In my eighth year of competitive debating, I’m quitting for good

A parting love letter to one of College’s most popular and most maligned activities

At the top of the “extracurricular” section of my CV, it says that I reached the semi-finals of the European Debating Championships (Euros). It was in August 2017 at the Tallinn Euros, my first major university competition with my long-term speaking partner Daniel Gilligan. Dan and I had only started speaking together the previous October, but we knew each other already from the schools debating circuit – I debated in school for about four years. Some dedicated teachers ran a debating club every week, but there was no tradition, so to speak. A group of us became interested, and through those years we all had a kind of obsession with it, which was, I suppose, the beginning.

The format of a competitive debate is, for the most part, the same everywhere: you are assigned a position as either the opening or closing team, for or against the motion – so that there are four teams in total – then are given 15 minutes to prepare the speeches and seven minutes each to deliver them. There are many topics that I know nothing about, but almost none that I haven’t debated on at some point or other. Most of the people who initially believe that debating will teach them great truths about the world eventually lose that naivety. It is a game – capable of no more and no less beauty and truth than chess or football. The people who train and travel and compete may incidentally learn other skills along the way, but they play to win.

And we were no different. Our ambition was limitless at the beginning; we debated because we wanted to be world champions. Now, just over seven years later, debating has been a defining part my life for nearly a decade, seeping into everything I’ve done, and those first speaking partners I had in school are old friends. I’ve achieved some things over the years but never anything as significant as Tallinn, and certainly nothing on the scale of what we had all once hoped. And I never will, because now, in my eighth year of competitive debating, I’m quitting for good.

“There are legions of people who have the potential to win a world championship, and vanishingly few who go the whole way.”

I’ve been getting ready to quit for a long time. The game and I have moved on from each other. Dan and I have had a bad few last months, a bit like a football team with an average age of 35, culminating this New Year with our lowest ever finish at the World Championships in Cape Town, South Africa. We had both already agreed that Cape Town would be the end. Dan recently pointed out to me that if Euros and Worlds performances are the measure, our debating careers have been in decline for nearly as long as we’ve been speaking together. Over time, we had lost the all-consuming desire to win.

C’est la vie. There are legions of people who have the potential to win a World Championship, and vanishingly few who go the whole way. The biggest thing that separates them is perseverance. Debaters spend their weekends at competitions in dull foreign universities, going through Gatwick Airport, sleeping on other students’ floors, writing and rewriting their playbooks. Eventually everyone hits the question: “Is this really the best use of my time?”

Overcoming this is a requirement for success but not a guarantee. You could do all that and still lose for having the bad luck to wind up in the wrong position against the wrong teams at the wrong time. Debating is a game of tiny margins. You can get better at taking the opportunities chance gives you, and minimising the damage when they don’t come, but you can never control whether things go for or against you. People give out about the winners at every competition. “We hammered them in the first round”, they might say. If they face each other enough times, most teams will beat most teams some time or another.

“The longer you stay, the more that other returns diminish and success comes to be the only reason to keep going.”

That’s why the best speakers are usually those who have also become the best competitors. They seize the opportunities chance gives them by being in the right headspace. As often as I think of Tallinn, I think of how that summer in 2017, I became interested in the GAA, because I started reading sport columnists in the newspaper and everything they said resonated with me: think about one game at a time, focus on performance instead of results. Great athletes and coaches are masters of the art of competing under pressure. At the high end, I’ve given speeches to audiences of about 100 people. The best hurlers and footballers have played surrounded by 80,000 people. How can they even hear the thoughts in their own head? The mind boggles.

The longer you stay, the more that other returns diminish, and success comes to be the only reason to keep going. But more and more, I did it for those other things. Just as playing sport makes your body fitter, intensive practice in competitive debating trains the mind. Speakers are constantly creating, shaping, tearing down. You become better at seeing the small things that need to be true for a big thing to be true. Not all of it is useful – not everyone needs or wants to be as fit as Usain Bolt – but it’s definitely true that the more you debate, the more you learn how to speak.

And everyone speaks differently just as everyone writes differently, just as no two people are the same human being. And some people really do know how to put an audience to sleep with boring, cynical approaches to the game. But even still, a competitive debate can be a performative art just like theatre: a story in four acts, one per team, that each character is trying to shape so that it turns out a certain way.

I’ll miss the art of speaking most of all. In one way, that’s a strange thing to say, since more than nine-tenths of the speaking I’ve done and listened to doesn’t bear any repeating or remembering. But there were also those rare moments of solid gold, when every barrier in a room full of people broke down, and they all became connected by some feeling of greater meaning. A whole room could move so much that the speaker had to pause and let everyone catch their breath. The best, most wrenching, and most inspiring speeches usually have parts that make people laugh, and I don’t know why. Sometimes a speaker lowered their voice for effect, and the room was so quiet you could hear the sound of your own breath. They could have whispered and the whole audience would have heard them.

The more of those moments that I witnessed, the less that winning and losing mattered – how could could a trophy or medal compare with that? Now, with the sun setting on my debating career, I know that in the long run they’ll matter more than any of my successes or failures. Every step I take from here will be into a horizon that debating opened up to me years ago. Leaving it behind is like leaving an old friend, and the thought of going without speaking is like going without food. But now, with seven years at my back and no regrets, it’s time to take a deep breath, step forward, and move on.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.