Reaching Critical Mass

Hello CDers,

I have a bit of a conundrum that I hope you all can assist me in solving. In order to do this, I have to be honest and hope that you can all do the same with me. Let me begin with an honest statement: I, as a coach, can easily fall into the trap of doing too much.

This year’s Chairman’s Award Submission is a great example of this. We did not start our submission preparation until kick-off - which in itself is a bit crazy. I had found a mentor, a small crew of students, and set a few deadlines that needed to be met. All of these things eventually fell through and we received a fairly lackluster writeup that had to be extensively edited for grammar and flow. I made a choice - poorly I think. I edited the paper. I left the presentation for the students - and - once again it did not get done.

Our school seems to have an overall problem in regards to team sports and clubs. To understand this you have to understand East Baton Rouge Parish. We only came out from under a desegregation case as of 2003 or so and my school is filled with students from different communities, some of which are a one hour bus ride away. Our culture is - much like the rest of the community - a symbol of disunity. On the one hand we are a suburban school with students from the surrounding community of considerable wealth. On the other hand we stand at a 70% poverty rate because of the students who populate our school. Because of this community disparity, our band remains small and under-represented, our home football games are attended by more visiting team fans than our own, and every other club suffers from a lack of cohesiveness.

Part of the reason that Panthrobotics has grown to the largest school club - close to outpacing the band - is because I cannot be a part of something that fails. Its not in my nature. I push and strive to see success. Unfortunately, at the same time I realize this is not how it is supposed to be. As a most recent example before my question - one of my mentors offered students from all teams in the area training in Autodesk. He’d announced it for weeks and in the end we did not have one of our members show up. This has been a bit of a disappointment.

So, I am turning the tables on the age-old “mentor-student” debate. What I want now is your advice. What are some steps I might be able to take to help my team reach critical mass. I want them at a place that - should I need to move to a new career - they are able and willing to continue this amazing pursuit.


I would like to recommend some summer reading:

Built to Last this is a great book that talks about sustainability. I would also recommend reading team 234s whitepaper on their business plan and how they manage risk.

I continue to find Tribal Leadership to be one of the most useful books from a leadership perspective. this one would likely be very beneficial for some of the issues your organization is dealing with. Really good leaders treat everyone fairly. Great leaders can customize their leadership to the individual’s needs. Tribal Leadership give you the tools to recognize the stage of development of the individuals and the organizations and how to push particular individuals in a direction of growth. The types of growth opportunities for each different level are drastically different, and so are the motivations. If you like audio books, Zappos sponsors a free download of the book:
I believe it is missing the strategy chapter as that chapter requires some diagrams, but overall you will get a lot of the same material. I like the book as there are nice “cheat sheets” at the ends of teh chapters on different levels for how to recognize the level, what the strengths and weaknesses are, and things to say to get growth from them. Most of our kids come in as 2s or 3s, and most leave as 4s. Each year a couple that graduate will reach or approach level 5, but that getting a team to Level 4 is quite an accomplishment, and at that stage it will have a lot of momentum to sustain itself.
I have used the principles of this book to revamp our scouting program over the last 4 years to get better student leadership and engagement. It is tough to get students to scout, so instead, you have to get them to want to scout. P.S. having students take a critical eye on team performance will pay dividends in future seasons design discussions.


You will find that the majority of team mentors find themselves in this situation, giving up countless amounts of hours because we see what the “potential for greatness” in the program and in individual students

This is the same attitude that myself and another mentor brought to FRC2168 just two short years ago. Striving for excellence is contagious Without this attitude the team could not have experienced the growth and performance we achieved.

The best advice I can give you is to reach out to gain a larger mentor base, specifically target local FRC alumni. We have found that in situations where students seem to have a lack of interest it is more a lack of direction. Establish a relationship where the students are working with the mentors, not for the mentors.

Set small goals. Focus on internal growth of the team. I am a firm believer that before a team starts doing community outreach and “chairman’s activities” they need to be strong internally first.

Do team building activities that do not involve robotics. That’s right, do things that are not robotics together.

Don’t give up fighting the good fight.

