Changing a culture of cynicism

Our competition season recently came and went with the Buckeye Regional in Cleveland (Congrats to the Winners). During the course of the competition I witnessed a culture in my team that both irritates and befuddles me. It has been constant since our inception as a team in 2012. Until this year though I didn’t recognize it for what it is: Cynicism.

Almost all members of our team exhibit this quality. They never allow themselves to be excited about pretty much anything… ever. When other teams cheer and yell, they sit and observe. When theres mascots dancing with people in a corridor, they detour around. When people stand and cheer at awards presentations, they might give a golf clap.

I talked about this with my upperclassmen Friday night, and here’s what I got from them (I will paraphrase their quotes).

-“If I don’t get excited, I can’t get disappointed”

I’ve thought about the nature of cynicism over the last few days, and I think it stems from the general feelings of hopelessness, mistrust that is prevalent in our student population. Being in rural Appalachian Ohio has (I infer from them) has a lot to do with this. Granted, at times it can be a bit depressing in an economic way, but I don’t see it the same way they do.

MY question… how do I change this? I think the world can be an amazing place for a bright kid, and FIRST is the exact type of thing that they should feel safe to give in to vulnerability that comes with excitement. How can I overcome this culture of cynicism and let them feel free to enjoy the ride?

As a note: If you are on a team that has got a cold shoulder from someone on our team, I’m deeply sorry.

Well. To start off, this may cause some inter team issues. Would’ve probably been best to post this anonymously.

Getting to the point, it’s really just so hard to believe this when the FRC competitions I have watched online and attended are just bursting from the seams with energy. The competitions contain such an energetic mood that it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t catch on to them a bit at least.

If they think they’ll feel disappointment, turn down the complexity of your robot. Having them feel more confident about their robot will allow the team to do better in the end. Just make it simple, so that every time a match starts, you can tell yourself, it’s going to work.

To be fair, I’m not always the one with the most energy at a competition, but I do cheer. But for them to not even cheer is ridiculous. I would advise not to push any big changes onto them though. It may just be part of their personality. Are they usually that serious/unexcited?

Either I am misunderstanding what you wrote, or what you are observing isn’t cynicism. Being reserved is perfectly acceptable. It is part of some cultures and subcultures, and certainly part of some personalities. While dancing and jumping around with mascots is common at FRC events, it is not mandatory. Cynicism would be sneering at people, or at FRC itself, saying “this is stupid”, and refusing to participate in the core learning activities. Personally, I will dance with my students who want to dance sometimes, and I’ll sit quietly with those who prefer to observe and soak it in sometimes. Both behaviors are okay, and neither should offend anyone.

Yes, this sounds more like apathy or pessimism. It’s easy to feel that way especially when things don’t work out the way people hope or plan. I have found that the best remedy for this is constant encouragement and engagement. Laughing, cheering, and staying positive is infectious. They won’t catch it from other teams - they catch it from their mentors and fellow team members. Emphasizing that the experience is worth more than the results is key. Everyone likes winning but it’s important to emphasize how that can’t be the measure of a good time because it isn’t reliable.

You can tell them, “If you don’t get excited, you won’t have fun, you won’t stay positive, and you won’t be open for opportunities that can make you successful.” It takes time to break this attitude but you can do it.

it’s really just so hard to believe this when the FRC competitions I have watched online and attended are just bursting from the seams with energy.
-I know! It’s hard for me to understand.

Are they like this all the time?
-When it’s just us, they are some of the silliest, goofiest, kids I’ve been around.

I’m not sure if cynicism is the right term, but they try to hard for it to be apathy. It may have an element of pessimism, but even in times when we’ve been doing well they are still like this. They are aloof. We had a girl from another team that stopped by our pit while they were fixing a chain, she was helpful, brought them a tool to help, and they were not exactly welcoming.

I’m sure they are at least a little bit jealous. We’ve never won anything, or even made it to the eliminations, and I know it’s hard on them, but I continue to remind them that those teams earn what they get, and they didn’t get there overnight. Also it seems like theres more to it than this.

