Excellence is Contagious -- But how did you start the ball rolling?

There is a common sentiment on these boards that if you get up early, eat your Wheaties, work really hard, and go to bed late there is no limit to what you can accomplish. Another school of thought that may be more prevalent in FIRST but rarely expressed on CD is that, “Well those teams are just good because Acme Corp sends a crack team of genius engineers and managers and a robot bag filled with money to help them out every year”, and I’m sure the majority of teams are some shade of grey in between those extremes.

If you’ve been through the transformation from “indifference” to “excellence”*, are on the way, or maybe just thinking about it (get off the couch!), what started it? Before you started being awesome, what did you or others do to motivate everyone else? I am curious to see if it is basically the same story one hundred times over, or if every team has it differently.

I’ve never been in the position to start the ball rolling, I’ve just helped to push it along and I’d love to hear people’s stories.

*In case this isn’t clear, I am not talking just about the robot.

Back at my first FRC event (an offseason of Breakaway in the fall of my Freshman year), I remember looking around at all the different robots. I knew nothing of the schools, the robots themselves, or engineering. However even with all the robots on the field, I always kept my eyes on the little blue machine that seemed to score a lot. I had no idea who they were (or that the numbers on the bumpers meant that I was looking at a Hall of Fame and future World Champion team), but I just thought their robot was the coolest thing ever. I looked at their robot, and then back at ours, and asked “Why can’t we do that”? Of course, my mentors at the time bitterly told me they always won because “they had more resources than us”, but I was determined that by the time I graduated we could make a robot like theirs, and maybe even win an event. So I went to work doing research. I looked at this team’s website, studying how they ran their team. I joined an online community of people who also competed in the competition my team did and tried to learn as much as I could (although I admit in the beginning I posted a bit too frequently).

As the year passed on and my Sophomore year came. I continued learning and passing the knowledge onto my team to make our robots even more amazing. My goal that year was to do what our mentors said only the teams with lots of funding did: Make a second robot for practice. I knew it would be tough for us, but nothing good ever came easily. Not only did I convince the mentors to build a practice bot, but we even experimented with a new material and a custom frame, both of which worked wonders for us. After our last regional event of the season, I was inspired by the professionalism of our 2-number younger neighboring team, and wanted to then change the attitude of my team. Not gonna lie, when I started, 256 was of the group of teams who said “We’re not going to win anyways because the other teams have lots of money”. My involvement in Chief Delphi and the friends I gained through it taught me otherwise. Since then, our team has definitely changed its attitude towards the elite teams (albeit a little problem person here or there…).

Since my Freshman year, 256 has definitely changed a lot, and will continue to change. The ball has started rolling, and it’s gaining momentum. I honestly think 2013 is going to be the best year for us yet. In the words if Karthik, we are chasing perfection, hopefully catching excellence on the way.

For me it’s not so much what, it’s who. Travis Covington’s demanding standards of quality wore off on me years ago while we were both mentors on 968. Of course, he still continues to raise the bar as the rest of us struggle to play catch up.

On a related note, I feel like I’ve worked pretty darn hard this season, but one look at 118’s robot makes me think I haven’t worked nearly hard enough. I need to visit this team in action someday to see how it’s done. It’s just amazing.

Our team started during the 2011 “JCPenney Grant Rush.” Tons of rookie teams showed up and were kind of just there. Our team was one of those teams. We competed at the Dallas Regional and we got lucky.

I joined the team full time in my sophomore year and we were still kind of lost. We were approached by Spectrum 3847 in attending a Rookie Build Workshop. It was the best thing for us and we were able to undersand the game.

This year I decided that we needed to take our robotics team to the next level. I approached a large aluminum manufacturer next to our school about helping and we struck gold! They offered engineering support, materials, and funding. Needless to say, we designed and built our first competitive robot.

Next year, we hope to advance even better in our designs. Especially since our engineers have a better understanding of FIRST.

I love this topic and I’m very eager to see the great input others have to share. I’m a bit worried that this will get lost in the week1 craziness, so hopefully it gets pushed & revived as people have time to think.

