Sustaining a Team

Apologies in advance for extremely long post that follows (and if I’ve posted it in the wrong forum!), I’ve attempted a summary at the bottom :slight_smile:

A little context/background before getting into my question— my team was started last year by myself and another student currently on the team. The two of us used to be on an FLL team, and after aging out, wanted to continue in FIRST by starting an FRC team. After not getting the school and teacher support we’d hoped to have, we shifted our focus to be an independent team, hence our lack of a head coach or sustainable mentor network. My team is also very small, completely student-run, and are all current rising juniors (we’re working on the recruiting…). And while we’ve had a decent rookie season this year, my main concern is with what will happen to the team after the we graduate. For example, many things usually done by a coach are managed by us. Understandably, that isn’t what the majority of people hope to be involved with after joining a robotics team, so I’m not sure what will happen to those tasks after me and the 1-2 other students involved in these areas graduate. Additionally, our team is very short on mentors (read: one technical mentor), any others who are involved are parents who won’t be taking charge of the team after their children graduate. This brings up another concern of mine: the shortage of technical experience and other things that a mentor usually brings to a team. Of course the more “experienced” students try to teach others, but everyone’s learning together along the way, especially as part of a newer team.

After the 2019 season, we may also no longer have a workspace, so as of right now, when the thirteen of us graduate in a few years, our team will have no workspace, mentors, coaches, guaranteed sponsors, or even team members. We have truly loved the opportunity to compete in FRC this year, and would really like our team to continue past our graduation so others can have the same experience we did, but we’re currently stuck in this strange situation.
[strike]In summary, if anyone has any opinions or advice on how you make your team sustainable, please let me know.[/strike] ** How does a team find a dedicated coach/mentor/workspace with interest in helping the team grow long-term? ** If you’ve read this far, I truly appreciate your time and any thoughts or opinions you can provide. Thanks again!

Have you reached out to the senior mentor in your area, they are definitely a great resource.

Yep, thank you for the suggestion! (he was actually one of the first people to introduce us to FRC back when we were FLL children :slight_smile: )

We love competing with ya’ll at TRI. Even with us being in San Antonio we love to help in anyway we can… please dont be afraid to reach out to us .

Great competing with you at Bayou, and I loved the story I heard of your team name, even though the story was apparently mangled on its way to me.

Practically every team has sustainability issues in the early years. A lot of teams make it to year five, a lot don’t. While we haven’t had the cards stacked against us as deeply as you appear to, here’s what has gotten us through:

List all the resources the team needs to continue. Focus first on the ones which might go away next year, then on the ones which might go away the year after that, and so on. Always look for a long term solution, but be willing to settle for a short term solution if it comes up and you have other fish to fry.

Key resources, in the order they occur to me, not necessarily most important or most critical for you:

  • Money (competition fees, robot parts, tools, travel)
  • Students
  • Technical Mentors (engineers, technicians, scientists, programmers, and handy folk)
  • Business Mentors (getting sponsors and managing money)
  • “Team Mom” Mentors (travel, meals, keeping the wheels on the bus)
  • Build Space
  • Storage Space (in some cases a distinct problem from build space)
  • Tools
  • Parts & supplies (meaning enough money, plus some one who is ordering parts and supplies as needed by the team)

Let your team fold.

That sounds bad, but running a team should not be a struggle. A new team will take it’s place when the need arises.

Or, make your goal to convince a school to take your number, show them what needs to be done to properly sustain a team (basically all the things you listed).

Otherwise, this sounds like a team that served it’s purpose for a few students, but was never meant to be sustainable.

Many teams come and go like this. Notable example would be 2753.

Just to clarify-- I definitely don’t want to make it sound like keeping the team going is a burden for me or anyone else on the team. Yes, running a team is difficult and time-consuming, but we find it’s well worth the time and effort if it inspires anyone that comes in contact with the program. We just happen to be in a situation where we’re not sure how to best proceed, but are willing to dedicate all time and effort it takes.

Tried with our school (all of our team members attend the same school but we’re a community team) but the possibility is low, partially because our school already has a less competitive robotics program (not FIRST). If anyone in the area wants the team in about two years… :yikes:

Sustainability definitely wasn’t at the top of my priority list when getting the team going for this year, but it’s something I believe that maybe with two years time we could potentially figure out. I just personally can’t understand creating a team without the intent to continue in order to inspire students and serve the community around you. (and from someone who wasn’t crazy about engineering or helping the community a couple years ago, I’ve learned so much) But that’s just me :slight_smile:

And of course thank you for the advice! And everyone for being understanding (I debated posting this under a throwaway, but hopefully no one views my team any differently because I eventually didn’t)

If your team is not lead by a mentor that is willing to be the champion of the team then the future looks bleak. As with any strong organization (that is really what a FRC team is), you need someone at the helm to weather the storms.

Strong FRC teams are lead by strong mentors that have a vision on where the team will be in one, five, and 10 years. Students just don’t have the skill sets nor the abilities to keep a team running at full steam.

If your team is a community team, you will need to attach to some other organization like a 4H, Scouts, etc. If your team is attached to a school, it is best if you have a staff member to take the reigns.

