What to do about a mentor who completely controls the team?

mentor
help

#1

I joined my FRC team after the 2018 season. During the off season, I had a great time. I contributed to the off season robot a lot, and peoples ideas were actually considered.

Now on kickoff day, things changed. One of our “mentors”, who we rarely saw during the off season was there. And not only there, but running the show. He took control over everything. The first day was devoted to “reading the rules”. And while I think that the 6 hours we met for after the game was announced was too long to spend on rules, I understood why. But the conversation had to be only rules. Anytime anyone mentioned anything related to the design of the robot was met with a quick “no talking about robot design!” before you could get more than 3 or 4 words out. Which didn’t make sense to me, if our goal is to build a robot, why shouldn’t we talk about how the rules would affect our robot?

We met again today, which was supposed to be a strategy and robot design day. This same mentor wrote out his whole strategy on the board, which was to stay low and not worry about the rockets. We took a break shortly after, and many students decided it would be better if we played the entire game, by adding an elevator to our robot. Once we were meeting again, things fell apart. As soon as a few people started talking about their opinion on why we should have an elevator, this mentor came up with reasons our design “wouldn’t work”, even though his reasons were mostly speculative and could easily be remedied through actual CAD work. As soon as the students saw they were getting nowhere, many of the students who had agreed with us just minutes before suddenly didn’t care anymore. When we took a vote to decide, many of those students voted for the “low” plan. This mentor is basically pushing people’s ideas to the side to push his own in.

Later we came up with designs and methods to interface with this year’s game pieces. While brainstorming, a student mentioned an idea he came up with. This mentor made a comment along the lines of “I hope you’re joking, if you’re serious you’re gonna take a lap around the school”. This idea wasn’t a joke, it was a serious one which I thought could work as well. As the meeting progressed, every single design that wasnt exactly what this mentor wanted was excessively critiqued, to the point of criticism that was downright incorrect.

In talking to other students, I learned that it is like this every year. Many believe the mentor already has the entire robot planned out already, and that these proceedings are to give the illusion of control to the students. This rubbed me the wrong way, as the mentors are supposed to help the students design and build the robot, not design it themselves while the students build it.

I am asking on what you guys believe is the best course of action going forward. These two meetings were not fun at all, it felt like we were wasting time while the mentor pushed his own agenda. What should we as a team do?


#2

When I read this, the first paragraph was reasonable, a day devoted to rules is a good idea because then people understand the game fully (maybe a full day is too much, but I digress.) However, there is definitely a problem with how this mentor is dealing with the strategic design because of the fact that teams shouldn’t be “mentor built” like in the direction this is going.

The first means of action I would take is to discuss your problems with the head mentor, and explain the lack of control the students really had over the decisions for strategy. Because the mentor only shows up during January for kickoff, explain the differences with your offseason strategy and the past two days. This might help your head mentor understand the problems that the students face, especially the fact that you consider the past few days as “wasted time” which is not what FIRST is about.


#3

Is there any other adult involved with the team? They may be able to speak with your mentor.

The question that came to mind is “whose robot is this anyway?” If he is going to build, operate and drive the robot, he can do whatever he wants. Otherwise, the point needs to be made that this competition is not for the mentor, but for the students, and to build a perfect design with no student input is denying the students the ‘fun’. (See Woodie’s presentation).

Personally, I would kick the mentor off the team, but I am also a mentor and Would try diplomacy before nuclear weapons. The situation gets stickier if this mentor offers something to the team that it absolutely requires, but if the team can stand the pain, adios.


#5

I see why you are angry with this mentor, like as everyone has been saying talk to the head mentor or talk to the mentor himself near one of the mentors but try guiding the talk about how you feel about his actions. and maybe if the entire team said something it might work. the voice of one might not be enough but the voice of many will. besides mentors don’t and should not do anything like you said.


#6

I think structure and discipline are fine. Yet condescension is not. Surely there is another adult on the team
or school administrator whom you can bring these concerns up to?

If more parents were directly involved with the team, and saw this mentor treating their children this way, they would take action.


#7

Sounds like a football coach rather than robot coach… speaking as a mentor for strategy I try to simplify the game to its essence by talking though it and then let the team members figure the best strategy after simplifying it. Why do I simplify it? Becuse I can, and have severeral years of games I lived through. There is only so much to be done on the same field. Similarities and lessons learned exist.