I can’t say I have the absolute best example of the real transition - as I still aspire to build/be on an elite team :), but I can share some observations.

First Observation:
I’ve been working on a “secret” project where I’ve been talking to a lot of the really amazing “elite” team leaders, and in it, I will share a common theme (not every, but 90% of the teams). A strong team leader that the entire team is willing to follow is absolutely essential. This person must be a visionary (ie have/help the team make a good clear picture of the future). They must be goal oriented (the leader or team picks goals/priorities and they guide EVERY single decision that is made). This person must be willing to Focus the team (not everyone is going to be completely on point, along with priorities, the leader must focus each and every person until everyone is on the exact same path to success). And they must be respected (while not everyone will always agree upon the decisions made, they are all willing to respect the decision and work towards a common goal - A leader that inspires & demands this kind of respect is critical) and they must respect their team members - students and mentors alike are all critical elements to the team, and in order to gain respect, the leader must first be willing to respect the team.

Second Observation:

Excellence - is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible.

This has been my email signature for as long as I can remember. I believe in it 100%. If you have students and mentors on your team that “care too much”, and “risk a lot”, and “dream too big”, and “expect a lot of themselves and eachother”… you just may be on the road to Excellence. So many people mistake team discussions/arguments for bad fighting… In most cases it’s because your team members are passionate. If they are passionate, they are going to push harder and dream bigger. Its NOT the easiest road - conflict sucks! - but it will lead you to bigger and better things. Everyone needs to be allowed to dream and try!

Third Observation:
This one isn’t new… but its SOOO prevalent. DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL. Far Far too many students these days have the impression that any sort of failure is bad. One D on a paper gets their parents screaming at them, or their teacher looking down their nose, so students don’t aim high - they pick safe projects, safe topics, things they know they can achieve with minimal effort - but they DONT push themselves because they are scared they might fail! Now there is a very subtle difference between being realistic, and being afraid to fail. When you start your six week build, if you don’t have a sheet metal sponsor/machines lined up, you are not going to make a 118 or 148 or 1114 style robot. But that doesnt mean that you can’t build prototypes of crazy mechanisms out of scrap materials or things you collected from a junkyard. If you have never done an octocanum drive, try it in preseason - fail 20+ times, get your high school class to build a robot that climbs stairs… but learn that line between “playing it safe” and “being realistic”. It’s ok to fail over and over and over again, as long as your plan gets you to your goal in your given timeframe. Willingness to fail doesn’t need to be restricted to preseason, but it sure helps if you’ve failed 40 times in preseason and can transition your successes or how to predict failure to your build season :slight_smile:

Fourth Observation:
PASSION is your friend. I was team leader for my high school team all 3 years, I started a team in college, and I started a team at my first job (and might just start another someday soon!). The name of the game in getting what you want is to be Passionate and Convincing. If you can explain why this is so important to you with such conviction that the other person is convinced to believe exactly what you believe, then you can get anywhere. I convinced an engineer (my first year) that we could build a constant force spring driven goal blocking device (and we did!), I convinced a college to shell over $20K for a team, I convinced a high school to let us work overnight and weekends without having to pay for the janitor staff, I convinced a crazy rookie team to run a pre-ship event, I convinced two model shops to do work for our team, I convinced the IT department to donate 7 laptops, 4 monitors and build a 4 port video output display for our team, I convinced teams in Rochester to get together and start up an offseason… on and on and on… And I guarantee 20% of it was my actual “facts” or “message” and 80% of it was my Passion. FIRST changed my life, and I let that show every time I need/want to get something done. All of the “I’s” here sound very self serving, but my intent is to impress upon you what you can do if you are really passionate about it. I guarantee this is how many of the elite teams do it… they work insanely hard at crazy ideas that they are passionate about, refining them to the n’th degree until they are the best in the world. This can go for Robots, Strategies or some Chairman’s Award winning Unique effort.

This is what I’ve got so far… time to pack for FLR!!
Great topic!

My team, 2486, is from Flagstaff, Arizona and we are a 6 year team.

