FIRST as a sport?

Every time I look, FIRST (and namely the culture surrounding it) are moving further and further from the “science fair” end to the “sports” end. It’s this model that has made FRC so popular and so successful, as it can provide a much more entertaining and interactive method to science and technology. But is there a point where becoming too much like a sport is dangerous? How much like a sport should FIRST, FRC, and most importantly the culture surrounding it, be?
An example of what makes FRC so special can be seen within FTC and FTC’s reaction to the showcase challenge. Reading posts like this, this, and this show the feeling that heavily favor a “sport-like FRC-esque” game rather than a more “science-fair FLL style” challenge. I think we can all agree that the games are part of what has made FRC so special to all of us and kept us competing in it, but should the similarities extend beyond the field?
In the past few years we have seen the creation of The Blue Alliance, SOAP Gameday, Looking Forward, and Fantasy FIRST. This post calls for Looking Forward’s columns to be placed in the Sports Section of papers. Others in that thread suggested Sportscenter-like video segments about regionals. There is little doubt in my mind that FIRST’s atmosphere is becoming much more similar to a sport.
While the competitive, sports-like games have helped establish FRC as the leading high school robotics competition, sports have a slew of problems. Steroids, cheating, gambling, “fixing”, and other problems have been huge public issues for years. Why are things like this so rare in the sporting world? The winning-is-everything mentality has taken over far too much of the sporting world (and not just professional sports). After Eight Overtimes, the Michigan HS state championship hockey game was called a tie. While most applauded the decision, some didn’t.

There’s a cultural association in sports with winning and being the best. It’s the cause for performance-enhancing drugs, “spygate”, and every other form of cheating. And it extends beyond the playing field. Teams and cities have rivalries, individuals gamble on the results, and merchandise and memorabilia have become massive industries. Do we really want FIRST rivalries like this? Do we want betting pools on the Championship? Do I need a ThunderChickens recliner and Robowrangler’s authentic Rebok jersey? Should Karthik’s Delgado jersey sell for $500,000 some day?
Then of course there are the egos that are associated with the modern athlete. FIRST has publicly mentioned on multiple occasions how part of it’s mission is to place engineers and scientists on the same level as athletes and actors, but do we really want them to be the rockstar athletes? Or do we just want them to have the same fame. Does FIRST need a Michael Vick? “Pacman” Jones? Is FIRST really where the “egos come to play”?
It’s not hard to find comments stressing the importance of the word “competition” on these forums, and how winning is a valuable tool for inspiration. And this thread is not meant to be about whether or not winning is important. This thread is meant to discuss the culture that surrounds FRC and the value that culture puts on winning. There are plenty of threads discussing officiating (just like sports) and how team’s were “robbed” dotting Chief Delphi. Save those discussions for there. Don’t bring them here.
I realize this post sounds very negative. It’s not meant to be, it’s meant to bring to light the other side of this discussion. I don’t think I could manage without being able to watch matches on TBA or chat up other FIRSTers on the gameday discussions during regionals. There are obvious benefits to these and the sports-aspect of FIRST. But we need to tread carefully about how far we advance and what we want FIRST to become. And this aspect of FIRST is very much in our hands.

Generally speaking there is desirable and undesirable behavior in many activities.

I don’t know how you would measure something like this but the better measurement is to assess an activity with ‘bell-shaped glasses’.

If you had a plot with pure science on one side and pure sport on the other can you plot something against something to make a bell curve?

Does the aggregate group activity land on target ? And if so how well ? How broad is the distribution from the mean. Is the mean of this curve drifting off target to a pure sport or pure science fair? And so on.

The Chairman’s Award description uses the phrase ‘central focus’. It didn’t say only focus. I think this description is a a useful illustration of how to run the overall program.

Undoubtedly there are teams that are going to run off the slippery tail of the bell curve but I’m not going to fret over that. I’m going to worry about the aggregate numbers as it relates to the central focus.

I don’t have any problem with the ESPN style of reporting as long the central focus of the program is maintained. The complaints you voiced are not so different than that voiced about NCAA sports. Most people don’t realize it but there are some 400,000 NCAA student-athletes in the US. Most behave and don’t do stupid stuff. And most get their education. They maintained their priorities. It is just hard to be aware of that because it doesn’t make headlines.

