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Why do you debate? Do you run drills solely to win? Do you spend nights researching so that you can be the last to cross the stage?

I know that it’s annoying to be told that trophies don’t matter, but it’s just as frustrating when debaters choose to ignore this sage advice. Yes. I agree. The “trophies don’t matter” speech is hard to accept. Trophies are shiny. Trophies are cool. Trophies do matter; they just matter very little in comparison to the deeper “why” that should fuel your debating.

What Fuels Your Debate?

This is one of the most important questions you can answer during your high school debate career. It will dictate your experience, and will change the way you argue.

Should winning a ballot be the drive behind your debate?

Obviously, part of the goal in any given round is to win; it would be boring if this weren’t the case. The problem begins when winning becomes your main source of fuel. I believe that winning is fun and should be enjoyed, but should never be the reason you walk up to the lectern to speak.

If you’re only debating to win, your experience is severely limited because:

1. People will stop caring

This is self-explanatory.

2. It never ends

Even if you win nationals, you’ll still have to come back the next year and prove that your win wasn’t a fluke. When you win it for the second time, you’ll still have to do well in college to prove that your skills go beyond the high school world. Success in debate will never fully satisfy you.

3. Rounds are subjective

Think about it: you have humans judging you. Guess what humans are good at. Making mistakes. Typically you don’t even have an expert or alumni, instead rounds are mostly judged by homeschool moms and the guy-from-across-the-street. Debates are very hard to judge well. Whether you win or lose is largely subjective, so placing your faith in awards sets you up for unwarranted disappointment. (Read this and this to avoid some of those crazy ballots)

If win/loss record shouldn’t be your sustenance, what should?

The Key to Deeper Inspiration

Whether you’re prepping or debating, finding your fuel in success isn’t a great idea. Instead, look towards a much more stable resource: focus on the process. Forget about the results and concentrate only on refining your craft and executing well. This mindset can (and does) lead to a higher level of success, but isn’t dependent on a winning ballot for validation and future drive.

Debaters usually approach their own performance and growth as a means to an end. When you debate for the process, your growth and execution becomes the end.

A mindset that’s focused on the process does three things:

  1. It allows you to grow individually as a debater. When you debate to improve your own use of rhetoric you free yourself up and allow yourself to step onto another level of debate.
  1. It improves your experience. When you’re driven to refine your craft and execute well, your experience doesn’t rely on what judge you get. The only thing that matters is your own effort and ability to put your talents into action. By focusing on the process, you focus on the one thing you can control: you.
  1. It helps you strategically. When you let the results take care of themselves, you free yourself up and debate more effectively overall. Alabama football coach Nick Saban strongly encourages this mindset with his players, and it works pretty well for him. By focusing on the process and not the results, you free up mental space that can be dedicated to your own performance.

When I encouraged a couple of my personal students to debate from this mindset, I got the same response from all of them. They all basically reported that, while this mindset is great in theory and all, it’s just too difficult in practice to get inspired about. Personal execution and implementation is just not as glamorous as awards.

So how do you get excited to debate from this elusive mindset? I find that the best way to do this is simply to get excited to take part in the great conversation of rhetoric.

The Great Conversation

Aside from being the title of a semi-popular book, this phrase is often used in the classical realm to refer to the continual testing and morphing of ideas over time. When a scientist writes a paper discussing the effects of a chemical reaction, he is adding ideas into this age-long discussion. When his former professor responds with a paper of his own, the great conversation (in this case of chemistry) gets a little noisier.

When it comes to rhetoric, this “great conversation” is especially intriguing. The general idea is that over time, concepts are tested and added to by hundreds of thousands of people. The thing is, rhetoric is the tool used to test these ideas in the first place. Rhetoric is the medium used for all great conversations, meaning that it’s own private morphing is just that much more interesting.

The art of using rhetoric to challenge ideas has been practiced for centuries, and the conversation around its proper use began back in ancient Athens, with a group known as the Sophists. Great thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero then began to refine this art, classifying its use by placing within a larger taxonomy.

Jesus perfected rhetoric when responding to the questions of Pharisees or telling one of his many parables, and in the middle ages through the enlightenment, rhetoric went through a transformation, as literature and the like saw tremendous growth.

During America’s early days, rhetoric was used to inspire war and promote change. It was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement and lead the way during the world’s greatest wars. Even in today’s world, rhetoric is at the core of every major movement and every major change.

So how do you get inspired about the process instead of the results?

Just breathe in the beauty of the art of rhetoric, and become excited to take part in its great conversation. Every time you take the stage or deliver a speech, you are practicing the same exact art that Cicero practiced when he gave his famous oration against Catiline. Every time you rephrase this or that part of your 1AC, you’re doing the same type of editing that James Madison did when he penned and re-penned the preamble to our constitution. Don’t work on debate to win a trophy. Practice debate for the love of rhetoric. Learn debate to be a part of the great conversation of rhetoric.

Let the beauty of the art fuel you, not the sheen of the award. Let the participation in the greater conversation of rhetoric make debating worthwhile.


After my first nationals, I began to feel pretty lethargic about my debate career in general. My partner and I hadn’t done as well as we had hoped we would, and I failed to see the point in debating seriously for another year. Then I went to a debate camp, (yes, it was an ethos camp), where I got to work with Isaiah for three straight days. When I left that camp, I had a very different picture of what rhetoric could be. I began to gradually focus on the execution and the process, and I saw my personal drive change forms.

Trophies are fun and undefeated records are exciting, but when you let yourself get distracted by awards, you miss the true beauty behind debate. I can tell you from experience that if you debate for the love of the art, not the prestige of the award, you’ll find a new joy in the bright side of rhetoric.

As you move towards the end of this season, as you prepare to compete in your regional or even national tournament, keep in mind that rhetoric doesn’t have to be a means to an end. Mastery of rhetoric is the end. Get excited to challenge the world of ideas, and your experience in debate will jump to a new level. Get inspired, not to win, but to debate, and you’ll find yourself in a new world of rhetoric.



Noah Howard is finishing his 3rd year of competition in the NCFCA. This year, his success continues as he heads to the national level of competition in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Competitive debate has taught Noah that there’s more to an argument than just a list of impacts. Behind each simple piece of evidence, there’s a much deeper world waiting to be explored. In his eyes, debate is about immersing yourself in this world of ideas, and learning to convey your findings in simple, clear terms. He believes debaters should seek primarily to grow in their own understanding; only by diving headfirst into the world of ideas can you ever reach true mastery of rhetoric.

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