I’d definitely echo everything already said, especially this tidbit above. From a rookie season perspective, my own team bit off more than we could chew. We, much like you, are a group of mentors and students who strive for a strong team, however, I think we struggled in many areas where we could not put in 100% effort because we were spread too thin. We built two full robots which were both out of our comfort zone in terms of KISS, we competed for awards as if we had been around for 10+ years, and tried to have a very strong team image. In the end, we loved what we accomplished, but we definitely spread ourselves too thin in terms of trying to be the best team in every aspect of FRC. We were extremely proud but we were also burnt out, tired, and not 100% satisfied with our performance in many areas of the team.

This season definitely taught us to pick our battles. We tried to become a strong veteran team in one season, but for us, it probably was too fast of a pace. Even with exceptional students, we struggled to really achieve our on-field goals + organizational goals, we should have focused on small aspects of both. I believe that honestly evaluating your mentor base, student base, and teacher base will allow you to figure out which goals you can realistically achieve during a given season.

tl;dr- pick your battles and focus on one thing at a time.


Some great advice so far.

I want to key off of this…

My biggest belief is that the best managers and leaders know how to tailor their style to each of their team members. So often its so much easier to just “do it yourself” than to figure out how to get someone else to do it, to figure out how to motivate them.

I believe motivation is getting trickier and trickier. If someone figures out the key/trick to motivating current students, I’m 100% all ears! As a workaround, I’ve found the best way is to get to know each student as an individual and figure out what it is that makes them tick. Is it recognition? Is it a pat on the back? Is it a monetary reward? Is it a word with their parents? Is it an ice cream cone? a new Xbox game? a leadership role? a Trophy? a Blue Banner? a star on CD? a certificate at an awards banquet? Every single person is different in their motivations. Finding what really motivates and inspires each of your core students is key.

Now why do I say core students? Well, as hard as any of us can work, you as one person cannot be with every single student at every single minute, so if you can get your leaders to lead, they will help with the motivation. Individually working with every person on the team is a lofty goal, and one I have attempted in the past, but its near impossible to reach everyone (on a good sized team) yourself.

Now, once you’ve worked on the motivation/inspiration… its time to move to the management. My very first boss was one of my favorite examples. He got to know each of his employees and knew exactly what each of us needed to keep going. I was very self motivated and just needed someone to answer questions. He never micromanaged me, in fact after the first few weeks, never even checked in, but he did give me positive feedback on occasion. Another of his new hires would sit in his office with nothing to do until someone told him what needed to be done. He would provide the level of micromanagement that this new hire needed.

This can be hard for many managers/leaders to learn. I am working with a program manager right now who refuses to micromanage, and it drives me up the wall. He just expects that everyone knows what needs to get done, and should do it, and while the first part is true - they know what needs to be done, they often get side tracked and go off on tangents that don’t need to be explored, thus putting us behind schedule and overbudget, and we become reliant on heroes to pull crazy hours and race to get things done in the end. If he applied an ounce of micromanagement, we’d be better on track.

There is also a difference between micromanagement and clear guidance. There are some people that are really hard workers, but they need a very clear set of defined tasks and steps to get towards an end result. There are others that need the detailed checkins of a micromanager to stay on track. Still others are very self motivated and just need a vague goal, and they will find a way to get there.

So how does this apply to robotics? Well students and mentors are the same. I am finding more and more students either need the very clear guidance or micromanagement. Fewer that I have seen lately are the self motivated type that deal well with vague goals. So for your chairmans example, setting dates and deadlines is a good start, but did they know that you expected good grammar? You may have assumed that - it seems like common sense, but they may not have thought of it, or may have assumed you would do the final edits. Too many kids are used to having things done for them these days - I hear about so many parents writing college applications, revising essays, picking classes, etc. Its become the norm more than I would like. Or in the poorer sections, kids aren’t taught that they can be something more, and may figure good is good enough.

