or you went or may go through in this activity. This post can be just your random reminder of the week that your happiness in this activity matters, and that there are ways to make this activity a safer and happier home for you.


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