Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Competition

Preface: This is something I sat down and wrote a while ago after seeing a young VEX team that I’m close to loose a competition, when they arguably shouldn’t have. A distressed student asked a mentor “If we’re all winners, then why do we have competitions?” after the MC had made a big deal out of the “we’re all winners” cliche. As a relatively non-competitive person by nature, yet an ardent lover of all forms of robotic competition, this question made me think. This is what I came up with. Some of the recent discussions that have come up on these boards, such as the “Another culture change” and “Musings on Design Inspiration” threads, brought my thoughts back to the topic, and as the competition season reaches its peak, I felt that some forum-goers would appreciate my somewhat atypical thoughts on this topic

You all know the clichés. It’s not about winning, not about the robot. We’re all winners. The process is more important than the results. Whatever phrases they’re throwing out there these days to make the teams that don’t do as well as some of the other teams feel better about themselves. So if that’s all true, then why have these events at all? Why compete?

The competitions represent three things for me. They are an award ceremony, a celebration, and an exhibition.

First and foremost, they are an award ceremony. And I don’t mean the half hour at the end of the day. For you, the “award ceremony” should span every minute you are at the competition venue. You go to the event to find out how you did, in every single little aspect of the FIRST Robotics Competition. Sure, there are awards, that recognize some particularly exceptional teams, but you should be able to judge yourself, and how well you did. You get to see how well your robot functioned, but more importantly, how well your team functioned. Did their design process come up with the basic concepts of the greatest teams out there? Did the detailed design and fabrication of your machine match up to the best of the best? Did your team hold itself together through the stress of competition? Did you never give up, and push with all your effort until the final hour of competition? Did everything go smoothly? How did the team handle it when things did not go smoothly? Did you represent your team professionally? Did you learn? Did you have fun? Did students learn that this stuff is fun? Did you pull off something you didn’t think you could? Did you inspire yourselves? Did you inspire others at the event? Did you do everything you could, and more, and do you plan to iterate and improve everything for next time?

That’s the definition of success. That’s the reward you get, not a silly trophy with a couple Lexan pillars on it. If you just participated in something magical, and squeezed every bit of magic you could out of it, you deserve to celebrate.

“You get what you celebrate.” Dean Kamen’s catchphrase for as long as I can remember. It’s a big part of his message; he sees people celebrating over things like sports teams and entertainers, and wants people to celebrate achievement in science and technology, because that’s what they’ll end up getting. Which is exactly what happens at every FIRST event I’ve ever been to.

The stands or a FIRST event, if you think about it the right way, are a beautiful thing. A stadium of people, cheering on pieces of science and technology. Facepaint, costumes, and crazy dances, all over something that they created and are truly part of, rather than a sports team that they associate with for almost irrational reasons. It’s a party out there, and a party taking place for exactly the right reason. Celebration of the future.

Take a moment to appreciate it, the next time you’re at a FIRST event. A teammate of mine during my early days in FLL reminded me of this after our team suffered a tough loss, and told me to just live in the moment and dance the Cotton Eye Joe with everyone else. It was advice I will never forget. Win or loose, celebrate the amazing thing going on around you. Don’t look at what could have been. Don’t look at the aspects of the day you may not have enjoyed cynically. Just celebrate. And afterwords, go get what it is you celebrate.

How do you do this? By looking at the competitions as an exhibition. Just as it is a chance to find out how you did at creating a robot and a team throughout the season, it is a chance for everyone, of every level, to demonstrate and show off their creations.

The top teams, however, are the ones you notice most. They’re demonstrating superior technology on the field, as well as a great team of people behind it. They’ve reached the threshold set for success, and show this off. They will often show off excellence in other ways as well, from the chairman’s award down to their student’s attitudes. And when they do well, they show off their ability to celebrate, and they demonstrate getting what they celebrate.

How should you react to this? How do you react to someone beating you? It doesn’t matter if they crushed you, if they won by controversial referee decision, or anywhere in between. You have three basic options:

-You can take the depressing approach; spending your time assuming that you can never be close to as good as the teams that dominate.
-You can take the selfish approach; accuse the dominating teams of cheating, breaking the spirit of the program, or making other excuses for the fact that they dominated and you maybe didn’t do quite as well. Or just call it bad luck.

-Or, you can take the approach of the iterative designer, and student of FIRST. You can learn about their robot, and the people behind the robot. Find out how they got the resources they have, and how they developed their design. You can strive to become excellent, and use competitions as a window to see and interact with excellence, rather than trying to marginalize it while artificially elevating yourself. You can study and become like anyone, if you admire rather than disparage them. And if you’re creative, you can improve upon their methods still further.

Come back next year with an iteratively designed team. Perform better, and make more people go “wow.” Find excellence, and create it within your team. And have the time of your life celebrating what it is you do, every moment you get.

Thoughts? What does competition mean to you within robotics? How would you respond to the student mentioned at the beginning?

