3 Things To Take Away from Disappointment

But for the precious few debaters who win their last tournaments of the year, chances are your debate season will end with at least some measure of disappointment.
Before you start repressing those memories and moving on to a carefree summer, there might just be something to take away from all those rounds that came up just short. Whether you finished in second place or dead last, there are accomplishments to build upon and shortcomings to address. And, if it was the last time you’ll find yourself suiting up for debate competition, that’s all the more reason to reflect on the good and bad alike.

In what would become my last round ever (at the 2001 NFL Nationals), I’ll never forget setting my timer for six minutes… before my 1AR. For the first three minutes of that speech, I couldn’t believe how well an ordinarily challenging speech was going. It was as if time had slowed down for my crowning moment of glory.

Then I saw one of my judges hold a finger up, gesturing the quasi-universal indication that I had only a minute left to speak. Initially thinking said judge was crazy, I looked back at my timer to confirm the incongruity. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to realize he was right (and that I was wrong). How did I let this happen?

Of course, it wasn’t that I’d forgotten the speech times after four years of regular competition. Nor had I simply hit the wrong button. Somehow–in the internal melee that was my mind–it made perfect since that my speech was six minutes long. Never mind that there’s never been a proper 1AR before or since that lasts so long. I’d gotten swept away by whatever absurd importance I’d attached to that round and that tournament. My ability to focus had been compromised by my inability to relax.

Many of you can probably relate, at least in some respect. Some of us (supposedly) excel under high-pressure, sleep-deprived, inhuman conditions. Others of us should accept our mortality and proceed accordingly.

Here are three general reflections in which you may wish to take part as the debate season officially comes to an end.

1. Some things are outside of your control.

It’s no coincidence that successful, highly-driven students become frustrated at the outcomes of particular decisions and entire tournaments alike. We invest a lot of our time and resources into this activity, and surely that should count for something. Surely the return on that investment shouldn’t be subject to the arbitrariness and uncertainty of human imperfection.

And yet, there’s absolutely nothing any of us can do to guarantee the results we want. That’s what makes this kind of competition worthwhile in the first place. There wouldn’t be much suspense if the debater with the most weeks of camp under his or her belt (or the largest cadre of coaches) always won.

If the results remain uncontrollable, that’s all the more reason to focus on the process: The one thing you can control. The mark of an evolved competitor is the willingness to measure success and failure by input rather than output. More often than not, however, our pride and self-worth ostensibly hinge upon results that we ultimately have very little say about. There’s a very real danger here, because results can be misleading. They can convince you that previously successful tricks or short-cuts will never fail, and they can mislead you into believing that ‘all that work’ was a waste of time.

Continue doing what you know to be fundamentally sound preparation, whether that be before debate tournaments or in any other endeavor. The rest is out of your hands.

2. There are plenty of reasons to be thankful.

It’s easy to become embittered by an activity that takes so much out of you and leaves only a few trophies in its wake. And yet, there are so few opportunities that foster the same combination of competitive excitement, camaraderie and academic curiosity. If that sounds like vacuous silver lining, think on it longer.

This isn’t merely a matter of being appreciative toward the countless people who make this activity possible. Their contributions should be acknowledged to be sure, but there’s something more here. It’s the same reason so many high-school graduates look to remain involved with the debate community. There is, quite simply, a transformative potential to any endeavor that so frequently forces us to read, think and talk about things that actually matter.

If you find yourself struggling to relate to the incessant onslaught of TMZ trivia, hyperbolic news cycles, antiquated classroom fodder and all the other superficiality of The Present Age, you should count yourself lucky to have found an enclave of like-minded friends and colleagues. And, in each of our concrete situations, there are countless other people, memories and lessons that will go on to define us in ways we may never even notice. If an unfortunate round or two is getting you down, there are other things to set your mind upon.

3. There’s an alternative to apathy and blame games.

There are two easy outs when it comes to facing disappointments. On the one hand, debaters are oft to wash away their grievances by simply not caring. On the other, they may construct a narrative replete with blame–of themselves or others. Both solutions do more harm than good.

The danger in apathy is that it mitigates both failure and success. The debater who doesn’t care about losing probably doesn’t care much about their commitments in the first place. That may take some sting out of defeat, but it also takes joy out of everything else. When debaters talk about “burning out,” they usually mean they’re just tired of not winning. Rather than coming to terms with the reality that there’s room for improvement (or that other people may be good at debate too), a creeping nihilism sweeps over the wounded debater while debate itself becomes the principal casualty. Debate may be an imperfect hobby, but it’s still worthwhile.

Other debaters believe that it’s so worthwhile that any unpleasant results must be someone’s fault. The more neurotic of us translate that blame into something bordering on self-hatred, a self-evidently unproductive past-time. The rest of us find someone else to blame–namely poor judging, an opponent’s shenanigans, unfavorable politics or even one’s own coaches and teammates. From a purely causal perspective, there may well be some truth in this kind of blame.

But, that kind of attribution is a double-edged sword. While others play a significant part in our shortcoming, they play just as important a role in our achievement. That goes for the self-loathing debaters as well. People let one another down, and they let themselves down. And yet, they’re also instrumental to any and every good thing you can take away from this fleeting experience.

Between these extremes of apathy and rage, there’s a more pragmatic alternative. In every less-than-ideal outcome, there’s something to be learned for future use. Whether applied in your debate career or in life thereafter, every experience in this activity can be a laboratory for honing your skills, mental approach and understanding–as long as you treat it as such.

There’s little question that goals are important, but they aren’t the end. How we measure up to those goals when all is said and done is merely a prelude to what comes next. We can either live in the past, or… we can learn from it instead.

  • Rebar Niemi

    sad trumpet

  • fdrobertson

    Babb, you are a fine writer, and I hope lots of students, judges, and coaches read this essay, because it is very important.