Your rookie team's first semester is going terribly: Here's why

So I’m going to jump on the “your x sucks” bandwagon. See @Jeremy_Germita’s post on defense, @krf’s post on software, and @Katie_UPS’s post on scouting.

Hi, I founded a rookie team this last season as a high school junior. I learned a lot, but along the way made some really boneheaded decisions that at the time seemed good but now in retrospect probably damaged our team’s performance going into FRC. A lot of these were during the first semester, causing it to be really slow. Still, we made it to worlds so I’m not too upset ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I’m making this post in the hopes that other people who are founding their own FRC teams won’t make the same mistakes I did.

  • You don’t have the right objective from the outset

    • Your goal should be to win the rookie awards - highest rookie seed, rookie inspiration, and especially rookie all-star, as it will qualify you for worlds. Also, I’m not sure if they’re continuing this next year, but a RAS win will also have your champs registration sponsored as well which is dope.
    • Rookie All-Star is meant to celebrate a team that is a “young but strong partnership effort” with their school / community and sponsors. This means you’ll want to get some sponsors. Bonus points if you work with your school to get a room, or demonstrate at rallies, etc - FIRST loves that kind of stuff.
    • You should have two goals - attend an off-season competition and help start or mentor local FIRST programs in your area. The reason we won RAS is because we help with the FLL program at our middle school. To quote a driver on another team - “There is nothing FIRST loves more than FIRST.”
    • Try to go to at least two regionals / district events. We almost did but we didn’t have the funding at the time to go to both regionals so we pulled out of one.

Regarding the above, I’m actually going to speak about my personal mistake - I wanted to build a T-shirt shooter. I figured, good building/coding experience, and fun thing for rallies! Turns out it was very difficult to get anything to come together for that. It never came through as we were stuck in the design phase forever. I would absolutely recommend going to an off-season near you, as it will force your people to get moving on all fronts - build, code, and business, thanks to the time crunch.

  • You’re not fully taking advantage of your resources

    • If you don’t have a mentor team, get one. Just check that little box in the team sign-up on STIMS that says “I would like to be mentored by another team.”
    • Once you get a mentor team, use them. Go to off-seasons with them. Have workshops. Have joint meetings with them.
    • It is your responsibility to reach out to your mentor team.
    • Additionally, lean on your parents for sponsorships and mentorship. Don’t rely on your parents for mentorship though, as they have their own schedules and may not be available a whole bunch. But for sponsorships, that’s a whole other story - we got some fat stacks just by asking our parents to talk to their employers to contribute.
    • Reach out to your regional director / senior mentor for “professional” FRC mentors. We actually got insanely lucky and got the lead mentor of a school in the city adjacent to us and she made our team a million times better.
    • Look at the documentation other teams have written. Team handbooks, business plans, design standards, all the documentation you can get your hands on. Teams I would highly recommend are 254, 148, as well as The Compass Alliance. But don’t limit yourself to these top teams - look at teams of all levels. Speaking of documentation…
  • You didn’t document your plans and engineering well enough

    • If you’re just reading this now and haven’t gotten started on a team handbook, get on it. Not just for your team, but for you yourself - what do you want to do with your team? How do you want to structure it? Making a proper team handbook takes a long time (I was working on it all throughout the summer and part of the first semester)
    • Keeping track of your engineering through a well-made engineering notebook is more than just stuff to show judges - you’d be surprised how often you may want to look at past notes so you know what you did earlier. This actually came to bite us when we wanted to remember how we solved a recurring software problem, but didn’t take notes on how we fixed it in the first place.
  • You have goals, but not much focus on those goals

    • Again, I highly implore new teams to go to an off-season. This will provide a huge time-crunch that will give your team an extremely good experience going into the season. If I could’ve gone back and done one, I absolutely would.
    • Start each meeting off with a five minute long meeting to discuss what your plans are for the day. To quote CGP Grey, a good plan is SMART - short, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. “I am going to work on tuning these PID constants for x manipulator from 5:30-6:00 today,” is a good goal. You don’t want VAPID goals - Vague, Amorphous, Pie-in-the-sky, Irrelevant, and Delayed. “I’m going to finish this whole manipulator… sometime today” is a bad goal.
  • You aren’t recruiting from the right sources