Have seen this…even from my own son, who lived, loved, and breathed FIRST for many years. (Robotics competitions at the college level sort of destroyed his enthusiasm for competition, unfortunately.) Our demographics are similar to yours…I believe that cynicism extends to almost every activity at school. I always wonder that they get through their day and do so well academically, with their poor attitudes. But - it is a FRONT - they are wanting to find some way to make themselves unique and feel superior, even though they feel completely inferior in most respects. By acting like they are rejecting the spirit of the competition, it puts them in a safe spot where they don’t have to feel rejected if they do join in. It’s maddening to us mentors to deal with their “I am above your petty enthusiasm” attitude, especially when they screw up the Chairmans Award video they were assigned (what happened to us this year.)

I believe it is really best to confront them about their attitude. Ask them to give you more than a flippant reason why they are doing this. Let them know that you feel it undermines the team’s success. Tell them you know they have much to give to the team, but if they can’t be positive, they should consider not being part of it.

For those of us who are coming from a tough spot already, a positive attitude makes all the difference in how we view our successes and failures and whether we grow from them or let them limit us.

^^ This is what I want to describe. How has this approach worked for you? I don’t want to drive them away.

well, we have driven some away…but frankly, they had become so disengaged they weren’t productive members of our team, anyway.

when it happened just before our last competition, I took one of the cynicism ringleaders aside and told them I was counting on them to be positive this time. They asked me what I meant and I recounted how they acted earlier. I asked them why they felt that way and they said they had felt excluded from the team and gave me specific examples of times they tried to give input or help out and were “shunned.” I was surprised, because I knew the instances and realized that they had misinterpreted things and were being over-sensitive.

I ended the conversation by telling them that I was sorry they felt excluded, but that sometimes the build can be really stressful for everyone. I let them know that they were still a valuable team player and was counting on them to lead the scout team.

I was shocked to see a huge change in their attitude at competition after that.

I think sometimes just letting team members know they are valued is all it takes. We also never know what someone is dealing with privately.

If they don’t respond in a positive, proactive manner when you reach out to them…well, then maybe robotics really isn’t their thing and they should leave the team.

oh crap, I forgot to say this: never talk to them as a group. Talk to them one on one. That’s the only way to break down the defenses, and it is a defensive attitude they are copping, for the most part. Also, singling them out when they are in a group can make them feel humiliated and they will act out worse.

Please, Please, Please, Please, Please be open minded when approaching people with different mentalities. Someones outlook on life shouldn’t be called wrong just because it doesn’t fit a certain standard. I have tons of fun hyping up a crowd at a regional, I have just as much fun having a challenging video game test my limits and consistently make me fail. Neither of those are wrong though. If someone is faking chill dude mentality that is one thing. If on the other hand someone is genuinely just a chill dude that doesn’t do hype then they shouldn’t be called out or punished for being different.


A couple teams I’ve helped with have had instances of disaffected behavior. I don’t think there’s any quick remedy to it, and trying to force the issue will just create more negative feelings. What seems to work is just setting a good example, and inviting others to participate - but then being graciously accepting when they decline. Focus on the younger members on your team - they’re more open to different viewpoints. If you can convince the members on your team that being a little loud and silly at competitions is ok and they won’t be ridiculed for it, they’ll loosen up over time. You shouldn’t expect everyone to be the same though - some people can be enthusiastic but don’t show it as much.

I pretty much behave in the manner of your teammates. I hate dancing (I am the world’s most rhythm challenged black man) and I’m pretty serious at the competitions in doing my job. But I love FIRST absolutely in my own way going to dozens of competitions every year (including my famed regualr season full tour of an event every week) and just seeing and chatting with all my friends. Not everyone celebrates FIRST the same way but it doesn’t always mean they’re not celebrating FIRST at all.