The Granite City Gearhead have many parallels to your story. A community team with a school district, administration, and a overall community that supports VEX. Even the VEX state champs are hosted here in St Cloud. The FRC team started as a single school hosted club but after one year was dropped and picked up by the students and parents. Since then it’s has been fortunate that there was always a enough student’s from 2-5 area schools with a parent or two to keep it alive.

I’m starting my 4th year at coach and anyone that knows me and our team the last 3 years I been all in. I worry what will happen after my kids age out. I feel I will stay involved with First some how after they graduate but are a team leader is not responsible. I’m watching this post closely.

That’s coming from the perspective of a student who will not have to run the team after you have graduated.

Unless you can find an adult mentor who will champion your cause and can gather other adults around them, the team will not be sustainable.

I wanted to chime in on this aspect. That vision does NOT have to come from the mentors. After a few years of mentioning it to various students, our captains this year scheduled “vision meetings” over the summer. In these meetings, they’ve been looking at 3 areas - outreach (completed), technical (partial), and sustainability (which we start talking about next week). And in each of them they’re working on developing a 7-year plan. That plan details where they think the team should be and how it should grow in the near-term, medium-term, and long-term. Between those areas, we have 40 pages written up right now. It serves as a great long-term guide for the team. Once “complete”, all we need to do in future years is update them - add in new ideas, move items from one section to the other. Oh, and implement on the vision each year. Between this and some of the other documentation efforts they’ve been doing, I’m really excited for our future - it’s laying the framework for continuous, year over year improvement.

Where the mentors come in is helping the students look long term and understand the importance. Freshmen are going to be around for 4 years, so they have an interest in the longer-term success of the team, but they aren’t going to be creating the vision - they’re still learning what the team is all about. It’s the seniors and juniors that are really the ones that understand the team and can develop a vision for it… but they’re also looking at ending their time with the team relatively soon. It’s so hard for them to feel something is worthwhile if it take a bunch of time yet won’t pay off for the team until after they are gone.

The mentors, especially those that plan to stick around for many years, are the ones that can *both *see the vision and have a vested interest in working towards it. So once a team has a long term vision, it’s up to the mentors to help push it with the student leadership and help them understand how important it is. It’s not necessarily about optimizing the team for the current year, it’s about leaving a legacy of improvement.

For the OP… it sounds to me like you need to first identify someone that wants to keep the team going after you’re gone. If there isn’t anyone (a school, younger students, a mentor), then there’s no point in building a sustaining structure for the team. I would focus on recruitment more than anything right now - recruiting mentors, recruiting new students, and recruiting sponsors. That’s where you’ll find the people that want the team to continue after you’re gone, and they’ll be key to helping you create the structure you need to ensure it continues. If those people just don’t exist (which they may not, if there’s a competing robotics program those sorts of people are involved with), then get what you can from the team, and celebrate its short lived existence.

Correct, I won’t be running the team after my graduation and recognize that a mentor who is there to help the team grow is crucial. Which is why I’m hoping in the two years before I graduate we can figure something out or find someone willing to do so.

Perhaps I should restate my original question to more reflect what I’m trying to get at: how does a team find a dedicated coach/mentor/workspace with interest in helping the team grow long-term?

Jon has hit the nail on the head. Gus has provided a comprehensive list of issues your team must address to be sustainable.

There is no shame in starting a team that exists for a short time. Many, especially in Texas, only last for a few years. You and your teammates have demonstrated a lot of courage, initiative and persistence to do what you have done so far and it was a pleasure to work with you when inspecting your robot. Your team was doing quite well at the Houston area events I saw you at. I am sure you all have learned much more than if you did many other easier things. A short-lived team where people learn is more in keeping with the purpose of this program than one that is around for a long time but no one learns anything.

I do hope to see large Googly Eyes at many Texas events in the future :slight_smile:

This is a great post. I have taken over 4130 with one year as a mentor with a recent graduated senior as co-lead. There hasn’t been a teacher as a lead mentor on the team for some time. Coming off being a world finalist with myself being the only returning full time mentor is going to be a challenge. A majority of the team has graduated leaving very few with experience on the team. We have done very similar things as posted. We have continued meetings throughout the summer in regards to sponsors, business, and filling in the gaps from the graduated students. We are hoping we can continue where we left off. I hope you find somebody as wiling as you to take charge of the team before you graduate. I can only imagine how much you have learned from being a lead at such a young age. It only takes one parent to step up.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

Now this is the most challenging part. Running a team and championing a cause takes a special kind of person.

I firmly believe that the best lead mentors and advisors come from sports teams, community coaches, small business owners, and people who are already involved in other community programs. The tough part here will be that you want someone who is passionate about another cause, but their other cause does not interfere with the FRC seasons, or their cause is already part of their full time job.

What you can do:
Create documentation about the current state of your team. This includes a full contact list for all sponsors, donation amounts, etc. Include things like team structure. Document literally as much as you can right now.

Then, create something similar to a job posting. You should have a description that is well thought out and does not sugar coat the responsibilities of an adult leader.

Create a list of organizations local to you who might have a vested interest in kids in STEM, or community outreach.

