The institutionalization of FRC teams, and the toxicity it creates

Good Morning.

Let me start off by saying that I’m not a new member, this is just a new account as I don’t want to reveal my background or incriminate any teams. I’ve been involved with FIRST since FLL in 2008, and been a student in FTC, FRC, and I have volunteered as a mentor and event volunteer countless times.

I joined a fairly unknown FRC team in a new area. For the first two years, our team was in the bottom few percent of all FRC teams. Next to no money, and personality conflicts on the team meant that we often just barely managed to have a finished robot, and it often didn’t actually work during the competitions. At the end of the second year, I almost gave up, it wasn’t fun, and it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. However, a couple new mentors arrived, and some members with the biggest personality clashes left, so I decided to try one more year.

That became our most successful season ever. We made worlds for the first time, became a team that could actually be in a position to pick, which we had never managed before. It was something I was happy to be proud of.

The next year, things looked awesome. We had a lot of new money, new students, new mentors, new tools, and many more sponsors. And as it turned out, this was a good season as well. But just before we went to worlds, I thought very seriously about saying goodbye, and leaving. I couldn’t come up with the right way to say it at the time, but this is what happened:

**The team was no longer about the students, or even about robots. It was about the TEAM, for the sake of the team. There was all this political maneuvering going on behind the scenes, people on the drive team because of their parents, not talking about poor design decisions for the fear of upsetting people. **

And that’s not what FRC is supposed to be. From my personal experience, this is a transition every team goes through. The team gets bigger, and starts to win, and everyone comes out of the woodwork, and then…it stops being about the students. The team becomes too big to fail, too big to not go to champs, and it creates this mindset, very ingrained into the team, of “we’re better”. And then, when the team does fail, it creates a toxic environment between the students and mentors.

I’ve gone back to mentoring FTC, because I can no longer recommend FRC. I’m not surprised to find that some FRC teams are falling back to FTC, or even VEX to try and reclaim the student focus.

I’m writing this in the hopes that it will spark some helpful discussion, not to lay blame or complain. I owe FIRST a lot, and simply want it to continue to impact the lives of students.

This happens in other areas than FIRST, but it is certainly a problem that FIRST teams are particularly prone to have. I view my most important job as the leader of my team as setting the right team culture. This is pretty much the same as my most important job as a track & field and cross country coach. Those are both sports where it is clear that my mandate as a coach is in fact that the students get better and have a good a experience. Creating a good culture is not hard, but it does require constant work. We strive to win at every competition, and I am certainly by nature a competitive person. But it is more important that I make sure that the students have the best possible experience.

I have a simple test I try to apply to myself when I start to deviate from what I should be doing. Usually this is when something breaks in an important match, or a call goes against us on the field or some other adverse circumstance. For most of us our first reaction is somewhere between anger and irritation. I try to remember that my students are going to take a lot of their cues on how to handle the situation from me. I don’t want to be that mentor who is off fuming in the stands when I should be either consoling students or helping to devise a fix. Because it is very easy for me to unintentionally set a bad example that can lead to a bad culture.

We strive to give the students as much freedom as we can. We encourage them to take initiative and be leaders. But our mentors have to also recognize that there are times when we need to step in and lead. This is often, but not always, because of conflicts or tension with the students. Sometimes it is tension between students and mentors. We have had mentors that didn’t really fit our team culture. Not bad mentors, just not good fits for us. And many of them adapted to our culture after a season or two. We encourage students to feel safe in coming to their mentors to talk about issues they are having, with other students and with adults.

We also try to encourage them to learn to argue for their positions without making the arguments personal, and to learn to accept when the team goes a different way than they wanted. This last bit is often the most difficult for new team members to do. It is absolutely essential, however. Being able to have civil, productive discussions about disagreements not only leads to a better team atmosphere, it leads to better robots and a happier team.