My definition of competition is a team that is on the same level as my team, or even higher. What I mean by level is their ability to score and execute effectively. Whether it is robotics, football, or any other sports, it all comes down to discipline and execution. The team that is able to effectively execute consecutively and hang in there longer will be able to put up more points. I do not see “worse” teams as competition, but merely as road blocks. That is the cold hard truth. I see competition as more of a brick wall that I have to go over, around or through.

I am the type of person that holds grudges. May be, grudge is not the right word. If you beat me, I will come back with a vengeance and show no mercy the next time around. It is usually those who beat me that motivate me to do better. I do not care for awards, recognition, or fame. All I care for is the score board. Numbers don’t lie. On the field, I will claw, punch, kick and do what ever it takes to get the points up on the board. Off the field, I am a very nice guy.

My mentality is: you can do it, good for you. I will do it better and rub it in your face. Competition is the drive to be better and better every time. Become so good that no one can reach you.

I believe it is this type of attitude that fuels me. For that reason, I believe that I would be a terrible leader. I believe that it should be about the people, not the numbers. That means that my mentality is not fit for leadership.

I strive for perfection, I am never satisfied with mere competence.

During my final season of FLL my team lost at our state championship, because of a bug in the NXT software. We had won every competition we had went to up to until then, and we were crushed by the loss, despite taking home awards. For a long time I was very bitter about losing. I was angry because I had lost to teams that were “sucky” and had terrible robots.

My father then told me that bringing down the achievements of those who beat you is dumb. If I called those who beat me sucky, that means I must have sucked worse. The same goes for teams who didn’t do as good as us, if everyone else sucked, then I am better than sucky, not so great of an achievement. So I always try to have my team members and the FLL teams I mentor think about how we have done well, not how other teams did bad.

Instead of moping about always losing in the past, my team has made a real effort to improve ourselves. Instead of holding a grudge against those that beat us, we instead have emulated them.

All of this may seem like common sense to some people, but for me realizing this was a big deal as I am incredibly competitive.

This year despite having a rather poor record at the LA regional (we had electrical and some programming bugs early on) and then being slaughtered in the LA regional quarterfinals, our team is still incredibly proud of how well we did, this is the best robot we have built.

I don’t know if I make any sense, but basically I agree with everything in the OP, I could not have said it better myself.

Competition means working to be better, while those around you are doing the same.

“I’m not going to tell you all that you all are winners. At this point you are smart enough to know whether you are or you aren’t.” -Woodie Flowers

As an incoming freshman to the 2009 game Lunacy, I didn’t know what to expect. I had been to the 2006 NASA/VCU Regional (<3 Aim High) and the 2008 Duel on the Delaware, but that was it.

However, I did know about the team’s performance in 2008. The old team and the current team (pre-me vs now) had a hard time hiding it: the robot was a product of team becoming polarized, and therefore the organization suffered.

The robot for '09, aptly named “Redemption” for the team’s mindset, was, in my biased opinion, the best-built robot at the New Jersey Regional in 2009. (Ok, Overdrive built the best…)

Yet, when our pride and joy was uncrated, inspected, and entered the first practice match, the code faltered. My inexperience with the code, as a freshman, couldn’t find the issue in our pneumatics. A member from a team that will go unmentioned said, “Oh my God, their robot sucks,” as the bot went back to the pits.

That set me off.

I wasn’t the only member from 422 to hear it either. Our small, dozen-deep contingent in Trenton heard it and it fueled us to compete the hardest we ever have. We fought in every single match, losing 2 and regulation and falling in the semifinals on what I still say is a botched call.

Regardless, revenge inspired me, and science followed.
Also, we crushed them. We CRUSHED them. Mwahahaha.

The original post was great. I want to expand just a little on why I value the competition aspect of FIRST.

I guess I’m a bit old-school when it comes to competitions. I grew up playing sports and I learned from a very young age that you can really badly want to beat someone in competition and be their best friend afterwards. Also, it only counts if you win within the rules and with good sportsmanship.

Many of the “old-schoolers” believe that competition in and of itself and sports in general are highly valuable in teaching children about life. It teaches the value of teamwork, comaraderie, persistence, hard work, concentration, working under pressure, etc.

Dean always uses the example that it’s sad that people try to get so good at bouncing a ball. Just like the robots, the ball is a tool. Some kid might get schooled during a game by someone that is much better at bouncing that ball. If that kid says, “I’m not going to let that happen again”, starts working like crazy at bouncing the ball, then beats the same guy that schooled him the first time around - that’s a great life-lesson about hard work, coming back from adversity, and not giving up.

I guess my point is that competition in and of itself teaches a lot of highly valuable life lessons. The thing that makes FIRST great is that the game itself also teaches a lot of things useful in life (rather than bouncing a ball). Just remember that the competition aspect can be highly valuable - embrace it.