The centrality of competition in FRC

One of the sticking points that has come out of this recent thread is that we don’t all have the same perspective on exactly what FIRST is about, and as such, we can find ourselves talking past one another when it comes to how we’d like to see things change. That’s a big topic, and it’s best addressed on its own.

So making yet another split from the main thread, I want to open a new discussion. To keep the topic focused, I ask this one question: How central (or not) to your experience of FRC, and FIRST as a whole, if that answer differs, is the aspect of competition? Not the act of going to events, but the idea that we play matches and hand out judged awards for the purpose of competing against other teams.

This is a different question than what FIRST should attempt to impart to its students in terms of skills or inspiration. I am interested in specifically whether the process of competing—of not merely trying to demonstrate your abilities, but striving to be the victor in a competition against others—is an important aspect in how we achieve whatever goals we have.

I will also note, with some sternness, that this is not a venue to air your grievances surrounding how any team conducts its program or builds its robots. The purpose of this discussion is to explore the differences in how we look at FIRST, not to slander the virtue of anyone’s perspective.


So everyone knows where my sympathies lie, I believe strongly in emphasizing competition. It’s how I’ve always interpreted what Dean and Woodie have said about their intentions for the program, and being a naturally competitive person myself, it was an important part of how I got hooked. I won’t say too much more and take up all the space before I turn the question loose.

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Though I personally feel differently, many of our team members do feel that without the traditional competition (in some form), they are not vested in the team. Having said that, there are two subsets (~ 1/3 each) one of whom is happy meeting and doing whatever (mini robots, build a team organization system, etc) and in any manner (even on Zoom), the other only wants to meet face-to-face to compete in_person with other teams. Oddly, I feel of we teased it out further, the latter group values the social aspect more than the competition aspect.

The competition is central. But it’s not the reason we do this.


If it weren’t for the competition, we’d be sitting around doing models, R/C stuff, hobbies… And doing a fair amount of sitting around talking, maybe. Who knows what we’re doing. Building things for fun, I guess. Maybe mentoring a minion who found us.

But because we have a competition, we have an outlet for this mentoring, a mission behind our building, and most importantly…

… A place to sit around and make connections with each other, to strive for excellence, to tell tall tales and make more memories. A place to take our mentored minions and show them that they can, in fact, do crazy awesome things.

In short, a centralized nudger to get us to do something of the same thing we were going to do anyways, but on a bigger scale. And maybe we get some hardware.

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I got into FIRST through my brother, who joined 1690 in 2015, when I was in 7th grade. I was watching the competitions and tracking everything, following it just like a sports fan. FRC became my NFL. What really got me invested in the team was seeing them get to Einstein in 2016, and understanding that the things that I create can be competitive and be “objectively” excellent. In the years that followed, my friends(who were following the team as well) and I gave it our all in FRC and really got the most out of it. I doubt that, if it weren’t for competitions, and to a lesser extent without the competitiveness of 1690 in particular, I would ever have gotten into it in the same manner as I have and became who I am today.

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Well I’m Old School. I see not only the centrality of competition but the merits of Bag and Tag. The degree of pride a team takes in pulling off an engineering feat of this magnitude in that ridiculous time frame is something they will not fully appreciate until they get out into The World and see how relatively poorly run much of it is.

Of course it is grueling. I consider that a feature, not a bug.

But to be entirely honest the greatest benefit to the students comes in the less pressured moments. The organizing off season, the outreach visits where the team connects with that World, the things students decide to do and learn on their own initiative.

I’d reform a great many things if I was Commissioner of FIRST. But without live competitions FRC would not be worth the time and effort. In my opinion of course.

T.Wolter

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For me, competition is key. Without competition, this endeavor would be too much like another school class or lab. It could be somewhat interesting and somewhat attractive, but it would be primarily learning time in lives that are dominated by learning time. Competition gives the learning an immediate purpose that is different from the longer-term and less defined purpose of the rest of learning.

Think about how many high school aged people you know who train athletically. There are probably a few who do it just to be physically fit. I’ll bet you know many more who train with an immediate goal of being a better competitor in some sport.

The competitive nature of FRC, like the competitive nature of sport, makes it so much easier to do the hard work of preparation, but to make it seem much less hard.

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Absolutely crucial! If there were no competitions our school would not have any teams. I would still teach some of the same content for sure, but I would not be spending countless hours after school working with these kids without the completive aspect. The competition is the paycheck at the end for the students and mentors I work with.

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FIRST without competition is like music without performance.

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Competition is the inspiration for iteration.

