I was forced into Speech and Debate in eighth grade from a scheduling mishap and haven’t looked back since. A clear orator since my introduction into the activity, I began to find my haven in public speaking. The rush of adrenaline that accompanies stepping into a suit and slipping on a pair of heels before a tournament is probably comparable to skydiving or preparing to dive into a large bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream.
Throughout my time competing in speech, particularly public address events, I’ve become accustomed to the fact that there is no such thing as “always doing well” at a tournament. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s impossible to consistently win; honestly, I have left tournaments with a trophy in hand feeling like total crap about myself. How I could have said a line differently in my conclusion. How completely and totally awkward a hand gesture was during my last round. How I asked for time signals in a round where no one else needed them. Some tournaments, no matter the literal outcome, I just felt like a failure. But I’ve learned to accept that it is totally okay to feel like that.
I have always been incredibly terrified of failure. Whenever inquired about my biggest fear, I never used to say clowns or heights; my answer was always disappointing myself and those around me. Unconsciously, this mindset always inhibited me from trying new things. I always stuck within my comfort zone, carefully protected by my already-established notions of what I knew I was good at.
But speech and debate has done the one thing everyone and everything in my life beforehand had failed to do: it broke me out of that comfort zone. I started out competing in Public Forum Debate largely because working with a partner was the perfect reassurance to allow me to test the waters of debate. If I failed, I never failed alone! Even after realizing that debate was no place for me, I jumped headfirst into Duo Interpretation with the same mentality. Honestly, I never thought I would branch out further; duo was the first event I ever considered myself halfway decent at and I felt little desire to explore other events.
However, something clicked during the summer before my sophomore year. I attended speech camp for the first time, and, surrounded by a community of people so dedicated to competition and completely and utterly supportive, I felt safe to explore different aspects of speech that I never considered before. That summer, I wrote my first Original Oratory speech.
From sophomore year on, I haven’t considered myself scared of failing, and I credit a large portion of that to the incredible speech and debate community. Most speech competitors and coaches I’ve had the pleasure of meeting are supportive beyond belief. The steady stream of applause that follows the end of a speech, no matter how unprepared I felt giving it. The booming cheers and overabundance of hugs after breaks are announced. The shouts of total support and joy during awards. I’m sitting here literally smiling while writing this because of how purely happy these memories are. And the thing is: they are not just memories. They are features at every single tournament occurring across the country each weekend. What I enjoy most about the community is that this level of encouragement never falters! Everyone, from a first-time novice to even the most experienced of competitors, is on both the giving and receiving ends of this total goodness.
The first time I ever made it to a real final round was at a small tournament called Nova Titan in Original Oratory my sophomore year. Obviously, I was terrified; it was only my third tournament competing in oratory and I was in a round full of experienced varsity competitors! But the one thing I will never forget about that day is how about twenty minutes before the round started, another competitor approached me. He handed me his headphones blaring with a Childish Gambino song and said “Here, listen to this. Just let your nerves go and get hype.” Just looking at the fact that a well-known senior competitor cared enough to offer some help and support to a struggling fifteen year-old before her first final round totally solidified my respect for the entirety of the speech community. I knew there was no failing from that point on.
However, the largest reason I no longer consider myself afraid to fail is me. Throughout my years of speech, the most important thing I’ve understood is that I decide the round. It doesn’t matter if a round is filled entirely with novice competitors or stacked with national finalists; I know I have the capability and power to perform the same way each time. The development of my now-strong sense of self assurance is probably the best thing to ever happen to me, as I’ve began to approach every aspect of my life with this mindset. Whether in relation to school or my social life, I have fully grasped the concept that I’m freakin fantastic! Self love all the way!
I’ve gotten some horrible ballots and feedback, but, honestly, who hasn’t? My approach to speech at this point is to just take things as they go. It is never a good idea to be cocky, but there is a large difference between arrogance and understanding your talent and self-worth as a competitor. It’s taken me a long time to grasp this concept with a sense of acceptance, but my philosophy on competing in speech can be summed up in three words total: YOU DO YOU!
If someone asked me what my biggest fear is today, entering my fifth year of competition, I would no longer say failure; I would most definitely say not getting into college (let’s hope that actually doesn’t happen)! But in all honesty, I don’t think “failing” exists in speech and debate. I’ve had my fair share of tournaments walking away with rankings comprised of mostly 6’s, but I’ve also had my fair share of final rounds and trophies. I have no regrets about my competitive history, and it feels amazing to look back and realize that I’ve accomplished so much more than my novice-self could imagine.
I have a request: next time at a tournament, try the “self love” approach. Don’t focus too much on who is in your round. Don’t convince yourself that giving a judge a handshake or impressing them with a dazzling suit is the only way to give yourself a leg up against your competitors. Instead, focus on you! If you’re like me, get yourself a venti iced green tea lemonade and birthday cake pop from Starbucks and blast some Lil Uzi in between rounds. I am no longer afraid of failing in speech and debate, and I wholeheartedly credit “Do What I Want” by Lil Uzi with that (just kidding, but it never hurts!).