As a lead mentor, I also know that a big part of my job is to make sure the adults involved with the team understand and support our team culture. We talk regularly, and try to be self critical when we look at the decisions we make. This is particularly true with parent volunteers. I find that with parents it is best to set expectations right away and make sure they understand their role if they want to be a mentor.

One of the hardest things for me to learn is that as our team has grown, both in terms of number of students and number of mentors, I have been personally less directly connected to the building of the robot. I still guide, and I still make sure we are following our design criteria (or that if we decide to deviate it is a team decision) but I have to rely on the other mentors and the student leaders to do a lot of the robot-centric stuff I used to do. In some ways this makes my position less fun. But also more rewarding.

Your post does not reflect a team mentality, but rather an individualistic mentality. Family ties and politics has no place in a drive team. Personality clashes only happen when individuals are thinking about themself and NOT the team. In my opinion, a team-first mentality is the key to a successful team. When individuals sacrifice self for the greater good of the team, things are accomplished and work gets done.

And… referring to “too big to fail” is usually an indicator that people have become “comfortable”, and have stopped innovating, trying new things, and pushing the barrier.

I think you would have been more accurate OP if you had said your team is now more focused on its status than actual accomplishment. This creates entitlement without work ethic, which is doomed to fail.

Above all other factors, I prefer my team to be the hardest working and the smartest working. A team that thinks smart not hard and has an unmatched work ethic is dangerous.

I will jump to what I believe could be root cause. In your scenario (which is not terribly unique), I think the team was missing “its culture” or core values. Without a core culture, many things can step in and become the core culture, and these shifts can cause a lot of agitation and disruption.

Sometimes this can occur when a team gets new leadership. Often it is when a core person leaves and there is a void (in talent, skill set, or personality).

Sudden success can be a double edged sword. It often comes with a lot of positives, but many negatives can also follow like the “want to win” overriding some peoples beliefs of what the “team”, and “program” should be.

Deciding on and following core values can be incredibly important to the stability of a team, but is an often overlooked step.

Most successful teams I know of would value the experience of “the team” over the experience of a particular individual (a student included), however they would also agree that the students should be getting inspiration and improving skills if they are willing to put in the effort. Most of them use some balance in involvement, engagement, and responsibility with the results they want the team to have. This does not mean the project should be all smiles and high fives. FRC is a tough competition. The scope and time commitments are difficult on all involved. Teams and individuals will have bad days, possibly even bad weeks or competitions, and sometimes even bad seasons. With a strong core, teams can bounce back. Without developing a strong core, then teams will tend to bounce around between highs and lows. This is the same with any organization (and often the same with any individual entity).

I can relate. having an anonymous account can be very helpful in discussing topics such as these. In my team the problem is mentors picking favorites and treating them as such. Our new CEO has little leadership qualities, and was picked because she can be controlled by mentors. Everyone on my team knows who the favorites are. Everyone on my team knows that the 3-4 favorites can (and have) kick people off of the team for disagreeing with them. There are too many cliches to count. From a personal stand point, its no longer a team. It’s a few members of the elite controlling everyone else on threat of termination from the team. Unfortunately, if I want to participate in FIRST, this team is my only one in my area.

Another thing I’ve noticed on my own team, and I wanted to see if you guys have noticed anything similar on your own teams - girls run the show. They can easily knock anyone on the team off of it. In addition, they are in charge of programming, engineering, scouting, leadership, drive team and safety. So all of the guys on the team are left either cleaning continually or having ideas shot down for the pure fact that the girls consider their ideas better. For example, in 2015, a bunch of guys got together, and modeled in CAD and proto-typed internal stacking with a HP Station robot (Sort of like 148’s Batman and Robin) and it was shot down in favor of an external, landfill stacker (Not to say all of those robots were ineffective). If FIRST is really about letting the next generation get a hands on experience in STEM, then why are we sitting here trying so desperately to help, only to be shot down by the favorites.

Just my take on it.

