Tips to make your team a contender?

So the team I’ve been a part of has been around since Rebound Rumble, and in our last two years we’ve had some small tastes of glory. We’ve consistently been able to get into the semi-finals at the district events, but we keep falling just short of making the finals. We also haven’t ranked very consistently high in the qualification matches, and we’ve been all the way up to 7th at one point in a competition and then fell back down to around 18th. We don’t have a huge budget or a huge team, but we really want to make it over the hump and go for a championship run next year. It seems that the most successful teams are quite active in the offseason, so I figured now would be a good time to make a thread about this. Are there any teams on here who have had success and could provide some tips on taking the next step to break past the semi-finals? Both offseason and build season tips would be great. How does your design process go? I’ve always been fascinated by how the top ranked teams are always able to figure out the optimal strategy and build their robot to perform it without having played any real matches yet. Like how the top teams this year seemed to all have in-place stackers at the feeder station and some could even make multiple 6 stacks in a match.

I have a few key things I belive from my time in FIRST that has helped me and my team.

  1. Mentors…you need to find mentors who are passionate about mentoring the kids. Not only to help them with engineering, design process, but is upbeat an knowledgeable about their field. I’ve found the best mentors are often former students who have started their careers. They knew what it was like and how it will be. The mentors also need to be a consistent influence on the students. Flaky mentors are the worst

  2. Your goal in this particular situatuion is to make it through the finals with the robot right? Then im goign to say something that i will likely get railed on about…Play to win. Recently e eryone talks about it not being about the robot or its more than the robot…and i agree to a certain point. But winning is nice…it feels nice…and this is a competition. So, design to win. Did your design not work the way you thought after the 1st time?..well then iterate it. Iterate and use your 25lb withholding to your advantage. Take large risks at competition. Make bold design changes to improve yourself. Often I am conflicted with keeping the robot the same and doing okay or taking a chance with a bold improvised change to make sure we seed high, but in the end of the day we are here to win this thing. Sometimes bold changes come back to haunt us…but the world isn’t changed by people playing it safe. Nobody is perfect and neither is any robot. So we always strive to improve the robot.

  3. 2 Robots. It is without a doubt a game changer when your drivers can practice with the robot at home anytime they want. Also gives you a identical platform to test any modifications before doing them at competition. The other advantage with a second identical bot is the ability for your drivers to compinsate for a robot that may not be as refined. Good drivers with a ok bot will end up on top vs the best robot in the world with bad drivers. Plus, you can do a little competition with identical robots in the off season for some fun.

  4. 2 events before champs. You learn so much at your first event that it is a shame when teams do not get the opportunity to act on and apply what they learned. Going to 2 events is a huge undertaking both financially and time, but it is so worth it to learn, apply, and see the fruit of that directly instead of waiting until next year. This goes for both the robot, team stuff, and business.

Sorry if what I am typing seems a little scattered, but im sitting here in a meeting being bored and multitasking ::safety::

I came here to link Karthik’s Effective FIRST Strategies conferences, since it’s what our team has used to help evolve ourselves from season to season (I hope his from this year is archived, because it was excellent. WOOF!), but this is the biggest piece of your question that stood out to me.

You’ll see this in this presentation, but ***recognize your limits and work within them. ***Example: 1923 doesn’t have a lot in the way of manufacturing. Nothin’ fancy. I’ve got a bandsaw and a drill press. We have to do pretty much everything COTS. Alright then! Let’s roll with that, and do the best we can with what we have. (VersaFrame has helped us immensely this year.)

Here’s the Chief post promoting his conference from this Championship - it has links to all of the earlier versions as well. Highly recommend.

Work hard. Then work even harder.

Work until there is nothing left to work on, then work more.

I second this statement. The problem that we have is trying to work within our means. Most years I’m scared that we will make it to worlds as I’m not sure we could pull together the funds to go. We don’t have the funds for a second regional and definitely don’t have enough for a second robot. It was great this year to have the old CRIO around just to have something to practice driving. I would love to see somebody give the best tips for teams that are trying to do the best they can with limited resources.

If you can, build a replica of your robot and practice with it a lot. This helps in a few ways - you can identify what might go wrong, which parts might break first under heavy usage and be prepared to fix them, and you can also improve your performance on the field significantly.

You could have the best engineered robot in the world, but it doesn’t mean much if you struggle to drive it efficiently and effectively. But if you know how to drive your robot in your sleep, you are likely to see success. Many of the top-performing teams have logged hundreds of hours in driver practice.

Sit down with all of the important stakeholders and make two lists. In one, put everything that went right this year. In the other, put down everything that either didn’t work or needs to be improved.

Pick 5 things from each list. For the list of things that went right, mark down what you can do to duplicate it next year. For things that went wrong, mark down at least one thing you can do to fix it or at least improve it going forward.

Do this every year and you’ll be surprised where you are in a few years.

