Lawrence High graduate sees success at national debate tournament, reflects on how debate has helped him

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Just a few days before Thomas Lushington was scheduled to depart for the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) tournament in Phoenix, a local debate coach offered him some feedback on his argument, igniting a frenzy of revision.  

“It took me three or four hours to finish making those changes,” Lushington said. “But it was much easier to articulate … and then it treated me very well in nationals.”

At the end of the tournament earlier this month, the Lawrence High School graduate was named 12th best speaker in the Lincoln-Douglas debate on the national stage. 

“I’m very happy,” Lushington said. “It’s gratifying because Lincoln-Douglas is an event that I’ve given a lot to. It was a very nice feeling.”

After competing in debate all four years of high school, Lushington feels proud of his accomplishments. The competition he faced was among the best in the country. 

“You’re talking the top two to 300 students in the nation for each category,” LHS debate coach Jeff Plinsky said. 

Lushington competed in the Lincoln-Douglas debate, which is a one-to-one debate over a proposition of value. The resolution at this year’s NSDA tournament discussed whether government employees have a moral obligation to become whistleblowers. Lushington had to argue in favor of both sides.  

Eliminated after nine rounds, Lushington placed 45th in the debate portion, but judges rated his speaking ability very high. 

“(Judges are) looking at the speaking skills, the ability to respond to the issues that other debaters present,” Plinsky said. “They’re looking at composure, they’re looking at pretty much anything outside of the actual argument.” 

The Kansas Lincoln-Douglas Coalition at the NSDA 2023 tournament. “They’re all amazing people,” Lushington said. (Contributed photo)

The Lincoln-Douglas debate lasts 45 minutes. To succeed, you have to be “locked in,” Lushington explains — focused and engaged actively with the other debater the entire time. After what can be weeks of preparation, and 45 minutes of steady, composed debating, fatigue sets in. 

“You usually have enough adrenaline and excitement … it all just completely flies by wildly quickly even if you do two (debates back to back),” Lushington said. “But then afterwards, you can tell, you know, you’re tired, you’re hungry …”

Lushington qualified and competed in nationals during his sophomore and junior years, too. From one year to the next, Lushington improved significantly, Plinsky said. One reason for that is the way Lushington integrates feedback without taking it personally. 

“He’s one of the most coachable kids I think we’ve ever had on the team, and he takes that coaching to heart,” Plinsky said. 

During his years at LHS, Lushington provided a “locker room presence” for the debate team. 

“We don’t have locker rooms, but Thomas is absolutely that kind of positive presence for our team,” Plinsky said. “He’s always very calm. He’s amazingly humble. And he’s very willing to be coached and so is a great example for his teammates.” 

Lushington craves criticism, because integrating feedback means getting better. 

“I most actively pursue arguments against the arguments I’m making,” Lushington said. “And if they’re really, really good, you have a competitive incentive to take them and use them and to try to adapt to them.” 

Lushington is always adapting, adjusting, fine-tuning. His time in debate has strengthened his writing, he said, which helped him craft an essay for his application to Rice University. He was accepted and is planning to attend this fall. 

Debate has also changed the way he thinks. 

“(Debate helps) me broaden my perspective on the different opinions out there, and that’s a little confusing, but normally, it’s just exciting — to have your worldview challenged and expanded,” he said.   

More than an intellectual pursuit, debate is an avenue for personal improvement for Lushington. For him, it fosters resiliency and respect for other people. 

“There are always going to be challenges or setbacks or frustrating decisions by judges … and it’s just an incredibly good tool to take into other areas of life,” Lushington said. “It pushes you to be more considerate of other people. And it also pushes you to be harder working, to engage with other ideas.

… It really pushes you to be a better version of yourself.” 

More than 6,000 middle and high school students compete at the NSDA tournament each year. 

More NSDA tournament results for LHS:

Rose Kennedy: 66th in Storytelling
Giulia Ventello: 64th in Poetry
Peyton Fowler: 104th in Informative Speaking

Some NSDA tournament results for Free State High School:

Anwen Williams: 37th in International Extemporaneous Speaking
Cici Hunter: 66th in Prose
Ava Ayala: 107th in Poetry

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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