If FIRST has any significant success then we can expect to have issues on fringe just like our sports brethren. It is part of the terrain. We just have to make sure it stays on the fringe.

Sean raises an interesting point, but (fortunately) I haven’t seen much evidence of the worst part of his fears – that is, cheating in FIRST to win. The vast majority of competitive sports in the US are between groups of friends or kids who get together to “play” something for fun. I went through 12 years of kid sports (soccer, basketball, and Little League) and cannot ever remember a case of systematic cheating. I know there *have *been cheating incidents in youth sports, but not on a systemic basis. As an adult, I can’t remember stories of cheating in “club” sports like softball, cycling, rugby, or soccer. Cheating in professional sports are generally linked to money. Money is the great corrupter of people in sports, I believe, and it strikes me as very unlikely that something like FIRST would ever get to that level.

As for the implied argument that the competitive aspect of competition robotics will corrupt our souls – that winning and losing will be the only thing we care about – I’m not worried about that either. It’s already the case for a very passionate minority, but I can’t see what would change the ratio of win-or-die folks to win-but-don’t-forget-to-have-fun people that we have now. FIRST is nearly 20 years old with a highly competitive culture already in place. It’s never going to be as popular as the NBA or MLB, so I don’t think we have to worry about that ratio tilting completely to the “win-or-die” side of the equation. If that was likely, it would have happened already.

I believe the biggest challenge for FIRST is not the worry of over-competitiveness, it’s how to grow a lower-cost high school program that any club or school can enjoy without having to raise $20,000 and build a machine shop. When FRC and FTC combine to reach the 90 (95?) percent of the high schools in North America that don’t already have a robotics team, THAT will be success, regardless of how competitive the students feel.

Actually, as long as the adults involved keep their cool, the students will be fine. When the parents, mentors, and other adults care about winning more than about the personal growth of students, THAT’S when the program will be in trouble.

FIRST - or any robotics competition for that matter - can all move in the general direction of being a sport without succumbing to many of the negative side effects of sports. All it takes is for the community that participates in FIRST to keep their heads up, and always stick to the graciously professional high road.

Personally I find it humerous when people talk about FIRST and professional sports. Professional athletes are paid to win. They are not paid to be sportsmanlike, role models, or even to be gracious. Therefore their only goal is, and should be, to win. This single mindedness, regardless of other outcomes, is what makes them professional athletes.

If you want to equate FIRST to sports then you should look to groups like Little League, where the players play, and coaches coach, for the love of the game. Where being a good sport is as important as a good athlete.

It is my deepest hope that FIRST never reaches the point of the professional athlete … and always remains ‘Little League’

Building robots is what the teams in FIRST do. In the process of building robots, the teams that understand the full impact that FIRST can have, build a team. Engineers that participate in FRC are role models. They reflect their understanding of FIRST by their actions and their attitudes. If engineers ‘just build robots’ – then that is what they do. If students become members of the team and they ‘just want to build the robot’ – and their role models only build robots, then that is what they’ll do. If the engineers/mentors are the coaches and they ‘just build robots to compete and win’ – then that is what they will do.

It is an attitude.

FRC has been around long enough now to have engineers that were high school students on teams. It has also been around long enough for college graduates and engineers to become a part of the business industry, creating businesses or becoming employed in businesses that support robotics and benefit teams in FIRST. As these members of FIRST develop and mature, they have the opportunity to carry the philosophy of Gracious Professionalism with them into their real world. They also have the choice not to.

FIRST was founded by visionaries. FIRST teams are a place where vision can be encouraged and developed. Teams can also be a place where vision can be limited or distorted. There is a lot of freedom in the FRC teams to develop, organize, work, and compete according to their vision of who and what they are in FRC. That is also true for the individuals that have grown through the program and helped it become what it is in 2008. That is also true for the community of FIRST.

The teams that win the coveted Chairman’s Award will always be far out-numbered by the teams that win the robot competition. We can be assured that the teams that win the Chairman’s Award ‘get’ the vision, the mission, and the goals of the FIRST founders. We can’t always be assured that the teams who win the robot competitions – do or will.

