When I was 12 – reflections on competition

At 10, I got upset if I didn’t make an A or win the spelling bee. When I was 12, I would often cry when I struck out in baseball. Sometimes, I would cry before I even struck out if the umpire called a pitch I felt was not a strike (I would usually then go on to strike out.)

At 14, I played through a regional all-star game while very sick. My parents tell me we lost in extra innings. When we got home, I broke down in tears on the hood of the car. Accustomed to my temper tantrums and thinking I was crying because we lost, my dad told me to get over it. It turns out, I collapsed in fever and pain from viral meningitis and pneumonia.

It was only following puberty that I examined my obsession with winning and perfection. I realized that no matter how much I practiced, I would never be more than an above average baseball or basketball player. And I practiced a lot.

I quit competitive sports after my sophomore year of high school. I continued playing casually in a slow-pitch softball league with my dad and brother where I was able to relax and have fun most of the time.

Giving up sports, I focused exclusively on high school speech and debate. At that point, it was the biggest life decision I had ever made. I faced a lot of obstacles. I entered into the competition without a competent coach, access to resources, or other benefits afforded to wealthy high schools with established programs. I was self-taught.

My self-schooling mostly involved getting beaten by more experienced debaters during my junior year. I took the work ethic I developed in athletics and applied it to an activity that appealed to my natural gifts – writing, communication, and argument. I found that, even though I had to work much harder than my peers to find even moderate success, I did improve.

In the fall of my junior year, I earned 7 of the 8 points needed to qualify for the state tournament. In the spring, I competed in 7 elimination rounds where if I had won even one, I would be the first in school history to qualify. I lost most of them badly and some arbitrarily. Worst of all, I wasn’t having much fun.

My 12-year-old self was upset. I remember crying after that seventh loss. I invested thousands of hours seemingly for nothing. Failing while so close to my goal, I considered quitting.

I didn’t. I attended a two-week debate camp that summer – my only formal education in an activity where some are groomed as early as 6th grade. Equipped with a foundation that I could build upon, I excelled relative to my circumstances. I quit all of my AP courses, took two off periods, and I went all in.

Early on, I faced my best friend and biggest rival, Tony, in an elimination round. Tony was one of the most naturally brilliant people I had ever met, but he didn’t work hard. All I knew was working hard. We were roommates at debate camp and built our cases together, so I knew all of his cases and arguments in advance. I rewrote my cases; he didn’t, and I knew that.

Before the round, I prepared for every possible argument. In front of a particularly talented and intimidating judge, Christine, I tore Tony apart. His underestimation of me led not just to elimination from the tournament, but embarrassment in front of the judge he coyly hit on before the round. Tony never qualified for the state tournament and underperformed in what should have been a promising debate career.

Afterward, Christine offered to coach me for free and encouraged me to pursue the national circuit. Many debaters spend their weekends across the country in hopes of winning high-profile rounds and qualify for the Tournament of Champions (TOC) with hopes of being one of 72 best debaters in the country. Christine believed that, with her help, I could be one of the best. Traveling the country with an insanely intelligent and beautiful woman only one year my senior competing against the best debaters appealed to my competitive nature.

But I noticed most of the top debaters were miserable. The tournaments are high stakes and cutthroat – think a televised high-stakes poker game. They became slaves to the arbitrary decisions of judges and bad breaks. So focused on qualifying for the TOC, they often sacrificed their friends, mental health, and grades in school. Most of them wouldn’t qualify anyways.

What was it all for? Would anyone really care that you made it to the quarterfinals of the Greenhill tournament after graduating high school and enrolling in college? What is the value of winning if nobody likes you? Even if I was “the best,” then what? Who defines “the best” anyways?

I told Christine, despite her protests, thanks but no thanks. I preferred competing with my friends in Dallas. Christine remained in my corner, and I am forever thankful for her mentorship. I qualified for state after my third tournament freeing up the final ten to do whatever I wanted. I continued participating in local and regional tournaments foregoing the stress of national competition. Unburdened by the expectations that come from competing under a pedigreed program, I could seek meaning and define competition and success on my terms.

I was well-liked in the debate community. My girlfriend at the time came with me to tournaments. My mom and aunt helped judge, and my brother took over the debate class my senior year and his first year as a social studies teacher. We built the program together. I had an active social life away from debate. Debate was something I did. Despite my passion, sacrifices, and dedication, I wasn’t a debater.

I didn’t get upset over winning or losing anymore. In fact, I helped directly qualify five other debaters to the state tournament through forfeiting many late rounds allowing them to advance and earn more points.

My standard for winning a debate round – similar to my approach to golf – was whether I got upset at myself or not. I rarely lost. Unlike playing baseball as a kid, I was finally having fun.

This made losing rounds badly in the state tournament, despite preparing extensively, much easier to swallow. I was headed off to UT-Austin as an honors student, and I got to hang out with my friends – many of whom for the last time. I watched many top debaters over the years struggle with mental illness, substance abuse, and failed relationships. Instead of growing in the activity by seeing the bigger picture, they became consumed by their narrow focus to win at all costs.

For what? Recognition? A trophy? To get a scholarship in college and keep doing an activity many grew to hate?

The rare few who took away the similar lessons as me lived a balanced life realizing that, sometimes, studying hard doesn’t produce an A or secure a highly-touted scholarship. I worked hard in college not to make A’s, but to satisfy my curiosity. I continue to live by my own definitions of competition and success that have little to do with external rewards or recognitions.

Competition in the high-stakes world of speech and debate has parallels with college admissions. Often, college applications produce arbitrary and head-scratching outcomes. Sometimes, students are pleasantly surprised when a university that they were sure they weren’t going to get into offers them a space in their class. Recognizing that outcomes in debate rounds were often totally outside of my control with judge’s decisions that were frustratingly vague. Learning this lesson early on helped me to adapt to the equally competitive world of scholarship applications, internships, and job interviews.

Even when you try your hardest, sometimes things don’t work out. And that’s okay. If you move on from one door closing, you can take advantage of the many others that inevitably open.

Kevin MartinReflections