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I watched as you came to Regionals, practically vibrating with anticipation. You had to make every round count because you didn’t know if this chance would be your last: your last chance to speak; your last chance to debate.

It was your last chance to qualify for Nationals.

And we talked about it because I could tell you wanted this badly. I knew you had the talent to do it, but I worried that your goals were in the wrong place—they were subject to circumstances and situations that you couldn’t control. You knew it too, so you tried to relax and get your focus right: it’s about the skills, not the success. Right?

But that’s easy to say, and so much harder to do when you’ve just found out that you didn’t break in that third speech. When you find out you lost in Octas, and you’d hoped for a Nats slot. Or when you don’t break at all.

I knew you were disappointed, devastated, or depressed—possibly all three. I hated that you had to deal with this. My heart broke when you didn’t. And there were so many things I wanted to say to you, but I know it’s hard to hear those things from the endless merry-go-round of dissatisfaction. So let me tell you some of those things now.

Though I hate to say it, there will always be disappointment. You’ll have to face it again and again. The only question is how you will respond.

In order to have the right response, you first need the right perspective. Remember, breaking or not breaking doesn’t change the amount of time, effort, or skill that you’ve put in. Therefore, the outcome doesn’t change the value of what you’ve done. Think about it. You’ve still gained experience speaking in different settings, with different acoustics, spaces, and floorplans. Your skill set had to expand in order to satisfy those different conditions. You’ve spoken to experienced debate coaches and to community judges. You’ve shared your message with someone who will never forget it, and maybe someone who hated it. There is value in each encounter.

So technically, we shouldn’t be discouraged when we don’t achieve the outcome we wanted. But let’s be honest. It feels horrible. So instead of trying to ignore that sinking feeling, strategize. Instead of pretending it’s no big deal, analyze. Instead of letting it rule you, conquer. Here are some ways you can do that.

What you’re most likely feeling is one of two things:

  1. “Those judges were weird.” Okay, sure. Sometimes you get strange ballots, and that’s frustrating. But it also frequently leads to pointless sulking because it’s not something you can directly control. It’s an external factor. Sure, you can improve your delivery and content and argumentation, but at a certain level, the judge will make their own decision. The only thing you can directly control is yourself.
  2. “I didn’t present to the best of my ability.” This is like the difference between an external and an internal locus of control. Sometimes, it’s okay to be disappointed in your own performance or lack of preparation so long as your immediate response is, “How can I improve for next time?” Because all this is useless unless it changes something.

Disappointment is a great motivator. The shock and bewilderment when you don’t hear your name called for Finals is an excellent impetus for improvement. You don’t ever want to feel that way again, right? So you work to be better next time. But it shouldn’t be just a negative motivation–running from something. There should also be positive motivation–something you’re running towards. Here are a few things you can strive for.

Demonstrate Character

  • People are watching your reaction. You think they don’t notice, but they do. What’s it going to be? What kind of character are you going to present to your peers? To the judges in the hall? How are you going to represent your club, your region, your family? How are you going to represent Christ?
  • You want to be the sort of person people root for. I know it sounds harsh, but some people rejoice at your failure or at your success based on their impression of you. I’m not saying that’s right; it’s just the way things are sometimes. No one likes a poor loser. Display solid, selfless character, and others will be glad to watch you succeed.
  • You want to inspire others. Your response can reach a wider audience than you ever thought possible, and you can make a difference. Don’t ever doubt it. One competitor was discouraged because she hadn’t made it to Finals in anything. (At Regionals, you know with almost certainty that you will not qualify to Nationals because of that.) But despite her disappointment, she made peace with that possibility. And it showed. Later that day, multiple people told her that they appreciated her response. They’d noticed, and they were inspired. The character she demonstrated impacted those around her.

Knowing all this is the easy part. The difficult thing is how. How can you get anything positive out of The End Of Everything? That’s the second aspect of conquering disappointment.

Build Character

  • Be selfless. Show genuine delight for everyone who had success, even if you didn’t. Be happy for them, congratulate them, go watch their rounds to show your support in a tangible way. Focusing on yourself and your woes is never helpful. Instead, see how you can encourage others.
  • Put it in God’s hands. If you think about it, your response reflects your level of faith in his will. If you honestly believe that he is in control, then you should be able to rest in that knowledge. He takes speeches where he wants to use them, and everyone who breaks is exactly who he wanted in that round. It’s freeing. Because even if you don’t understand why you lost that ballot, he has a plan for it. And he calls us to a joy that isn’t dependent on circumstances.
  • Use the time. You’ve now been given a chunk of time to use that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. What are you going to do with it? Will you waste two hours in a pity party? Or use your communication and relational skills to make an impact? Look for others who haven’t moved on to the next round. Look for someone you’ve never met before. See how you can help out. Go watch the next round—Octas, Semis, Finals, whatever. There are always things you can learn from watching fellow competitors. There’s always something you can do to make use of the time.
  • Fake it til you make it. Sometimes, you know the right thing to do, but it’s hard to change your gut reaction. Choosing to ignore that emotional response is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do–as one debater discovered, just last week:

“As many of you probably know, I struggle with losing well. I’ve realized I had a problem for a long time and I decided to try to fix it at Regionals. God blessed me with being able to break to Octas and Quarters, but I got tested when I lost [in Quarters]. At first I was really down about it, and I even refused a hug from [my sister]. I decided to try something new. When people would say sorry, I would say, “Hey, that’s God’s plan so I’m happy with it”. Even though I didn’t believe it, after saying it about 20 times I finally did believe it and got over it. I guess the lesson is to first be willing to accept God’s will, and secondly, to preach it until you internalize it.”

  • SWOT your ballots. You didn’t get the trophy you wanted—so what can you do next time to improve? Here’s an excellent way to turn pain into productivity.
  • Learn from failure. I know it feels like the end of the road. It’s not. It’s just another step in the journey–a step no one wants to take–but one that will reap unimaginable benefits.

There are dozens of negative responses to disappointment, and they all require very little effort. The positive responses are much more difficult. But if you ever want to get past it, you’re going to have to take action. You’ll have to conquer it.

Before you head off, I wanted to say one last thing: thank you. Thank you to everyone who has ever been disappointed. It’s easy to feel like you’ve lost your chance–your chance to qualify for the next tournament, your chance to share your speech with another room full of judges. But hear me when I say this: your chance is just beginning. Not succeeding in competition has given you a unique platform to make an impact. You have already touched my life, and the lives of others, in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. Your response has inspired me to look beyond my circumstances, and to rest in God’s transcendent, peaceful joy. I’ve told your story to at least ten people in the past week. Funny how that works. The very thing you thought had paralyzed you actually has allowed you to make a difference beyond what you thought possible.

So yes. You will be disappointed.

The only question is: how will you respond?

Anna Johansen is a TP and advanced speech coach in the Chicago area. During her two years in NCFCA, she competed at Nationals in eight speech events and Team Policy debate (taking 3rd place at Nationals in Original Interpretation her novice year, and IronManning at Nats the year after). After graduation, Anna moved into a teaching position at her local club, EverReady, where she discovered her passion for coaching and seeing lives transformed.
Currently, she is also working part time for an executive level recruiting company. In addition to providing targeted research and support, she works in the internal hiring sphere, screening resumes and interviewing candidates.
Anna is pursuing a degree in English, and hopes to continue teaching and writing long-term. Whether it is through editing others’ work or creating her own, teaching the tools or using them, she wants to pass on a love of speaking and writing and communicating to everyone she comes in contact with.

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