Once simplified then the team can arrive at a good strategy for competing in it. This is also part of critical thinking which many teens can use more of. Taking a large task and breaking it down. So its a learning experience as well that they can use later in life. Mentors including the one in the OP do this because they want to help. This mentor probably just rubbed some of the team the wrong way , parents and other mentors should explain how that was counter productive to them. Many robot team members are not used to “competition” so this mentor I expect is trying to bring some of that in, I agree it can be done less harshly.

Mentors want the team to succeed and enjoy the season, its a common goal in the end.
The low scoring strategy is valid (as thats the most common level and the fastest cycle times) and should be explored along with other strategies.

Nowadays there is no SURE design to win … there are simply better odds choices. Last year the team initially wanted an exchange bot. I simplified the scoring and showed ignoring the scale meant we would have to always rely on our partners or lose every game…they then went with a scale bot and had several great scale events during the season and we could climb everytime with some amazing endgames… the exchange bot initial selection was forgotten.

In other seasons an Internal design for Totes was suggested and no mentor could see that as being valid nor could most of the students…yet that year internal stackers were key. We should have examined that possibility deeper. We too can make mistakes.


#8

Each paragraph in my post is to address each paragraph in yours.

I have had many students on my team talk to me about similar issues with our mentors. With some minor exceptions, my advice is generally to think about things from the other person’s point of view. For instance, with the focus on rules and strategy, it is important to figure out what a team’s strategy will be before discussing robot designs. Ideas are always good, but often it is time and energy wasted unless you have a strategy in mind. Honestly, this doesn’t really sound like a big problem to me.

The second paragraph is a much bigger issue but sounds to me mostly like a break in the process. The mentor in question had stated what their personal strategy would be, but it sounds like the students disagreed. This therefore probably should have had more conversation then, as now when people separate, the mentor will be expecting the students to be working on a particular thing, and the students aren’t. This never bodes well for team organization. Also, asking the question “why” or “how” is a great way to “force” the mentor to give their real reasons they don’t like the design. As to me, it sounds likely they didn’t like it because it had too much to do with filling the rocket.

As Team Captain, I make it clear to my mentors that if they step out of line, I will pull them aside, and privately call them on it. Not all truly listen to me, but that isn’t what matters. These teams are about the students, so as long as the students see action to protect them taking place, that will often make them work better.
As unfortunate as it is, I worked really hard to get one of the mentors on my team kicked out a couple years ago, purely because they were always complaining, being rude, calling people names, being unprofessional, and refused to listen to anyone else’s ideas. If this is similar to your situation, I would encourage you talking to the other mentors on your team to either have them make sure this person is acting acceptable or to force them out of the team.

The mentors on my team have already mentally created the robots they want my team to make, and of course, they try to steer us towards some of their ideas, but PLEASE! Do not think because the mentors influence us, that it is their robot. The great thing about FIRST, is that the mentors and students work together to create the robots. almost no robot is truly student made, and few are truly mentor made. It is a partnership between both! Encourage this line of thinking with other students on your team. Is it truthful? I think so, but you may disagree. That isn’t what matters though. What matters, is this will raise team moral.

Make sure if the student body has an idea, it is clear to the mentors that this is something you want to do. But just because the students want to do something, doesn’t mean you should. Still listen to this, and all your mentors, as they will have good advice if you know how to listen.

Hopefully this helped a bit.


#9

To me, the “If you seriously think that’s a good idea, take a lap around the school” should be reported to school administration.

Forcing a rule reading? I can see that.
Shutting down robot designs? I can see that (and have done it, though by reminding the students that “we need to be focusing on WHAT not HOW”), after a reasonable discussion on strategy turns into “we need X to do this”. Quick stuff, not a big deal. And never shut down the design itself, just table it for a while.
Pushing ideas to the side without a good reason why? OK, now we’re close to trouble. It’s one thing entirely to say “have you considered X that will stop you cold” and another to say “It won’t work, NEXT”. It’s also generally bad form to pre-set the strategy before discussion.

But as soon as the mentor told a student to take a lap around the school if he was serious, that turned into bullying, especially if this is a pattern repeated year after year. That warrants doing two things. First, inform administration. Get a teacher who isn’t involved with the team to observe. Second, if that doesn’t help, you may want to leave the team, citing that behavior. You may be able to find another team in your area for this year; if others come with you as well that will probably raise a few red flags to team leadership.


#10

If things get really bad (and I mean really, really terrible), you can send a report to FIRST using this form. I hope it never comes to that. If it helps, there was also a blog post mentioning the form.


#11

Your first meeting is perfectly acceptable. This is the time in the engineering process that you are “Defining the Problem”. Everyone on the team works better if everyone calls the game objects, the field elements and other game specific mechanics by the same names. The same is true in business. As an example, I’ve heard the same part called a “shield” by one OEM, “channel” by another OEM and at other times I’ve heard people call it a “trough”. You’d be surprised sometimes how long it takes to translate from English to English.