Engineers wield great power in FRC. College students who are pursuing their engineering degrees and achieving their goals, while remaining involved in FRC and FIRST, make an impact and will continue to do so with strengthening power. It is up to the members of FRC and FIRST to decide where this is going to go and if the values of our founding visionaries will remain intact.

One of my concerns is the rookies and the first, second, and even third year teams. They have to have the support of everyone involved in FIRST in order for them to stick around and develop. Wayne Penn posted a thread that was a challenge for the FRC teams to help the rookies. It was called, Hybrid Challenge, No Robot Left Behind. As FRC continues to grow and spread, we should think of more innovative ways to help the newer teams take root and keep the veteran teams from going under. We can be visionary and proactive or we can be limited and watch teams struggle and sometimes die.

I’m not as interested in rock stars as I am role models who compete hard and have the vision that the HoF teams have. If we have that, everyone can shine and sparkle – together.

Even non-professional athletes have alot of the negitive aspects and the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. At may universities, the term ‘student-athlete’ is a joke. Instead of worring of FIRST becomming like the professional sports, we should be worring about it becomming like college/high school sports. I would assume everyone wants FIRST to expand and gain more publicity. What if more colleges see how special FIRST is and how those who participate have a great head start going into college in engineering. Like sports, what if they ‘recruit’ students through FIRST to go to their colleges. Perhaps some students who want to go to the top schools feel their team needs to win and do well to get noticed by these top schools so they try to ‘win at all costs’ and truely forget about the purpose of FIRST. I think this possble problem is still years down the road, but you never know what will happen.

I think one of the problems is one of FIRST’s bests asset; Chiefdelphi itself.
People come here to talk about all things FIRST and often that talk is almost always about who has the best robot and who has the most bling. Not who is spreading the word of FIRST the best. Now is it the fault of Chiefdelphi or the elite teams because of this? Of course not. We’re a competitive society and people gravitate towards the top achievers. So of course people are going to talk endlessly about teams like 1114, 111, 71, 25, 233 and such.
FIRST itself talks a good game and says it’s not all about the robot but when you attend an event what do you mostly see? Robots. I see no sign of anything about the Chairman’s award at any regional and all of the judging is done behind the scenes while the robots are competing, entertaining the masses. So if FIRST has issues with it becoming more and more like the sports they supposedly hold in disdain they have no one to blame but themselves.

As a former college athlete and current HS coach for both athletics and robotics, I think Sean highlights a real danger, but an avoidable one. At the high school level, there are certainly coaches and even more certainly parents and fans who emphasize winning at all costs. Such as the fan Sean quoted from But I have found the best coaches embrace a much more constructive philosophy. Most state athletic associations actually have mission statements that explicitly state that winning is a secondary consideration in sports. Maybe we should adopt a model like golf or ultimate frisbee, in which it is each competitors prerogative and responsibiliy to call penalties on himself or herself.

This year, our team got Chairman’s feedback at our regional that was basically the same as the last two years: You had a great submission, you are strong everywhere, it was a really tough decision but we thought the other team had a greater overall impact, keep doing what you are doing. I will admit it was a little frustrating, for me and the kids. Not the not winning part but the “you did everything right but didn’t win part.” I found that being a cross-country coach prepared me for this.

In cross-country, you can’t play defense. You have no control over how well your opponents run. All you can do is do your best. So we emphasize continuous improvement. Even things like titles are elusive sometimes. The runner with the third fastest time ever at the current Ohio High School State Championship course (which he ran as a junior) didn’t win a title because he had to run against the second fastest kid ever. This leads to an interesting ethos in the sport. Most top competitors are friends. There certainly times when there is bad blood, but that is by far the exception. Most runners, most of the time, would rather run faster than place higher. When runners brag, we brag about times rather than wins. Most runners never win a race.

I remember one near the end of the season high school race. I was winning, but in a slow time. All of a sudden I hear my coach yell “Greg, you’re on fire! Go!” I got a little pumped and finished with the win. After the race, I found out he was yelling for my teammate, who finished 10th, but improved his personal best mile time by 34 seconds in his last race of his career. My coach said nice job to me, then ran up and gave the other Greg a big hug. That stayed with me. I knew I wanted to be a coach who could be just as (more) excited about his slowest kid running a great race than for one of his fastest runners winning with an unimpressive time. He made every kid feel like they were important, this made (almost) every kid work really hard to impress him.

