Monday, April 28, 2014

Debating to Build Mental Strength: Part One

by Dr. Sarah T. Partlow Lefevre 

This morning I read an Elite Daily article by Paul Hudson called 20 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.  The first five mental habits to avoid include:
1. Dwelling On The Past
2. Remaining In Their Comfort Zone
3. Not Listening To The Opinions Of Others
4. Avoiding Change
5. Keeping A Closed Mind (Hudson, 2014)
While most of these suggestions are good advice, they resonate in the context of debate.  Debate as an activity trains people to be mentally strong.  Based on Hudson’s suggestions, I propose a list of practices in debate that make individuals mentally strong.  Debaters who adopt these approaches will succeed in debate and will develop habits that promote success in other areas of their lives.

1. Debaters look to the future.
Debaters develop the ability to move on after experiencing loss.  Half of all teams loose in every debate.  Mentally strong debaters learn to set their losses aside and focus on preparing for the next debate.  They transition quickly from debate to debate and learn to compartmentalize their experiences in a productive way.  Dwelling on past losses is a recipe for failure in debate.  Winning debaters learn to live in the moment and learn from their experiences without dwelling on setbacks.

2. Debaters regularly overcome fear and step outside of their comfort zones.
By nature, debate takes individuals out their comfort zones because speaking in front of others is scary.  In fact, it is the “No. 1 fear reported by people in the U.S.” (WebMD).  Fear is a natural human response to speaking in public.  Most public speakers experience some level of fear or anxiety.  Debaters experience this too.  Debaters often leave their comfort zones and gain strength in the process.  Ultimately, doing something that you fear is an incredibly empowering experience.  After debaters know they can debate, they also know they can start a business, apply for graduate school, give a speech at a wedding, go to law school, get a Ph.D. or a Master’s degree, and do many other challenging things.  Debaters learn to overcome fear while gaining confidence and to seek difficult experiences that reap splendid rewards. 

3. Debaters listen to and learn from everyone they can.
First, successful debaters engage opponents.  Some debaters are so prepared that they fail to listen to their opponents’ arguments.  Without listening, debaters cannot possibly hope to understand and adequately respond to the claims advanced in the debate.  Successful debaters do not underestimate their opponents or assume that they understand their arguments in advance.  Rather, successful debaters develop the habit of listening to their opponents and responding to the strongest possible incarnation of their arguments.  Listening to the opposition and understanding other perspectives is a key component of building mental strength in debate.

Second, debaters often have the opportunity to interact with the other coaches, the judges, and the other teams.  Debaters should take these opportunities to learn everything they can from others in the debate community.  Such knowledge ranges from how to better answer an argument to where to access particular academic research to how to improve their persuasive skills.  Win or lose, debaters who listen become better because they are open to others’ ideas and approaches to the world. 

             4.  Debaters embrace change on many levels. 
Debaters face a torrent of change. Topics, argumentative norms, styles of delivery, persuasive tactics, opponents, judges, locations, and many more things constantly change in debate.  The ability to accept, adapt to, and learn from these changes makes debaters flexible, adaptable individuals who will become strong team players in any environment.  The ability to embrace and quickly adapt to change gives debaters a competitive advantage as others strive to catch up.  

5.  Debaters keep open minds.
In debate, students are usually asked to represent multiple approaches to the same or similar topics.  Asking students to represent multiple sides of an issue is often referred to as switch side debate.  As students switch sides, they develop intricate understandings of many perspectives.  While debaters may maintain the courage of their convictions, openness to understanding and engaging a variety of arguments builds mental strength and the capacity to build higher quality, more nuanced arguments.  
This is part one of a four part series.  In the next three installments, I will address the remaining components of Hudson’s list.  Please comment and let me know what you liked or didn’t like about this post. See part two here.