There’s two parts to robot design. The first is that the rules dictate the design. You went over that in meeting one. The second part of robot design is strategy.
I have a slight problem with what happened here. The Mentor should be prepared to “defend” their decision with data. The strategy of staying low is also saying you are only playing for a max of 3RP per match. If you don’t want to fill the rocket there should be a reason why. Lack of resources??? Having elevators in last years game SHOULD be fresh in every returning member of the team, both mentor AND student. Can your team design an elevator? If your mentor doesn’t think your team can build an elevator than that’s a problem. If your mentor doesn’t think your team has the resources to build an elevator that’s something entirely different.

This one causes the biggest issue for me. Every team SHOULD have several designs for each mechanism. At some point you will use a decision matrix and narrow your designs down to one or two. It’s part of the process. In the real world you will have Engineering Managers or Engineering Leads that will tell you “this is what you are going to do” and will not listen to any suggestions you may have, it happens. Just take a look at last year’s game.
How many different ways were used to pick up a cube?
How many different ways were used to get the cube up to the scale?
How many ways weren’t used?
How many teams just copied a design they saw another team use?

All that being said about design choice, remember this…
If your team already used a mechanism to pick up a ball in a previous season’s game and that mechanism worked well would you modify the design to work with this year’s game piece or would you design something completely different.
Sometimes the best design choice is come up with something new, other times it’s just to improve on a past design.

Mentors should always guide, sometimes lead, and other times stand back. It depends on the situation.

One thing you probably should do is keep track of all the design suggestions that were made and rejected.
The reason why I say this is that you may find that another team has executed that design and was successful at it.
At the end of this season you can go back and ask “Why didn’t we prototype this design suggestion that team xxxx used successfully and test it against our competition design?”

If you don’t have a record of all the design suggestions somebody should. If you don’t shame on you.

If or when you express your concerns to the head mentor, do them privately, but also be constructive. Don’t just say I didn’t like this or that.


#12

This has happened to my team. An old mentor came back after being gone for a year and completely over threw our mentors and tried to run the show. What ended up happening was the team decided we rather leave than run by him. My advise to you, you need to get the rest of your mentors and band together and either kick them off the team or put them back in their place. I hope what happens to my team doesnt happen to you


#13

As several others have said, day 1 made good sense. You have to nail down the requirements (or at least velcro them down) and select your strategy before you begin design. Spending 2% of your time on requirements is actually pretty light.

On the decision to keep things low - depends on the team’s capabilities, so this one is situational. Not knowing the situation, I’m going to let this one pass.

The response of “I hope you’re joking”, even before the jog around the school, is completely out of line in something that is supposed to be a brainstorming session. Brainstorming is specifically designed to collect ideas without judgement, because sometimes “silly” ideas will inspire creative solutions. My suggestion is to go to whoever is above your problematic mentor (head coach? principal?) with THIS as your primary argument.


#14

One of the hardest parts of being a mentor is NOT taking control. Unfortunately, it’s frequently really EASY to take control. However, the point here isn’t whether our team wins, but whether our students (a) learn something, and (b) enjoy the process. Winning is nice, but if my team wins because the mentors did all the heavy lifting, then that’s a failure, not a success.

A lot of truly bad ideas are proposed during build season. Best to avoid saying “No, that’s bad because…” but “Oh, that’s interesting. Let’s think it out some more…” and have the students find the problem on their own. (That also has the advantage of not shooting down good ideas when it turns out I’m the guy who’s wrong.)

In this case, I’d have another mentor or student leadership talk with the problematic mentor. Sounds like the guy can really be helpful so long as he recognizes that “mentor” != “boss.”


#15

Going to other mentors is a good idea but I’m concerned that if there are other mentors and they’re letting this happen. As a mentor, I would have immediately shut this type of behavior down and you as a student shouldn’t have to be the one to shoulder that responsibility. If you are attached to a school, I would talk to your administration and let them know of the situation. If you do have additional mentors who don’t seem to notice the problem, I would bring it to their attention so they do notice and help handle it.


#16

Personally, I had a lot of issues with a few mentors on my team while I was in highschool. Some similar issues but additionally they were usually wrong so I had a solid platform to stand on. Now being on the other side as a mentor, I can still see it happening sometimes. What I was able to do was to approach our head teacher about it with documented instances of issues and inappropriate behavior. Since this was documented and presented in a way that was more than complaining, he did not have any choice but to not allow the mentor to come back. I would recommend approaching your lead mentor on your team but someone also affiliated with the school as they are in the most power to do something in this case. If that does not work, go higher up in the school system. If you need any additional advice please feel free to message me.


