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I’m so carefree.

As I walk jauntily into the tournament, there is absolutely nothing to fear.

I have no speeches to remember; no rounds to stress about. I have no debate boxes to haul around, no judges to impress, and no high heels to worry about.

I’m absolutely miserable.

Ever since I graduated, I’ve thought that judging would be cool. You know, that I’d get to be the trendy alumni that everybody loves, wearing the envied street clothes and toting that intimidating ballot.

It’s not cool.

As I walk the halls, I see hundreds of faces I recognize. With some, I make brief eye contact and we exchange a smile; maybe even a quick ‘Hey, how are you?’ as we slide past each other. Seven months ago, they were my competition, my encouragers, my friends. Now, they’re on the other side of a glass wall—part of a demographic to which I no longer belong.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten used to being on the other side of the wall. In fact, I’ve come to realize that I can be a little melodramatic, and that things aren’t really as bleak as all that.

I’ve written before about how to communicate with an alumni judge. This post is for all the new alumni out there. This is what I wish I’d known before coming back to judge at a tournament.

Why I Hated Being an Alumni

First, your connections are gone. Not all of them, of course, but think about it for a minute. You know how after your first couple of tournaments you get a bunch of new Facebook friends? You see these people about once a month, when each State Qualifier rolls around. You bond quickly over late nights, stress, and debate horror stories. But how well do you know these new besties? How much do you know about them aside from what speech events they compete in and how they memorized their Persuasive in the car on the way here? Once that bond of shared experience is dissolved, it’s difficult for those relationships to last. For me, the only friendships that have continued past graduation are the ones that I’ve invested time in outside of competition.

Second, the lack of risk. One of the things that makes competition so incredible is the element of risk. In our cushy first-world armchairs, we rarely get the chance to do something so completely outside our comfort zone. Debate forces you to do that regularly. For instigating growth and generating a healthy sense of satisfaction, there’s nothing like it. You’ve chased down a lion and wrestled it to the ground. (Or, if you’re like me, you’ve gotten beat to a pulp while doing it, but survived. That’s still something to be proud of.)

So once you’ve graduated, where does that leave you? Judging doesn’t challenge you the way competing does, so it’s never going to be quite as satisfying. And where else are you going to find a place that regularly forces you to become better, smarter, stronger? Hint: there are other places, you just have to go look for them.

Third, the impact is gone. Oh sure, you can provide great feedback and encouragement on a ballot—don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging the impact you can make by judging. But it’s an indirect impact. I used to be able to get up in front of three judges, and for ten minutes I got to talk to them about a subject I knew and loved deeply. I got to speak directly to them and make a connection with them.

Now, as a judge, I’m making an impact by telling kids how to make an impact. It’s important, absolutely. But it’s limited in its scope.

Finally, there’s one reason that may be the biggest one of all. I call it the Big Name Syndrome. As I wrote before, “The people who come back to judge, typically, are the ones who were significantly involved in competition. In all likelihood, they had a large friend group, or some form of success, or both. They’re coming back to a place where their names were known—by friends and by competitors and by impressed parents. They’re coming back expecting it to be the same. They’re coming back expecting to be remembered.”

It’s tough, coming back to this place. New competitors enter the league, and you realize that they have no idea who you are or what you achieved back in the glory days. How is that possible? You think. I was a big cheese! How can they not know who I am? insert identity crisis here

Unfortunately for us, competitors are so caught up in the thrill of their own achievements that they have no desire to hear about ours. Sorry, that sounds harsh. But it’s kinda true.

So there you are. What are you supposed to do? I’ve heard from a number of fresh grads that their first year judging is tough. What can you do to make it a positive experience?

How I Learned to Survive

The first thing to do is build real relationships. Start while you’re a competitor. Your shared experience in the league won’t always last. When you come back as a judge, everyone still has their speeches to think about, briefs to exchange, rounds to get to, partners to strategize with—all things that you can’t be part of like you used to. So build real relationships that are based on more than just your competitive experience.

Another tip is to be friends with parents. As a competitor, it’s easy to think parents are invisible. Be honest: you rarely notice them unless they give you a weird ballot. Not seeing parents is wrong on a number of levels (they’re humans too, they have a ton of valuable experience, and they’re the ones judging you), but it happens. Then once you graduate, instead of a network of fellow competitors, you have a new network: fellow judges. The parents you barely spoke with before are now your main connections. Building relationships with parents while you’re a competitor is a great long-term investment.

Once you start judging, be cautious. This is a big one. The most common tendency of a fresh alumni judge is, “Ooh, I know that team! They’re great! I want to judge that round!” Please remember: you are not there to judge the ‘good’ rounds. If there’s a big name debate team that you really want to see, that is not a reason to take that ballot. In fact, that’s probably a good reason to not take that ballot. Go for the team you’ve never heard of—the one that could probably really benefit from your experience.

You’ll also be tempted to fudge with people you know. I did this. A lot. There were a couple of categories I really really really wanted to get to judge, but they were small, and I knew people in them, so I never could. After judging nothing but Impromptu for what felt like years, I was finally fed up. I pounced on the first ballot of my favored category I could find. Scanning it briefly, I spotted several names that were potential conflicts, and immediately began justifying why it was okay for me to take this room. I wasn’t that close with them, I told myself. I mean, we were chummy in the halls, but did I ever really talk to them? No, I’m pretty sure I can take this ballot…If you ever have to rationalize your decision to judge a particular room, you probably should not be judging that particular room.

Next, have realistic standards. Chances are, you’ve already forgotten what it’s like to be a novice. You think you haven’t, but you might have. If you don’t spend a lot of time with them, you forget the raw terror that they feel during their first debate rounds, tournaments, and speeches. So please, tone things down a little. Scale your feedback to where they are currently—not where they should be once they’ve sufficiently mastered Four Point Refutation, Emory Switches, and Alternative Actor Counterplans. Don’t try to give them everything they should be doing to improve: just the next thing. As C.S. Lewis wrote to his fellow educator, “You and I wouldn’t, at all stages, think it wise to tell a pupil exactly what we thought of his quality. It is much more important that he should know what to do next.”

The other thing to keep in mind is how your words sound on the ballot. In your head, they have all sorts of mitigating vocal inflections, facial expressions, and soothing gestures. On the page, they sometimes just sound mean. Cold. Arrogant. Ruthless. Pitiless. Unmerciful. Pick your adjective.

Remember, students will take criticism very seriously, and they will probably read your words as being stern and harsh, even if you never intended them to sound like that. You have to be extra careful to make your phrasing and word choice corrective, yet encouraging. For me, this means using a ton of smiley faces and exclamation points. (Hey, it works for me. Come up with something better and maybe I’ll switch to your method.)

And finally, learn. So many alumni come back to judge thinking they’ll teach these young punks how things are really done. But that shouldn’t be your mentality. Instead, look for things to learn. When I competed, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on communication skills. Now I know I’ve just scratched the surface. Since graduating, I’ve learned as much, if not more, than I did during my time in the league. Why? Because instead of worrying about my own performance, I’m watching other people. I’ve seen hundreds of speeches and scores of debate rounds. Watching dozens of other speakers has taught me incredible things about what works, what doesn’t, what I do right, and what I could be doing better. I now love judging, because I’m constantly learning new ways to communicate.

I’m still not that trendy alumni that everyone loves. People have no idea who I am when I judge. But I’m okay with that. Instead of expecting to come back and find things the same, I’ve learned to adjust my mentality—to focus on others instead of myself. In fact, if you think about it, that just might be the real secret to surviving as an alumni.

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