If you have trouble building the best robot, make sure your drive team can compensate. Being the driver on a team that fortunately for me has pumped out three awesome robots over my years I may not be speaking from first hand experience, but your drivers need to know how exploit the features of your robot and get the absolute most out of it. We won our 2014 regional with a team as our second pick that not only had scissor lift as their shooter but that we left to the back court alone because we trusted their drive team enough to get it done(and good god did they get it done).

After matches if your drive team tells you something broke, and you didn’t really know because your robot was still doing “fine”, you have the correct drive team.

You don’t have to make two full robots to get practice. This year my team decided at the last minute that we really needed practice and debugging time, so we built a second identical chassis to practice on. We just mounted our with holding allowance on it. The key here is to maximize the usage of unmodified cots parts in your with holding allowance as they don’t count towards the weight. Hopefully, next year we don’t have to take this short cut, but it definitely made us much more competitive.

Good start!

Work smarter as well as harder. Don’t spend four hours building a system when fifteen minutes of number crunching might clue you in that it won’t work. And don’t spend four hours of number crunching when fifteen minutes of shop and practice time will give you an empirical answer. The smartest work is done when you know your team’s capabilities well enough to quickly figure out the quickest way to do something.

Practice, practice, practice. This will make your work both better and faster.

We’ve found that while a second robot would be nice, we could do without by making a timeline for build season involving finishing the robot early, and then working hard to achieve that goal. It may not always be possible, but having a working robot done early is great to debug, revise, and practice driving.

With our early-completed robot, we went to practice events during Weeks 5 and 6 of build. Bring able to practice on full and half fields for ~10 hours before bag and tag went a long way. We also taped down field positionings on our build space floor, cleared some space, and the drivers practiced basic maneuvers during the end of build and during out-of-bag time. At our events, we make it a huge priority to get inspected quickly and onto the practice field as much as possible.

You don’t need a second robot to train good drivers. You just need to be smart with your Build Season and out-of-bag time. Practice really goes a long way.

This has been our strategy over the last two years:

  • Have clear top leadership (oligarchy or one person in charge, whether student or mentor) that isn’t afraid to make critical decisions
  • Have a strong working history of FIRST and insight as to the reasons why the top teams won and which mechanisms are good in which situations
  • Recruit talented and motivated people through whatever connections possible
  • Do your best to pad your robot budget in the off-season so you have enough money to ‘break’ things and not worry about the monetary cost of a mid-build season design or strategy change
  • (if your strategy requires lots of movement) build a practice robot. If you don’t have the budget for a practice robot, make sure your strategy has high scoring and low movement.
  • Build as much of the field as is required for your strategy
  • Understand that things are going to break and nothing will be right the first time
  • Always practice under field conditions (if you are a feeder station robot, run feeder station drills)
  • Use COTS over fabricated items wherever possible
  • Focus on acquiring and handling the game piece (i.e. how will this object sit in my mechanism so it is consistent enough every time?)
  • Work copious amounts of hours to make sure the robot is always getting incrementally better. Time is the most finite resource in this game, and your most unrestricted time is from kickoff to bag day.
  • Have a clear understanding of which elements of your robot are ‘good enough to win’ or ‘not good enough to win’ at any given time, so you can prioritize which elements of your robot currently need the most upgrades/attention. What is ‘good enough’ is different between districts, regionals, region championships, and world championships.
  • Don’t work on things that don’t work toward whatever your end goal is unless you have an excess of resources. Focus on the items that will most improve your win equity
  • Don’t feel locked into your strategy, and carefully observe how the game evolves across the competition season to improve your own performance.

As we grow, our strategy is moving more toward distributed leadership, more fabricated components, and having more resources to work toward side goals besides winning competitions.

These two are very high on the list, particularly practicing under field conditions. There are never lines of totes to pick up on the field and there is never a human on the field to nudge game pieces around. Make it HARD for the driver! Do not make it easy for them.

That second point is why our robots have had rolly-grabbers on all our intakes since 2009. They JUST WORK!!! If your robot isn’t sucking it’s not handling the game piece fast enough.

I can’t remember if I heard the advice from EWCP or Karthik’s talk (or both) but in general you want to extend the season as much as possible. Plan for a 12 week season (build and competition), not a 6 week one. Having a second robot helps facilitate that.

While we’re not a “contender” yet, it’s made a significant difference to our competition performance. There’s no silver bullet of course.

We’re fortunate to be within an hour drive of Bayou regional, so we haven’t had major travel expenses for our first four regular seasons. We’ve never before had enough for entry fee to for a second regional, much less travel. This is the first year we were able to build a second robot (helped by a BOM that came to about $1500). We ranked #42 at Bayou, but got picked 23rd for some of our distinctive abilities (some of which were developed after bag and tag) and wound up going to CMP. We knew that our school board would pay the $5k for our entry fee, but that left about $15k for travel, meals, and incidentals. It would normally have taken us about six months to raise that much! We hit the streets and the internet and raised it in about three weeks. We offered a trip to the junior varsity member (later expended to two when a varsity member couldn’t make it) to the biggest fund raiser of the JV. Two of our JV members **each **raised more than $1000 in those three weeks (one of them was inside the Oscar the Grouch costume at the mascot dance before Einstein). We actually shot a good bit over our basic fund raising goals, and (with our new sponsors) we’re seriously considering a second regional in 2016.