Reach out to your current sponsors and potential sponsors to see if any of them have adults who might be interested in leading a team.

Basically, create as much information as possible for the prospective leadership. If you can create a team sustainability plan now, you can help a future leader execute it.

This would be a good start.

Agreed, particularly in a case as OPs where the team is created to serve a specific group of students. 3946 largely formed based on the drive of one student, and it would not have been surprising had it phased out after two years when he graduated. However, I fully agree with you that it would be awesome if this could become a tradition. I am honestly more ashamed of FIRST with how little they do to encourage sustainability vs forming new teams than I am of teams which fold.

Edit: as hinted above, the continued existence of the team was largely dependent on recruiting both a teacher coach (Hobson) and a number of technical mentors (including myself and JRWise and Dr. L. deQuay) who found and continue to find ways to keep it going.

Edit2: While I am not saying it is impossible for students to keep a team going, a career as a civilian working for the US Navy has made it abundantly clear to me that maintaining excellence across more than a single cycle of “tourists” requires a stable corps who preserve corporate knowledge. In the US Navy, this is a combination of civilians and Chief Petty Officers (and higher enlisted). In FRC, Mentors and Coaches. I recall reading something in ?Forward the Foundation? which applies here, and talks about the erosion of basic principles across generations. Bottom Line: The longer you can make those generations, the more recognizable your original purpose will be for more years after you have moved on.

Something I didn’t notice was missing until rereading today: While it will not solve any of the resource problems directly, forming a not-for-profit corporation will give your various resources something to help keep them together; getting 501 c 3 status simplifies a lot of sponsor issues. This is ESPECIALLY true if you’re not part of a school, 4H, or other pre-existing community establishment. It also gives you a legal entity for contracts and insurance and such.

Considering that a lack of long-term invested coaches or mentors is their main issue, I think a 501c3 is not feasible. You need people willing to serve as board members and ensure the financial accounting is done correctly, plus the 501c3 determination process could take so long that these students may have already graduated by the time they have a determination letter.

Note: no team I have been on has had a 501c3 though, so this is based on what I see brought up when I have looked into it before. I would really like one for our team but won’t organize one alone and have not gotten enough support with parents to seriously consider it.

We actually do already have a 501c3-- it was one of the first things I made sure to do after we decided to pursue FRC. But yes, the main issue is that currently there’s no one there to do accounting or other related tasks after we graduate.

Here are a couple suggestion on ways to continue your team. These were things I didn’t see mentioned yet in this thread.

Mentor Recruiting
I highly suggest starting with talking to a senior mentor in your area to start. They should understand the area better than most. The next course of action would be to reach out to sponsor/local businesses for mentors. FIRST was founded on having professionals run teams. If you can go to business, and ask for help, I’m sure you can start to pull some of the community in.
Also, check to see if any of your past FLL coach’s would be willing to help. While they will probably be busy running their own teams, any small amount can help. They might be able to provide assistance in recruitment of both students and mentors.
Finally, ask other teams around you for support. They might be able to loan some mentors, or help direct you towards other sources of mentors.

Being Involved
Try your best to be as involved with the community as possible. If people see there is an amazing program that may be in jeparody of dying, they are more willing to help. I would focus your efforts on the FLL teams you came from. Offer to send a student or two to mentor their teams. Make sure that student plants the seed of how awesome FRC is. Then, invite them to your competitions, show them all of the amazing things you do. Most importantly, make sure their parents come with them to see what a great program it is. This will help you develop a student base that is substainable, and replace parent support once they leave.

Know how to sell people in the program
Having mentioned there is another robotics group in your school, make sure you know how to convince people your program is worth keeping and growing. Some of the key things that makes FIRST amazing are as follows.

  1. FIRST has an amazing support network.
  2. FRC offers over 50 million dollars in scholarships each year.
  3. Students don’t build a kit, they have to design their own solutions themselves, promoting creative thinking and problem solving.
  4. The competition is orientation around working with teams you don’t know, so you are forced to do a lot of communication that reinforces soft skills.
  5. You have to do many presentations to all sorts people, from children to techincal engineers, both during competition and outside of it, which also develops soft skills. Soft skills are some of the lacking skills in industry today, and are highly sought after.
  6. FIRST encourages STEM promotion, so teams change the culture of the world by putting on demos to the public.
  7. FRC isn’t a robotics program, it’s Mentoring program that uses robots. Real world innovators are teach children to do amazing things, and helping prepare them for the world. This is unique to FIRST.
    Use all of these points, along with personal stories, to convince others that FIRST is a great program and needs to stay a part of your community.

Invite everyone
Have all of your students invite your teachers and principal to at least on practice during the fall off-season, one practice at the beginning of build season, and to a show case of your robot a couple days before you bag it. As soon as you find out which competitions you plan to go to, invite your teachers and principal to that as well. Send a letter to your school super intendant, your mayor, you Congressman, and your Senator. You may only be able to get one of those latter people to come, but if they have a great experience, they will be able to help you find the resources you need to keep your team going. Spreading the word about your program will get more people involved, and eventually someone will come up with a solution.

I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. If you or anyone else has any other questions, feel free to ask.

1 Like