This is the first part of a post on the relationship between learning and winning. Check back next week for the conclusion.

“Debate is about learning, not winning.” We’ve all heard this cliche again and again, and in our hearts, we know it is true. We pay lip service to the idea that learning, not winning, is of primary importance, but sometimes we don’t act as if it is, and actions speak louder than words.

It is good to want to win. Winning is great. But why? The real reason why winning is good is that it incentivizes learning. We realize that we have to know our stuff and speak persuasively to win, so competition encourages a thorough learning process. As iron sharpens iron, so winning encourages quality. And success is the best measure of growth. But since winning is merely the means to learning, winning is only so valuable insofar as it promotes learning. If our endeavors to win restrict, rather than promote, learning opportunities, we should not pursue them.

That said, here are three specific areas in which our actions demonstrate we value winning over learning.

1) Tournament Talk

Question: “How was your round?”

Answer: “Great! I debated novices, and they had 1-minute speeches. We totally won.”

Answer: “I easily won on the flow, but my opponent brought up new arguments in the 2AR and misconstrued my case.”

Answer: “My speech was da BOMB!” (Good gracious, I hope not…)

These are all versions of a conversation I hear multiple times every tournament. Why does our conversation confine a debate round’s value merely to the ballot? If I was a psychologist studying debaters’ hallway conversations, I’d conclude that they believed winning is the highest social value. Our conversation sends signals about what we value; a society’s speech collectively tells individuals what that society values. Further, what a person talks about reveals his heart; and how much someone talks about something reveals how much he cares about it. If all I talk about is economic theory, it means that I care about economic theory too much. If you find it hard to not talk about winning all the time, then your priorities are probably in the wrong place.

In my experience, an inordinate percentage of all conversation in tournament hallways revolves around success. If I ask a debater, “How was your debate round?” he or she will enter a rant on all the dropped arguments, how they beat their opponent “on the flow,” how the judge reacted to certain points, and a disturbingly religious reading into human beings’ facial expressions and body language, with the usual complaint about how their opponent acted unethically. As if the value of debate consisted only in the win! While these are valid comments, they reveal that the debater believes a debate’s utility is contingent upon the debater’s likelihood of success. This is a flawed assumption.

30-60% of all hallway conversation seems to be about winning. There is utility to such talk, but it’s very limited: analyzing how your judge’s body language reflects your chance of persuasion. Analyzing the chance of success can – and sometimes does – lead to personal improvement: when the debater recognizes that a mistake that he/she made reduced the likelihood of their success. But the focus isn’t on self-improvement. The focus is on all the factors that influence the chance of winning. On the flip side, conversation that centers on what one learned has a much wider, holistic scope: content and style. What new knowledge did I learn from the substance of the debate? Did I learn how to use any stylistic elements to persuade more effectively?

This would transform the tournament dynamic. It would send a social signal that winning isn’t as important as learning, creating strong external motivation to learn more. Under such social messaging, more people would feel less upset for not breaking, and more upset for not learning. Further, we’d become more conscious of techniques to work on, and unlock a wider variety of skills we didn’t pay attention to previously. We’d become more focused on making debate an intellectual and emotional stimulation and more conscious of the ways we can improve. The quality of argumentation and persuasiveness of speaking would markedly improve.

2) Complaining About Ballots

We pretend that learning is more important than winning, but when it comes to receiving and accepting critique, we act differently. Ballots can be…..dumb. Humans are diverse and opinionated, so ballots are inevitably going to be strange. And I get it. I have grumbled about many ballots I have received. But in hindsight, I can now say that with every ballot, not matter how unjustified or unfair it seemed, I could have done something differently. For example, I got mad at judges for personally disagreeing with me in Extemp finals and deranking me for that reason. But once enough time elapsed for me to feel detached from that speech, I realized that I assumed the judges would agree with me, causing me to make extreme claims without building the necessary common-ground first. Every ballot, no matter how irrational or maddening, offers some insight on how you can improve. (See this for more drills.) The judge only says your opponent was better organization and delivery? Work on organization and delivery. The judge had a bias for the other side? Look at the RFD to identify his/her underlying ideology and ensure your case utilizes those preconceived notions to your advantage. The judge didn’t write anything on the RFD? Even then, you can look back at the round yourself, and find at least one thing your opponent did better, and work on that thing. Janet Fitch says, “The phoenix must burn to emerge.” The paradox is that losing is essential to win; we grow when we fail.

When we complain about ballots, we betray a dangerous mindset: that the audience should adapt to the speaker, not the speaker to the audience.

See how the different worldviews manifest themselves in different responses? If you value winning over learning, it makes sense to demean those who limit your success, badmouth them, and in your spite, overlook the areas where you can improve. But if you value learning over winning, it makes sense to accept the criticism, because the fact that you lost doesn’t reduce the fact that you now know where you can improve. In fact, you understand that learning happens fastest after failure but decelerates when you win. It’s your call. How you react once you receive your ballots reflects where your heart lies, in addition to being a good character test – how one responds to personal criticism, especially if it’s unfair, is a life skill. Blessed are you when you can listen to criticism, and take it to heart.

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