Peak Performance in International Debating – Sport Psychology in disguise?

So taking a bit of a step into the unknown I recently agreed to see if I could help a group of international debaters.  I’ll be completely honest, this was something I undertook with significant trepidation and I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to help!  I had been chatting with their coaches about the kinds of things they felt make the difference between a good debater and a world-class debater when I drew some comparisons with elite athletes.  The same qualities and skills required to perform under pressure seemed to apply so I agreed…

For those of you not familiar with the usual format of these debates (like me), I’ll give you a quick summary.  Competitors compete as a team of 2 and are given 15 minutes after seeing the motion to prepare their speeches.  The speech can last a maximum of 7 minutes with the 1st and 6th minutes being protected from points of information (questions).  Depending on how far down the table you are will determine how much time you then have to continue writing and adapting your speech.

So when I asked them all the things that they thought made for a successful debate, they came up with ideas that I frequently see in sport.  I summarised these into the 5 C’s of performance: confidence, concentration, commitment, control and communication.  When the debaters thought about how each of these areas contributed to successful performances, it highlighted how important and often overlooked the psychological preparation can be.

If you were to run physiological testing on all the athletes in an Olympic final you would probably find incredibly small differences.  So why is it that one athlete can still win by a significant margin?  There will of course be technical and tactical differences, but also it is the ability to put yourself in the best place mentally that can make the difference.  In debating, all the competitors will have similar IQ’s, have read a similar amount and be similarly skilled in speech making.  This was ultimately why they asked me to teach some of the psychological skills that athletes use.

Even though there was no physical component, they were able to find great uses for goal-setting, visualisation, relaxation and self-talk to name but a few.  I was delighted that these skills were so useful to them and am looking forward to seeing the results that they get from developing this aspect of their performance toolkit.  It also reminded me of how transferable psychological skills are to different domains. 

So whether you’re preparing for an exam, a debate, a work presentation, or plain old sport, it seems that we can help!

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