Advice on Running a Demoralized Team

I’m the current president of my FRC Team, but I’m having a lot of trouble running the team and I’m getting pretty concerned over the upcoming season and the future of my team.

To give some context, when I was a freshman I got pretty involved with the team, primarily through programming. Our 2018 and 2019 season weren’t too successful, having not been chosen for alliance selection at our district champs. Since then, our team has been on a bit of a decline. Our 2020 robot had many issues and most likely would not have made it far in competition (with the one offseason we did being poor, but to be fair that was our first competition in over two years). While we participated in the virtual challenges last year, it was put together haphazardly. While we have some passionate students, a majority of students seem only to come to our team to hang out with friends or do homework.

Currently we’re about a month away from kickoff and we had just introduced new freshmen into our team. I’m afraid they’ll sense the energy of our team and either get turned away or fall into the same unproductive trap. I’m not sure what to do to remotivate my team into becoming decently competitive again (or at the very least be sustainable).

For me, I wouldn’t mind staying at our warehouse for days straight improving our skills and preparing for the season. Unfortunately, the rest of the team doesn’t have the same energy and I don’t know how to inspire them to feel the same way about this program. I do believe our team still has potential, as we were a seeded team in our world’s division in 2017. I’m just lost on how to bring back that passion and willingness to work on our team.

This description was very rushed and I apologize for any details I’ve left out. If you all have any questions or have any advice for how to overcome this obstacle please let me know.

P.S. I would like to keep myself and my team anonymous, so please refrain asking about specific details about my team. I’ll try to answer questions as best I can.

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I’ve seen in many friends (all levels, students, volunteers, and mentors) on different teams that in the off-seasons they’re like, ehhh I dunno, I don’t know if I want to continue this - and then when that kickoff drops, they’re like LEMME AT IT LEMME AT IT, I’M IN! So I guess, my advice related to this is, maybe see how things are going after kickoff? Hopefully other people have better advice than me, but kickoff honestly has been a huge motivator to many people I’ve seen.

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I think one of the biggest wins you can have is to do well in competition. In your context, that sounds like scaling back your scope. What is the simplest effective robot you can build? Think 118 everybot. Think 2017 148 rogue Rev 2. Limit your goals, limit your degrees of freedom, and use as much COTS as you can. Follow the #OpenAlliance blogs here. Ask questions here and on discord. Learn what you can and hold onto the goal of being simple and effective. Losing a match because something broke sucks. Losing most of your matches because you couldn’t execute sucks. Try and mitigate those points of failure.

I might add more to this later, but I just got off 7 hours of planes and I’m pretty dead to the world. Good luck and please reach out to me if you want more elaboration!!

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I think the advice so far is great.

Oftentimes, teams that seem lethargic or unmotivated can become suddenly energized by a new challenge or by honing in on a specific focus that they can dominate by taking it on directly when others leave it as a side mechanism.

These are good ways to motivate a team. And there are many others.

But also sometimes the team you’re on just isn’t as focused on the competitive side of things as you are right now. And that’s okay.

It doesn’t mean you should cede these aspects or give up on building a culture of competitive excellence that you want to pursue, but you can’t expect everyone to have the same vision of success that you have all at the same time.

Inevitably, the best way to lead is by example. If you are passionate about improvement and competition it’s likely there will be others who pick up that mantle and pursue the same. If you want to stay at the warehouse for days on end perfecting a mechanism, it is likely others will join you. If for no other reason than it’s just generally fun to strive towards a goal together.

But you also need to accept that life situations can get in the way of that, and sometimes the best folks can do is show up and do whatever work they can to field the best they can at the moment.

Leadership is hard. And one of the trickiest parts is figuring out when the folks you’re leading have given the most they’re able to give, regardless of how close you all are to your goal. Sometimes that means performing worse than you think your team is capable of. And that feeling sucks. But we’re only human, and to expect more is to invite disappointment, disillusionment, and burnout.

At the end of the day, the only thing we have control of is our own actions. It is likely that if you focus on improving your skills and working towards your team’s goals that others will follow your lead and will start to build a competitive and sustainable culture for your team. But even if it doesn’t end up building that team culture, you’ll still have the work you put in, and the skills you built along the way.

Deep breaths. Eyes up. Do the best work you think you can do. Your team will follow or they won’t. But you’ll know you’ve built the best foundation you can, and it’s up to the next leadership team to build on what you’ve set up.

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If all goes well, my team will hopefully be coming out the other side of this very same scenario. Our string of lack of success was brought on by organizational issues and loss of mentors. There are a number of things we have done differently over the past year that seem to have brought on success. Not everything will be something you can do with so little time before Kickoff, but I think it’s worth saying anyway.