I don’t know why but this reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite authors, Robert A. Heinlein. While taken out of context, it basically reads “if you don’t play, you can’t win”. Though he is a great science fiction author this book is titled “Time Enough for Love”.
While some of Robert’s books are now superceded by modern scientific discoveries, the context is still an interesting read. For those of you interested enough to pick up one of his books, you have to get through the first three chapters, the rest of the book is a breeze. Heinlein gets all of the housekeeping done early so he can concentrate on a good story.

Matthew, first off I would like to say we have always found your team to be pleasant to work with. When 4165 were rookies they even came up to our school for some programming help mid season. So I don’t think the team is coming off as giving anyone the cold shoulder.

I think YAK’ker probably diagnosed the issue for at least some of your team. People (not just kids) often use studied lack of enthusiasm in order to insulate themselves from the disappointment of failure. And Ed certainly makes a good point that some people are just not comfortable being really demonstrative. As a coach I have encountered this a lot. There have been years when team 1014 was really quiet and it was hard to get the kids out of their seats to cheer.

What I have found helps the most is getting a couple of kids to lead. When a few teammates are up and enthusiastic, and willing to “put themselves out there” when their teammates are just sitting around it tends to drag a few others along. We also talk to the team before every competition and remind them that being quiet and reserved tends to make it harder to notice your team and thus less likely you will make it into the elimination rounds. I have also found that involving everyone who is not in the pits in scouting or other important activities helps students invest more in the competition. Now we always have some students who are designated to lead scouting and lead cheering, so that the kids in the stands are more engaged.

Be the change you want to see.

Not ever meaning to judge a member by their outward attitude…but I have known many who are on our team simply because their parents pushed them to be, or they want robotics on their resume. Sometimes that works and they eventually become engaged and team-oriented, but more often than not, they take their rebellion against parental authority out on the mentors and the team officers.

My son is a non-cheering type, it’s just not his thing. I have no problem with kids who are that way. It’s the kids who go out of their way to be negative about showing spirit and who judge others who do that can pilot a team into a negative slump. In a way, it can be a form of bullying, especially when they make fun of others on the team. This has to be stopped right away, then find out what the cause is for their negative attitude and go from there.

Absolutely agree.

I also would add, ask them what would make them excited. Even if one of them can verbalize what it is and you can help that happen, it’ll make difference.

Another thing, if it all possible surround them with easily excited people; after all for logs to burn you need a lot of kindling :slight_smile:

Another thing, if it all possible surround them with easily excited people; after all for logs to burn you need a lot of kindling

This really made the difference for our team. Much of our presence in the stands had a “too cool for school” attitude to it in years past. It was a consequence of the culture of our school, really.

An extremely enthusiastic mentor with FIRST experience found and joined our team…and she has made a world of difference. She refuses to be unenthusiastic and won’t allow our students to be either. She’s fairly young and so relates to the students well, which kind of ‘gives them permission’ to let their hair down a bit and really have fun at competition.

She’s a bit of an anomaly and I don’t expect someone like her to just walk onto your team like ours, but perhaps a pointed search for a “spirit mentor” could help with your culture!

A few things I will note:

The great teams in FIRST and FRC are not stepping on the necks of lesser teams, the great teams are reaching down to lift the lesser teams up on their shoulders. Imparting this mindset to your team, and having positive interactions with other teams, will help to shed (what I think is) the underlying “it’s us versus them” attitude that manifests as cynicism on your team. Celebrate all others’ successes because they are our successes as members of FIRST.

Lead by example. Get you students to laugh. Taken them with you to talk to other teams. Take them with you to HELP other teams. Make all of them dance. Remind them that they’re at a robotics event, any traditional “coolness” got left at the load-in doors and they’re not going to impress anyone by being aloof. Reward the worst (I mean best) puns your students make. Remind them, or better yet show them, that people aren’t too different between different teams; we’re like one big cult (I mean that in a loving way) and they should embrace being part of such a fantastic group.

Very good points. Especially one about helping others. See if your local FLL or FTC teams need help. That puts a lot of things in different perspective.