For a few years, my life revolved around trying to be the best Lincoln-Douglas debater in the country (I got closer than I expected!). I never would have imagined that in my senior year of high school I would be able to compete with some of the smartest, most impressive students from across the country. Looking back now, I really don’t know what would have happened if my mom hadn’t encouraged me to take the debate class my high school offered. While I may not have become the best debater the world has ever seen, my life was permanently changed, and the skills and experiences I’ve gained as a member of this community make me feel incredibly fortunate. I don’t want to bore you with my adventure through debate, but I do want to speak further on a few things that debate has brought to me. These soft skills can be difficult to notice and work on when you’re a debater; you might be bummed about some losses, or you might just be focused on the trophies. While that’s totally fine and a natural part of the activity, I encourage any current debaters who read this to realize that even if this activity is tough on you or doesn’t seem that important, the benefits you can receive are astounding. So, let’s get into some of those benefits!
Research Skills: You would not believe how much easier college is when you can isolate the specific things you should be looking for and execute. Many people I have worked with these past few years have struggled with research, and I have friends who have confessed that they don’t feel comfortable with how they research for projects. Debate taught me so much about how to find the things I need as a researcher. It’s more than nifty google tricks (although those are nice); Research skills is being able to break apart a question or prompt, analyze each component of that challenge, and approach it from a logical and targeted angle.
Communication Skills: This one is a no-brainer, but debaters will realize very quickly just how crucial this skill becomes. Communication skills are time and time again regarded as the most important skills that a modern citizen can have. Whether it’s for work, personal relationships, or for engaging with your community, communication skills will prove endlessly useful. To be blunt, most everyone sucks at communication. Most people have no clue how to present a subject, or how to overcome the fear of public speaking, or how to read a crowd and adapt accordingly. Communication is one of the places that I believe nearly across the board is a skill people just don’t have or could improve on. After a few years of debate, your communication skills will be infinitely better in comparison to your peers. Being a honed speaker is universally admired, and your ability to communicate with others will be very helpful in every aspect of your life.
Cultural and Social Awareness: One incredible thing debate brings to the table is an opportunity for young and strong-willed people to express themselves in almost any way they like. Being able to navigate all of these different experiences and ways of seeing the world is a skill that I wish more people had. We find ourselves at a point in history of immense change; new viewpoints are normalizing and spreading rapidly while old ways of seeing the world are dying out at a rate never seen. We truly live in a time where the world is shifting right under our feet. Debate gives young people a fluency in cultural and political exchange and comfort in handling changing viewpoints and circumstances. Debate brings to all the chance to see the world from a lens that isn’t just your own, and I can promise you that being conscious of this and being sure that you respect different viewpoints will take you much farther in life than most any of the things you will learn in classes.
Learning how to Lose: A major part of debate is learning how to win and lose. You will lose in this activity, and you will lose often. Sometimes, those losses will feel crushing. Most all competitive activities will bring you some knowledge on how to be a good competitor, but debate has a certain personal element to it that might make it feel even more impactful, almost like each round is a referendum on you and your intellect. I remember a few losses where I just broke down - be it fuming at myself and those around me or crying in a high school bathroom. Over time though, I grew used to losses and the feelings that came with them. I stopped letting them define me as reasons why I myself was bad, but rather saw them as reasons why I had to improve to win rounds that I should be winning. I encourage you to embrace those losses as times to learn and grow, be a graceful winner against opponents who may feel as crushed by losses as you have in the past, and remember that in no part of life can you avoid winning and losing, so you may as well get used to the losing!
This list is not even close to exhaustive. I can spend all day talking about how wonderful debate is for curious and driven students. I think the skills above are universal, and I encourage you to constantly push yourself to hone your skills and make sure you pay attention to more than just the wins and losses.