Coaches & VEX Coordinators: How do you form multiple teams in middle school?

I’m wondering what approach other coaches & coordinators take when forming multiple teams. We will again this year have about 9-10 IQ teams at our school, with roughly 50-55 players. About half the players will be incoming 5th graders (new to IQ) and about half will be 6th graders who were in the IQ program last year. We will also have roughly 25 EDR players on about 5 teams, and again some will be incoming 7th graders (played IQ last year but will be new to EDR) and about half will be 8th graders who were in the EDR program last year.

I have a handful of questions related to this (admittedly high quality problem) and I’m hoping you can provide some insight on what you’ve found successful and what hasn’t worked.

Q: Do you allow teams to stay together from year-to-year if they want to do so, or do you try to split up teams and spread out the skill base?

Q: Do you find it helpful to keep kids on teams by grade? So only 5th graders on team A, only 6th graders on team B, etc?

Q: Do you allow teams to self-select, or do you assign players to teams (around a coach or around available practice time for the player)?

Q: If you allow teams to self-select, do you have issues with students who are not “as well connected” with other kids in VEX and therefore aren’t asked by classmates to join their team? Do you have issues assigning students to an existing team in this circumstance?

Q: If you have 5-8 grade, do you allow kids to self-select whichever program they want to do, whether IQ or EDR?

Thanks in advance for any insight you can provide.

Interesting topic. We have been dealing with similar challenges. Not sure that we have the right solutions yet, but I can share our experiences and what we plan for next year. Note that our program is organized and funded by parents. Programs that are school funded, or based out of a community center will probably handle team structures differently. In our organization we have teams of 3-5 kids, with (ideally) one parent that is the main coach.

Q: Do you allow teams to stay together from year-to-year if they want to do so, or do you try to split up teams and spread out the skill base?

That depends - If the team has good chemistry then we try and keep them together. However it is generally difficult to keep an entire team together. No effort is made to spread out the kids with experience; if anything we would try and put the kids with experience on the same team. ​

Q: Do you find it helpful to keep kids on teams by grade? So only 5th graders on team A, only 6th graders on team B, etc?

Yes, but there are always exceptions. Kids in the same grade know each other better and are more likely to have the same level of maturity. We also try and have separate all boy and all girl teams, especially for middle schoolers.

Q: Do you allow teams to self-select, or do you assign players to teams (around a coach or around available practice time for the player)?

Getting everyone onto a team they like is one of the hardest things… In general, input from students and parents about which teams they want to be on helps create better teams. However, this needs to be done privately, to avoid hurt feelings.

Q: If you allow teams to self-select, do you have issues with students who are not “as well connected” with other kids in VEX and therefore aren’t asked by classmates to join their team? Do you have issues assigning students to an existing team in this circumstance?

This is a challenge too. Some kids are new to the school, others are not as popular. We have elementary and middle school teams in our program. For elementary, we find a team for everyone. For middle school, we will try and build complete cohesive teams, but not everyone will make the cut, just like other sports.

Q: If you have 5-8 grade, do you allow kids to self-select whichever program they want to do, whether IQ or EDR?

This topic has just started to come up this year for us. Our VEX IQ program started in elementary (thru 5th). We used to have an FLL team for 6th & 7th grade, but after doing IQ in elementary, no one wanted to move to Lego. So we started VEX IQ for middle school. This year a lot of our current 5th graders, who have been doing IQ for two or three years were considering moving to VRC next year (as 6th graders). However after talking to some middle school VRC coaches at Worlds, they advised us not to start too early. Those coaches did not recommend VRC for 6th. One even said “stay in IQ as long as you can!”. Right now it looks like all of our middle schoolers will stay with IQ. Experienced advisers have suggested that we have guidelines per grade, like IQ is for these grades, and metal robots are for these other grades, but then discreetly make exceptions, and re-evaluate the guidelines every year. Another struggle for us has been getting a good coach for every team. Although we have tried to line up coaches in advance, our program has been growing rapidly, and we end up with way more kids than coaches. So we have grouped the kids into teams and then tried to recruit one of the parents to coach. Occasionally, we would end up with a team without a real coach, and the kids on those teams don’t always get the same high quality experience we strive for. This year we plan on limiting the number of kids admitted to the program, based on available coaches. We’ll see if we can really do that, and how it works out.

