Improving practices

We have a successful program that encompasses middle school and elementary IQ and middle school EDR. I’ve been a coach for 6 or 7 years I think. We generally have teams of ~ 5 students. We generally practice once a week for ~ 2 hours after school with occasional Saturdays.

It feels like its often difficult to keep them all engaged. Early in the season they can have several different things going on - building a base, building whatever the scoring mechanism is, doing the early programming. But then it’s difficult. If they are practicing driving, that’s 2 students and one running a stop watch for a total of 3. If they are instead working on their autonomous, that’s maybe 2 students being effective. There’s the notebook and prepping for judging. But in general I struggle with helping them all identify ways to use the practice time productively.

As I said, our program is pretty successful, so I don’t thjink it’s a problem. But its certainly an opportunity for improvement. Anyone else struggle with the same things? Any ideas?

So you clearly are not alone, and you have been at it longer than I. The “season” can seem really long by now if really only focused on the competition. These are young people and often at the end of a school day especially late in the week they are exhausted. I see that meeting earlier in the week (if after school) we’ll have much more productive sessions. Also 2 hours seems to be about max if after school and I see things really drop off after 1-1/2 but then we need time to pick up and any discussion and that is often time for closing out the engineering book for the day.
Saturdays are usually earlier in the season when scrambling to get something that can compete together and we’ll run for a good half day always mornings, and these are really productive, as they are fresh and there is time to focus on things. There is a clearly a parent preference for after school but mine would be Saturday’s.
If your tournaments are too far apart I also see the interest / drive drop. Right after a tournament they are excited to get back at the drawing board and make the robots better. If you can’t make a tournament every 2 to 3 weeks then you need to introduce scrimmage or parallel robots activities. If your program can support it (equipment-wise) , have teams ( doesn’t have to be same membership) also develop bots for sumo , drag races, tractor pulls, etc, Even online challenges can be used and come up with internal awards for these things. You will find the that skills developed in these activities will translate to a better competition robot as well .


Some good stuff there.

We meet on Tuesdays. Except for the lag between Regionals & the US Open, our tournaments are pretty close in time. Often only 1 practice between events. Finding some other stuff for them to do would be a good addition.

Definitely some good stuff there.

I’ve had the same issue with our program (VexIQ Middle and Elementary). We have 5 teams (all with 3 to 5 students) but only one top tier team. In-house scrimmages aren’t really effective for the top tier team. They are a lot of fun for the other teams though.

We do Monday after school for 2 hours. Those are 10 minutes opening thoughts and plan for the session, 90 minutes of activity, 10 minutes of clean up and 10 minutes of wrap-up and notebook. The top tier team also does some weekends. Our main issue is “competing” for students with sports. We are a small school with only 25 students per grade. Boys sports are Monday and Wednesday, girls sports are Tuesday and Thursday. So only Friday is actually conflict-free, but as others have pointed out the kids are wiped out on Friday. With competitions on Saturdays, scheduling is tough.

We change the practice regimen as the season progresses, especially for the top tier team. In the start of the season they are mostly making large scale changes to the robot as they hunt for a good strategy. These need documenting in the notebook and that documentation is time-consuming. So at least one member is on the book, one or two are building prototypes of proposed improvements and the others are working on integrating into the robot and field testing.

Later in the season the focus shifts to more fine-grained changes, driving practice and to programming (both efficiency functions - i.e. one button that performs several time-consuming or coordinated actions) and autonomous. This is where I have the team build a new robot that is essentially a copy of the robot as it exists at that point. This has two effects: 1. it allows the team to work on autonomous mode and on efficiency, driving and fine-grained tweaks separately, and 2. They usually make some structural improvements in the process that they wouldn’t have done otherwise (“Major Surgery” is what we call it when you have to do that on the existing robot). The downside is that the team spends time keeping the robots in sync and that usually has the effect of making the autonomous (new) robot the “tournament robot”, and the other robot the experimental platform.

We’ve found that this removes the fear that a robot won’t be ready for a tournament the next weekend. Which means we can increase the tournament schedule in January and February to increase the chances of making it to State.

As a program, I’ve found that the hardest thing to keep up is the Notebook. The students hate the notebook. They’d much prefer to tinker with the robot and practice driving.

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We do our practices a little differently for each group:

8349 VIQ: meets 2 days a week for 2 hours each day

83490 VRC Middle: meets 4 days a week for 2 hours a day

8349 VRC High: meets 4 days a week for 2 hours a day

Some Other Things We Do:

  • We will stay every day the week before a competition for about 3 hours a day and then 4 hours the day before the comp

  • As for notebooks we require the teams to have a certain amount of pages done before each competition. (ie: 25 for the first, 50 for the second and so on)

  • We try to run practice matches with all the teams regularly before competitions to give extra drive time

I know that this might be a lot of time at school, and it is. However, There has been a dramatic increase in team success, collaboration, and camaraderie.

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