May 7, 2019

Competing Mindfully: Why It Matters


Paras Kumar Paras Kumar




How we orient ourselves to the experience and process of high school debate competition is often neglected in our preparation and focus in the days, weeks, months, and years leading up to the “grand finale”. Pressure, fear of failure or public speaking, paranoia, nervousness, and anxiety are natural emotions that tend to accompany extremely high-stakes competitions. Learning to create environments where competitors can productively identify, acknowledge, and work through these unpleasant emotional and mental states without becoming overwhelmed is an important role of elite performance coaching. Competitors can have well thought out strategies, high quality preparation, great technical skills, and insightful technical coaching but still lose soundly when they are overcome with pressure, negative self-talk, anxiety and nerves in the moments leading up to and during high-pressure competitions. As an elite performance coach for nationally competitive high school debaters, I have seen this happen countless times. 

A major portion of my coaching pedagogy and research has centered on creating space (especially emotionally and mentally) for debaters to be present enough and calm enough to do what needs to be done and reliably execute at their peak capacity when the pressure is highest and debate rounds mean the most. I have worked at developing strategies that create space for students to get out of their own way.  Oftentimes, our biggest roadblocks and obstacles are ourselves and what goes on inside our minds before, during, and after competition. Winning a competition like the Lincoln Douglas Tournament of Champions requires years of repetition and practice - if debaters are able to consistently rely upon the foundation that has been built when the stakes are highest, the probability for success rises. I have consistently found that by cultivating the joy of love for the game, harnessing it with the power of thoughtfully designed repetition and practice, and teaching students how to be mindful and present through the inevitable emotional states they will experience in high-stakes debates (i.e the art of mindfulness), we as coaches, mentors, role models, and teachers can help create a beautiful space where the true potential and capacity of the student to perform emerges. This approach, more than any specific technical philosophy or orientation towards competitive debate, is what DebateDrills has committed itself too as a process of approaching education and competition. 

Doing well at the TOC obviously requires a lot of preparation, a lot of luck, and a lot of talented and motivated people working in concert with their egos checked at the door. But more than anything, winning TOC requires being able to maintain the proper disposition emotionally and mentally throughout the competition. Students who have the privilege of competing in national circuit academic debate should walk away from this activity feeling like they learned a robust methodology for how to prepare and compete mindfully, with intense focus and calm ferociousness to accompany their honed critical thinking, public speaking, research, and  communication skills. 

Over the next couple of months, I will take time to reflect on concrete tools that have helped us establish our orientation towards competition and my experience / observations using these tools. If you have specific questions about any of the process for preparing and competing from a performance standpoint, please email me and I will attempt to include an analysis of your questions in future posts.