Prepping for 2008: Awards, Bandsaws, and Perspective

Alright gang, the time has almost come for kickoff and I’m as interested and excited as the rest of the community. I’m also concerned for my own team and others. As we ready for the upcoming season, let’s all keep a few things in mind:

  1. It’s not about the robots, or the awards, or what most of our culture values these days.
  2. It is about changed lives (students and mentors), spreading the message to others (and remember what we do is much more important than what we say), and ultimately having a positive impact on our future.
  3. How you behave will always outweigh any perceived wrongdoing by others.
  4. The more “successful” your team becomes, the more you need to stress the real meaning of success as it relates to the true purposes of our programs.
  5. This is not a dress rehearsal. Some things you can’t take back or do over. Make as many mistakes with the robot or on the playing field as you like. They are great learning experiences. Let’s not make any critical mistakes with relationships and people. Just because you will work harder than you ever have before in your life doesn’t mean you ever get a free pass on acting poorly.

So, here is why I’m concerned. Every year FIRST programs grow it leads to more people in FIRST from mainstream culture, which is a good thing, but… the higher the percentage of “mainstreamers” we have the more we need to politely and persistently provide models of how and why FIRST culture is different. Whether we like it or not, our mainstream culture values winning, trophies, being better than others, and looking for someone/somewhere to place blame when we don’t win. Sad but true, it’s a very materialistic and individualistic world in North America and elsewhere these days. Please know that this is the very thing we, and I MEAN ALL OF US, are supposed to be actively changing.

However, every year that goes by I’ve been in FIRST, I see more of those crappy mainstream behaviors, often in public. Now, if you subscribe to the “Kressly Mainstreamers Theory,” this is to be expected. However, this also means it must also be addressed. I propose that pointing out the shortcomings of others is not the way to go. We need more positive models and better decision making as individuals than before, using a model something like this.

This brings me to my case study on why we all need to pay close attention to this every year. We’ll look specifically at Dawgma and my concerns for it. Two years ago we were Rookie All Stars. This is year three for the team in FIRST. Last year we made it to the Galileo Semis and were a design award winner in Philadelphia. Part of our crew also was fortunate to win an FVC event and an Inspire award on the same day last year. This crew also went to Atlanta and won all of its matches.

These “wins” brought about a tremendous amount of attention from the school district, newspapers, and local television. These mainstream thinkers all wanted to know more about us because we had trophies, but we were able to use the opportunities to get our deeper message across each time. However, this year, the expectations to “win” are at an all-time high among the students. We are about to compete with two FTC teams in January and are scheduled once again for the FRC regional in Philly this March.

I spoke to my team about it more than once already and I will again, but I also challenge all members of Dawgma right here to remember what their real responsibility is, especially in public. I implore, that even during the heated moment of battle or when you are working your butts off in the lab, that everyone can look to the outreach efforts, the learning, the changed individual lives, and the community building more than you focus on winning. I hate seeing red-faced team members arguing with event folks, referees, and each other when they don’t win. Even if they are “right” look at the individual example you are promoting. If I want to see that, I’ll watch ESPN or go to a local little league field. Let’s agree to end the spread of this infection at and after our events.

I told one of our veteran students that I spent a lot of time this past summer considering the idea of starting out this school year by running all of our FIRST trophies through a bandsaw and throwing them out in front of everyone (no joke, I really did think a lot about it). She almost got sick right in front of me. When I explained why, she understood. Our trophies need to be symbols of changed lives and communities and team members need to understand that the “winning” part will attract outside attention, but we inside the organization must always know what they truly stand for and must be ready to celebrate and spread that part of the message.

Let’s expect to work hard (really, really hard), learn, and grow. Let’s not expect to win trophies or Newspaper/TV appearances. If they happen, fine, but when they don’t (especially if you’re used to winning these things in the past) be ready to celebrate the real reason we all do this. I’m expecting the Dawgma team members who read this to share it with others on the team and I’m expecting others to share it with their teams as well.

Happy Holidays and have a great year. Namaste.


As a mentor for a team that had success their first season, I really appreciate your message.

I have been struggling, trying to put into words what you have so eloquently said. Thank You!

I, along with most of our students, walked away from last season with a permanent buzz. It had nothing to do with winning an All-Star Rookie Award. It had nothing to with making it to Atlanta. It was all about the growth we saw in each other. It was about the relationships. It was about finding a place, a mission, a goal that satisfied a thirst that none of us knew we had.

Now we start our second season trying to explain to new members what we learned and what we discovered along the way. We want to explain what this feeling is that we have each and every time we see and work with each other.

You started this important journey for us by sharing your feelings. Thank You!!

Every year I remind our students that:

This is a compitition, and the objectives of a compitition is to win. However, it is what you do to achieve that objective that defines the measure of the person.

Thank you Rich, you are spot on.

To quote Andy Baker

FIRST is about winning, and it has made many of us winners.
I hope I’m not stealing the meaning of what he is trying to say but to me I believe that he is saying winning a competition shows not only how good your robot is, but how hard your team has worked to make it that good.