  • Get your new recruits engaged as soon as possible. We were lucky enough to get contact info for incoming students early, so we decided to hold a series of seminars over the summer to give people a taste of different things to do within FRC without forcing them to commit to the team. Really, anything you can do before the season to “do instead of saying” is an opportunity to take advantage of.

  • Challenge the language people are using toward the team. The sooner you can start making people aware of harmful mindsets they are perpetuating, the better. Even if the claim is that they are just joking, that doesn’t stop the negative feedback loop from flowing. It can happen without even thinking about it, so be careful to call it out whenever you see it.

  • Be careful with this one. There is a boundary between breeding contagious excitement and going too far overboard. That kind of energy isn’t sustainable over long periods of time, so you don’t want to give off the impression that that’s what is expected. That said, if you seem excited about robotics, others are likely to pick up on that as well.

  • Practice the habit of making plans and following through on them. For example, before you have a meeting, try to make it clear to anyone who might come exactly what is expected to get done. Actually doing what is planned is the most important part since you don’t want to set a precedent for making plans and bailing on them. Making achievable plans goes hand-in-hand with this idea. One other thing my team has done is start making a plan for the build season. Whether it’s day by day or more zoomed out, answer the question of what you expect to get done during what chunks of time. That way, you can catch yourself falling behind before it’s too late, maximizing your chances of having a successful season and boosting team morale.

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So if I was running your team, this is how I would run a build season.

I would DEFINITELY use the kit bot. I think this is one of the single best decisions your team can make to learn about “how” things are put together. Build your drivetrain early. Day #1 is good.

Focus your early season on building field elements for practice (along with a drivetrain).

Focus on attention to detail. Make your electrical system EXTREMELY reliable. Use wire wrap and ferrules, and make it difficult to have any electrical problems in a match. Also, make your bumpers look good, and most importantly make them robust. A team losing their bumpers in a match is never a good look, and causes you to get disabled. These items are critical, so spend time on them.

I would plan on running the 118 Everybot. One of my favorite robots of 2020 was team 7454 in Indiana. They could score power cells in the low goal, and they had a GREAT climber. Pretty sure they climbed every match at their first (only) event. They ended up ranking #4 at Bloomington. I believe this same feat could have been done with an everybot and a ton of practice. If you have a quality everybot with a few weeks of practice, this is HUGE. You will stand out at your event.

Being competitive will probably help with team attitude. 4272 had a big shift from 2016 to 2017 when we decided to focus on more attention to detail and simplicity. We went from a 2nd seed pick at 1 event in 2016 to rank #1 at our first event in 2017 (and went to worlds that year). This year was a turning point for the team, and I feel like we have been playing at a fairly high level ever since.

This is how I would personally approach your teams problem. Good luck this season.

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It is always easier to get behind a winning team.

What is your location (without giving away your team’s identity)? Are there other established teams near you who can help your team learn the fundamentals? Ask if your team can sit with the other teams as they analyze the new game to figure out the roles they are going to play and ask them if the role(s) your team have selected are appropriate. Ask them for advice on the design of your robot before you build it, while you build it and after you build it. Ask them for help troubleshooting and optimizing your designs. Practice with other teams as much as you can before your first competition, learning how to work with alliance mates as well as driving while some other robot is playing defense on yours. Learn to play effective defense using advice from the more established teams. Being fluent in driving/using a simple robot is much better than having a (hypothetically) more capable robot that your team is learning to drive at the competitions.

Schedule your time so that you have ample time to troubleshoot and refine your robot and practice with it before your competition. Set the goal of just swapping batteries at your competition. You will have a lot more fun that way.

Thanks to everyone who has replied so far! I’m super thankful for how helpful this community always is. I’ll try my best to reply to as many people as possible.

I’m hoping for this as well, I’m just worried that not having that boost right now will leave us unprepared for the season. Do you have any advice on how to run a successful kickoff?

Thanks for the advice! A lot of this stuff has been floating in my mind, but I’m struggling on how to go about pursuing these ideas:

  • What’s the best way of following through plans? I often find myself setting goals for our team, but during meetings we fall short and end up losing sight. Are there any organizational strategies or common practices that you have found successful?

  • For challenging language, I’m afraid of dissuading people by being to hostile. How can I get across that we should stop perpetuating toxic language without scaring people away?

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I appreciate this a lot. I’ve often found that I associate my team’s success with my self-worth. It’s not a great mindset to have, and I’m trying to break out of it as soon as I can so that I can become a better leader.

