[FRC Blog] - Rookie Registration and On-Field Coaches

Originally posted - http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc/blog-rookie-registration-and-on-field-coaches

Blog Date:
Monday, June 17, 2013 - 10:05
Rookie Registration Cost Reduction

Good news. The rookie FRC team registration fee for the 2014 season will be dropping to $6,000. Veteran registration fee will hold at $5,000.

The FRC Payment Terms webpage will be updated shortly with 2014 season information.

Adult Mentors as On-Field Coaches

In the Post-Event Survey this year, we asked teams how they felt about adult mentors being allowed to act as on-field coaches, as has been permitted by the rules for many years. I asked for this question to be included in the survey because I have been approached several times by mentors who feel very strongly this rule should be changed so that only students may act as coaches. For these individuals, this was clearly a very important issue, but I wanted to get a sense for how the broader community felt about this.

See the results of the survey here. (I think the second graph is interesting. The longer a team has been around, the more likely they are to favor the option of adult on-field coaches)

It’s clear we have a strong split in the community. We have passionate individuals on both sides of this issue and I am certain that the great majority of mentors, regardless of their position on this question, are acting in ways they believe to be best for their team.

I think part of the challenge of this issue is related to the perceived degree of adult mentor involvement and what can or can’t be deduced from that. I’ve seen adult mentors on their hands and knees on the field before a match, apparently lining up the robot for that perfect autonomous routine, with no students in sight. I’ve also seen cases in which, while the drivers are teleoperating the robot, the adult mentor seems to be teleoperating the drivers, with second by second verbal instructions “Back, back, back, left, left, shoot now”. On the other hand, I’ve seen situations in which adult mentors stand back and give only occasional suggestions while matches are going on. And I’ve seen plenty of cases in which the on-field coaches are students rather than adults.

But these little glimpses can tell us little of the needs of the team or the effectiveness of the mentor. That adult coach may be out there lining up the robot because the team had dropped their operator console and the students are frantically trying to get it pieced together before the match starts. The adult coach giving his or her driver detailed instructions may be dealing with a student who was thrust in to that position last second when the regular team driver got called away unexpectedly. There can be a number of reasons why this level of adult on-field involvement is best for the team. On the other hand, for a team with a student coach, the adult mentor may not just be absent from the field, but effectively absent from the team, being a mentor in name only. More than once over the years I’ve spoken to a team and gotten the impression the students were more or less on their own.

So, at this point, there are no plans to change the rules on this. What I would ask, though, if you typically just follow a standard operating procedure, is that, instead, you make this a conscious decision for the upcoming season. If you always have a student coach, consider the on-field mentoring opportunities the team may be missing. If you always have an adult coach, consider the potential life-changing impact being on the field may have for that one additional student who takes the adult’s place. Certainly there are many elements to be considered in this question, and you may end up with the same decision at the end, but important decisions like this deserve a good think once in a while. Keep in mind, also, that ‘coach’ button can be passed around during events – just because an adult wears it for one match doesn’t mean a student can’t wear it the next.

Also, if you’re looking for mentoring guidance, possibly for new mentors, or a as a refresher for your old hands, you should be aware that FIRST does have an official Mentoring Guide. You can find it on this page http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc/mentoring. These are just guidelines, but they will give you an idea about what FIRST considers to be good mentorship.

I’ll blog again soon


Note: One of the objections I have heard to adult coaches is that they can sometimes be extremely disrespectful toward student coaches on their alliance, to the point of bullying. I’m sure with the number of teams we have and the number of official matches we run – over 8,000 in 2013 - this occasionally happens, but personal aggressiveness and bullying have no place in FRC, whether it’s adult to student, student to adult, or any other combination. If you are at an event and see a lack of Gracious Professionalism like this, you should report it! Pit Admin has Non-Medical Incident Report Forms intended for purposes like these. The incident will get looked in to. In my experience, in nearly all cases, the offending party let his or her emotions get out of control in a stressful situation. When spoken with about the issue later, they realize the mistake, are remorseful, and apologize to the offended individual or group. The apology is accepted, and we move on with the day. Rarely, the outcome is not this positive, but the bottom line is that behavior like this between individuals of any age at events is not FIRST, and won’t be tolerated.

[Sidebar: I’ve coached FLL teams since 2004, and I’ve been coaching my current FLL team since 2007. FRC is not FLL, but many decisions related to the degree of coach involvement are similar. I had always been a very active coach on FLL competition day – reviewing the schedule, making sure the team signed up for practice slots, making sure they had everything they needed when they went in front of the judges, etc. In 2011, I decided to take a different approach. Before the event, my fellow coaches and I helped the students develop checklists for every critical aspect of the competition – such as initial pit set-up, getting ready for table runs, and getting ready for technical judging.