My point with this long digression is to say that sports itself is not the problem. It is the way you embrace sports and competition. If winning is more important than doing well, then in my view, your priorities need to be reexamined. Competition can be fun and constructive. And we do learn lessons when we don’t win. One of the most important duties of a good mentor is to help make sure that the students learn those lessons.

It is important to remember that the vast majority of sporting activites are done for pleasure, fitness, and community involvement.

Of course there are negative examples of over-competitiveness, but those are the exception rather than the rule. The everyday experience of fair play and fun doesn’t exactly make for great news.


P.S. While I doubt Karthik’s “Delgado” jersey would go for $500,000… it would be much cooler to see Carlos Degado wearing a “Kanagasabapathy” jersey. THAT I might pay for!

Geez Jane, there’s not enough rep supply to give you lately. :slight_smile:
Edit: And while I was composing this we get another couple of great replies!

I’d like to comment on just one aspect of your post.

I think you’re right.

For rookies, the challenge is getting the teams started and, for lack of a better word, herding them along. Events like the Kettering Rookie district that was held this year can do a lot for them. I think the biggest challenge for rookies is getting teams started in the first place. Someone has a half-hearted idea to “look into” FIRST and then discovers the tremendous cost and time commitments required. Some get scared off before they even start to organize. Others fail partway through. In the meantime, they are mostly below the radar of the established teams. Pretty much they’re not recognized until they register and then show up at a kickoff. The biggest success in forming rookie teams has to come through mentoring by other teams.

Then comes sustainability, for 2nd and 3rd year teams especially. I think many teams get off the roller coaster with a “Whee!” feeling, thinking the ride was great, but don’t see themselves getting back in line for another go at it. They went all out, and don’t have any fuel left. Or perhaps key students graduate, taking their parent mentors along with them, or a corporate sponsor doesn’t have the wherewithall for a multi-year commitment of funds and mentors. I’m not sure what to do to keep these teams going.

OK, that got off track from the “FIRST as Sports” theme. But there are parallels, especially to sports burn-out that some kids suffer after over-committing. Or to coaches who put their time in for 2 or 3 years, and then bow out and there’s no one to take up the position.

Closer back on track, there are many aspects of FIRST that are similar to sports teams - as long as we’re talking about teams on the same HS-age group level. There are a few super-star sports teams that go on to national or international championships. But most plod on (and I mean that in the best sense) in their local leagues. Our build season is the their pre-season practice - there’s fun, but mostly it’s work. Our regionals are their league play. Our Atlanta is their playoffs. Through the whole thing, we have both the cameraderie and the conflicts of team dynamics. As long as we don’t lose sight of the amateur nature of FRC, competitive attitudes are good. When we foul an opponent, we offer them a hand to get back up. We want to win, but not at the expense of losing integrity. While we are not professionals, we exhibit Gracious Professionalism.

I realize that perhaps I spent too much effort stressing the “doomsday scenario”, and not enough time talking about the more immediate (although still avoidable) impacts. This overuse of hyperbole ended up weakening my point to some degree, although helping to expose the root problem. While it’s true that in both sports and FIRST, a majority of teams and participants are good natured, the rotten seeds can often spoil it for everyone. Bad press is very hard to overcome.
While a focus on winning isn’t automatically bad, and a certain degree of it is healthy, the added attention of TBA, Gameday, LF, Fantasy FIRST, and general CD threads is shifting the focus further an dfurther towards it. It’s not hard at all to find tons of posts about the value of winning, each with merit behind their arguments. But when does this focus go too far? I don’t think anyone has violated that line yet, but as we keep adding attention to it, it enlarges the risk.
The immediate results won’t be the drastic ones suggested earlier, but will enter a much more murky grey area. When is it okay to have “try-outs” to get on the team? More importantly, what criteria is considered when evaluating applications? Are students judged on benefits for the student or benefits for the team?
While a vast vast majority of FIRST is in the right end of the spectrum, I have experienced teams who are not. Teams who genuinely dislike one another, teams that bend the rules, teams that attempt to suppress their competition more than on the playing field. When a team attends a regional specifically to best another team, is it a “challenge” worthy of accolade, or an unhealthy rivalry? When a semi-competitive teams enters a weaker regional in hopes to earn a spot at the Championship, is it good planning and strategy, inspiration for the other teams, or unfair to those with less resources?
While I recognize that many of these issues are not because of the community focus on winning, how does this focus alter these scenarios?
I’m unsure of the answers myself, thus why I posted them here. I think th community needs a healthy discussion and careful consideration of it’s focus.

