Increasing rates of unhappiness in FRC?

Has anyone else noticed a higher number of people either leaving FRC teams or admitting they’re unhappy with their team this year? I have four good friends who have all left their teams this year, and I have many more friends that have talked to me about general unsatisfication with their teams.

And as some of you may have noticed, I also made the decision to leave my team today. I used to think that this didn’t happen that often, but now I see it happening more. Maybe I just didn’t know enough people until now/wasn’t involved enough in the community until now.

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I have also noticed a lot more people leaving their teams recently, but I have been more active in the community recently.

Also, I feel its important to recognize that most of these people are leaving because of their teams, not because of first. (From what i’ve seen)

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Probably a mix of factors, from a potential underlying signal, to recency and other biases.

From my perspective after 14 seasons, 10 of which I’ve paid attention to frc communty stuff as a whole, I don’t think there has been that much of a change when considering the increase in number of teams and the better community willingness to talk about these things. This just a gut feel, not backed with data.

I am really sorry stuff with your team did not work out. It’s a big decision but you need to do what is right for you at the end of the day.

A year or two off from a team (or the frc season as a whole) can do a lot of good.

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Thank you.

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In my 21 years of doing this, I’ve departed five teams. Two (4901, 5402) were in conjunction with out-of-state career moves, one (1618) was when the team folded, and two came about because I felt the time was right to do something different:

  • Leaving 1293 after 2006 was sort of correcting for a few things. 1293 is the team I was on as a student, and in the fall of 2004 there wasn’t the same understanding that you probably shouldn’t turn right back around and mentor the same team. (These days, it’s team policy that you’ve got to bounce for at least one year.) When the team is led by the same teacher who taught you freshman pre-chem and you’re a college sophomore, it’s tough to make that transition. They’d also had the student/mentor pendulum swing a little too far to the right, and they were interested in being more of what we’d now call a white glove team. 1618 was closer to college and needed more help, so it was an easy choice to make a switch.
  • Leaving 2815 to start 4901 was rooted in the former vacating the USC machine shop space. 2815 had pivoted from its original “everyone in the district without a team at their school” format to only serving one school–so it made sense for them to work out of that school. Meanwhile, the space was thoroughly capable of fielding competitive robots and lots of the area wasn’t served by a team. Not saying I got everything right about this transition at all, but the concept was sound–the program jumped to FTC after I left but is still performing well today.

It happens.


As for this year, I think you’ve got a confluence of factors.

  • The requirements to be a competitive team at lower levels of competition have shot up over the last couple seasons. Not everyone is set up to drop $3000+ on their drivetrain alone, nor dedicate the programming resources to make it go, nor have the spare parts around for so many high-speed impacts, just to make it to playoffs at a district event.
  • The last couple years have seen a lot of reports come out people and entities that weren’t doing the right thing. Not saying it’s a bad thing that the reports came out. But there are a lot of us still navigating a lot of whiplash.
  • Schools are feeling the pinch in a lot of ways–state governments, school boards, parents emboldened by the last few years to throw their weight around for good or bad, and so on. And sometimes that limits what teachers or administrators can do to support the team.
  • Go ahead and “ok boomer” me, but kids are different since COVID. Teachers are seeing it, mentors are seeing it, studies are seeing it. It’s more difficult for us to keep the average kid engaged now than it was five years ago, and that’s tough on mentors.
  • At the same time, the FIRST community is increasingly large. I don’t have team counts on hand, but we’re about back to pre-COVID match counts which seems like a proxy for the overall size of the program. So even if the unhappiness rate is constant, the number of people who would experience unhappiness vocally is bigger now than a year ago.

So I’m not surprised you’re hearing more of it lately. And I hope those who feel that unhappiness find an arrangement where they and their communities can prosper.

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Here’s a team count for the last decade. In theory next year we catch back to 2018 numbers.

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I think COVID-19 is partially to blame, after the pandemic hit, and everyone did school and WFH, everyone just seemed to have a much bigger workload and it was much harder to commit to the team.

The amount of work we receive never lessened when we transitioned back to normal in-person school.

We’ve noticed this with often with Juniors, who need to study for SAT’s, AP exams, and also regents (NY State exams). Our programming subteam really struggled last year (23’), I had my sophomore friend basically take over my role as lead that year.

I believe the second issue is money. I don’t have any hard-facts for this, I’m not the inventory/business guy on my team so I’m just going off of my observations.

FRC seems to be getting much more expensive, swerve drive is replacing tank as the meta, and because of inflation (and by extension, COVID-19) parts, computers, machinery, shipping, and everything is getting much more expensive.

I think FRC definitely notices this, and is actively trying to make things easier, the kitbot is the most obvious example of this.

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IMO its more of a generational thing than FRC getting a worse atmosphere. Younger people are statistically less happy than before in general.

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There is a large outflow of veteran mentors coming soon, in some places it has already started. Many of us have put in as much as we can. Covid and post-Covid have been hard in many, many ways, not just student engagement. Financing a team has become harder due to shifting priorities from previously reliable funding sources but also inflation. The several real and serious and unresolved scandals of trusted adults in the program being revealed as exploiting and abusing children has been a terrible shock. And simply, time has passed and we are older. Pushing our aging bodies for the sake of trophies and banners becomes less appealing eventually.

So yes, I think you’re on to something.

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covid moment lol

On the mentoring and volunteering side, there was definitely a big shift during and coming out of the pandemic. I’m not tuned in to the student scene enough to know if it’s the same, but it wouldn’t surprise if there were commonalities.