The morning of the competition, I signed us in, got the registration packet, and handed it, unopened, to the senior student on the team. The students took it from there. When time for the various activities came, the student leads for those activities ran the checklists. The coaches were there only as guardrails, to prevent disaster, and ask occasional important questions. For the first time ever, I watched my team’s table runs from the stands, rather than hovering an arm’s length away from the competition table. Did they do ‘as well’ that year as they had in prior years when the coaches were more active? From a points/competition standpoint, maybe not. From a student growth standpoint, they did far better. They were nervous, sure, but they stepped up to the plate and nailed their greatly expanded responsibilities, and knew they had, regardless of what the scoreboard showed. They had the best competition experience ever, and so did the coaches. This was a real lesson learned for me – the team had moved on from their rookie year, but up until that day I had been stuck in 2007.

My point isn’t that this more hands-off approach is best for everyone, but that in my specific situation, my students had been missing out because I had fallen into a habit, and had lost track of what their real needs were.]

I think Frank did a great job setting out the whole mentor vs student issue here, as it relates to the Drive Coach position, and also clearly indicating that the collected data shows that FIRST shouldn’t change anything in this area.

For my team, I acted as the coach our rookie year, and for about 1/4 of our second year. During the second year, we transitioned it over to a student position, and it’s been that way ever since. The transition happened specifically at the student’s request - the team wanted to show that they had grown enough through the build season to stand on their own. Typically, it has been held by the programming team lead, as that individual is the one that can help instruct the drivers the most when things aren’t working exactly correctly (try pushing this button, or that one, etc), and the one that needs an up close view to be able to fix things (if something breaks mechanically, it’s easy to see what’s wrong… if something in the code doesn’t work right, it’s hard to tell from the stands if it’s a code issue or a driver issue). We’ve seen tremendous growth from our drive coaches over the years. They’ve all spent a few years in the position, and they all ended up as team captain’s their senior year.

Yes, when I watch from the sidelines sometimes I say “what are they thinking?”, and in those situations it’s easy to assume that an experienced mentor acting as drive coach would help the team perform better on the field. Maybe that’s true. For me, I guess it’s balancing out how on-field performance affects the inspiration on the team, versus the personal growth you can see from a single student fulfilling that role - I can definitely see this balance tilting either way, depending on the specific team dynamics.

Without turning this into a raging debate, I’m wondering how other teams reached their decisions on who should hold the Drive Coach button (Student, Mentor, or even how you select a specific individual for the role)

It is worth while to go look at the statistical break down. It is fairly balanced until you get the 16 yr+ where it swings to adult coaches. I wonder if it is a change of mind set on how First should be run over the years.

The question also asks should it be allowed (I am some what neutral) rather than what your does your team do (our team will not have an adult on field coach as long as I have a say in the matter)

We are a 5th year team.

It might also be interesting to define the role of the drive coach.

I see the drive coach as being the meta layer on top of the drive team. In other words, I see them as more of an alliance coach and only dropping down to the drive coach role in order to handle exceptions. Normally, the drive coaches should be interacting with the other drive coaches for strategic direction, monitoring time and scores, and looking for inter-team interactions required to keep the alliance flowing and scoring.

Frank proves once again why he is “The Man” and why that pesky “acting” must be removed from his title.

They don’t give a response count for the number of responses in each age group. I’m wondering if the 16+ group is just sampling error. There aren’t that many teams that have been doing this for 16 years.

I’m glad Frank is even addressing issues that we didn’t ask about, this just keeps getting better. Each team makes their own decisions about drive coach, it’s something I have been battling with myself each year. I don’t think it’s clear either way which way is best. Lately I have been coaching at least one off-season event with the new drive team.

I try to avoid me too posts, but +1 for Frank!! (The other Frank not me)

It not only nice to know that First thinks about these things, but also the insight to why some things are the way they are. It is helpful when they come out with some strange, to me at least, decisions that there is really some rational people thinking about what will work.

I also see the drive coach being somewhat of a “spotter” for the drive team. Most robot operators have tunnel-vision directed towards their robot, and in a tricky situation, such as getting around an elaborate defensive blockage, having the drive coach talk them through the chaos is not at all out of line.

Though this year, our drive coach spent more time coordinating the human players during the match than directing the drive team.