I have opinions, anecdotes, and potential suggestions regarding the topic.

I will not share them in a thread based on an anonymous post.

Then why make a reply in the first place…?

OT: I think you need to come up with what you want and expect out of FRC. You seem to want to be a good team, but you also want students to learn. Now, these are in absolutely no way mutually exclusive. You have to very carefully balance participating to win and participating to teach. If there are faults somewhere (robot, code, anything), talk about them. Don’t leave an elephant in the room. Make sure your students know that if they make a mistake, it’s okay, and talking about it isn’t a personal attack (if parents need to be told this, then tell them too). This is all I feel comfortable / knowledgeable about regarding this topic, but I hope you can get some help out of it.

To answer some of your points, I do understand that family ties have no place in a drive team. This wasn’t a decision by a parent, which at least would have made sense, but rather a choice made FOR political reasons, by mentors with no students of their own, because they didn’t want to offend parent who were helping to fund/sponsor the team.

I don’t feel it’s just my team, either, or even just FRC. I’m starting to see in in FTC as well. This is a game that should be played and won by robots and innovation, not political maneuvering and who comes out on top of squabbles.

I’m not trying to disparage large teams, but it does seem easier to avoid these conflicts on smaller teams, or less successful ones.

I will be happy to talk with you privately, if you wish. I made this post in an attempt to talk respectfully about a problem that I see as fairly common in FIRST, and look for a solution to it that could be embedded in FIRST culture. I did not wish to do that by pointing fingers, and insulting teams.

All I want is a civil discussion, and, like I said, if you message me directly, I will be happy to tell you more specifics.

While I understand your concern about the OP specifically, any thoughts you might wish to share could be helpful for other teams struggling with the same issues, or teams who might one day find themselves there and can look back on this thread in the archives.

I can’t say that I’ve seen favoritism on my former team, but rather decisions made based on the team’s “legacy”, rather than on common sense, or what would be most conductive to winning.

Have you looked into starting an FTC team? I did FTC and FRC concurrently for three years, and honestly, the FTC team was a better overall experience. There’s not as much money, or as much prestige, but FTC is growing rapidly, and there’s less politics among fewer people.

OP: I think you need to come up with what you want and expect out of FRC. You seem to want to be a good team, but you also want students to learn. Now, these are in absolutely no way mutually exclusive. You have to very carefully balance participating to win and participating to teach. If there are faults somewhere (robot, code, anything), talk about them. Don’t leave an elephant in the room. Make sure your students know that if they make a mistake, it’s okay, and talking about it isn’t a personal attack (if parents need to be told this, then tell them too). This is all I feel comfortable / knowledgeable about regarding this topic, but I hope you can get some help out of it.

I’m no longer a member(I was a student) of this team, I may need to edit my post to make that clear. I’m a current alumni, working with FTC teams instead. I’ve declined the offer to mentor the team that this post is about. I didn’t feel like this was mentor over-participation, which is a whole desperate issue, but not the one I encountered.

Thank you for your advice, though.

This is something that crops up frequently for FRC teams. It’s something with which our own team grapples. I agree with Zebra_Fact_Man and IKE in this is not about the team, but about egos.

It takes courage and a deft touch from leadership to keep strong egos in check. Those are some of the most important qualities to have in a coach. When egos aren’t kept in check, the atmosphere does become toxic.

I see now. Yes, you should edit your post to reflect this information, I got the vibe that you are a mentor of the team and still involved.

FIRST is not about the robot, and it’s also not about the team. Those are just two of the tools we use to do what FIRST is about: inspiration.

Every team goes through periods where they have conflicting personalities. Every team has to deal with “helicopter parents” that want to push their kid into positions others may be better suited for. It happens, and it’s up to the team leadership (both student and adult leadership) to figure out how to handle those situations. The best way is to focus on developing your internal operations and procedures so they don’t allow those types of negative situations.