And even further, show the team that you expect more of them. When they don’t perform, let them know you are disappointed, that you know they can do better. It doesn’t mean yelling at people, it just means voicing your disappointment. Don’t just expect that they know you are disappointed. I had a recent incident where I was helping out my old team, and I was helping run the scouting. I had a commitment at the end of the day, and gave the kids clear instruction to finish up the robot photos and pit scouting, only to come back to find out that they left 20 minutes after I walked away and hadn’t finished any of it. I called up the student in charge and by some terms “laid into” him… I didn’t yell, but I very clearly told him I hadn’t taken off from work and come to the competition to help to just have them walk away from their responsibilities. I spent about 15 minutes discussing this with him. I found out later that the parents who were around him at the time told him “OMG if I had known she was yelling at you, I would have taken the phone from you and yelled back! She can’t talk to you like that!”. The student simply replied “I deserved it. I blew off my responsibilities, and I shouldn’t have.” I was blown away at his maturity. (BTW at Champs, he had 100 robots scouted in 3 hours!!! Faster than we’ve ever done!)

The summary?

  1. See if you can understand motivations (this is probably the hardest) for EACH individual. Never apply the same thing to every person.
  2. Determine what type of management style is required for EACH individual. Never apply the same thing to every person.
  3. Don’t be afraid to show disappointment, let them know you know that they are capable of more.
  4. Don’t forget to provide positive feedback, everyone needs to know when they have done a good job. (But DON’T overdo it!)

Good luck… we are rooting for you!

If you haven’t done this already, remove as many assumptions as you can regarding the students’ reasons for not attending meetings or workshops that are made available.

Examples of key reasons/constraints: transportation challenges, personal commitments to the family, and jobs.

When those are addressed, then you can work on finding ways to maximize individual participation/contributions and go from there.

One interesting thought: this weekend, we held one of our SMART Camps and, immediately after the camp, the team members and the school teachers met to go over what worked and what didn’t work at this particular camp. (The camp was at the Texas School For The Blind here in Austin.) One of our students talked about how it started out difficult, then hit a smooth spot where she felt things were going well, then it got difficult again. My response to that was - that is what mentoring is and that you find ways to work through the difficulties and appreciate the smooth spots, staying focused the entire time. I think focus has a lot to do with the end result, short term and long term.

Another thought: if we leave things solely up to students, such as deadlines, training, and expectations, then we deal with the results. If we remain focused, attentive, on task - all of us - then we deal with those results, as well.


From my experience, most teams start out that way - the mentors are the driving force behind the team. It doesn’t matter if the robot is student built or mentor built, it wouldn’t get done without the mentors there pushing the team. Neither would the awards submissions. Part of that is because, as a new team, no one really knows what to do, and the mentors (with much more general experience) can figure it out easier.

However, after a few years of working with a team, showing them how things should be done, what the schedule should be like, and all that other stuff, you’ll find that the students start to do this stuff without needing to be pushed as much. Someone who’s been on the team for 3 years and is now captain in their senior year should more or less know how the team should be run and what needs to be done. Of course, if “how the team should be run” is the mentor standing in front of the group all the time, then that’s what they’ll expect. We start and end every meeting as a big group gathered around our conference table. The captains stand up front leading the meetings, the students sit around the table. The mentors stand in the back. Yes, we do chime in when needed and help them stay on task… but it is student led. The only part of those meetings that is mentor led is a few words by the faculty adviser on schedule, meeting times, and other administrative items.

We’ve worked pretty hard to gradually shift work off of the mentor’s shoulders and onto the students. It doesn’t happen all at once, you have to set small, realistic goals. Our first year, the students showed up and did what we told them to build the robot the mentors designed. The second year, the students came up with the basic concept behind the design, then we built the robot based on a prototype a mentor brought in from home. The third year, the students spent almost 3 weeks building prototypes figuring out how the process works, and we ran out of time to get the robot working as well as we wanted. The fourth year, we really hit our stride on actually building a robot. We spent less time on prototypes, the robot did what we wanted, and it all went smoothly. The same for our fifth and sixth years. In fact, this year the team set a goal of being completely finished with the robot a week early. As mentors we had always pushed to get finished early, but always ended up with a 40+ hour final build weekend. While we didn’t hit our target, the team really pushed themselves harder than we’ve seen before, having set the goal for themselves.