Tacking on to what Sisk said, you can look at interactions between a drive coach and the drivers of the team as a window into how the team operates and uncover how and why the team acts at their competitive level. Coaches that are stuck into the spot to micromanage the drivers or exist to diagnose issues on the robot probably served in a role like that throughout the build of the robot. Some teams have a drive coach that talks more to other coaches than their drivers, as I have explained earlier, the best drivers have some weird telepathy type thing going on and they communicate through their magic unseen channels, leaving us coaches to digest what is happening on the field with our robot, the other robots on both alliances, and the clock/timed events.

I like the bit where instead of presenting pros/cons for each side and leaving it at that, he encouraged the teams to look at how they have been doing things and compare it to the other option. All teams from the underdogs to the average should be evaluating the effectiveness of each decision made and considering the possible benefits and drawbacks of a change to their SOP. I would say the powerhouses should as wel, but I’m sure they already do this anyway, and that’s why they achieved so much over the years.

Note: One of the objections I have heard to adult coaches is that they can sometimes be extremely disrespectful toward student coaches on their alliance, to the point of bullying.

I’m extremely glad this was brought up. My first year out of high school, I was the drive team coach of my current team. A friend of mine (also not a student, but not “obviously” out of high school) was the coach for his team, and the two of us were on an alliance with a Highly Respected Team (HRT).

Prior to the match we all discussed game plans and felt confident about how the match would go. Murphy’s Law being what it is, things didn’t go according to plan. Once on the field, the coach of the HRT let his emotions get out of control and was yelling at not just his students but both mine and the other team’s students because things weren’t going according to plan.

Neither the other coach nor I took this to pit admin or did anything about it. I later discussed this with another mentor on my team who agreed with my opinions of the coach of the HRT. I disagree with yelling at students in general, but if that’s how your team operates, then you’re well within your right. Unless one of my students puts you or someone else in great danger it’s not your place to lecture or yell at them. Come to me and let me do that.

On that note, a two and a half minute interaction with him continues to impact my thoughts and feelings towards his team.

It’s important to try and separate yelling at someone because they are angry, and yelling so that someone hears you. I’ve been both a student drive team member, and a field coach. As a student, it was very beneficial to have constant stream of clear and concise instructions in game. It’s critical for the field coach to be heard. 2 minutes is a very short amount of time, and at the highest levels, you cannot afford to lose a single match because of miscommunication. It gets hectic in the drivers box so sometimes voices get raised. This is rarely due to anger, but caused more by adrenalin and the need to be heard. Sometimes pregame plans need to be changed in the heat of the moment… it happens. And the teams who can adapt on the fly can often go a long way.

I’m not sure which field coach you are referring too, but I’m sure they didn’t mean to be offensive with their comments.

One of my funniest memories in FIRST is standing behind the driver’s station while 67, 48, and 148 played a match together and JVN, Adam Freeman, and Travis Hoffman are all screaming back and forth at each other. In any other situation, you would have thought it was a seriously heated argument, but actually listening to them, it was just common in game communication spoken very loudly. Were they angry at each other? Nope, but they were darn sure that they were going to be heard by one another.

I tend to favor having an adult as the coach. I see my role as formulating the alliance strategy and keeping the students focused and calm. During the actual match I mostly act as a time keeper and a spotter. The students could essentially do everything on their own. I think I might over talk and escalated the stress levels too much my over analyzing our strategy. I think I was too blunt and pessimistic with my own team. However, I wanted to be very polite and cheerful when working with our alliance partners. I notice their drivers were much more relaxed and I realized I was stressing out my own team too much.

I could easily see this situation reversed where a coach stress out their alliance but is nice to their own team. That would certainly be frustrating for me to experience. I think their is something much more upsetting to see adults mad as oppose to students, and rightfully so. In addition, I feel students can feel intimidated developing a strategy with an adult on another team. I have be fortunate recently to have a small team of student to work with strategy and scouting, they have been able to lead the discussions with other alliance members. I am there to guide them and finalize the strategy.

Last year, I was pretty busy, so we swapped students out to be coach while I was on the sideline. It worked out ok. This year, our robot had a lot more strategy and time keeping required so I did all the coaching this year. However, I think for the offseason events, I will have some students coach instead. I try to pass on things to students. At first I was doing most of the strategy and lining up the robot. By LV students took over most of those roles. I know 766 used to use adults as coach, but have switched back to students do to a lack of mentors. I think it worked out because to drivers and coach are good friends.