Thank you again for the reassurance, I’ll definitely be looking back on it in the future :slight_smile:

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We have a kit chassis on the ready :). I think this advice follows along what someone said earlier in this thread:

We’ll definitely be looking at simplifying our goals to fit within the team’s constraints. Hopefully we make the right decisions to fit within our definition of a successful season.

We compete in FMA, and know of some teams in our area.

I wouldn’t say the fundamentals are an issue for our team, given that do have a pretty extensive history in the program. However I would love to be working with other teams during the season to help compensate for our weaker areas.

A common trap our team falls into is losing track of schedule and falling behind our plan we set for the build season, resulting in less troubleshooting time and driver practice. What are some ways we can avoid this?

If you ever need any help with anything, feel free to reach out to Team 834 or send me a DM.

Are there no public kickoffs being run near your team? IMO the best way to enjoy kickoff is together with many other teams - though for example, the kickoff I’m running in Turkey is online this year because we don’t want to risk the kids health, and we want to be able to have regionals. But if you have in person kickoffs, take the team to a kickoff near you - they’re a lot of fun, you meet other teams, bounce ideas between each other, it adds a lot to the energy.

You’ve gotten a lot of good advice here. I’m also in FMA, and I’ve been through a similar situation as a mentor to a team that was severely demoralized at the time. I’m much too tired to write out info about how the team I mentored did kickoff right now, but if you’d like I can share that with you. Your needs may be different, but our kickoff worked well for us. Feel free to reach out to me if there’s anything you need help with.

Also, it’s great that you’re seeking help. It’s not easy to do, so know that a random stranger on the internet is proud of you.

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I think the anwer in most cases would be

Is your team getting side-tracked with activities that do not move them towards the desired goal or is there “scope creep”? Are they doing things like taking the robot apart to paint the inside of the chassis the last weekend of build before competition and the robot doesn’t run yet? Are they diverting the electrical group and programming group to install and program underglow LED strips that were not on the build plan before the robot runs properly? Perhaps working with another team and letting them hold your team accountable and on track may help.

Hey! I’ve been in a similar situation before (for context: I started my old team and was captain for 3 years, and saw the team through some extremely rough periods, to the point where a well-known mentor in the community said “I wish FIRST would step in and prevent situations like yours from happening in the first place”), and there are three huge things I think would help you out a lot:

  1. Ownership is key. Your less motivated teammates are never going to want to do things if they don’t feel like it’s “their” task to do – you have to reframe the dynamic so they feel like they’re doing a task for themselves, not just because you told them to. In that vein, you also have to learn to understand what motivates different people. For some people, it’s the huge moonshot goal they want to achieve someday, while others may be way more inspired by learning about concrete things they can implement (i.e., once my old team’s electrical lead saw that things like hot-gluing radio power and ziptieing power connections were both feasible and huge boosts for reliability, he worked really hard to implement them and we haven’t lost a match due to electrical failures since).

  2. As a leader, you’re a virus. If you’re optimistic, your teammates are going to feel that and be energized by it, but if you’re a pessimistic ball of misery (like I was at many points), that affects your teammates’ attitude. I had to learn this the hard way, but you have to make a conscious effort to showcase the attitude you want to “infect” your teammates with.

  3. You seem to be doing a good job of putting work into the team instead of just trying to boss your teammates around, but be mindful that you include your teammates and delegate tasks, instead of leaving them behind – it might slow you down in the short term, but it’s gonna pay HUGE dividends in the long run as your teammates start to learn and grow their skills.

If you have any other questions, or just want to chat, feel free to reach out either by messaging me on here or via email at adiddee [at] live [dot] com :​)

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There are a few key points to note here. First, your plans have to be achievable and few enough that you’re not overwhelmed with too many things going on at once. A good plan can often be broken down into a series of smaller goals that can be used to know whether you are on pace or not.

Especially important is that everyone involved has an understanding of their role. Gauging this can be tricky. Something I picked up from a book I read a while back is that you will likely not get anywhere simply by asking someone “do you understand what I told you?”. Most of the team people will just nod and say yes because it’s easy and they don’t want to sound dumb. Instead, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking “just so I know you understand, can you explain to me what I said/what you need to do?”. That tends to get a more meaningful response, and there’s no excuse for not knowing what to do after that point.

My personal preference is to just tell people very matter-of-factly that negative language about the team actively hurts the team. It doesn’t matter if you’re joking or not. The very act of vocalizing the thoughts reinforces them in your mind, which has an impact on your performance. I would ask people to try and limit negative comments and call people on it when you hear it come up.

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