I’m going to address the robot first:

My team started out using one of our mentor’s classroom as storage space, and building a robot in the hallway (i’m sure others have done this). As the years progressed, we got our own space, and eventually a bigger one on school campus. We began to slowly involve our school’s SolidWorks/Shop Teacher in our team. But untill last season, we hadn’t really utalized many of the resources the school had to offer (SolidWorks, CNC Mill, Lathes, Manual Mills, Laser Engraver, etc.) except the standard band saw and drill press. About 10 of our team members learned SolidWorks and we just started machining like crazy. About 200 of the parts on our robot last year were machined by students in our school’s shop, and it made us more successful than ever before. I don’t think machining is really the main reason for success (though it really did help), but I think being able to go through the process of designing the robot in CAD before actually putting it together was the reason. During Rebound Rumble, we were seeded 7th in AZ and were finalists, while at Championships we were seeded 11th in our division (compared to dead last in LogoMotion).

As far as the path to becoming a Chairman’s Team goes:

Our first year as a team, we competed in FTC then FRC. We won the FTC Inspire Award which qualified us for Champs. While we were there we watched our fellow Arizonans 842 win CCA and were inspired to return eventually as a RCA team. So when the next year rolled around, we applied for Chairman’s in AZ and won as a two year team.

I think last year was really what got the ball rolling as far as the robot goes, but I don’t think excellence only measured by how well a team preforms on the field. Though students graduated and mentors came in and out of our program, the remaining constant was always passion and I really think that that is where excellence begins.

i can’t even try to explain how important this alone can be.

Drive and Passion Inspires Greatness.

As a FIRST sponsored giveaway Tshirt from Champs some time ago put it:

Action x (Passion + Vision) = Goal

You may also have to add some time to that–there are teams who go years as an “on the bubble” team and then start having breakout years year after year. I’ve seen a few of them in action.

First off, Kim’s post should be required reading. All of those observations are consistent with every team I have known that “gets it”.

The team I coach now wasn’t the same team it’s rookie year, we have the same number, but that’s about it. They were the “Roaring Crusaders” their first year and they got the Rookie Inspiration Award and Rookie Highest Seed Awards but they still had a lot to learn. When I joined the team the fall before their sophomore season, I was told that they only met during build season and for <15 hours a week. I was also told by a teacher that none of the students would want to meet more than that. We moved to a space where we could meet year round and at all hours (just across the parking lot at the other school). We started meeting in the off season and more than anything I started getting them excited about FRC. We would watch old matches and brainstorm ideas for old games. We would hold different training workshops each week to improve all of their technical skills. I also wanted to get them to see more robotics events so I brought a lot of them with me to volunteer at VEX, BEST, FLL, and even an FRC event before our competitions that year. We also volunteered at the Food Bank and other actives that helped our community while also building up our team. We made coming to the team a daily event, so much so that many of the members complain about the one day off we have the Wednesday after build season (We have met everyday since Jan 2nd, other than that day).

My goal was to see how quickly a team could get to be at that high level of competitiveness and luckily I have absolutely amazing students who have pushed just as hard as I have to get there. Spectrum has only really been in existence for about a year and half and we already have a Regional Chairman’s Award and a trip to St. Louis under our belts. We’re nowhere near where we want to be yet but I doubt any of the elite teams are satisfied with their current position or they would get knocked off the top pretty quickly by someone who wasn’t.

I think the biggest thing is you have to someone show you that’s not just okay to put a crazy amount of time into something but that’s it’s the only way you get better at anything. FRC is an extremely open community pretty much anything you want to know you can find but you have be willing to put in the time. Not every elite team meets for a crazy number of hours but someone(s) on the team is spending a lot of time working, thinking, building, and managing the project and they love doing it.

Great post Allen, and this really brings it home. Thanks for sharing your team’s story and your role in it. That PM you sent me a few months ago has been huge for me through this season.

I love doing FIRST!


Thank you, this just made my night. Good luck this season.

“You cannot give Reputation to the same post twice.”

Kim nailed it on the head perfectly for what I wanted to say. Can’t pos rep it more than once. I think I’ll add a personal experience later on in the season.