I think we must first figure out what our goals are. FIRST’s vision is to spread an interest in science, math, engineering, and technology to young people. Competition is what helps to do this. The sports-like atmosphere that FIRST offers is what draws a lot of people in and even more importantly, unlike almost any other sport, allows them to get involved in almost any way.

We hear Dean (for those of us that actually stay awake during kickoff) talk about how kids look to athletes as role models and how they aspire to play sports instead of doing something with a higher upside. I understand where you are coming from Sean in asking the question of whether or not a sports-like atmosphere will lead to sports-like problems, and you are right in asking this question.

However, unlike sports, FIRST stresses gracious professionalism, and we have to take into account that the competition is only 2 or 3 days out of the year. The other 362 days of the year are what makes FIRST unlike any sport out there. I would like to point out that any complaints you hear on Chief Delphi about teams getting “screwed” during the course of the competition come from people who haven’t gotten yet, or missed the point.

On a side note, who wouldn’t pay $500,000 for Karthik’s jersey?

FIRST could be a sport and be considered a sport. In doing so, you will make some of the teams believe the emphasis is on winning which, it may or may not currently be like this to some of us. While there is nothing wrong with winning it tends to inflate egos and ruin good people’s reputations.

For many, if not most, of us changing FIRST to a sport wouldn’t effect our outlooks and performance. For some it will become a win at all costs affair. Some of these teams will just go to the end of the earth to but a superior robot and others will cheat. And I will have to say in theory it’s a lot easier to cheat in FIRST then it would be to cheat in regular sports.

For example, there are material and budget restrictions and there have been accusations over the years of teams pushing these to the limits and then continuing to push past them. While they may or may not have gotten caught it’s probably happened. And I know first hand that inspections aren’t gonna catch everything at a regional. I’ve seen some inspectors fail us for something but then a different inspection let another team pass with the same issue but, they’ve never been anything that effects performance.

So on the issue of cheating, it will happen and probably already has. But I doubt it will become prevalent if there’s no actual prize for winning other than bragging rights. And I doubt something that you do to make your robot perform significantly better will get through inspection anyways.

In the end, I’d love to see FIRST become a sport but it’s probably not going to happen…

I do consider it a sport. Yeah, it’s not a “traditional” sport, but the FRC fits the definition of a sport very well. Here’s a defintition I found online, which I know has been posted here hundreds of times before:

sport - an activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively

The FIRST community (that’s us!) defines the FRC as a sport, and that’s why we have TBA, Fantasy FIRST, etc. We saw it as a sport, so we created these things to increase the sense of this being a sport. I’m not saying that we fabricated the concept of the FRC being a sport; it has been a sport since 1992.

The FRC is a sport. It is also a very unique sport, for many of the reasons previously mentioned.

Do I need a ThunderChickens recliner and Robowrangler’s authentic Rebok jersey? Should Karthik’s Delgado jersey sell for $500,000 some day?

Of course.
If they sold FIRST jerseys I would definitely buy one from all the elite teams.

If we have things like CD, TBA and Soap gameday why can’t we have a store too for FIRST merchandise?

It sounds unrealistic but it could be cool.

Well there is already a FIRST store.
I seriously dobt FIRST would promote any individual FIRST teams in their official stores so to avoid the perception of favoritism. You’d have to get individual t-shirts from the teams themselves.

I believe that there will always be something negative about any sort of competition that stems from it being sports-like, such as cheating, disrespect to the “losers” (I can’t call anyone who built a robot a loser…), pride. But I also believe no one has to succumb or comply to this. You can always choose not to be that way. Even if you are the last person doing so.