When walking into my 9th and final event as a student in FRC my teammates are excited and hopeful for the 3 days ahead of us, maybe we can fix our robot so we don’t have to play defence this year? As the most senior person on the team I do not feel such optimism, I just feel despair, as I look upon the couple dozen robots streaming in which I know, will be better than ours in almost every way.
My point of view seems to be vindicated when I see that history is repeating itself as I look at the scoreboard and with us ranking 2nd last with only 2 matches with our defence bot left. At this point, I got up and left the arena, an anticlimactic and cowardly way to end my time in FRC and tenure as team captain.
I had failed.
So how did I get here?
After the ordeal, we all blamed the captain: “it was their poor planning and selfishness which was our ruin” and we all blamed the school: “if only they gave us more money and workshop hours we would be on our way to Houston”. We all proclaimed that we would never make the same mistakes again.
Yet we were left lost, our only mentor was leaving and the only people left were freshmen. We would have to forge a new team.
We decided not to elect a team captain as we felt that as a small team of less than 10 we didn’t need one. However, I had some big ideas and people seemed to follow. I sketched out a new robot and taught myself Solidworks (at the same time as a few others), this would be how we would win during the offseason. Skip forward a few weeks, the CAD was never completed as we didn’t really know how and the manufacturing was weeks behind as none of us really knew how to organise things. Frustrated our new mentor pulled the plug and sent us home one afternoon saying that we were just wasting his time and the school’s money as they saw that nothing had been done.
Maybe next year.
When my second season began there was a new face, an old team captain (in their second year of university) was returning to become a mentor. This, along with a new system I had devised to organise and review CAD using GitHub, would surely bring us success, but we arrived at comp the same as in the previous year with a robot that could only play defence even though we tried to go small (we designed a robot which could do low hatch panels and cargo only).
The particulars of the year began a rift that felt small at the time but would soon grow, the new mentor wanted us to have a passively centring intake (it would mechanically interface to the field to ensure the hatch panels lined up), a request we eventually caved to. This was despite my stark opposition citing how every other team would use vision, but they said they just didn’t trust the software and it would be easier their way.
The years rolled on and I attempted more ill-fated reforms of the team:
- offseason training and recruitment, which failed as I couldn’t teach very well and people were not motivated to attend during lockdown;
- different CAD programs and techniques, which failed as we didn’t have the skills to use them;
- stocktaking and organisation; which failed as we didn’t have the knowledge or drive to follow through with it;
- under the table ways to get more build hours and funding, which failed as the school found out and disapproved;
- simplifying the robot, which failed as we always caved to the temptation to make it just a little bit better.
During this time, our mentor saw the downwards spiral of our team and decided to put their foot down and take a bit more control. I was extremely frustrated as I saw it as my unofficial team captain role being taken from me. The back and forth tension between us began to grow and led to some rather unprofessional exchanges online. All of this while we kept bringing defence bots to comp (getting more bitter about it every time), it seemed as though each time we just needed a few more hours to get the robot working.
This leads us into this year. I thought that things had finally started to come together, but little did I know this would be my worst year yet.
The day after kickoff we met to discuss strategy, we rapidly came to a consensus. We would shoot high and climb to high, a rather ambitious goal. We began to do our CAD.
Tensions began to brew when disagreements over our initial design surfaced, the mentor become convinced that it would be too hard to shoot high (for reasons which were not logical to me, I can’t get too specific but I was right) and we should go low. At the same time, they were made since they perceived I had gone behind their back when I designed a climber which could do traversal; I maintained that this was a happy accident, but in reality, it was an act of rebellion to make it so I would go out with a bang (since I had never seen any of the dozen mechanisms I had designed actually working on the field, and if one was to work I wanted it to be this).
I desperately wanted my final season to work out. We had the recipe for success: access to a CNC machine (for the first time), the ability to purchase any part we needed (for the first time) and the most skilled team in our history. So I worked day and night 12-16 hours a day for 3 weeks designing, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. I lost my temper at many of the other designers, saying that they were incompetent and that it would have been easier to do everything myself. This had some kernel of truth as a significant portion of my time was devoted to supporting the other designers, by teaching them, reviewing their work, fixing their CAD and integrating things together. I was admittedly very pedantic about the CAD wanting it to be 100% accurate as I want the robot to just fit together the first time so we wouldn’t waste time searching for parts or fixing things as we had in previous years (given that we still had very limited build time). We did, however, limp to the finish line with our CAD (even though it was a week late).
A few weeks into manufacturing we were seriously behind, we were a week out from the planned finish date and the drive base wasn’t even done. We then realised that a few parts were CNCed out of spec and we didn’t have the time to remake them. So we had to do the unthinkable: a couple alumni from our team would redesign the robot over the weekend to be much simpler, we would ditch the climber and ditch the shooter and only score low. I was completely gutted by this revelation, but unlike in the past when I would fight with the mentor who suggested the idea, this time I was in too much shock and I was too exhausted to do anything. But a sense of despair began to build inside of me.
We diligently tried to build the redesigned robot, but we ran out of time; our fate was sealed history would repeat itself again, bringing us back to the start of this tale.
Things didn’t end when I walked out of that arena though. In the following days, I spent hours oscillating between crying and lying motionless in bed. I felt as though it was my fault that we didn’t win, that I had wasted tens of thousands of dollars, that I had wasted two dozen people’s time and that I was worthless for not even being able to achieve something basic in a competition designed for high school students. When I forced myself to go to an exam a few days after I had a panic attack and was not able to do it since I was so scared of failing even more (and I had not prepared for it since I put all my time into FRC). I have only just been able to catch up on all the work I missed due to the sacrifices I made for FRC (a few weeks on). I visited a doctor and psychologist about these issues, all I wish to say about that is that robotics had some lasting consequences.
When I began to compose myself I began to reflect on my mixed experience in FRC and ask others about my tenure as a leader.
A general theme seemed to stick out to me for the latter: “you were pretty good, but you expected far too much of us”. Was I expecting too much? Is it not appropriate to expect people to put in at least a quarter of the work I did so that we could do well? Was it delusional to think that we could succeed?
For the former, I felt as though I did end up learning some valuable lessons. However, at the same time, my final season had given me the darkest period of my life and I feel as though I have missed out on amazing opportunities and experiences by never achieving the implied goal of FIRST (yes I understand inspiration is the goal, but having my soul pounded into oblivion over 5 years wasn’t very inspirational). However, that may just be an issue with me as other team members didn’t have such problems with the program and seemed to enjoy the ride. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to lead, maybe I was on the wrong team, whatever the case it is too late now.
Sorry for the wall of text. I just wanted to share my experiences, but I know I am probably just screaming into the void. Maybe this story can relate to people who aren’t on a very good team and who haven’t come within 100 yards of a blue banner.
Now I have a parting question: If Kamen’s vision is to have an FRC team in every school how does that square with the limited capabilities of the average school? As I have seen firsthand how diluted and demoralizing the program can be without proper support and direction (yes I know how loaded I have made this question).