More awards-related, we pushed the students for a number of years. We tried to get them to keep a design notebook, which in previous years was a big flop. But this past year, we had a freshman come in who took it on themselves to make it a success… and the notebook was filled out during or after every single meeting. She copied sketches, tables, and equations from the whiteboards, captured all of the “failed” ideas that led to those that ended up on the robot, and really delivered a great end result. There is no doubt in my mind that it will only get better over the next few years, and by the time she graduates it will simply be “habit” for the team.

We pushed the team to work on chairman’s every year, and some times it could be like pulling teeth. This year, though, the captains came in and drove the team towards putting together a great chairman’s submission. They were both great technical leaders on the team before this, and they sacrificed a lot of time working on the robot in order to get chairman’s as perfect as possible. We didn’t win, but it set a bar that the team will have to beat next year.

Every year we meet with the new captains over lunch in the summer to help get them setup for the year. It helps for planning the summer and fall programs. And every year, I challenge them to pick one area of the team, or one award, or one item to improve on, without letting anything established slip. We get them to create a legacy for themselves within the team. I make sure I point out to the new captains what the previous ones did (only going back a few years… the captains they knew), to help give them inspiration and make sure they realize that they, more than anyone else on the team, really have the power to change and improve the team.

So, that would be my suggestion to start with. Talk with your captains, and work with them to develop a reasonable improvement goal they can take charge of. Having them push the goal really makes a difference for the team. Start with the most obvious, upfront student leadership ones (like having the captains lead group discussions instead of the mentors), and you’ll find that future captains will naturally be more upfront and assertive, since that is what they saw and expect from years on the team.

I agree with Kim’s comments - you need to understand what motives a person, so you can give them the right challenge. That’s when the magic happens and you see amazing things. And though understanding everyone’s required management style sounds big, you may not even have to use it, just know it so you can work with them best.

I also have the following suggestions to think about.

  • Let there be consequences to work not done. If you give them the responsibility to complete an award submission and it is not done on time, do not clean it up. Either submit it as is, and let them know you have done so, or do not submit it since it’s not up to the expected quality (of course, they have to know clearly what is expected up front). If you give them responsibility to complete it, and clear instructions as to quality standard expected, do not undermine that responsibility by redoing their work. They will expect it, and do less next time. At the same time, you need to find people who are truly interested in doing the job. If there is nobody interested, maybe there is no submission that year. This shows the team that you will not fill all the gaps - if they want it, they will have to step up and work for it.

  • In addition to the above, instead of having yourself review and fix up the work, try find someone else who can give feedback. Sometimes they just need guidance to come from someone else. Perhaps find someone to hold a review session to go over the submission with them. Maybe find a business person who can come and give a talk on writing submissions/papers/business plans so they can get ideas.

  • Grow a student leadership group. If students are given leadership roles, it can do a few things. First, it develops leaders. Second, in time, it should take some responsibility off you. Third, it gives others something to aspire to. This does not give them free reign, or ultimate power, or anything like that. They need to work with you and the other mentors, but it gives them responsibility to grow in to. The leaders should probably be decided every year to allow others the opportunity, though that doesn’t mean someone can’t return the following year.

  • Perhaps look at the project management aspects of the team. Rather than traditional project management (since the build season is so short), or micromanaging (which often takes away a person’s autonomy), look into other styles, such as Agile processes like Scrum. In such a short timeframe with so many moving parts, this can help keep the whole team up to date and moving forward. (If you want to know more about this, feel free to PM me.)

And to reiterate some of the other points:

  • Find the right challenge for the person. Anybody will have a hard time doing something they’re not interested in. But if they have the right challenge, you can just get out of their way and see what they can do.

  • Let them work with the mentors, not for the mentors. This is not a job, nor is it school. The chance to work alongside someone in this capacity is something they don’t get many chances to do. A slight change in the relationship from working ‘for’ them to ‘with’ them can change their entire approach to the work.

Every team is different and needs to find their balance. Student involvement is key to long term sustainability, as is long term mentor help. If the team is large but the students don’t seem too engaged, I would suggest start working closely with a core group and build out from there.

