Editors Note: This article was written by Ethos Associate and Coach Mikayla Simpson. Mikayla was trained by Isaiah for most of her debate career and continues to embody the spirit of Ethos at Union University in Tennessee.
This was it.
This was the heart-throbbing moment. This was what I had worked for. As I slowly crossed the stage in my heels, it felt unreal. People who believed in me and those who didn’t both stood in applause as I took the first place trophy into my hands. Years of sweat and effort, holidays crammed with memorization, and days of personal polishing climaxed to this moment. But I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel like a champion when I walked off the stage. Sitting in silence on the car ride back, I thought about the people who had walked with me on my journey. I remembered the hallways I cried in, the stairwells I prayed in, the memories that broke me, the hugs that sustained me, the debaters that pushed me, the partners that changed me, and above all the difficulty that refined me.
A trophy never gave me those things, it merely marked a finishing chapter.
Debate wasn’t about a record or a ribbon, it was about sharpening my mind.
As I transition into college life after tournaments clouded with, joy, anxiety, endless afternoons in JO, and the stage of champions, here is what I learned from losing:
Lesson 1: Aiming to “win” is aiming to fail.
As an enthusiastic novice, I jumped into debate with a big heart and a driven, little mind. From an early age, I had been motivated by a hefty dollop of competition. I loved the challenge. The work. The thrill. However, the more I strived to win, the more devastated I became when I lost. When I didn’t break, I failed. Debate was a drill, not a life-skill. After attending an Ethos camp in Virginia, my focus changed entirely. That summer I reassessed my priorities. I realized crucifying myself to win, was a shallow goal. You will learn that critical feedback required to grow will seldom come from a check in your box. While there is merit in winning a round, winning at all costs carves a narrow path. When you place winning at the forefront of your focus, you will be disappointed.
Lesson 2: “The more you know the more places you’ll go.”
Dr. Seuss got it right. Knowledge is everything. Researching is a source that guides you through uncharted history of a topic and saturates you in unfamiliar terms. Expand your mental library and verbal credibility through studying multiple authors. Dig deep and look past the merely emotional examples to find touching and impactful ones. Choose stories that intrigue you, for those are the ones that you will speak most passionate about. Finding new examples can rejuvenate your case outline, as well as help you stand out from your competitors. Rather than catering to what the judge would expect, I ventured to explore more complex ideas with simple terminology. As a result, my efforts were greatly rewarded as I found myself enjoying debate more than I had before. Deeper knowledge of a subject takes you to a level where you can argue from multiple perspectives with authority and poise because you have the full context of surface level concepts. In the end, I found researching to be the the outlet where I could be most creative.
Lesson 3: It is better to lose and keep your integrity.
My junior year, I faced the hardest experience in all my high school years. At the regional competition, ranking top seed in Team policy, already heading to Nationals, my partner and I were disqualified from the tournament for being unethical. We won countless ballots but administration overturned our wins and stripped us of at-large. I was stunned. That day, I lost my slot to Nationals but I kept my integrity. I returned the following season to stand on countless stages due to what I believe to be God’s providence. Without that awful experience, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. It changed me. But all of this started because one guy turned us when he lost the round to us. He was willing to do anything to win.
Don’t be “that guy.”
As you head into competition, don’t make the mistake of lusting for a medal only to miss the treasure you trample in the process. Friends will bring more joy than any medal will in a moment. So, don’t be so desperate to win that you abandon your wits. It is better to lose and keep your integrity.
Lesson 4: Success does not satisfy
As you become advanced, you naturally lose sight of your original goals. You set your mind on one thing: making it to finals. Soon, you forget what life was like before you were a debater. You practice responses in the shower, you strategize in private group chats, you become a research nazi, you send a spy with a flow pad into the room of your number one debate nemesis, and you obsess. If you’re really naughty, you record with your phone and destroy their rebuttals at home. Yes, I actually knew people that did every one of those things. The point is that when you begin to idolize winning, you miss out on the experience. My final year, many people I knew well turned into to flow pad spies overnight after I competed in finals at a National open. You see, the desire for success changes you. If you get to Semi-finals, rather than being bummed you didn’t advance, look back and realize that Semis is a place you’ve never stood before. Be thankful for the little milestones. Use your losses as an opportunity to grow. Because one day, you may walk off with a first place medal and wonder, “..Was that it?” Success does not satisfy you.
Lesson 5: Invest not impress
This was the phrase my mother constantly told me as my time in the league came to a close. When I thirteen, a sophisticated alumnus sat behind me during an award ceremony. Since I was curious, I asked who she was and my friend told me she was on old legend years ago but now hardly any knew who she was. That story has always stuck with me.
Four years from now, you won’t remember what your record was for a qualifier, or what your Extemp finals topic was. If you come back to judge, you may not know a single competitor. Your name won’t mean a thing. So, use the time you have to nurture those around you. Don’t be too busy to care. Realize that people are watching you and looking up to you. Be an encouragement, take the time to watch the round of a younger competitor. Remember that was you once! Include the student who wants to be in your circle. Be the kind of mentor you would have wanted to have. People won’t remember the titles you took home, but they will remember that you took the time to pray with them outside of their round. People won’t remember that you swept a round, but they will remember the sarcastic comment you made about their case behind their back. Be mindful and intentional.
Your opportunities in speech in debate are priceless…unless you ask your mom, who might give you a calculated estimate like mine did. Keep in mind that the friendships you make and the ones you break will be memories you will carry with you long after graduation. For me, my favorite memory was not on stage. It was a long hug during break announcements from my partner who was swelling with joy. We worked hard for a goal and we accomplished it. That embrace meant the world to me and it was a feeling that I will never forget.
When I won first place in Lincoln-Douglas after years of hard work, the spotlight wasn’t as bright as I thought it would be. The moment was not as long as I had dreamed. I didn’t collapse in tears like I thought I would. I felt a great relief, then happiness. I walked across the stage with grace, hugged my friends, smiled for a picture and tossed my trophy in my purse.
That was it. The moment was over.
So, compete for more than a moment. Compete for more than a trophy. Compete for the memories. In my years of competition, I lost far more than I ever won. Yet, I know with confidence, the losses made me who I am and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. My time is over, I can’t go back. But I can think back and know that I wouldn’t have lived those years any differently. The tears, the all-nighters, the lack of sleep, the “illegal” Starbucks runs, the distance, the heartache, the happiness, and the friendships are what I will remember. I won’t keep those things in a box, I’ll keep them on my mind; for that is something a trophy never gave me.
Debate isn’t about success, it’s about depth. From my experience, you can advance using “what wins rounds,” but you can only THRIVE from challenging yourself. In my career, I’ve run abstract ideas against peer approval and won, because I dug deeper and was passionate about my stance. Don’t make the mistake of competing for a trophy, compete for yourself, not for a crowd. This opportunity is what you make it, so don’t settle. Step outside the box.” – Mikayla Simpson