Aloha rsryno,
I always inform people that I have yet to come across a kid that has wanted to join my team “On Condition” that they get a certain partner. All kids join because they want to play with robots. They all want to join to enjoy the experience of building and driving robots. They have never set conditions.

Therefore I let all of the kids and parents know that the kids are getting exactly what they want. As far as setting up the team goes…that is the coach’s choice. Not the kids.

With that being said, the reasoning I use to place the kids in team combinations are one or more of these:

  1. What team combination could score the highest score

  2. What team combination allow the kids to enjoy the experience of robotics

  3. What team combination will help kids learn the character traits I need for a great team member (leadership, humility, sharing)

  4. What team combination will help kids become experts in certain skills (presentations, teaching, STEM project)

In general, as coach, I set the combination of kids within the teams. My greater goal in this thing we call VEX IQ is to develop great kids using robotics. NOT vice versa.

Just a few words of wisdom.

-BAILEY
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Our program is funded by parents and little bit augmented by school (school… only due to provisions, not voluntary). We found that 10 or more is wrong size to both team dynamics and management. Kids like playing with the robots but we found that parents are the cause of many problems. Schools that have a program that does not involve parents, dynamics are different. They seem to create a better environment for the kids (hint, less parent involvement).

Q: Do you allow teams to stay together from year-to-year if they want to do so, or do you try to split up teams and spread out the skill base?
Yes to former. As you develop a team (ie, as team evolves), the team gets used to the process and work well together. If the team is highly productive, then leave it alone. No to latter. Actual results: When we kept same teams, it went well. When non-coaches/mentors (insert “educator” card here), decided to split based on skill/experience, it was devastating on multiple grounds (non-cooperation, chemistry, skill/learning, etc). If it is a parent-managed team and the team dynamics were not so great, it is most likely (rarely not) due to parents and parent skills.

Q: Do you find it helpful to keep kids on teams by grade? So only 5th graders on team A, only 6th graders on team B, etc?
No. We had a mix. Have not tried only 5th or only 4th etc. It not only helps mixing but younger kids listen and learn from older kids. Although there is a mentor, kids listen to kids better. It also helps them have fun and focus.

Q: Do you allow teams to self-select, or do you assign players to teams (around a coach or around available practice time for the player)?
No. This is up to the coach. Most kids like to select based on social skills. That would be bad later on and are also high maintenance.

Q: If you allow teams to self-select, do you have issues with students who are not “as well connected” with other kids in VEX and therefore aren’t asked by classmates to join their team? Do you have issues assigning students to an existing team in this circumstance?
Yes. This is always the case. No issues assigning a student to a team, as long as it is accepted by the mentor and can get along with the team. We had such cases. Some kids need to be assigned or monitored. Student asking another student to join might be more with middle school or EDR. In elementary, asking to join ends up in “a” team not “our” because it is up to mentor.

Q: If you have 5-8 grade, do you allow kids to self-select whichever program they want to do, whether IQ or EDR?
No and yes. If you have both programs then it should be based on the student capability or willingness. Normally, you should already know that based on previous year experience. IQ vs EDR is also a preference. This is very subjective. There are pros and cons. Our IQ graduates have realized that it would be better to start with EDR and get their hands dirty. The next year they would do better. Now the other side. Per parent (=mentor) perspective, they thought to do IQ so that kids will feel better and try the same thing one more time so it is “easy”. The same parents now default to “should have just gone with EDR” as you gain more experience. It is hard to do it the first time.

As for IQ vs EDR, there are many other factors to consider… Funds, experience, resources, time, etc. There is no set criteria written in stone for this. It depends on team maturity as well. EDR is metal so lots of tools, heavier parts, and learning curve. IQ is simple, plastic, smaller.

We make a team and select kids to role based on their preference within the team. We even had a few kids who are good drivers but did not want to be main, for example. They were happy to be asked but tried harder to do another role.