To me it depends on the team, if you have the resource, use an adult a coach.

The 10-15 group was trending towards supporting adult coaches, and has an awful lot of teams (I want to say 1200s somewhere would be the highest number included, though.)

16 years… that would be back in 1997 or so. Back in the days of 2 coaches on the field!

Now, I don’t know much of anything about that timeframe in terms of coaches, but it seems to my hazy recall of descriptions that if a team used 2 coaches, one had to be a student. This would have given teams around at that time a really good chance to figure out whether a mentor or a student was better, and go with that when the number of coaches was cut to 1.

In my view, the role of the Drive Coach is to be a leader in pre-match strategy discussions and make sure the agreed upon alliance strategy is effectively communicated to the drivers before the match. During the match the Drive Coach is responsible for knowing what all 6 robots on the field are up to, being aware of the clock, being aware of the score, and making any strategic adjustments (or overhauls) mid-match and communicating them to their partners as needed based on the information available. The Drive Coach should not be giving step-by-step instructions for everything the drivers have to do (unless a peculiar strategy is called for that match). Our drivers should be smart enough to execute a predetermined match strategy on their own. The valuable information the Drive Coach can provide would be more like “the left side of the field is cluttered, so go around behind the pyramid this time instead” than “put the arm up and line up to the peg”. Time spent telling the drivers to raise the arm when they do that multiple times every match could be better spent analyzing the field for things the drivers don’t already know. The Drive Coach should also be driven to study their competitors to be best prepared for competition.

Team 20 has developed a sort of unique team structure over the past few years based on experience and continuous improvement. I will spare the details, but let’s just say that part of our team history includes the bullying from adult Drive Coaches mentioned by Frank. In 2011 we made a conscious decision to go away from adult Drive Coaches in favor of students taking the position. From 2011 through 2013 we have developed a team structure with a Drive Mentor (adult) and a Drive Coach (student) and we are definitely converging on a structure we like.

I was fortunate enough to be offered the position of Drive Mentor this past season for Team 20. I have never coached a match, but I was a driver my senior year in 2011 so I know what it is like to be behind the glass. I was behind the glass with both a student and an adult Drive Coach during that season so I feel that I have a rare perspective as to why this type of structure is important to our team. My role as Drive Mentor is NOT to be on the field with the team. My role at competition is to help lead pre-match strategy discussion and make sure that our scouting and drive teams are communicating effectively. I also pull aside the Drive Team after EVERY match to debrief about what went well and what can be improved. This is extremely important because we need to be able to focus on what we can control as a Drive Team without the distractions from others. We also need to do it after EVERY match because if we only do it after matches when the drivers perform poorly or the Drive Coach makes a questionable decision, the effect is to make it seem like every time I want to talk it is a punishment. Really all I am trying to provide is encouragement and constructive criticism based on strategic analysis to improve our team’s on field performance. Emotions and focus are important to that.

Outside of competition, the Drive Mentor’s role is to facilitate drive practice (we have a practice bot and access to a full size practice facility), help select the drive team, work well with the team’s Lead Mentor and support the drive team in anyway that will help improve on field performance.

To select our student Drive Coach we look for character, personality, and skill, in that order. We have a multiple short essay test we administer to understand who takes the role seriously and how they would deal with tough situations at competition. How do we formulate a match strategy? When do we abandon failed objectives? How do we react to being treated poorly at competition? Does the candidate appear to understand probability, variation, and marginal utility in the context of strategy?

Our student drive coaches have been nothing short of great each of the last 3 seasons and our on field performance reflects that (despite having poorly executed robot designs in 2011 and 2012). Sure mistakes are made, but rarely the same mistake more than once.

When we made the decision to switch from an adult Drive Coach to a student Drive Coach, many mentors on the team were apprehensive about students being bullied into submission in strategy discussions or on the field by other adult Drive Coaches. I have only seen this happen to us twice in three years. Each time, while I consider the alliance partner’s conduct unacceptable, we realize that there are things we could have done differently to improve upon the situation looking back and use it as a learning experience. I will say that the strength of our scouting system, especially this past season, has gone a long way toward having our student Drive Coaches heard. How can you ignore a respectful high school senior calmly telling you how many points each team on the field averages and how they do it along with a corresponding strategy designed to maximize our probability of winning a match?