Ideally there is something remotely profound in the essay below, but don’t get your hopes up. Look at the post time (EST)… :smiley:

I feel like personally this is going to be a very strange but special season for me, as an annoying pimply teenager who 4 years ago couldn’t care much about FIRST, I went on to lead my team into a whole new chapter, and last week I sat on the other side of a Dean’s List submission for a kid who might have the same addiction I suffer from :D. I hope I’ll have a more inspiring story to share later, one that involves putting a student on my shoulders and running up and down Broad Street in Richmond, VA, screaming a lot and scaring passersby.

I think Kim was one of the first people to ever recognize one of my posts where I just let out a burst of energy about FIRST and how much it means to me. I have a lot of difficulty connecting with people in most of my life, I don’t like to talk to people, and I’m not usually a burst of emotion… but one day it clicked, and now I will talk to people for 4 or 5 hours at a time about robotics and I will email back and forth people who have no idea what I am like outside of FIRST. I’ve kept board members for foundations of Fortune 500 companies well past the meeting time because what I perceive as ramblings of a FIRST lunatic obviously captivates them in some way (or they feel bad for me… either way, I love sponsors!)

I stood up in front of 422 a few kickoffs ago and asked all 30 people in attendance when the team was going to start pushing themselves. I guess something has worked, because the team has doubled its revenue, its FLL support, its membership count, its mentor count, and its commitment all in the span of one year. We aren’t lighting up the global community with blue banners (yet), but mentors, alumni, parents, and students are blowing up my inbox with suggestions, ideas, full-on business plans for the team and potential team services, scouting plans, design propositions and even opinions graphics and spirit.

4 years ago our spirit was some silly hats and some foam signs, our scouting was me, a sophomore, and two seniors saying “hey, look at that robot!”, our business plan was to hope our single major sponsor would re-up again, and our designs consisted of aluminum angle, the kitbot frame, and some strings that could be pulled every once and a while (a few years) in a machine shop. Now I can see it. I can feel it. Heck, I’m 6 hours away and I can smell it.

I’ve had the pleasure of doing a lot of watching of 2614 while providing some wordsmith ability and video knowledge to their Chairman’s team and cutting into some minor observations in design and other parts of the team (the blessing and curse of having done everything on a team means I never found anything I’m great at except writing and marketing). Watching Dr. Scime (2012 WFA winner… get to learnin’ if you don’t know who he is) guide all 30-odd mentors and 30-odd students into further improving what is already a strong(ly underrated) FIRST team inspires me, and knowing how much he believes in the program he is willing to sacrifice time where normal people sleep (his personal and professional life should create 18-hour days anyway).

I learned so much in the few hours a week I could put aside homework with 2614, and I really don’t know how to tell them how much I appreciate it. I can tell how they started and kept the ball rolling-- it’s him. Whether it is a student or mentor, a team needs a captain… a go-to guy. I was mediocre at best. I hope the underclassman in Richmond does as well as he should next year. People like Earl are my idols–they grabbed FIRST life by the horns and figured out how to tame the beast and let it empower those around them. I’m not speaking for them in any way, I’m just commenting on what I’ve noticed and what I can bring back to VirginiaFIRST and my team this summer.

Great teams are ships on the high seas. Powered by the gale force winds of great leaders, driven by a core group of mentors and students, and aided by dozens of people who are on deck to help keep the boat afloat, they move. FIRST is their compass, and it always points towards their goals. Through the sun and the storms the course will deviate and correct itself, so before you know it, you arrive at your destination.

Or at least that’s how I like to imagine it at 3am and wide-awake, with visions of robots in my head.

I got a chuckle out of this. We have a retired air-force pilot, a plumber, a Mechanical Engineer who does the controls… well, you get the idea.

We’ve always done passably well with our robots. We never had much success on the business side until we got someone with passion and drive there. It wasn’t a matter of how smart the person was. It was trully a result of an incredible drive. This business plan wasn’t good enough. Why didn’t you attend the fund raiser. So on and so on. That one year that the particular person really headed up business taught many students what it really meant to work hard on the business side. That work ethic was passed onto the students, and we’ve been improving ever since.