    • I do marching band (#BassClefBestClef), so naturally, given we spend so much time together, I recruited mostly from there. This was both good and bad - we already knew each other fairly well, but unfortunately there were meetings in which extremely few people were there.
    • Do recruit from whatever you already do, but make sure you recruit from outside those too. Freshmen who don’t have any major commitments already are especially desirable, as are seniors who have experience with software / mechanical. We had a senior who was really good at mechanical and was a major boon to our team.
    • Get at least one or two members who are familiar with the Adobe creative suite. We had one who was familiar it and they pretty much won RAS for us by making one heck of a business plan.
  • You underestimated the required level of commitment

    • I’m not going to lie - FRC is hard. Founding your own team, especially as a student yourself, is very hard. If you’re already doing any other time intensive activities, ie Marching Band or Sports, especially in the second semester, you’ll have to take a good hard look at your schedule.
    • Do schedule for people who already have commitments to attend, but know that in the future this may not be as easy.
  • You didn’t enforce your plans enough

    • Once you have a plan of action, you must stick to it. Keep on people about objectives you’ve assigned them.
    • This can also apply to parents, mentors, and even administrators. Don’t be rude by any means, but if an adult is behind on something, just talk to them and ask “Hey, I was just wondering what the status on x, y, and z are.”

Honestly I doubt I’ll ever get everything I want to suggest in a single CD post - I could probably write a whole book on my experiences founding an FRC team. Nonetheless, for all the mistakes I made, I would consider it probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. If your school / community doesn’t have an FRC team and you’re looking for a challlenge and willing to put in some elbow grease, I would suggest starting one. You’d be surprised by the amount of direction this gives you, and the good you can do through FRC.

Remember: You can’t win any awards or events in the first semester, but you can lose them.

Disclaimer: Even though I’m talking about my experience with my team, know that I do not necessarily speak for my team, the mentors, the dogs, etc in this post.

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Ditto on recruiting from many sources. A lot of teams’ go-to talent pool is their friend-of-a-friend network. Lots of issues can arise from that approach. Examples:

  • Diversity: It’s not uncommon for recruitment within the friend-of-a-friend network to draw almost exclusively from the demographics and expertises already within the team. This can be easily fixed if you’re proactive about recruiting extensively to create a diverse talent pool from the beginning. Side note: the only reason I was able to learn about FIRST and join a team was because the main sponsor of the only FRC team in my area challenged them to improve their diversity. As a result, the team broadened their recruiting by putting up flyers, and that’s how I was able to learn about FIRST.
  • Missing low-hanging fruit: I never knew my high school had a VEX team until after 2 years of driving across town to the only FIRST team in my area. I would’ve definitely joined the VEX team had I known it existed, but since I wasn’t in the team’s immediate friend-of-a-friend network, there was no chance for that.
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These topics get broader and broader each time.

Were you recruited as a student or a mentor? If its the former, some districts have very strict lines on who can join any school related activities (we are unable to accept anyone registered in another school district)

I joined as a student, but this was a community (not school) based team; it recruited almost exclusively from a local homeschool friend group, so I would’ve never learned about the team without those flyers.

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Great post!

I’d like to add to the “get a mentor team” thing. Don’t just check that little box.

  • Look at http://thebluealliance.com for the competition nearest you and see who performed well. See if they have a website/twitter/facebook anything to be able to reach out to them.
  • Reach out to your FIRST Senior Manager or Regional Director (if you can find them) and see if they can put you in contact with a team
  • Don’t be afraid to have more than 1 mentor team! If your mentoring team is a good one, they hopefully aren’t trying to keep you to themselves or anything.

I’d also add that if your team size/member interest allows for it, try to record numbers for things from the beginning. Did you do some outreach/demonstrations? Run Camps? Put numbers/hours/number of people to those things. It may be useful for RAS, or chairmans - but it’s also useful when you’re presenting to potential sponsors or trying to get support form your school district, which is when it really shines.

Your thread’s really great for any team trying to turn their team culture around, great job and good luck!

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Incredibly insightful post, good job!