I am firmly in favor of FRC teams deciding for themselves on this topic. That is to say, however a team feels it can best achieve its goals and adhere to the mission of FIRST. I am only qualified to help make that decision for my team, not dictate how thousands of others run theirs. Based on our team history and philosophy, a student Drive Coach is the way to go for Team 20. I can see how an adult Drive Coach is the correct decision for others, especially since there are plenty of very inspirational figures in the robotics community who have worn the coach’s pin.

I highly doubt the intentions of the person in question are what you make it out to be. As Tyler mentioned you often times have to yell to get your point across as a coach. I remember a few experiences I had as a driver where understanding what a drive coach had to say was hard because there is so much noise. Nothing is worse than after a match hearing someone say, “Oh I didn’t hear you say that”. Being on the field is a completely different experience! You have the roar from the crowd, the impact of frisbees going through the chains and hitting the lexan above your head, and above all the field is closer to the speakers in comparison to when you sit in the stands. Even during our pre-match checklist at many events you have to scream to say simple sentences like, “Is everything ready?”

Being on the driveteam isn’t a relaxing job. It is downright stressful especially for drive coaches because they aren’t at the controls but they do influence the choices their drivers make. My job this season has evolved as our drivers have gained more match experience. At earlier events with a new robot and new driveteam I spent most of our matches guiding our drivers through their movements and helping them prepare for what was next. When to play offense, when to play defense, when to hang, where to hang, etc. At the last event we attended I felt that most of what I did was helping our drivers plan what route to take to get across the field and looking at the big picture of the match.

There were several moments our team encountered that were make or break decisions that drastically changed the outcome of the event for our team. Some of them were minor decisions and others were major gambles that in the end paid off, others didn’t. These decisions happen all the time and teams need to put individuals capable of making these decisions in fractions of a second. Whether that is a student or an adult that is up for the team to decide but its impossible to say which group better exhibits these qualities. I know of many adults who are amazing drive coaches and I have met and worked with an equal number of student drive coaches who are just as amazing.

This. I remember getting looks when coaching 1618 in 2008, when visibility was a challenge depending on your player station location. I would often hustle to the end of the player station and shout commands back to the drivers to get them past other robots (or not) or help them time the turn.

I know 2815 makes it a conscious decision for college student coaches, as we feel the leadership experience is important for them as well. I’ve filled in a couple of times when a college student wasn’t available to coach, but by and large we’ve stuck with them. Historically, we’ve spread the drive team wealth at human player more than anything.

Having said that, I wouldn’t mind the second coach making a comeback. Beyond any tactical benefits, some years the raw process of getting the robot, cart, and driver station positioned and set up quickly and safely starts to get right on the limit of what four humans can do. An extra set of hands on troubleshooting the driver station or stage equipment would be valuable. (And with the removal of the alliance station box on the carpet, I don’t know if it’d really be a space penalty.)

This is an interesting decision.

I’ve found that it is very important to have a drive team that is cohesive and works well together. It takes a couple of matches to figure out everyone’s style and comfort level to various things.

As such, my personal choice is that a college student (including myself) will never coach on my team. At least, if the college student wants to coach, then he/she will have to commit to all events (including a potential worlds).

I can’t risk the student drivers having to bounce their trust between coaches. It’s not conducive to good drive team chemistry.

  • Sunny G.

Another beneficial aspect of the adult coach is the institutional knowledge that stays in the team as students come and go during their high school years.

Keeping adult coaches is ok but they should be like coaches in sports. They stay off the field. My teams have usually been competitive and we have never needed me lining up the robot. The is part of the drive teams job. The coach should be training his team on how to set up the robot.

In almost all sports the coach coaches from the sideline. If the coach doe not they can be penalized. It just seems that FIRST does not want to budge on this. If parents were surveyed you might find different results. They are the ones who complain to me.

I’m not a fan of the comparison to other sports. Leave the decision to the teams, I do not care what other teams are doing or who they choose as coach. If it works for you and you feel it is the best decision for you, great, but don’t ever put a rule into place that tells others what to do.

People pick and choose what they want when it comes to comparing this to other sports, but then if I say that coaches in other sports yell and shout much of the time and talk down to their players, suddenly people don’t want to be like other sports. Pretty hypocritical if you ask me. You can’t compare yourself to another big league sport only when it is convenient for you. This is simply NOT like other sports. If it was, I probably wouldn’t be in it.

This topic has been discussed in past threads before and I will always come to the same conclusion: neither kids nor adults have some inherent ability to be a good coach. Both can be immoral, obnoxious, rude, and terrible coaches. Both can be taught how to coach well. Leave it up to teams to decide what they want to do.

Thank you, Frank, for posting this in your blog.