One person, no matter their level of education, can be a game changer. As they say in sports - sometimes it’s about the amount of heart a person has.

Find that person for your team. A person who has drive, the will to succeed, and an attitude that doesn’t allow for people to let up and take it easy. They don’t need to be an expert at what they’re going to be doing - they just need to know how to get the most out of the people they’ll be doing it with.

Ok, I have to ask. Who on 1718 has a background in sailing? I noticed it wasn’t mentioned above, but having inspected, and admired 1718 bots for several years now, I know there is a current or former sailor on the team as well.

Hi Ian,
Thank you for creating this thread. It is a good topic and I, too, hope it doesn’t get lost in the excitement of the competition season.

In my signature, one can read Andy Baker’s quote. He said that to me during a conversation that he and I were having over my breakfast at the Alamo Regional a couple of years ago. The conversation was about growth and development in teams, regions, businesses, and life. It was an excellent conversation. I’m grateful for Andy’s philosophy and attitude toward helping to spread excellence by getting the ball rolling wherever he is.

Getting the ball rolling… I’ve kept my eyes on the ball. What I’ve learned by watching the ball is that it can roll in lots of directions. It can roll toward you or away from you. It can roll a strike or a gutter ball. But, the important part of the roll is the movement. By this I mean that the light really goes on when an individual or a team or a community or a region - realizes that excellence cannot be attained without help and support. Excellence cannot be confined to one way of doing things -> my way or the highway. Excellence will spread when the ball starts moving. The ball starts moving when we begin to reach out and ask questions, ask for help, realize that we don’t necessarily have what we need to achieve our goals but we have resources that will support our efforts - if we use them. We also start the ball moving when we are willing to share our knowledge, experiences, expertise, and fun. When those two lights go on - excellence begins to spread. Like wildfire.

We’ve seen a wonderful example of spreading excellence just this season: 116’s animation challenge. They didn’t roll the ball - they picked the ball up and ran with it, acknowledging that the need for a place for those who value the animation award - still exists. They created that place. That is creating the opportunity for excellence to occur. By doing so, 116 is spreading excellence. Their excellence.

When we read the Woodie Flowers Award submissions and the Dean’s List submissions, we often find that the mentors and students are being recognized for their dedication to spreading excellence. Often, the impact of their dedication is felt far beyond the boundaries of their team or even their community. That is when the ball is really moving, spreading excellence.

My advice is to keep your eye on the ball and watch it roll, helping to nudge it in the direction of excellence. Work with others and learn from them. Grow inspiration by committing yourself to a positive attitude dedicated to achieving realistic goals. When those are achieved - create more goals, then more, then more. Never stop dreaming. Many of our Hall of Fame teams - never stop dreaming, spreading excellence as they realize those precious dreams.


That’d be me. Raced since I was a young kid. Which year clued you in? We’ve had sailboat stuff on every robot I can think of since 2008.

Spoiler: You’ll see a ton of it on our 2013 bot :slight_smile:

Kim’s post is dead on. It’s no coincidence that the most successful teams often have some of the most enthusiastic mentors & students that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Passion is infectious; it can be passed on through pure enthusiasm and excitement.

Be passionate about what you’re doing in all walks of life. Try new things, meet new people, explore new ideas, and always show your enthusiasm for what you’re doing. People that have the power to hire you, or to give to your team, or to help in you in any other numerous ways notice this quality.

As a mentor, I suspect that I am not alone when I say that I would rather work with teams who

rather than teams who make excuses like

so it probably becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

After speaking with a lot of teams, especially the top teams, I have noticed that the first group all have the passion that Kim spoke of. I suspect that passion would lead them to do well whether or not they had help from “a crack team of genius engineers and managers and a robot bag filled with money to help them out every year”. It just might take them a bit longer.

So my team pointed out Wil’s post to me today. Speaking for 2614 (team MARS), I think Wil Payne needs to update his signature to “Valuable College Freshman Volunteer!” To continue the metaphor, it is nice to have you aboard. Stay for the entire voyage.