Walking into my first Varsity final round sophomore year, I had no idea what to expect. After a year and a half of watching finals with older, more “distinguished” speakers, I was still shocked to see myself in the midst of such talented individuals. Although I was extremely nervous, I was still committed to trying my best and place well. Unfortunately, that round became the first of many final rounds that I doubted whether or not I truly belonged.
Obviously, as many of you have realized, Extemp is a very competitive event. But, just like every other type of competition, the politics of the event can be detrimental to the spirit of the activity–Extemp is no different. Oftentimes, as speakers learn to become better and better at Extemp, they soon reach a point where breaking to honor finals or even final rounds are rather common. However, it can be difficult to maintain their status while competing against those who have already established themselves within their region, circuit, etc. This is the first of many stages where imposter syndrome can sink in.
Imposter syndrome (otherwise known as imposter phenomenon or imposterism) is a psychological effect where an individual tends to doubt their accomplishments or talents while maintaining a fear of being exposed as a sort of “fraud”. Essentially, in the field of Extemp, this can be as simple as the feeling of not being good “enough,” yet your competitive success says otherwise. This feeling is especially apparent among many disadvantaged groups who may not fit the unfortunate “heterosexual white male” default found in several aspects of our society. As a result, women, BIPOC, and people of the LGBTQA+ community are often at a higher risk of facing imposter syndrome in Extemp. Still not convinced? As uncommon as this feeling may sound, everyone has experienced this in some form in their everyday lives–I mean, think about it! Whether it be a nomination for an award or an achievement that you have received, there’s almost always a point where you have wondered if you were good “enough” compared to others around you. But, I’m here to tell you, that no matter how intense this feeling may seem, you’re ALWAYS enough. Unfortunately, Extemp may not facilitate that feeling.
Extemp isn’t just a one round activity. But rather, a collection of rounds, experiences, and lessons. Round after round you are judged by individuals that can make or break your competitive experience. And yes, there will always be a handful of competitors who have a “guaranteed” break to finals based on their prior successes, but while you’re competing, it’s best to not think of them as much. First, make sure to focus on your main goal–whether it be trying to get to finals, or winning the whole tournament entirely, it’s okay to believe in what you are trying, no matter how “unconventional” it may seem. Second, make sure to work hard and not remain complacent. One of the major side effects of imposter syndrome is the process of continuing to doubt your abilities to a point where you may not be doing anything to actively step out of it. Now this is easier said than done, but it is definitely possible. Pushing yourself to newer habits and methods of preparation can elevate your success within the activity.
Now, beyond these crucial steps to facing imposter syndrome in Extemp, it’s important to realize that you could become one of the people you once looked up to. However, that being said, it’s important to maintain respect towards your fellow peers who may feel the same way. It’s so easy to look at final round rosters and ask yourself “how did he/she get there?” This not only invalidates one’s experience but also puts you in a hypocritical situation. Because whether we like to believe it or not, Extemp is one of the most subjective events in Speech & Debate. There are so many different elements that judges tend to prefer and there’s no ONE way to go about it. Granted, there are some foundations to becoming a good Extemper, but it’s more important to know that every judge will see you differently no matter the circumstance.
The best thing moving forward is to believe in your abilities, no matter how hard it can seem. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly how I felt through most of my Junior year season. I was a constant finalist at many local and national circuit tournaments, yet my lack of previous exposure to major national circuit tournaments made me feel like an outsider. But, after breaking to the final rounds at some prestigious tournaments, I started to realize that my competitive successes were not out of “pure luck,” but rather for a valid reason. Months later, I made my way to the final round of USX at the 2020 National Speech and Debate Tournament. The feeling of walking into the virtual final round was no different than my first experience as a rising sophomore. But, my mentality was in a much different place. Granted, I know there were a multitude of factors that may have influenced my success, but at the end of the day, it happened for a reason. And if there was anything I wish I could tell my younger self, it’s the same motto: EVERYTHING happens for a reason.