For the past 5ish years, I’ve been coaching robotics. As a professional engineer, it has been a real joy to share my 35+ years experience with the students.
Unfortunately, at times the parents pose a significant challenge. Don’t get me wrong, there are parents who are over the top wonderful. These ought to be commended.
So, a few lessons learned:
The current release form only targets events. When you are running a robotics team, be sure to have a release form for your organization for robotics. As indicated on the VEX / REC release form, there can be dangers with robotics, including parts flying off robots, the potential of electric shock from the battery chargers, etc. Be sure you (at a minimum) to cover all of the items in the VEX / REC release form. This includes photos of team members (you do have them in your engineering notebook, team website, flyers, etc.). Have your lawyer involved.
Be cautious about who you have coaching robotics. I have had assistant coaches reach out to REC in an attempt to transfer whole teams to them and to reschedule times, etc. for part of the team without communicating. Fortunately, REC reached out to me, but things fall through the cracks and you could end up with a mess. Coaches are in a trust position and, if they continually seek to go around or undermine the head coach, they need to be dismissed.
Never let a parent of a student coach a team with that student on it. This has cropped up several times and is nothing but trouble. Students perceive that the coach is biased, even if they are not, and their parents will let you know (potentially not so politely). When there is trouble between the student and the coach at home, it will carry forward into robotics and impact the entire team.
COVID. Yes, I know, we all are worried about COVID. Again, looking at the release form, it only discusses events and not practices. You need to ensure your organization has a solid policy for handling COVID and obtain a release that, if a participant catches or is impacted by COVID, the organization is not responsible.
Have a rigorous student application form. Seriously. If a student is really interested in robotics, they will put the time into filling out the form. If they are not serious, the student will not be engaged and learning about robotics and, in the end, will be a distraction for others on the team. Use the student application as a filter.
On the student application form, be sure to clearly spell out that going to the Principal, school board, district superintendent or others within the school will not improve the chances of being on the robotics team. Likewise, being on the team for past seasons does not guarantee a place on a team. We all have finite resources and we want to use those resources for the students who will benefit the most. Frankly, I don’t care about what color, gender, height, weight or any other physical attribute other than what is between the left and right ear and if the student has the disposition that they will work to learn. I can teach the engineering to someone who is interested.
Coaches should never build the robot. I know, the rules state as much, but I have had assistant coaches sit with their child and attempt to build a robot (destroying the work of the other students on the team). When I said that this was unacceptable, against the rules and would not be allowed, I was the bad guy. Examples of concepts are great (and thanks REC for pulling together the guide for this year!), but the students must build the robot. Otherwise, why are we all there?
Other student commitments. Robotics is a very long season (at least two sports seasons). Students try to do sports / other activities with robotics and most times there are time conflicts between the commitments. Be very wary of overcommitted students. If they want to do robotics, they should be at robotics. Have a very clear policy that, if a student misses robotics meets, they cannot compete at events and they may be dropped from the team. Consider spelling this out in the student application.
What about the other coaches out there? What are the lessons learned that you have experienced?
I am also a PE and as yourself, have been coaching a robotics team the last several years. I had some up and down thoughts while reading your advice. My feedback:
We have a team handbook and pledge that I expect all parents and students to read and sign. I also have learned to get the REC release signed during the early season onboarding.
This is remarkable. Story time?
This just isn’t practical for just about any school. I know I am the most qualified person to lead our program. I have parent volunteers run each individual team and I provide guidance to the individual team mentors and students on a continuous basis. No one has enough independent volunteers to cover what a successful school program would put together.
Following the guidelines. No one is getting sued.
Everyone who signs up participates at our school. We have 40 students and are growing based on our success. Each pays a fee and we have plenty of resources. We do a fundraiser between states and worlds and that also supplements the program nicely.
Engagement can be a challenge. I remind them of the pledge they signed in part 1.
Completely disagree here. Completely. First, this goes against the student centered policy that you are clearly passionate about in part 7. The students decides who drives, etc at a meet. If a student hasn’t pulled their weight pre-event by not attending practices etc, then you can expect that the students won’t allow the dead weight to do the ‘fun stuff’ at the meet. Additionally, all of our students are very active in athletics and other activities. My top team does Vex year-round, they all play multiple sports/dance/scouts/etc. If they can’t make it to an event, then the rest of the team should be prepared to step up and fill the void.
This is simultaneously one of the most important aspects and the most difficult… How many of us are coaching robotics because we think the stuff is REALLY COOL! We all want to help the students, we just have to remember that doing things for them is not actually helping them; it is keeping them from learning.
It would be entertaining to do a post-season coaches’ match… I am guessing the coaches would not do as well as we think we would…
On 8, I suppose I was being a bit harsh. The thing is, when students are overcommitted (which for me tends to be sports) and they miss practices, show up for parts of competitions (we stopped for break during softball / basketball / etc., so I dropped in to drive), etc. they really are not supporting their team and doing the work necessary for the team. They need to be committed to the robotics team during the scheduled times. If it is a trend (I’m going to miss every other practice for the first half of the season), then really think hard if the student should be on the team. I try to run smaller teams (circa 4 or 5) and missing even one student has a dramatic impact.
I get the feeling that your program doesn’t have as many resources as other programs. At my school, we have more brains than we do teams. We would love to have anyone join the program even if they aren’t very competitive.