As odd as it sounds, a focus on the team can be a powerful tool for improving individual outcomes. A winning team is one that can gather more members, more interest, and more dedication, if winning is handled by the team leadership properly. Challenging your students to make an impact on the team, to leave it better off than when they joined, or to start something that will continue on past their time with the team does two things - it helps to continuously drive the team forward, and it helps the students develop their creativity and leadership skills in whichever way they want.

Ultimately, it comes down to how the team leadership steers the team. The student leaders can steer the short term, and are an important part of the equation, but it’s the mentor leadership that steers the long term view. If you find you can’t agree with how the team leadership is steering the team, and you can’t change it, then it’s better for your personal health to leave and find someplace more conducive to your way of thinking.

There are many different ways to run a team, and there is no one “right” way.

Speaking generally, (as I have no specific insight on your situation) I have been a part of leadership/position decisions (not necessarily in FIRST) that have been perceived by some as ‘political’ for one reason or another and it honestly hurts a little to get that feedback when so much effort was put into making the best decision based on the criteria.

The best solution I’ve found, from the organizational perspective, is to have well defined and well communicated criteria (as quantitative as possible, which isn’t always easy) for any role that is decided by team leaders.

What I have learned, specific to FIRST and to my team, is that singling out individual students for roles becomes very difficult when you have so many incredibly capable individuals. This is a problem I am more than happy to have.

This paragraph effectively summarizes why I believe FRC is such a powerful platform.

Well put.

-Mike

I work with a lot of teams (100+ teams each year), and while favoritism or perceived favoritism is often found, having exclusively female leadership on a mixed team is still fairly rare, and having that exclusively female leadership being that controlling/punitive as you describe would be an even rarer subset.

Female leadership on teams though is much less rare now than it was just a decade ago so I suspect this will be a more frequent occurrence.

As far as ideas getting shot down by “the leaders”, that happens all the time. Even really good ideas may be shot down because they would require more resources than leadership can offer, or the strategy may be deemed lower value, or the group generating the idea did a really bad job explaining it. I too had thought of a Batman/Robin style approach in 2015, and my presentation was so unremarkable to the group choosing design direction that they didn’t even remember when 148s video was shown. I did not push it hard as I did not think the team had the design resources to pull it off that year. We discussed this briefly after 148s reveal came out, but regrouped to focus on the teams robot.

Inner groups and favoritism do often form and cause problems. Sometimes this is because the “favorites” spend the most time. Sometimes it is because they behave the best. Sometimes there are other forms of favoritism (nepotism, sexism, cronyism) at play. Most mentors try not to play favorites, but it happens similarly to HS sports teams. Unfortunately, this is a real occurrence.
I am not trying to “blame the victim”, but it is often worthwhile to do a self assessment to ensure you are not doing a lot of off-putting behaviors. If you come up with some, work on those. Also, ask if you can have a discussion with mentors about taking a larger/more important role with the team. Ask what they are looking for in their leaders and how you could demonstrate. You could try to have a conversation about favoritism, but often this can lead to confrontational discussion that may not be beneficial.

We had a student join our team that came from another team, complained about the things the other team did to limit his participation, focused on things he didn’t want to focus on - made it sound like our team was a better fit. We accepted him on our team. By the end of the season it was very apparent that it was not the other team that was the problem… Sometimes personal reflection can go a long way into resolving ‘other people’s problems’.

I see your points about favoritism, but the fact that the girls seem to run the entire show, to the point where they are flat-out removing people from the team who disagree with them, leads me to believe that this team has taken the “inclusion of women in STEM” concept in the entire wrong direction. It certainly sounds like the boys are putting a considerable effort into contributing to the team only to be ignored, and such a significant split between “favorites” and “everyone else” is something I consider unacceptable. If it were me on this team, I would gather up the "everyone else"s to make a plan to confront the people who are apparently controlling the team. After all, you can only kick off so many people before it stops being a team. Just my speculation.