I just wanted to say thank you for this book recommendation. After a couple of our mentors took note of it from your post, it’s making its rounds through our students and mentors this summer and is having a huge impact in terms of the words we use and the core values our team aspires to. We had the vision before but didn’t have the framework to hang it on - or the words to use to help students (& mentors) aspire to higher levels.

Thank you!


There is a huge amount of excellent advice in this thread so far, but I wanted to key on this comment above.

I try (and do not always succeed) to set clear and attainable expectations with every student I mentor. I also check with them often to see if they need anything to meet those expectations.

But I don’t mother them, nor do I do the work for them. I do answer questions when I can, direct them to web resources for other answers, and propose ways to figure out the last issues where nobody knows the answers. But they all know very clearly that THEY and they alone are responsible for getting their task done, and getting help when they hit a roadblock.

If it doesn’t get done, I sure won’t do it. And they all know it.

Just like with my own kids, they all crave approval, and expressing disappointment is a powerful tool.

Coming back to reality, sure there are times when I do lend an actual hand, and always for certain types of dangerous work (table saw with aluminum, for example). Early in the team’s history, when we didn’t have the depth we have now, mentors would support the students so at the very least they had a moving robot with which to compete. After all, we’ll come as close to letting them fail as we can, but pull them back if the whole team is in real danger of failing. That’s getting rare these days.

Bottom line: Let them know what you expect, and let them fail to see what that feels like.

On the “trap of doing too much”: Yeah, we know what that’s like. It is far more difficult to watch them fail, but remember that’s when they learn.

I think this is a pretty difficult thing for many people to do, perhaps especially younger mentors. Expressing disappointment is only effective, in my opinion, when the students actually respect you. I know a few young mentors my age who can’t use this tactic because the students don’t respect them. I was lucky enough to have very respectful students, so it wasn’t an issue for me, but what about when a mentor isn’t respected by the students?

Might be a topic for another thread, but how do you get students to respect you? What might be some causes of this? Is it strictly because of the young age? Is it just on a student by student case?

I think you’re right about disappointment being contingent on respect, but respect is definitely not an age issue. Somewhat of a time issue, but not an age issue.

I think this goes back to the OP of the thread as well. I consider respect as earned student by student, but in many cases they seek the same attributes, albeit possibly proven in different ways. There’s always a few exceptions, but I find people will almost universally respect you if you consistently:

  • Respect and care about them, and everyone around them
  • Offer them a real stake and influence in your collaboration
  • Build mutual trust and honest two-way communication
  • Demonstrate your own competence and confidence
  • Prove that what you’re competent in (and trying to teach) is of value
  • Show you practice what you preach

While I have to do/demonstrate these differently for different students–and accept different demonstrations than some of my peers–I feel like a lot of what students of all ages look for falls in or near these categories somehow.

EDIT: I realized this could come across as indicating that people asking this question aren’t component, confident, respectful, etc. Definitely not what I meant. So much is in how you demonstrate it (I’m definitely not perfect). Although I think having self-confidence that you’ll be able to gain respect (if you do the right thing) is valuable in itself.

Siri has a great list of ways to start gaining respect. Keep in mind, however, than trying to gain respect seldom actually works. People see right through it and most often you’ll just come across as an egotistical know-it-all. Focus on the team and the students. Set clear expectations and reward them when they hit milestones. Do what you can to help them succeed in whatever they’re doing - this doesn’t mean jump in and do it for them. All too often, I’ve seen mentors take something out of a students hand in order to do the job, which sends the exact oposite message. Rather, provide them the tools, knowledge, and experience they need in order to do it for themselves. Also, keep in mind that the smartest/most capable person in the room isn’t necessarily the one who talks the most. It’s the one that chooses the right moments to talk in order to spur the creative process.

Bingo. Number one way to disrespect a student. Or really anyone. Thanks Jon.

Beyond that, I think there are two different styles here. Thanks for helping me understand the other one. I suspect it’s because I’m younger (and clueless), but I find that just trying to “give them the tools to succeed” is what makes me come across as a know-it-all. Because the truth is, I don’t know all of those tools. In fact, at least in mechanical (with some great design mentors but no actual professional mechanical designers), there are times where none of us knows.