We came back from CMP with great ideas for our design and build process, some info on how to get FRC recognized (and at least partially funded) by the school system, and a bit of homework from the Kamen himself to spread the inspiration faster and farther than ever before.

So, it sounds kind of backwards, but we’re using our trip to CMP as a launch pad to the next levels of competition, fundraising, outreach and most of all, inspiration. It makes you wonder if having multiple CMPs isn’t an entirely bad thing.

Wow, there’s a lot of good tips in here. Thanks for the advice so far everyone!

The most important things i have seen here is the building of a second bot for practice and and planing with a strategy to win. not that you should step on other teams to win or anything like that, still be gracious and professional, but if the drive and desire is int there it wont happen. Again building 2 bots is critical. drive team practice is absolutely critical. We were able to have lots of drive practice this year and it really paid off.

This is a great thread, and I’m going to save it as a resource to look back on next season. Lots of great tips, and as I look back, lots of lessons learned that I can identify with.

We ran late with our build and had to bag an incomplete robot. We also had to drastically simplify the design that we had originally planned due to lack of time. At our first regional, we spent the entire first day finishing it, and we missed all of our scheduled practice matches. Then we had qualification matches the following day with NO driver practice. The results were predictable. We ranked very low, and we experienced the exact opposite of the quoted post – from the stands, we kept asking “what is he doing? why is he ___? why doesn’t he ___?” and we didn’t realize that the reason for the erratic driving was because a mechanism had failed.

Luckily we had a second regional and then got chosen from the wait list to go to CMP, two experiences which helped get our rears into gear. We fixed a lot of our problems – and actually had driver practice! – in time for the second regional, and that helped us double our average match score. That boosted everyone’s confidence, but we still noticed multiple failures of our tote-holding mechanism. Learning we were going to championships was one more motivator to fix that problem for good and have even more drive practice.

At champs, it was like we were a whole other robot. Because we were! We had evolved from a landfill robot that couldn’t do cans to a feeder station robot that could. Once our driver got to know the robot he could do much more skilled things with it. At one of our matches on Curie our tote-holder failed again, meaning we couldn’t stack, but he quickly made the best of it and started scoring totes by pushing them onto the platform one at a time. We almost didn’t notice :wink:

So, to reiterate other points – driver practice is huge.

  1. have an identical (or mostly identical) practice bot. My team has made a second robot since 2013, and the last 3 years have been our most successful ever.
  2. good mentors, across the board. Have a diverse group of dedicated mentors for all technical skills, and multiple good mentors for outreach/business. Their many unique ideas will help your students gain a wider perspective on FIRST as a whole. This year, my team lost two of our leading mentors from the last few years, but we were able to fill the gap with multiple new, dedicated mentors. Their new, refreshing ideas and skills helped propel us to our best season ever. Our old mentors have left an amazing legacy, and our new mentors have done an excellent job pushing our success even further.
  3. sponsors, sponsors, sponsors!!! Don’t just look for money, find sponsors who will provide you with mentors and special machining capabilities you couldn’t have otherwise. One of our leading sponsors, Industrial Kinetics, does all our welding. Also, just because you have one sponsor contributing $10k+ doesn’t mean you can’t find more sponsors willing to pitch in that much.
  4. start other FIRST teams. FLL/FTC students come in with a better-than-average understanding of STEM and FIRST values.
  5. communicate and collaborate with local teams. My team is blessed to be surrounded by excellent teams (special shoutout to 1625, 2451, 4655 and 111). We all bring our practice robots together to practice and get new ideas.
  6. karthik’s “don’t make something beyond your means” paradigm is very true, but you MUST remember to push yourself. My team could have stopped at our collector, elevator, and can holder, but we pushed ourselves to make a pair of can pullers that could fit in the tiny amount of space remaining in our robot. It worked, and they were vital in making us competitive at the world level.

I second this!! My team scheduled out to finish our robot 2 weeks before bag and tag. We also had access to a full size practice field because our team and 4778 were hosting a Week Zero event. With all of this extra practice we were able to work out all the bugs early and not scramble to fix our robot at regionals.

In addition to having mentors it is also very important to have sponsors and community support. When your team makes it to worlds and you don’t have the funds, your community will come together to help you raise the money. At least this is my experience. Having sponsors and raising money to go to Worlds BEFORE you qualify is nice too. If it is pre-budgeted then you don’t have to worry about it. If you end up not qualifying you can save the money for next year.

I would also recommend that you and your team are on the same page. Like the majority of the people here have said, it takes WORK! Not the work of one person, but the work of your team. You don’t need a huge team, but the people you do have need to realize how much work it will take and be willing to do what it takes. I guess the bottom line is you can’t do it alone. You need your teammates, your community, your mentors, and your sponsors’ support.