As competition season approaches, I thought I’d pass along some tidbits to new mentors about how to make your first tournament as stress-free as possible for yourself and your students. Be sure to look down at the bottom of this post for info on volunteering, and supplies you may not know to bring. (A big shout-out to the Facebook VEX World Coaches Association group for their contributions.)
Tips for Adults Attending Tournaments
- First and foremost, tournaments start EARLY. In the Northern California area, team check-in table usually opens at 7:30am. So if the tournament is a fair piece away from where you live, you’ll be getting up awfully early and probably leaving home in the dark.
- Second, tournaments are LONG; pace yourself. It’s easy to be really active all day and crash-and-burn by 3pm. And then you still have another hour (or more) to go, and then have to drive your kids home.
- If the event looks like it will be held in a gymnasium, assume that you’ll be sitting on wooden bleachers all day. Bring a pillow to sit on. It seems silly to be carting a cushion along with the 5,000,000 other things you need to bring, but you will be SO glad you did. Other adults will be envious, in fact.
- The adults on our team usually gravitate to the top row of seats so that we can lean against the wall, as wooden bleachers ALSO have no backrests.
- Corollary: If you’re in colder climes, you may want to bring a blanket as well. And if you don’t wear it, you can fold it up and use it as a cushion.
- Stay hydrated! This is probably the best thing that you (and your students) can do during the day in order to still feel like a human being on the drive home (which is also often in the dark).
- Only bring and eat food during the day that is going to make you feel BETTER, not worse. Limit the sugar & snack food as much as possible; cut-up fruit, cheese sticks, baby carrots are great to bring for both adults & kids. These things are not as exciting for the kids as bags of chips and cookies, but the goal is to end the day as a human being, not a tired, strung-out-on-carbs individual with a headache.
- That said, it HAS been known to happen that a team sends one parent out for a Starbucks run in the middle of the afternoon…
- Be prepared for no wifi (no matter what the event organizers say ahead of time).
- Bring a phone charger. You’ll probably be looking at tournament results on the VEX Via app or the RobotEvents page during the day, or texting between team members and parents in a large event.
- Have a couple of your adults attending bring folding camp chairs for kids & adults to sit on in the pit area. At many tournaments, the team is assigned a table and either 1 or 2 chairs, and that’s it for seating. Small folding camp chairs come in very handy, especially when everyone is together for lunch!
The Night Before
- Make a list the night before of everything you need to bring with you; at 5am, it’s really easy to forget to put XYZ in the car.
- Hand sanitizer is a good thing. Robo-plague is a bad thing.
- Tournaments are LOUD—many play music on the P.A. when other stuff is not happening (or sometimes while other stuff is happening). You might end up sitting in front of a loudspeaker; add foam earplugs to your list if you’re sensitive to noise.
- Read all of the tabs on the RobotEvents page for your tournament. There’s really useful stuff for mentors and students to know, including the day’s schedule, inspection information, driving directions, maps, awards to be given, and organizer contact information.
- Figure out where you’re going the night before, and don’t be late. The “last mile” from the street turnoff to the building where the tournament is being held is often where we get lost and frustrated, especially when kids are antsy to get there.
- Make a copy of all of your teams’ computer code and put it on a thumb drive, and keep it with you during the day. It’s easy—especially in the stress of a tournament—for students to overwrite important code, or forget to save files under a new name, etc. With no wifi, there’s no automatic backing-up going on, like with dropbox.
- Make sure that one mentor on the team is explicitly in charge of bringing the VEX permission slips (and has one for each student), as well as having any school permission forms & medical forms in their possession.
- Choose an adult who won’t be late in the morning. Most tournaments won’t let you check in, or go to inspection, until they are holding your VEX permission forms in their hands.
- One mentor should explicitly be in charge of the list of kids attending & whose car they’re riding in. Have a list of all the cell phone #s for the parents who are drivers that day.
- Have an emergency plan. If there’s a fire alarm (this does happen) or other unexpected event, you’ll be happy that you all agreed to meet at Mrs. ABC’s car in the parking lot.
During the Day
- After they hand out the match schedule in the morning, go and track down the person in charge of that, and get a few extra copies for your team’s adults.
- Cheer for your kids! Stay positive! Even if they’re down at the bottom of the ranking list, cheer for them when something goes right, even if it’s just that they scored 2 points by parking in the colored square.
- Corollary: Keep a sense of humor. It’s a great “chill pill” to help keep things in perspective.
- Figure out an appropriate level of “hovering” for your team. Especially when a team is brand new to competing, it helps to have an adult check in with the team in between matches, and to help them get organized upon arrival.
- My team does a “debrief” of each match right when they get back to the pits. In the debrief, every person on the robot team takes a turn saying what they think went well, and any ideas they have to do better in the next one (no complaining, no blaming). In the beginning, I led these debriefs, but now my team does them by themselves & I stay in the stands.