#17

I mentor FTC and becoming this guy is my biggest fear. When I see a new game announced, my mind goes into design mode. So, when I go through the design process with my team, I’m worried that by me suggesting that they do x because y will cause them to do that design bc I said it might work.


#18

I have mentored in FLL and FRC for many years and find I have to moderate myself constantly and focus on helping the teams improve what they have, steer them away from solutions that have proven to be bad and to present ideas that they are can choose to use or not.

I have also worked on teams and seen teams up close (work in the same facility) where one person imposed their vision on the rest of the team. Even if the idea imposed was a good one, the implementation ends up being lack-lustre because the rest of the team did not buy into it.


#19

As the mentor about whom this post was made, I want to follow up with everyone on what we are doing to address this issue.

First of all, I (and the other mentors) understand that I am in the wrong here. I apologize to the team as a whole, the student who made this post, and the students in general. I have wronged you. I am not here to make excuses. FRC is first and foremost about the students, and my actions have been detrimental to their FIRST experience. As someone who often “takes over” design situations, I’ve been careful in the past to avoid creating this situation when mentoring, but I’ve failed to do that effectively this year. I need to do significantly better.

Here is what we are doing to fix this problem. First, I am going to revise my role on the team to be more supporting and less leading. I will be a resource for students looking for help with design or fabrication questions, but I will not be providing input that has not been requested. Additionally, I will be using the students’ ideas, rather than my own, for the basis of any solutions I suggest. My first priority will be helping them make their own design workable - suggesting changes to their approach in a constructive way and as minimally as possible. I will revise my tone with the students, which I realize has made them uncomfortable. I will also be talking with the students specifically to encourage them to pursue the strategies that I was dismissive of, as they deem appropriate. We can’t fix everything from the last 2 days, but we will do what we can. I will not be stepping away from the team at this time, though I have strongly considered it. I am optimistic that I can fill a role on this team that still provides value to the students.

Second, the head mentor will be talking with the student leadership team to create a more open line of communication between students and mentors in an effort to address these issues more quickly and effectively in the future. We have had success resolving issues that way in the past, and I believe we can again.

Students, if mentors (or other students) are creating a FRC environment that makes you uncomfortable or that otherwise doesn’t serve the needs of the students, bring your concerns to the attention of student leadership, the head mentor, school teachers affiliated with the robotics program, or school administration. These issues can and should be resolved.

A positive work environment is essential for a successful FRC team. This program is for the students, not the mentors. I think all mentors know that, but we (as mentors) need to take active steps to avoid creating situations like what I have. I welcome any additional comments or concerns you have.


#20

Not sure how you found out this was about you, but I have to give you props for owning up and wanting to change your team for your students.

I will say though, much of what you did (as many others stated above) is also what many of us would do. Limiting scope of discussion to the “WHAT” and not the “HOW” on day 1 is very important. I hope you do not feel discouraged. All mentors can improve some areas, but please do not let this thread make you feel like you were completely in the wrong, because you were not. Please know that often times you do need to steer students towards certain solutions.

Instead of completely distancing yourself from giving feedback and offering suggestions only when asked, I recommend learning how to teach your students to think in a more rational way or methodical way instead. Give them the tools to reach the decisions you hope they reach.


#21

I agree with forcing students to read the rules (on my team twice) and to only talk about the robot tasks available to win games the first few days. You don’t talk about mechanical solutions as a completed design but more of a concept early. “Robot lifts game pieces to 3rd level of rocket” is an example that is a capability but not a mechanism description. This is generally a GOOD thing and lets all of the team members know that in their mind they are free to decide HOW later and only if this capability is a design requirement or a focus for the team strategically.

As for some of the things going on on this team…

Design is neither democratic nor a dictatorship. Design is what works. Being allowed to fail is part of what makes FIRST intense yet fun and inspiring. It is far too early to pick a design and stick with it so rigidly. Validation of design is so crucial to FRC that we might have 4 intake prototypes but everyone can easily agree with what we have built between the 4 which one is the best working intake at first glance. Results and iteration of the results make a design “good enough” that everyone can usually agree upon a single choice out of the lot. Failing quickly is great. Picking one design and sticking to it no matter what is foolish.

I would consider bringing up this topic logically to the team with emotions kept in check. If no rules or safety concerns are present I do not see a reason for that behavior or that type of design discussion being locked down this early.