The single most cited reason for quitting debates is a feeling of stagnation. That you don’t feel good enough, and will never be good enough to compete with everyone else. It’s hard to stay in love with a sport if you’re not making progress, especially one as time consuming as debating. Especially when you notice everyone else around you seems to be improving and you’re the only one left behind. It doesn’t help that you’re evaluated at tournaments every other weekend, and every time you don’t do well, or you aren’t able to improve from previous performances, it just feels like you’re trapped like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere. Trust me when I say this, almost every debater has struggled with stagnation and questioned their continued investment into this abusive activity. You aren’t alone. It’s probably why debating has such a high attrition rate, especially at the higher levels. So why then do some people stay and most leave? It isn’t just blind hope, self-delusion or pure stubbornness. Maybe a little bit. Alright...more than a little bit. But it’s also because they take a more realistic and measured approach to development (which isn’t just limited to debating).
The first thing that every debater needs to understand is that this is a sport. No really, it is. Yes we don’t sweat, unless the classrooms we debate in have no air conditioning, and the only running we do is to not get cut from the tab in the morning, but it’s a real sport. Why does this matter? If you were to learn tennis right now, never having ever played tennis, when you barely even know the rules of tennis, how long do you think it will take before you’ll be good enough to participate at national/regional/global tournaments? Exactly. Yet for some strange reason, we tend to think that we can become amazing debaters within a year or two. That’s just ridiculous. It’s completely natural to invest years into the sport before you see actual results. Yes, some people are natural prodigies that can do well in a shorter period of time, or have incredible runs of success (click here to understand why) but for the average debater? It’s going to take a while.
But how long will it take? I want to be a champion now!
Well a reasonable time frame is at least 3 years of varsity debating in a competitive club with a good training structure and in a competitive circuit. Even if you debated at the schools level, transitioning to the varsity circuit will often be difficult as the demands are often different as you move up, there is less intellectual rigour, you’re quite dependent on a coach, so if that’s no good you won’t have learnt very much, and you may have developed bad habits that wouldn’t be punished earlier but will be fatal now. And if you don’t see results in 3 years, so what? Keep at it. Some people take far longer to achieve success. Some only win championships 15 years later. The point is to keep at it. Keep going. Keep working as hard as you can.
Another misconception is that you will steadily and continually make progress as you continue in the sport. This is false. Your rate of improvement often will not look like a straight line on a graph, and it definitely isn’t even a nice curve. There will be spikes, and a lot of plateaus.
A couple of things to note. First, you’ll probably see a great deal of improvement in the beginning, with more incremental jumps later on. This is normal as there are fewer things to improve on, and those skills are often harder to master than just the basics. Second, the plateaus will get longer as you struggle to learn more advanced techniques. Jumps in skill level only happen once you’ve correctly identified your weaknesses and the ideal way to fix them. As it’s usually a long process of introspection, experimentation and implementation, that is why you will plateau in progress. Third, you may even notice a drop in performance before you get better because it often means integrating new skills in your repertoire. Which you will do it badly at first. It’s also why I don’t recommend debaters changing things up just before a tournament. The last 2 issues are often why debaters get frustrated and quit. Don’t. Trust the process (any 76ers fans?).
This sounds like way too much effort.
Yes it is a lot of effort. But I think the beautiful thing about debating is that it’s unique because it’s one of the few sports where you can get somewhere if you work hard enough at it. Notice I said get somewhere, not get there. Not everyone is going to be Ashish Kumar or a LeBron James and that’s true for any sport really (did I really just put LeBron and Ashish in the same sentence? Well I guess it’s fine - they are both freaks of nature and have fewer championships than everyone expected). It does require some degree of intellect, but it’s as equitable as it comes. You don’t need to jump high, run fast, etc. You can do relatively well without an ounce of talent. Obviously things like class and access to education matter, but you can overcome these things with sheer hard work. You probably won’t be the best debater in the world, but you can achieve a moderate level of success even if the odds are stacked against you. Trust us, we know because we’ve done it.
So why then aren’t I improving? How do I get better? I’m working as hard as I can but I’m going nowhere.
It’s a difficult question to answer as it’s highly dependent on the individual. Different people develop differently, had different training environments, developed different bad habits, have a different understanding of techniques. It doesn’t help that people often debate in a multitude of styles all of which are effective and who may give you contradictory advice. But if you’ve noticed that you are stagnating, it’s one or a combination of these 4 things.
First off, you’re just stuck in a plateau. It’s a natural part of the growth process. You aren’t going to notice the incremental improvements, but only when all those changes come together and fit nicely is when you’ll see a jump in your performance.
Second, you’re often relying exclusively on training without using tournaments are a catalyst. It is different for everyone, but I’ve found that for a significant number of people it’s usually the case. My biggest improvements as a debater have usually occurred with a tournament as a catalyst. Goku only discovered he could go Super Saiyan after he was pushed to near death in his fight with Frieza. That crucible of intense pressure often forges something stronger, more powerful. Sometimes it happens right after a tournament, once you’ve processed everything that went wrong and the changes you’ve made have cured and set. Look out for our next article on how to improve directly after a major tournament.
Third, you think you’re working hard, but you’re probably not working hard enough. Many of us are afflicted with the disease of intellectual arrogance. We’re usually smarter than our peers, did well in school without much effort. Why shouldn’t it be the same with debating? Even though you think you’re working hard. You’re really not. Stop lying to yourself. Going for training twice a week isn’t enough. You have to be obsessed with working as hard as you can. Here’s an excerpt of an interview about Kobe Bryant (google him if you have no idea who he is).
Ask Wade and Heat forward Chris Bosh for their defining Bryant moments, and they simultaneously drift to the summer of 2008. It was 10 days after the Lakers lost to Boston in the Finals, and Team USA had convened for its first mini-camp meeting in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. Spoiler alert: It's quintessential Kobe.
"We're in Las Vegas and we all come down for team breakfast at the start of the whole training camp," Bosh said. "And Kobe comes in with ice on his knees and with his trainers and stuff. He's got sweat drenched through his workout gear. And I'm like, 'It's 8 o'clock in the morning, man. Where in the hell is he coming from?'"
Wade chimes in along memory lane.
"Everybody else just woke up. We're still stretching and yawning and looking at [Kobe] like, 'What the f---?'" Wade said as he squinted into a frown and then burst into laughter. "We're all yawning, and he's already three hours and a full workout into his day."
"You never forget stuff like that," Bosh said. "I felt so bad. I'm like, ‘What is he trying to prove?' But he was just doing his normal routine. We're all supposed to be big-time NBA players, Olympians and stuff. And then there's Kobe, taking it to another level from Day 1. And I had been off for like three months."
Fourth, you’re probably not working in the right way. Everything you do has to have a purpose. You can’t just debate day in, day out in training and think that it will solve all your problems. Figure out where are your biggest issues and formulate a coherent plan. The process needs to be a lot more structured than debating a certain number of rounds, especially if you don’t have access to a coach. It’s a system of introspection and reflection. Ask yourself a series of questions why you aren’t improving. Are you actually putting in enough effort? Should you consider changing your training plans? Are there weaknesses you haven’t identified? Are adjudicators telling you the same piece of advice but you aren’t sure what to do to improve in that area? Have you been talking to people about your performances? What have they been saying about what you need to work on?
Developing as a debater is a long and taxing process. Never forget that. So be frustrated. Get angry for not improving. Revel in the pain and the suffering. It will make you better. Be like Vegeta. Constantly chase after Goku. Use that to drive you. Push yourself harder than you ever have before. But never give up.
If you want to learn more, find out on the next episode of Dragonball Z.