Panic in the debating chamber
Panic in the debating chamber

Sweat is running down your back. Your hands are trembling. Your heart is racing. Worst of all, your mouth is open but no words are coming out. None at all. Not one. And everyone in the room is looking at you, wondering what is going to happen next.

It's normal - in fact quite healthy - to feel nervous when speaking in a debate. We've covered how to overcome nerves in an earlier article. But what I'm describing above is different from nerves. It's panic, when you freeze up completely. It can happen to anyone, even the most experienced debater, and it is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It just happens. It is scary and unpleasant, but it is not fatal for your debating career.

What should you do when panic strikes?

Use your notes

In general, the more minimal your notes the better your speech will be. However (particularly if you are prone to nerves) having some notes in your hand will, as well as helping you to structure your speech better, provide you with reassurance. When panic strikes, look at your notes for what to say next. Even if it feels like you are simply reading out some words for the sake of it, at least you are saying something, breaking that terrifying silence.

Take a point of information

Of course, you can't force your opponents to make a point of information, but there is a good chance they will if there is a long gap in your speech. Take it. It will give you time to recover yourself, and responding to it will give you the next thing to say.

Repeat yourself

If you can't think what to say next, go back to what you said last. Reiterating a point or points is not failure; it is a very effective way to ensure that the point is remembered by the audience (and, crucially, the judge). It will also give you time to recover yourself.

Sum up and sit down

If none of the above works, then the least bad course of action may simply be to cut your speech short. But don't stop in mid sentence. Look at the bullet points on your notes, and use them to sum up your arguments so far: 'So, I've made the following [number of] points. First ...' You will lose some marks for not using the full time, but at least your speech will be well structured. A short but well structured speech may actually score higher than a long but rambling one.

Get back on the horse

The advice for a rider who falls off a horse (or bicycle) is always to get back on the horse (or bike) as soon as is physically possible. The longer you leave it, the more fear and anxiety will be triggered by your next ride. The same applies to debating. After a panic, get back on your feet and speak as soon as you can. Your confidence will return, and the panic will soon be a distant memory.

What to do if your team mate panics

Team mates should be supportive of each other at all times. This is never more true than when one of them is in mid-panic. You're not allowed to talk to the speaker while they're speaking, but you can pass them a note saying something like 'You can do it!' or 'Don't worry - you're doing brilliantly!' If culturally and personally appropriate, you can squeeze their arm, rub their back etc.; touch can be very strengthening for an anxious person. Once they've finished their speech, whether they've had to abort it early or have managed to get to the end, immediately bombard them with reassurance and comforting words (and a hug, if appropriate). They may be full of apologies and self-recrimination, but bat these aside and focus on all that was good about their speech.

What a coach should do if a student panics

Use your body language and facial expression to be as encouraging as possible while they are in the middle of a panic. As soon as their speech is finished, go over to them. Check that they are all right; if they need a bit of time out from the debate, negotiate with the chair (who should also be sympathetic) to allow them to do this. Reassure them constantly that it could happen to anyone, and that they have not let down you / their team mates / the school etc.

Later, when the debate is over, it may be helpful to spend some time analysing why the speaker fell into panic mode, and how to prevent it happening again. However, if they prefer to forget the incident and move on, allow them to do this. Just make sure they get another chance to speak as soon as possible.