"What to do when…"

I was digging through some old files and stumbled across something I started drafting on a plane sometime after championship 2009. It’s not really a white paper (at least not yet) and it’s certainly still in process, but I feel pretty strongly that it should be shared now, in its current form. As another FRC season is nearly upon us, it seems appropriate our FRC teams might all think about a toolkit we can all benefit from in our quest to develop tomorrow’s leaders.

So, with that said, here’s my current text/ideas for "What to do when…"

Woodie has clearly communicated that we are at a critical point in our growth – somewhere between overwhelming success and free fall. He made strong personal pledges at the 2009 Championship Event. What can we as leaders/mentors and teams do to ensure proper development? As we grow and gather more folks from popular culture who still have the “wrong” idea, how do we bring them up to speed and give them the courage and tools to more efficiently and effectively change the culture to one that the founders have been seeking since the inception of FIRST?

Ensuring FIRST (mostly FRC, but other similar programs apply here) as a high quality experience for all participants. AKA – What to do when you don’t “win” and How to stay grounded when you do “win”

Each year tens of thousands of students and mentors participate in FIRST programs in the pursuit of excellence and a changed culture for the better. As imperfect humans in a culture filled with poor behavior in a “winning at all cost” mentality we are inundated and influenced by examples that have led us to (insert eloquent statement about crappy economic conditions/lack of ethical standards here).

The vast majority of FIRST teams in all programs are/would be considered “losers” in the larger popular culture we all live in every day. For example, in the FRC program at the Championship event, statistically only one team can win a Chairman’s Award and only three teams can win “the title” on the field. Even after lumping in all other FRC awards at the Championship and the Regional Events many, many more teams go home without trophies than those that do. We all desire to ensure that our students have the highest quality experience possible, but how can all teams do this “on purpose” and “all of the time”?

Defining Moments:
I hold a firm belief that what one does in a moment of “losing” defines them as a human being. Way too many people in our world want to point fingers, get agitated, insist that others need to “fix” the wrongdoing, etc. This can be especially true for an organization that “wins” a great deal. When expectations are high, disappointment and bad behavior can be higher. For leaders of teams, people, workplaces, organizations, and families setting that kind of example for our young people is one of the absolute WORST possible things any one of us can do. However, showing that we don’t care at all about how well we perform is also one of the absolute WORST possible things any one of us can do for our youth. It is also completely understandable why anyone who invests time and energy so profoundly to an effort such as FIRST would potentially have negative reactions when we “lose” on the field or with the judges. It’s because our investment is deep and because we care. So, I propose we need some guiding wisdom and a toolkit of sorts to help us lead our students through those defining moments so we produce with great purpose and in the largest number possible, the kinds of individuals who build up the mental and emotional calluses that can overcome adversity to solve hard problems in a team environment. (insert stories like that of NASA/JPL folks who spent years and years of their lives only to “fail” catastrophically with a mission and, somehow, inexplicably, they pointed no fingers and said with great confidence, “Yes, I want to try this again.”)

The Toolkit:
(more detail to be added here, this is just a brain dump)

  1. Guiding beliefs/philosophies – have them, live them, REALLY live them
  2. Set goals for performance of ALL kinds and ensure BOTH intrinsic (can control) and extrinsic (can’t control) motivators exist.
  3. Operate the organization in a way that participants know, really KNOW, when they are in the midst of a defining moment – positive, or negative. This requires buy in and training.
  4. Books, speeches, video … develop the “whole” student (and adult for that matter)
  5. Incorporate best practices for personal, team, and workplace success from all over the globe. In many cultures people live longer and more happily than we do, yet, we are supposedly the “richest” in the US??? Hmmmm … learn from all (insert your examples here)

So there’s my set of incomplete thoughts on “What to do when…” I believe we need to be fully conscious of these matters as we move forward to critical mass or we run the risk of not achieving what we are setting out to do. Perhaps this is something someone would like to build on or use in some way for their own team.

Do any teams already address this formally/systematically in meaningful ways? Are there any great ways to “train” folks about being aware “in the moment”? I have some thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours.

namaste and good luck in the upcoming FRC season.


I getting to really hate the “You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to Rich Kressly again” message. Another great Kressly post. We all have something to learn from this.



This is an excellent idea!

Being an active member of one of those “loseing” teams, I know exactly the feeling you talking about. I also know alot of people that could use this kind of help.

And from a non FIRST standpoint, being a current architecture student, I face alot of failure and criticism in my day to day activities. Everytime I present a project or idea, my professors (with architects being the way they are) just like to flex their ego’s and make you feel like a worthless loser. And what I think makes a good student, or person for that matter, is how you handle this criticism. Ive seen many students get angry and try to fight back…and we all know this really does no good.