In those situations, I find students respond better to efforts to gain their respect by working with them through problems, with the understanding that I don’t know either. I think I tend to lean more on helping them with how we can approach problems we don’t know how to solve–versus a more knowledgeable how to deal with ones just they don’t know how to solve. Certainly a matter of degrees, but I’d venture that the approach to respect varies somewhat dependently.

While all of what Siri says is spot on, I want to point out that for these two in particular, don’t let them give input unless you plan to actually listen and consider that input.

In other words, the key word in the first statement is “real”, and in the second “honest”. You have to live by those, or there is little chance of respect.

If you act like a student, people will treat you like a student. This is particularly a problem for college mentors that don’t take a break. All you’ve ever really known is being a student (even if you were a lead student), and so I think they really don’t know how to act when they start mentoring. When they realize they are acting like a student, they try too hard and overcompensate and then no one wants to hear what you have to say.

All mentors are not created equal – there is always a hierarchy (And this goes for any organization). Realize you are starting on the bottom. If you want to be top dog that’s awesome, but you’re going to have to work and earn your way to the top. I get the impression that this bites some young mentors that switch from a relatively successful team to one that is perhaps more up and coming. If you’ve got knowledge to share, that’s great and should help you move up the ladder but if you try and hold the process hostage you’re probably going to get burned.

Worth noting that I haven’t actually done much mentoring myself, but I did work at a lot of summer camps with kids that weren’t much younger than me and have watched a bunch of other people go through this process, so YMMV. :slight_smile:

Hi all,

I wanted to give a brief update and then ask a question along these same lines. First, I am proud to say that we have what seems to be our first functioning leadership council with eight students. Our President took it upon herself to begin planning our meetings and they all seem excited to engage their own tasks.

With that in mind, I noticed that we all seemed to flounder at our new members meeting today especially when it came to conveying what we do as an organization. To be honest, I had a fellow teacher approach one of my students at our demonstration yesterday and ask while watching our students driving and showing off last season’s robot “So all you really do in robotics is play?”

Any suggestions as to now to convey something as complicated as a FRC team to new members?

A couple of thoughts for your latest question:

  • What you’re looking for here is an elevator speech, and it’s not necessarily easy to come up with one. In the past, we’ve sat down with the entire team to work on them, having each student develop their own based on their own experiences, deliver it, and then talk as a team about what the best aspects of each speech is. In general, our elevator speeches start with a summary of FIRST, and then move into our team and history. With this type of speech, you want the most important information in the first 30 seconds, and then you basically keep going more and more in depth for as long as the audience is interested.
  • Driving the robot around is the “cool” portion of the new member meeting. Before we do that with our students, we talk about the robot. Basically, pretend the students are judges at a competition, and you need to tell them all about your robot. Have the returning members talk about how it works, what parts they designed and built. That will help get the engineering aspect of the program across. It sounds like the teacher you mentioned missed that connection, and thought you just got a robot and drove it around! Keep in mind, the game is only important as it describes the task you designed the robot for - don’t dwell on it! The important thing is the robot itself.
  • A speech won’t help anyone to truly understand what goes into an FRC team. During our two week long summer camp this year, we held a mousetrap car competition that was essentially a mini build season + competition for the students. It got them doing some actual engineering to solve a fairly simple task, talking about their car and how they designed it, and even experiencing multiple “matches” with breaks in between to fix/improve their cars. At the end, we could tell the 7 rookie members that they just went through their first build season, and that the actual build season was just a more intense version (and when we said that, the returning members said “oh wow, you’re right!”). Describing the whole thing here is probably too much, but if you want to know more, message me with your e-mail address and I’ll send over a full description plus some of our materials.

Of course, all of this is targeted at the engineering design/build aspect of a team, and we all know that teams are much more than just building a robot. However, I would recommend focusing first on this aspect and your discussion of it. Once that is on solid footing, you can afford to turn some of your attention towards the other aspects of a team, like community outreach.