The bottom line here is that this is a competition not an exhibition. When we compete it makes us:

  • Strive for higher goals
  • Form friendships that can last a lifetime
  • Put more time into our work
  • Hold an overall higher value of quality
  • Devote our lives to this
  • Care

Rich, I understand the point you are trying to get across and how chopping your trophies in half would do it, but in a way it might send the wrong message. I think a winning team more often than not is winning in more ways than their robot’s performance. While some teams have have trophies handed to them for no reason at all, I think the act of chopping them in half is somewhat insulting to the teams who work hard for years to get them.

In my eyes a shelf full of trophies does more to inspire new students than a trash can full of trophy parts.

I believe that the point he/we are making is that the most important part is the journey and what you take away from it. It’s not winning but feeling that you are a winner, because you accomplished more than you thought possible.

Many walk away from a competition as winners without getting a prized trophy.

I agree, it is about:

* Striving for higher goals
* Forming friendships that can last a lifetime
* Putting more time into your work
* Holding an overall higher value of quality
* Devoting your lives to the values and lessons you have learned along the way
* Caring

Core values.

Exactly correct and it’s why I didn’t fire up the bandsaw. It’s all about remembering what the trophies are really all about, which can be difficult at times.

At our Showcase for potential new students this year, our team set out our table and the robots for display/demo. Our teacher was not able to attend and we didn’t set up the big display that we have done in the past. Students took over with a 2nd year in the lead and all of a sudden - all - the trophies that had accumulated over the years started traveling up the stairs and landing on the table. It looked rather like a yard sale. I laughed and stood back and suggested that - a. if the teacher could see this, he would not be happy and b. could they maybe dust a few?

And I waited. Our student leader is a 4th year whose brother was on the team 4 years before her. She was participating in a brief performance with the choir and then would come join the team. Sure enough, she showed up, took one look at the table, and said, ‘no, no, no, not this one, not this one’ - and started handing back the trophies to the new members to return to the classroom. When she was finished, we had a few trophies and plaques and a technical notebook that members of the team had written, to talk to potential students and parents about. We also had one of our smaller robots there on the table to talk about and we had last year’s FIRST robot to demo. It was one of the moments that I was privileged to witness, watching a veteran team member teach the newbies. Very cool.

Team 1983 had a VERY similar experience. Our team has more than doubled in size for our upcoming second year. It is difficult to explain to them that while it was exciting that we won, it is not what this is all about. When recruiting, or simply talking about FIRST it is hard to find the words to explain how FIRST changes you. I’m sure the freshmen are getting extremely tired of my answering their questions, or trying to explain and simply having to end with: “You don’t know yet. But you will. But you won’t know while it’s happening, you just look back one day and say, WOAH! I used to be like that?!” You’re a winner when your life has been touched by FIRST and you turn around to help FIRST touch someone else’s life and when you work together and grow to know and appreciate those around you.

Our coach is a very soft-spoken guy. It was hard to understand him as a teacher before spending a season with him, and with FIRST. Now it is so clear that all he wants is for us to reach that eureka, where we understand what it is we are doing, and where we are proud of ourselves for figuring it out on your own with simply the guidance from an experienced individual. This is what FIRST is about. Learning about yourself, and your surroundings, and the engineering, and when you are yourself one of the experienced individuals, you turn around and guide someone else.

I very much agree with you Rich Kressly in saying that there needs to be a little bit more awareness and control of the crappy mainstream behaviors. I will admit it was difficult at first for our coach to get our team to leave those behaviors behind. Now that they are, however, the value is very well understood and will be passed to new members with pride. I thank you for your challenge, and encouragement in your list of things to do this season. I will be sharing this with our team very soon. Maybe it will give some of those newbies a little bit more perspective on what I’ve been trying to explain. Or at least the answer will be different than “you’ll see young one.” :slight_smile:

-Stephi Rae

My two cents worth:

At college, we have a program, sort of similar to FIRST, called CAMP. CAMP (I forget the full name) has ten competition teams that participate in such events as Baja SAE (formerly Mini Baja), Formula SAE (Mini Indy), SAE Aero Design, Clean Snowmobile, and Human Powered Vehicle. All do well routinely, but the project is not the primary focus.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, What did he say?? Well, it’s true. the CAMP teams focus more on building the team. Building the team members and building the team as a team. It’s no coincidence that the motto for CAMP is “Teams building.” Because the focus is on working as a team, the projects do well.

So, you can go out there and win without a team, but what do you learn? Not much. But if you go as a team, even if you don’t win, you have learned teamwork and responsibility. You have new friends and old coming together. Get your team together. Get your priorities straight. Get busy having fun. See you on the field.


You put into words what I suspect many of us struggle with. Thanks for that.

FIRST spells it out to those of use that know what the letters mean. And as we grow the pressure to win will be stronger. As our team has made an impact at our school and more students and faculty sort of understand it’s existance during Jan and Feb I am constantly having to answer the question “So how are you guys gonna do this year? Gonna WIN! Right?”

It is too hard some days to explain why I do this. Which is why I love those three days where I am surrounded by folks so like me.