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I think it varies on how long people have been in FIRST. For those rookies and even 2nd-year veterans, it can be a lot about the competition because that’s the idea they had in their head when they joined. As for veterans with more years like myself, it starts to become much more about the social and community aspect as that’s what really becomes important to you. I know for me when I first joined I basically only cared about the competition because that’s all I knew. However, now I care much more about the community and social aspects, and those are what have really helped me grow as a person. I feel as though, while FIRST does obviously have a huge competitive portion of their program, what they really want us to learn from this is how to come together as a community and how to help everybody, even those that aren’t on your side. That’s why Gracious Professionalism is such a big part of FIRST.

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Competition is the big that drives me to keep coaching, keep improving, learn new robot skills, improve our shop organization (so that we can better at building robots), etc. If we just did things for its own sake instead of to compete, we’d lose what makes FIRST really special to me.

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Competition is very important. Winning can be inspirational, but “failing”/having room for improvement can be too. Competition I feel like is what all team’s center their goals around. Whether that be to complete a robot to their liking, super charge inspiration through interaction with other teams, or seeing how a competitive goal unfolds. Competition is part of the process, I didn’t think this was very controversial. Most teams plan their season around competition, and I think most students benefit from there being a competition in multiple ways. To be honest, if you aren’t using the competition to inspire your students in one way or another, what is the point of FIRST Robotics! Acting like you could attract and inspire the numbers of students and mentors FIRST has without a statisfying end goal is overly optimistic. FIRST has a broad and strong appeal because of competition. No question.

Edit: To more clearly answer the prompt, trying to compete does wonders. We all have different bars. I do think that the competitive aspects of the program are required, though we all might differ on how much we actually deep down care about getting awards or winning. To me the act of trying to win is what is really important even though I know students like winning. Not everyone can win and winning is not everything, but trying is the best.

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Competition is essential to FIRST. The competition is what drives teams to improve, to learn, to grow. Without competition it’s just screwing around in shop. How many kids would go out for, say. football, if they never played any games?

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I believe competition is what gives us all direction in our goals. Sure, we could still do the exact same things without a competition, but the direction would be a lot less clear.
Competition also give us the ability to truly compare ourselves to others. To learn from them, see what they did better.

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This is pretty close to how I’ve always felt about the program - but with Woodie gone now, I wonder who in the FIRST upper management still feels this way?

The competition is fun, but the competition ends. The things the students have learned, though - the impact on their way of thinking - that lasts.

Only a small number of teams will have competitive success in any given year. Due to the nature of parity in FIRST, this tends to be the same set of teams from year to year. If the competition were the primary reason for participating, I’d see little reason to stick around.

I don’t think FIRST’s competition, sans the educational content, is particularly inspiring. It’s fun, but it’s not inspiring. What’s inspiring is walking around in the pits and meeting the people who built these other robots, and learning about the thought and effort that went into them. What’s inspiring is seeing a team solve a problem that your team couldn’t, in a way that hadn’t even occurred to you.

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I would be curious to see if that data really bears this out. Say, what percent of the 2019 champs field was also there in 2018 and/or 2017.

I see many of the point made above not exclusively being about competitive success. Competition can still be extremely beneficial regardless of if a team wins or not.

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But how inspiring is it, really, if you enter at a massive disadvantage?

I think this graph is worth bearing in mind (credit to @lbl1731):

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True. It is much harder when you don’t have the resources, or mentor support, or school support, and are struggling to compete. This doesn’t mean competition can’t inspire many.

FRC requires lots of time and expertise. I think students can and do sometime thrive on being less competitive. I think these are usually students who are confident in their abilities to improve, and sometimes do and sometimes don’t, but they try.

Really, for competition framing things in terms of improvement is very useful. Unfortunately, being at the bottom of the spectrum can make it really hard especially if progress is slow. I should know being both on a high school team floundering and as a mentor of a team that competitively was not strong on the field for a few years.

I also believe in students drive to try to make things better, and even the act of trying and seeing minor improvement in specific areas is inspirational. This seeming hopeless situation is the worst, and is often justifyable. This is really sensitive territory, but I really do believe that larger ELO improvement is possible for every team with good targets and long term learning. And I think the act of trying and the hope of improving, justifyable or not, leads to growth in students whether team competitiveness changes or not. I think many teams also gain inspiration from other teams, especially when they feel like they are struggling and want to get better. I think losing is the worst for those who over emphasize winning, and react to losing by lowering effort. Trying to improve leads to gains and is inspirational. Building a robot is inspirational when you think you can’t. Same is true with competitive aspects.

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