Personally, I channel my frustration into writing. Immediately after a presentation, or FIRST event, I so right to my notebook, and write down everything I /missed/didn’t do/should have done, and what i’ll do next time. Here at 810 we recently brought this idea to the team in the form of post competition/build season brainstorming.

Eitherway, this is a very important lesson for both FIRST and for life in general. I’d love to see this turn into an official whitepaper.


1676 has gone to Finalist once, never higher than that, so we’re not “winners”. But, we’re a 2-time regional Chairman’s winner - note that last word.

I think part of the answer is defining a “win” in FRC. Yes, the obvious win is regional champion. Or perhaps Chairman’s.

But what about the kids we’ve inspired to take up Engineering instead of accounting? The mid-six-figures in scholarships awarded to 1676 members in 5 years? The young ladies at MIT this year? The kid who couldn’t use a screwdriver who’s graduating as a MechE next semester?

Goodness, I could go on and on. I think I made my point: What to do when you lose a regional is take inventory of the successes, large and small, public and private.

Where I work (and like most major corporations) we get trained out the wazoo, in particular on what may be called “soft” skills, like interpersonal relationships and work/life balance. Actually, we have taken to calling these “Life” skills, since they’re universally applicable.

Rich’s #4 - “develop the “whole” student” - can be restated as “transfer Life Skills”. These skills are trainable, and online training tends to be effective. I don’t want to assign work to anyone, but if someone is looking for something to do…

Very nice post Rich,
I would like to encourage more teams to apply for Chairman’s. Yes I know it seems unobtainable at times, but the teams that are keeping that as a goal are acting in the most gracious way they can. As many have stated more eloquently than I, this is not about robots. We are charged with bringing youth to a much higher level than they would have achieved without the program. Our successes are measured by those students who challenge themselves and wish to improve. We have done our job even if a student decides that engineering is not in their future. We have at least added to their desire to do great things and taught them that the world doesn’t come to an end if something fails. The Chairman’s Award challenges every member of the team to inspire, assist, help improve the world and bring GP to people in their community. Those teams that try are the true winners.

Great Points!

I think you’ve touched on one of the core concepts that make FIRST what it is. There are many levels of “winning” both within the overall competition and within individual teams.

Our goal for a winning season is to:

a.) Make sure the team completes a robot that is functional and that they take some pride in saying “I helped to build that!”

b.) Make sure that each student on a team has been able to gain some knowledge and positive experience from the program. From the ‘A’ student who gets a scholarship to the special needs student who gains confidence in his or her self because they are given encouragement and responsibility.

Any awards or trophies beyond the above are, to me anyway just an extra blessing.

One thing that we have done over the years is at the end of every season we have what we once called “Pluses and Deltas”. A time for the team to reflect on the year past and evaluate what worked and what needs to change.

Last year for the first time we did this as separate groups. Students in one group (led by our youngest mentor, who was driving the previous year) and mentors in another. We mentors felt we got better feedback when the students knew their responses would not be identified by individual. This process will result in some significant changes this season. Both groups highlighted many of the same issues.

Another thing we have tried to emphasize is that the key to a good robot is good requirements, and that if you build a robot that meets all requirements you win, in a sense, before you even take the field, because you have met all your goals. The playing field is where you figure out if your goals were the right ones or were set high enough.

These are all awesome ideas and practices, thanks for sharing and keep going! However, what I’m after is related, but just a little bit different. In that moment of “huge disappointment” - whether it’s on the field of play, at or after an awards ceremony, or in the shop at work - what enables your students (and mentors) to react to that adversity in the moment differently than the bulk of popular culture does?

Clearly the practices you all describe above lend themselves to building the kind of individual we’re speaking of here, but I’m wondering if anyone addresses the individual and emotional “moments” that collectively define an overall experience and many times shape attitudes, behaviors, and accepted cultural practices.

I don’t have a concise reply - so I will ramble for a moment.

We all like to ‘win’ - we don’t like to lose. Obvious point !

Personally I could write a book on failure. A really really big book. It is the cornerstone of my education and it defines a lot of how I think about success.

In TIMS our team motto is ‘creativity unleashed’ but within our team it is really ‘don’t screw up!!’. It is sort of an inside joke. We know we will and know we have to progress beyond the screw up.

I wouldn’t say we celebrate failure but we strongly consider it part of the journey. It is part of the terrain.

Failure is part of the experience of testing a new boundaries. Personal, team, technological boundaries. Hopefully not failing on the same ‘dumb’ thing.