But the good fight is “out there” in the main stream. And you are right we have to keep on our toes.

Thanks again

Our team, in its third year, has gone to three championships, and has one blue banner on the shop wall, but in all truth is not nearly as wholeheartedly immersed in FIRST as most teams, and as much as i would like. From this, “winning” in the sense of putting a trophy in our little glass case, especially with the recent state championships in our school by the football team, band and chorus, has become a big priority. After all, we need to make our mark too. Hardly anyone has caught on to gracious professionalism or the fact that the biggest goal is not in fact, winning an award, but the reward of our own individual learning and the transformation of our generation to one that values science and mathematics. I’m finding it especially hard to instill in the freshmen a sense of FIRST instead of “battlebots” when the “old members” barely have grasp of it. I agree that we can’t let the competition dim because it is a measure of how well we are working at being gracious professionals, how hard our team tries, how well we accomplish the task put before us. competition is the medium we use, because out in the “real world” it is everywhere, if a bit more subtly disguised and without the cheering crowds and painted hair. but when the focus becomes only on something shiny, I think that we have some problems.

Piping in with some random thoughts …


Leadership - the ability to get someone to do something that they would not do under ordinary circumstances.

The magic rubiks cube is learning how to lead others in a useful direction so that they will learn something about engineering, technology, themselves, and about life, in a way that is subtle and positive.

Focus on making sure everyone has a good experience and stays engaged. Focus on good manners and behavior. Focus on neat work habits. Focus on doing a good job. These are the basics. Master the basics and the awards will take care of themselves.

Question - What is a significant difference between robotics and school ?
*Answer *- In school you are required to participate. In robotics you make a choice to participate.

*An illustration *- Recently we spent two long Saturdays in safety training. ( in industry this class would have put adults to sleep ). A teacher commented to me that “I cannot believe ‘sam’ is attentive and taking notes.”, “I have ‘sam’ in my class and can’t get anything out of him”. A major difference is ‘sam’ chose to go to this class on Saturday, unlike the mandatory school. Our next hat trick is to get ‘sam’ to wake up and get him motivated in class.

If it makes you feel any better, I too will admit to apprehension about the upcoming season. Will the crowd get motivated ? Will the newbies get jazzed up ? Has our team building exercises this fall been adequate ?

Right now is a critical point for many teams because in a few days will be the first time many of them will be working together under pressure.

Repeating myself, master the basics and the awards will take care of themselves.

One final thought. We have done a lot of exercises these past few months. The one thing I wished we had done is the simple trebuchet exercise that MOE 365 does in the fall. It is fun, exciting, and harmlessly destructive.

The trophies are just trinkets - pieces of plastic and metal that can even be purchased from FIRST (say, if you decided to cut them apart). They serve a purpose for the winners and the sponsors - a bit of materialistic gratification, but they’re not the goal for FIRST teams. We’ve given trophies to sponsors as a token of appreciation, but we also make sure they know that their support has resulted in scholarships and careers that might not have been realized otherwise.

The students who benefit from FIRST are the real “trophies”. They go out, help change the world and thereby give the mentors, sponsors and the rest of the FIRST community rewards that truly count. When we don’t win that piece of plastic or metal, there may some very visible disappointment and even frustration in the heat of the moment. This is the nature of competitive personalities found in FIRST and in many walks of life. Upon reflection, though, we remember what FIRST is really about and can celebrate the fact that we’re all winners.

Winning in First does not give value. It’s going thru the intense process that gives the value. In the real world there is never enough time, money, people, or resources. But, if the individuals of a company come together and work as a team contributing their individual talents the company will survive and prosper. No trophies. Just a stable growing income stream. The First process teaches life skills. The science and tech exposure are secondary. Teams that try to cheat the process only cheat themselves.

The value of an object is directly proportional to how much work it takes to obtain that object (be it money, trophies, or anything else in life).

If obtaining a trophy in FIRST was easy, then it would have little to no value, as anyone could obtain one. The fact that this is tough and requires hard work and effort gives it value.

A good book on the value of objects (in this case money) is “Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith.

True, if you subscribe to a capitalistic or similar ideology. I would maintain, and I’m sure my view is different from others, that “working” at FIRST to “obtain” trophies, is exactly what we should NOT be doing. We should be working at FIRST to better the culture. If trophies come our way and they help us “speak” to those in popular culture about what we’re REALLY in this “game” for, then we’re closer to achieving the mission.

When one reads the award descriptions in the FRC, FTC, or FLL manual it should be easy to realize that working hard at the goals/ideals presented leads us to better students, better mentors, better communities, an improved culture. If we get “locked in” to the “winning” of those awards, what happens when we don’t “get the trophy”? Hurt? Finger pointing? Cries of unfairness?

We need to be careful. We don’t need to become what we already see too much of on our little league fields, in our high school sports programs, and out of politicians running for office.

I feel good for excited students and mentors when they win an award at a FIRST event. Validation for hard work is great. But when those same students and mentors on those same teams start pointing fingers and express extreme sadness when they don’t win the trophy, something is wrong.