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?