If you have ever seen the movie “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe you get to see a lot of boundary pushing and failure.

I personally think this is a cool film by Derek Cianfrance for Honda on the issue of failure : here

Related to all this:

“The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to accomplish”. Friedrich Nietzsche

“The most important thing a leader can do in an organisation is remind people what they are there to accomplish”. Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard (HBS)

If you know what you are trying to accomplish, and the mentor as leader can keep everyone focused on that, then you can assess success and failure. And an external confirmation of that success / failure from something like an award might play into that, or not !!

The really big stuff for me personally as a mentor is when I look around at our team members while Dean is talking during the closing ceremonies in Atlanta and I think about how the students have grown and matured from the experience. I think the students have the same experience and tend to put the ‘awards’ in perspective.

‘Failure’ isn’t necessarily a judgement on a persons character or ethic. Approached correctly and embraced failure can be a great teacher.

I think there is a big problem in our schools and society in that we don’t encourage “healthy failure”.

Repeating Dutch’s comments - it is important for the team adult and student leaders to remind us all and remind us frequently what it is we are trying to accomplish. It puts the ‘awards’ into a different perspective.

In a few days Dean will give another too long speech where he works to remind us all of this same thing and will endcap the process in a few months with another too long speech.

The team has to do the same but in a more appealing manner within themselves.

PS: Knowing what you are trying to accomplish as an individual and as a team is important. Also knowing that the answers to those questions can vary from person to person / team to team is also important.

ramble off…

Well, yes, sort of. We discuss the successes of the season before our first competition, and (most) everyone knows they should be proud of what they have accomplished. There are a few “it doesn’t matter if we win” speeches to temper expectations, and the overall result is that none* of the kids expect that we will win on the field. This deflates any arrogance beforehand, gets the team to really work as a team and put aside egos, and has the team fopcusing more on the other stuff we do** as opposed to winning on the field at any cost.

*There always seems to be a few exceptions, nothing’s perfect
** Like sharing our scouting database in real time, actively reaching out to other teams, being the ‘hardware store’, etc.

Rich, this is a holiday and we aren’t supposed to have to think this hard … :slight_smile:

Situations and issues like this are why I love being a mentor, and why I love being the field coach for 234. You can think and prepare and discuss, but ultimately you have to react in real time for what ever situation you are faced with. I really like working with the “drive team” because that gives me the opportunity to react to situations and truly provide some guideance.

On the field, there is a fine line that a team must manage.

At one extreme, I have had some on the drive team who seemed to not care if we won or lost any match. To me, that is unacceptable because by not caring, they are doing a dis-service to the rest of the team and to our alliance partners, because they are not pushing the machine and the strategy to play the best possible match. The team has put a significant effort into the 120 pound machine, and the 4 people on the field are representing the team for those 2 minutes. (Please note, I am not saying that losing a match is unacceptable, but not caring and not performing your best is.)

At the other extreme, I have had students who became so upset after a loss that i had to physically hold on to them and get them calmed down. I told them i appreciated their desire to win, but that they needed to control their emotions, stop and move on.

Right in the middle of this is the drive team that is some of the students who had put the most into the robot, who knew it inside and out, who knew the rules and the strategy, and gave 100% in every match. If we won, it was a quiet celebration, if we lost, it was a quiet disappointment. In either case, we congratulated our alliance and the other alliance after the match. Sometimes we felt like we got a bad call, sometimes we felt we got lucky, sometimes we felt like we played the best we could ever play, sometimes we knew we really blew it. But we tried to quickly move on.

I also always try to take a minute with the drive team after each match, after we are away from the field, and do a quick reflection on the match - what was good, what was bad, how do we improve. We do this before we get to the pits, just the 3 or 4 of us, and then when we get to the pits we have whatever conversation is needed with the put crew, scouting team and our next alliance.

As for the whole team, we talk considerably about how we expect students to “be” at our meetings, at events, in the school and in the community. We discuss good and poor examples real time with the students. Some of our best team discussions have been the open / candid conversations during or after an event, where we discussed some action - by one of our team members or another team - and made it into a learning moment. We follow the basic rule that we are respectful in the conversations and that the discussions “stay in the room”.

In the discussions with the drive team, and with the whole team, i think they work because of the relationships that develop between team members and mentors. This relationship comes from time spent together and from respect for each other.

These same comments apply to the “judged” awards. The students who talk to judges work hard to know the information and want to talk to the judges. They feel a great sense of pride in what they do and they ‘coach’ each other and give each other feedback. They also know that we might win an award, and we might not. Either way, we celabrate with each team that does win an award because we know the work and effort that team has put in to receive that recognition from the judges.