- That said, if something goes terribly, terribly wrong in a match, I usually join the girls in the pits and help them figure out what to do.
- Some teams will need adult minding to make sure all the drive team members get to their matches on time. And that they have their heads screwed on right. As your team gets more practiced, they will not need adult help.
- Keep abreast of your team’s strategies and plans for the day (and in the lead-up to the tournament); if they are planning to do something unsportsmanlike or that may get them DQ’d (disqualified), step on that bug and squish it while it’s still small.
- If your team has forgotten something or run out of something, Don’t Panic. Have the kids ask another team for help. Teams lend (expensive things) or give (cheap things) stuff to each other at tournaments all the time, and are usually happy to help. Remember to return borrowed stuff ASAP at the end of the day; be a good neighbor.
- On the flip side, write your team’s name/number on important items (computer, batteries, competition switch, orange programming cable). We love our Dymo labelmaker.
- If you lend a part to another team, make sure your team’s number is on it if you want it back (blue tape, pre-made stickers from home or from a place like VistaPrint). For something like a motor, it will be impossible for the borrowing team to remember WHICH motor is yours.
- Understand your surroundings; use an appropriate level of attention to valuables.
Most Important: A Student-Centered Activity
- No matter what happens, remember that this a competition for the kids. Guide them, provide ideas and feedback, but do NOT build or program for them, however tempting that may be. They learn by doing it themselves, and they will learn from their failures. It’s their robot, it’s their competition.
- Absolutely, positively, do not put your hands on the computer keyboard.
- Don’t pick up a wrench or tool. Keep your hands in your pockets if that will help you resist the great temptation to jump in and help.
- If you absolutely must do something on a robot (like a stripped screw that students can’t remove), be sure there are a couple of your students actively participating. Judges are on the lookout for “mentor-bots”. Example: I will help the kids check for loose screws, and if I find one, I pass that information along to someone in 12th grade or younger to fix.
- If you’re there when the judges come to your team’s pit, greet them, help round-up team members if they’re elsewhere, and then LEAVE THE AREA. Let the kids talk to the judges by themselves. (If you can hear what the kids are saying, you’re too close.)
- It’s JUST a robotics tournament. Yes, the kids worked really hard to get to this point. But it is not life or death. Great things will happen and disappointments (or even downright crappy things) will happen. It’s important to model good behavior and sportsmanship for your students at all times. Focus on the things that did go well, and discuss what they might want to do differently next time.
If your team doesn’t absolutely need you during the day at a competition (they can make it through the tournament without you), volunteer to be a judge or referee or any other position where the tournament organizers need help. There is even a “Volunteer” tab on the RobotEvents page for your tournament with contact information for you to get started.
If you are indispensable, then encourage one of your other team parents to volunteer. Adults don’t need to be engineers or techies to be a judge! The organizers can pair an inexperienced person with a veteran to learn the ropes. Your having been a judge will be amazingly helpful to your team going forward.
Supplies & Stuff to Bring
A few things to bring you might not have thought of:
- A small trash bag. I swear the nearest trash can to our table is always about 500 feet away.
- Sharpie markers. Useful for so many things: writing your name on your drink bottle, writing your match schedule on your hand or arm (really, kids do this so they don’t have to consult the schedule all the time), marking metal pieces, writing your team # on stuff you lend out, and on and on.
- Highlighters. When the match schedule comes out, have one of your students go through the whole schedule and highlight their specific matches so it’s crystal clear who needs to be where when. Bring multiple colors if you have multiple robot teams.
- Blue tape & duct tape. Use ’em all the time.
- An electronic (or better, paper) copy of the rules. If you have a bona fide dispute, it’s really handy to be able to point to what the official manual says. And in this case, paper is easier (IMO) to have multiple people look at at the same time. I have mine in a little 3-hole-punched folder.
- A few competition pieces (cones & goals) and 4 mat tiles from your lab (with your team # on them). The practice field at a tournament is frequently EXTREMELY full, and can be really intimidating for young or novice teams. For testing small programming changes or making adjustments/fixes to the robot, it’s awesome to have your own pieces that you don’t have to share.
- Even if you think right now you will not need them, you will be happy you schlepped them along with the other 5,000,000 things.
- Other teams may even ask to run their robot for a sec on your setup, and you will make friends with them. This is a good thing.
- If there’s not space near your assigned table, you can find a spot around the edge of the room or in a hallway (away from foot traffic) to set up a few tiles and try out some moves.
- Corollary to #5: A competition switch if your team has one. It’s difficult and/or a pain to test the autonomous portion of a competition program without a competition switch, and you’ll be happy to have one with you.
- We have even had the tournament organizers borrow ours to use when the official field electronics died.
- If your team name/number is not on it, add that right now!
- If your team does not own one yet, I highly recommend spending the 20 bucks.
In my next post, I’ll write in more detail about the things that happen on tournament day—checkin, driver meeting, inspection, match play, skills challenge, playoffs, and lions and tigers and bears…woo-hoo!