“If they’re not going to win, maybe they shouldn’t compete.”I heard this statement from the father of one of my students who was struggling to perform at tournaments. I know he meant well, but I believe the father’s mindset betrayed a lack of understanding regarding the educational value of speech and debate. Unfortunately, I encounter this mindset frequently in parents and alumni coaches.
A young man I knew competed for five years but never walked on stage for any event until the last three tournaments of his senior year of high school. Several of my students competed in debate from the ages of 12 to 17 before they advanced past preliminary rounds. Although I won a few trophies, I was not a “natural talent” at speech and debate. I lacked the required charismatic personality and confidence, and it took four years of tournaments for me to achieve competitive success.
Should students like me stop competing because they are not winning trophies? Absolutely not.
Persevering in spite of failure is important. Just ask Thomas Edison. He went through a thousand versions of the light bulb before he was able to produce one that worked. Even if students never have their proverbial “light bulb moment” of competitive success, they will still learn critical skills simply because of their participation.
Some of the most important lessons my students learn are about dressing professionally, getting their facts straight, and presenting themselves like composed adults—even if they are sick, sleep-deprived, or upset. Learning these lessons does not mean that my students will win trophies, but they will have an education that even college graduates may lack.
When I participated in a debate at an Ivy League university, I saw elite, college-aged students show up with their suit pants tucked into their socks (no, I am not kidding.) Many wore mismatched outfits that looked less professional than anything I have ever seen students wear to a Stoa tournament. Most of the debaters argued claims that were supported by few—if any—facts. More than one gave stammering speeches because of their nerves.
Even if a Stoa competitor never wins a trophy, they will leave our forensic league with better developed professional skills than what I observed at college tournaments. Even as high school students, they are more workplace-ready than some of their college counterparts.
Trophies are nice but have no intrinsic value. Many alumni have to throw their medals and trophies away when they move as adults. However, the grit of perseverance and the life skills that students learn from competing in speech and debate are of incalculable and enduring value.
As I write, I think of Proverbs 21:3 “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” We can prepare ourselves to win but whether we win is not up to us.
Students cannot compete in Stoa without having meaningful learning experiences that will distinguish them from their peers. Merely trying is invaluable, no matter what happens. The acts of trying to wear a professional-looking suit, trying to provide proof to support one’s claims, and trying to speak clearly build positive habits that last forever.
There is educational value in participation for its own sake because we will always finish better than we began. Do not worry if your child or student never wins a trophy; worry if they quit.
Laura Williamson is a born-and-raised Coloradoan. She is a rising senior finishing a degree in Business Administration with minors in Pre-Law and Accounting. Laura competed in Stoa for seven years and has continued to coach a variety of events since graduation. Throughout her time in college she has continued to pursue her passion for forensics by participating in collegiate debate and moot court.