The shift on the adult side is similar to what happened in the workforce:

  • People learned what it was like not to go into the office, to their team meeting, or an event – and some of them enjoyed getting this time back for other things.
  • A lot of us were on a treadmill* until Covid – running at increasing speeds and not stopping. When things suddenly came to a halt, regaining that speed was gradual and not everyone got back to their original speed.
  • I think a lot of it comes in here: Engagement is down. With the forgetting of “how things used to be,” folks are confused or feeling directionless or disconnected from the end goal.

“The declines have been greatest in these areas: employees knowing what’s expected of them; seeing how their work contributes to the mission or purpose of the organization; having opportunities to learn and grow; being able to do what they do best; and feeling cared about by their manager or someone in the organization.”

-Dr. Jim Harder, quoted in How Covid Changed The Workplace: It’s A Whole New World Out There

*Speaking of treadmills…

The hedonic treadmill (or hedonic adaptation) comes to mind. This is the idea that we all have a baseline level of happiness. While positive events may cause these levels to spike, and adversity may cause these levels to drop, we’ll eventually return back to where we started. To enable our baseline levels of happiness, we are to look for meaning and purpose. The same theory purports our money should be spent on meaningful experiences, and not things.

As we all search for meaning and purpose in our own lives (whether intentionally/consciously or not), we weigh the pros and cons of life decisions. In this case, you left your FRC team and report others doing the same. Though the team has (hopefully) brough you joy in the past, it’s not doing that anymore, and it’s time for the next adventure. The costs are outweighing the benefits, you’ve decided it’s time for a change and that’s a-okay.

In short, I think that the pandemic was a reset switch, and a lot of us have different priorities than we once did. Maybe that’s why you’re seeing an increase, maybe you’re just identifying more with similarly situated peers, or maybe we’re getting better as a people at talking about how we feel.

Either way, here’s a TED talk about the hedonic treadmill, because if there’s one thing that can provide a sense of meaning, it’s to learn something new every day:

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Thank you.

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Point one and point four were really true for my program this season. We went from a team who ranked fourth seed during our rookie year (last “non-swerve” season) to not even being selected for playoffs due to not having swerve capabilities just yet (which is extremely difficult for my already low budget team). We’re gonna try to get it done in our off-season, but we may not have it next season if we decide to really nail it down before throwing it on a competition field.
And as for post-COVID students, I am having the exact same difficulties keeping them engaged, or as another comment pointed out, willing to commit the time needed to create a better robot. It was frustrating to say the least having students leave meetings after only a single hour of work (less in reality since I had a very easily distracted bunch), so our robot was just a little more than a modified kitbot. I have already decided how to tackle this for the next season, which may cause me to lose a few students, but it’s a loss that will likely benefit the team (essentially being very strict on the workload members have to put in if they want the privilege of traveling with the team). I had many thoughts of pulling out of our regional this year as I felt pretty disrespected and taken advantage of with the HUGE amount of effort I went through for this school year - which included landing the team an actual classroom and workshop, securing an international trip, and securing a much bigger than normal budget for additional equipment, parts, tools, and especially travel among other teams, on top of having a situation with a parent attempting to influence how MY program is ran and who I can and can’t take on trips.
Sigh, apologies for the rant. Every year we make some kind of growth, but also seem to run into a new problem. I’m sure other mentors here can understand - I’m still learning how to deal with it all.

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Many FRC teams function like a small business and take more dedication from students than any other school sport I can think of. I’m not surprised at the rising burnout rate in students and mentors at all. I wish there was a clear root to the issue so it could be fixed because FRC is genuinely a wonderful experience, but maybe we just need to accept that nothing lasts forever. People will come and go, and the program will probably grow and shrink over time, but is that really a bad thing?
(To clarify, I mean people leaving FRC in and of itself isn’t bad. People being pushed into quitting due to mistreatment is a bad thing and should not continue).

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A lot of teams tend to have some longstanding issues which can spiral if not properly addressed. I think we might just be hitting a point where people are getting tired of dealing with these issues

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I’m not sure it’s more unhappiness with folks in general causing a greater number of them to leave. I actually think it’s just a generational/cultural shift in people feeling the need to announce it publicly so it’s more in your face that people are leaving than it used to be.

I’ve been around for over 20 years and and it seems like folks used to just Irish Goodbye when they left rather than make a deal about it. I noticed this shift since I came back after a few years away.

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This seems like a pretty non-trivial factor here. I’ve gotten to talk to a few profs and lecturers at MIT casually and almost all of them bring up the newer class years of students seeming fundamentally changed due to COVID. Adam Hartz even said simply, “I think there are more students now who are… sad,” and left it at that. The upperclassmen who remember the environment before and after COVID closures have also made repeated remarks about it. The impacts of it still aren’t all clear, but they sure have a high magnitude.

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I chose to quit my team this year and join a new one. I was tired of being nothing more than the team janitor. The new team offered me so many more opportunities.

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While I’m not happy that Team 1551 took a dirt nap, this year doing FIRST only part-time has been ahhhh-maaayyy-zing.

And I think largely because (a) 1551 was so small and (b) Billfred’s first bullet point – the amount of work necessary to even be in the game at an average-level event has shot way up. It’s taking more money, more time, more know-how, more institutional knowledge, more everything just to have a mid-tier robot.

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Not to bring up a different thread, but the complaints about the lack of intermediate progress levels in the regional system don’t help morale around your second point.

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