Many of these points also apply to ensuring a sustainable program regardless of age. Sustainability isn’t as an exciting of a topic as growth, but it’s definitely important, especially at the scope of an individual team.

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My school has the same rule but I feel like most schools are diverse enough where even recruiting from just school population can produce a good enough diversification.

I worry I’m further derailing the topic, but the past two years we’ve been fortunate that administrators will email blast every 8th grade parent to invite them to our informational meeting. We’ve had great turn outs (probably 50+ kids each time), but the turnout diversity does not match the districts diversity.

I think it takes focused effort to increase the number of undeserved. In not totally sure how we’ll do it yet

This is especially important. We tried to mentor a team one year, and it didn’t go over as well as we had hoped. They’ve managed to put together a really good team during the past few years, but they ended up showing up to their first offseason with only a kitbot drivetrain. (I don’t want to get into too much detail, but the game was not suited to just showing up with a kitbot.) Part of this was on us for not checking in on them and making sure they know what to do or lending them our practice bot if they couldn’t or didn’t want to get one together to play the game, though.

Yes! Also, set up the relationship(s) so that it is understood, up front, so that they mentor you for 4 to 5 years, not just one.

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@gixxy, can you help out here? You started the team, and I was mostly on the outside rookie year.

I’m trying to figure out exactly what you mean by “your rookie team’s first semester”. Is this the fall academic semester (Mid Aug - late Dec) shortly before kickoff, or something else?
The earlier you start the better, until you lose momentum. @gixxy started recruiting for what became 3946 about this time in 2011. He didn’t have a head coach until a few weeks before classes started in August, so things didn’t start until at least September. If you want to do things best, get some key members (head coach, a mentor or two and a handful of students) in Jan-Feb, and do your main student recruiting during competition season, when you can stream competitions going on right now. Get students involved in following the teams and doing scouting, and make a weekend day trip to a local event if that’s feasible for you. (Nothing hooks people like smelling an actual FRC event in progress.)
Spend the late spring, summer, and fall getting ready. This means seeking out sponsors, mentors, and students - in that order of priority, because after the novelty of a new team wears off, it becomes harder to recruit mentors and sponsors. If at all feasible, hook up with one or more veteran teams who will mentor you through at least your rookie year, and preferably for a couple more. If you can scrape together enough money early enough, buy the last year’s KoP and a control system and build a robot that drives and maybe does something else. If there’s an offseason event nearby, do that, too! Many offseason events help connect rookie teams with no robot up with a “practice” robot built by another team. It’s hard to imagine what better experience you could buy at any price to get ready for your rookie year than competing at an off-season as a pre-rookie.

OK, back to you’ve started in August to December. What to do? Recruit sponsors, mentors, and students agressively. Don’t take “I don’t know anything about robots” for an answer, whether from students, mentors or sponsors! Anyone who can build or repair or sell anything from sewing a dress to fixing a lawn mower to programming a computer to building a skyscraper to marketing anything is qualified to helpfully mentor an FRC team (especially a rookie team). Any company which needs technicians or engineers or scientists to do its job will find a great fit in promoting an FRC team, and any company with customers/clients (at last count, all of them) can find a way to make it work. Any student with the interest and drive and time will wind up being way more valuable than (s)he ever thought. Quote me if you think it’ll help.

Build something together. Even if it’s a garden or a bookshelf or a meal at a soup kitchen, build something together. FRC is all about projects, and all about trusting each other. Build something together.

Build your team. There are lots of ways to do this, and plenty of resources. Being a team comes down to two things: Having a common goal, and trusting each other. Find ways to spend time together, even if you can’t afford any robot parts and control systems. It’s frightfully amazing how much something as simple as a movie night watching The Princess Bride can help with both common goals and trust.

This one is big - I think most FRC teams would love to mentor rookie teams but if they don’t ask for help, then we can’t help them!

(psst, hey students - this applies to you and your team mentors as well)

@Uberlyuber - How did your team find resources pre-kick off? How can FIRST/the community improve to provide useful resources?

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Yes, I was referring to the fall semester.

We primarily found resources through Google searching stuff we were trying to do, and perusing the FRC resource library. Compass Alliance and FullCircle helped as well.

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