How I made it to the national debate team | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

How I made it to the national debate team
The author (center) with the “Youngest Debater in the Tournament” certificate that his moms made up —contributed photos
How I made it to the national debate team
The author (center) with the “Youngest Debater in the Tournament” certificate that his moms made up —contributed photos

Tiger parenting refers to parents who set strict boundaries, have high expectations of their child and push their child to achieve.

I do have tiger moms, but only because they believe that “in excellence lies goodness.” My moms get mad when I submit bare minimum work. They ask me to stay up all night and redo an assignment if they see that I did not apply myself. They ask me to do daily gratitude journals—I write what I have to be thankful for each day. They also limit my chat time and screen time to one hour a day, something which some of my peers with more permissive parents call oppressive.

When my tiger moms sensed that I was taking a liking to argumentation, they took it upon themselves to create a debate club from scratch. Never mind that I was homeschooled and didn’t have any classmates—they found a way for me to debate.

I was only 11 and in Grade 6 when I joined my first ever debate tournament for high schoolers. My voice hadn’t even broken yet. And as I started my required seven-minute speech, my 17-year-old opponents would exclaim, “Oh my gosh, we’re up against a kid!”

Andre Santos Punzalan and his tiger moms
The author and his tiger moms

First tournament

At what felt like a baptism of fire, we went up against Team A of Miriam College and Xavier School on my very first round at my very first Ateneo debate tournament. My tiny knees shook every time our scary opponents would raise an objection to my points. Naturally, I got last place.

My very first debate tournament was a massacre, I was in the bin rounds, not only because I was so young that the judges found it hard to take me seriously but also because I had a horrible stutter and would say bah-cos instead of because, and had a weird verbal clutch of saying ano mid-sentence.

As consolation prize for throwing me to the wolves at my first ever debate tournament, my moms connived with the organizers to give me a “Youngest Debater in the Tournament Award” after the formal ceremony, since they knew I liked medals and going up the stage even though there was really no such prize. They even printed out a certificate and everything.

While most of my 11-year-old peers were playing video games, I was prepping for seven-minute speeches on different political, economic and sociological debate motions. I was required to watch Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” series for debate research and I had to listen to “Debatable with Nina and Kyle” debate tutorials daily, as preparation for tournaments.

To bribe me to continue, my moms said I would get to travel and meet new friends. Then the pandemic happened, which was a blessing as well as a curse, as it saw me entering online debate tournaments at least once a month.

Debate captain

By then, I was captain of the very first Homeschoolers Debate Organization—which meant I was supposedly the best debater in that org. So to earn and keep the distinction, my moms asked me to do daily recorded speech exercises and tongue twisters so my way of speaking would improve. This meant I had to record a speech on my phone until I could fully deliver it without stuttering.

As one of the first homeschoolers to ever debate, I also did not have anyone to partner with. I had to teach my partner to debate and get them tournament-ready in a short amount of time.

You know how when you’re small, a school campus seems enormous in your memory? The Ateneo Debate Camp was my Goliath because I was 11 when I first joined. That’s why I was more surprised than anyone, when, after months of practice and training, when I joined for the second time, I got the Overall Best Speaker Award at Ateneo Debate Camp 2021. This taught me that grit and perseverance pays off.

My moms never coddled me or blamed the judges when I would lose a debate match. When I lose, they would patiently explain to me what the better argument should have been.

One time, I cried when my moms got mad because my partner and I lost an important quarterfinals round in an international debate tournament because of my pride. You see, my newbie partner had the correct interpretation of the debate and the winning argument but I didn’t listen to her because I thought I was better than her. From this, my moms taught me to always be teachable and learn from others. They told me to always ask the judges for feedback on how I could improve after every round.


I’ve wanted to quit debating several times before. Being on the autism spectrum, I dislike change, but I had to suddenly change partners. The timing was unfortunate—an important debate tournament was fast approaching and we would be up against some of the best Malaysian debaters. I asked numerous prospects to be my debate partner, but they declined. Thankfully, one of them changed their mind last minute and we, by the grace of God, ended up being high school champions of that debate tournament.

My moms tailor-fitted my education to what I needed. Being on the spectrum, I told my parents that I had difficulty empathizing or putting myself in another person’s shoes. My moms, in turn, geared my debate education to telling the story about the actors involved. In an immigration motion, for example, they made me really focus and empathize with the affected refugees.

The author and his partner Michael at a debate tournament in Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur
The author and his partner Michael at a debate tournament in Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur

One time, I wanted to just coast at a tournament I was going to attend in Kuala Lumpur because I was cocky that my partner and I would do okay and I was fine with that. My moms, however, advised me that the kind thing to do was to keep training harder so I won’t be a burden, but rather be an asset to my partner who really wanted to do well in the tournament in order to get better scholarship opportunities for college. My moms’ mottos are “there is goodness in excellence” and “do small things with great love.”


My moms taught me that excellence should not be about glorification of one’s ego. It’s about being grateful to the people who taught you and sharing that knowledge with others who need it.

For instance, I am very fortunate to have access to debate teachers and training but I know that many others who do not. To bridge the gap, I decided to create a Discord server, which now has 290 members, providing access to debate spars to those in the provinces and without access to formal institutions. There, we have daily debate spars, so that those who want to debate now have a space to do so.

Andre Santos Punzalan teaching debate in Hong Kong last year
Teaching debate in Hong Kong last year

I was very fulfilled to know that a Cambodian debater that I frequently spar with made it to the top 8 of the Cambodian National Team tryouts. There is fulfillment in learning something difficult and sharing those travails with others who are equally struggling. I was so happy that I was able to teach kids not much older than I at the Debate 101 workshop my moms and I taught and at the Hong Kong workshop where I served as assistant trainer alongside other globally distinguished debaters.

Yes, my moms made me and some of my teammates cry with their strict ways but they also helped me reach my dream of making it to the Philippine National Debate Team and representing the country in World Schools Debating Championship 2024, the Olympics of debating, in July! Apart from the external achievements, I know what matters more to my moms is that I’ve become a better person through debate, for the greater glory of God. Contributed INQ

Message Philippines Debate 101 on Facebook for more info on how to get started with debate.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.