Coaching a robotics team is a rewarding experience, and you don’t need to have robotics or engineering experience to be a coach. VEX Robotics coaches guide teams through the season, helping them find and use resources and tools that will help them grow. Coaches also recruit mentors to help teams learn and improve skills. This article addresses some common misconceptions about what a VEX Robotics coach is and does, and addresses what a team’s adults can and cannot do to help students.
Responsibilities of a Coach
As a team coach, you’ll probably be the person who handles all or most of the behind-the-scenes tasks for your team. Many of the things you need to do while forming a team are covered in the article Starting a VRC Team, and it's worth a read. During a robotics season, you’ll have a variety of administrative and educational responsibilities, including:
- Assembling and registering a team
- Buying equipment
- Finding space for the team to build and practice
- Recruiting mentors
- Communicating with team members and families
- Registering teams for events
- Supervising teams at events, or recruiting adult volunteers to supervise
- Helping students find and use resources
It’s that last bullet that we’ll focus on in this article, because it’s the task that will take most of your time as a coach. It’s also the most rewarding and fun!
One of your first jobs as a coach will be to find more adults to help. Mentors share their knowledge, skills, and/or experience with student team members to help them learn and grow. There’s a misconception that VEX Robotics coaches and mentors have to be 100% hands-off, and let the students learn everything entirely on their own. Adults aren’t allowed to do the work for team members, but are expected to help guide students in finding the right resources and grow their own skills.
At REC Foundation competitions, teams of students showcase their knowledge and skill in designing, building, programming, driving, and strategizing during match play and skills challenges. The Student-Centered Policy assures that all these activities are completed by the students with minimal adult assistance, but it’s sometimes hard for new coaches, mentors, students, and parents to understand exactly what it means for them. Before continuing in this article, make sure you’ve read through the Student-Centered Policy. In the next few sections, we’ll break it down and give some guidance for teams with different levels of experience.
Things Adults Must Never Do
Everything that happens at a team practice or a competition should be considered a learning opportunity for the students. Students should have complete ownership of how their robot is designed, built, programmed, and used at competitions. Adults should teach instead of tell, and help students build the skills they need to work independently.
Ultimately, the students learn the most when they are given opportunities to test their own ideas, fail, learn from those failures, and try again. Often in stressful or competitive situations, it may be easier or faster for an adult to solve the problem or fix a robot, but by doing so, the adult has missed providing a learning opportunity for a student. Coaches, mentors, and other adults must never:
- Provide a robot design (other than those from VEX Robotics).
- Build or fix the team’s robot without active involvement and direction from a student.
- Write, or revise the team’s code.
- Provide a team’s match play strategies.
- Tell any team what to do during a match, step-by-step (including sideline coaching).
- Discuss the score or outcome of a match with the Referees (the team has to handle it).
- Tell a VRC team who to choose during alliance selection.
- Tell a team what to say in a pit interview.
- Interfere in or contribute to a judging interview at an event.
- Write, create, or edit any portion of the team’s engineering notebook.
Helping Novice Teams
Novice teams have a limited robotics skill set, and are probably new to robotics competitions. Although they probably have skills that will benefit the team—communication, using video game controllers, building from kits, writing, etc.—they probably don’t know much about how to design, build, test, program, and compete with a robot. These skills have to be learned by the student, and taught by a coach, mentor, or other resource.
As students begin to develop their skills and confidence, coaches and mentors should begin to remove or limit the support they provide for novice teams. Coaches and mentors of novice teams can:
- Demonstrate how to build or repair a drive base, lift, or other component. For example, a coach or mentor can run a workshop that teaches students how to build multiple simple drive trains and lead a discussion about what each variety is best suited for. Another workshop might lead students through a build of a catapult, a flywheel, and a motorized forklift along with a discussion of uses for each of them.
- Describe programming concepts and debugging techniques that a team might want to use. For example, a mentor can teach a team how to comment out sections of code to simplify and target troubleshooting efforts. A mentor can also help a novice student learn how to use a programming interface or language, and then help develop a program’s flow using pseudocode or flowcharts.
- Help teams understand the rules. Mentors can help teams review the rules for understanding. If a team disagrees with a score or referee ruling at an event, it’s their job to advocate for themselves and work with the Head Referee to resolve the problem. Coaches and mentors can help students plan and practice ways to communicate respectfully with an adult when there’s a disagreement.
- Help students understand game play and event mechanics. Mentors can talk through a game with novice students to help them understand approaches to game play. Novice teams may need more hands-on help from coaches and mentors at events to understand where they need to be and when.
- Provide practice in speaking with adults. Coaches and mentors can help novice teams practice and gain confidence in speaking with adults about their team, robot, and programming to prepare for interviews with judges. They can also help novice teams review and understand the Team Interview Rubric, and can conduct mock interviews.
- Guide students in how to use an engineering notebook. Coaches and mentors can help teams understand what should and shouldn’t be added to the team’s notebook. They can also help novice teams review and understand the Engineering Notebook Rubric.
Helping Advanced Teams
Advanced teams have developed robotics skills sets, and most team members likely have one or more years of experience in robotics competitions. They’re probably comfortable with one or more of the typical roles on a team, but individual members may want to grow their skill set in a new direction with the help of mentors. These teams don’t need much help with the day-to-day tasks of the team, like analyzing the game, preparing for interviews, and learning mechanical design concepts. They’ll probably still need some guidance from coaches and mentors from time to time. Coaches and mentors of advanced teams can:
- Teach basic design and building concepts that students can later apply to their robots.
- Provide troubleshooting strategies for mechanical and programming problems.
- Teach programming fundamentals that students can later apply to their code.
- Review game and scoring strategies with the team.
- Cheer for teams during matches, and discuss matches with teams after they’ve happened.
- Conduct mock interviews and provide feedback based on the Team Interview Rubric.
- Review a team’s engineering notebook using the Engineering Notebook Rubric, and suggest ways the team can improve it in future entries.
Building Student Skills
Coaches and mentors turn novice students into experienced, confident engineers. By helping students learn the skills they need to compete in VEX Robotics, coaches and mentors prepare them to confidently learn and grow throughout their future careers. As a mentor’s role shifts from teaching to providing feedback, students learn how to confidently use the engineering design process to solve complex problems. Years later, team members probably won’t recall which matches they won or lost, but they will remember and use the communication, documentation, and engineering skills that mentors helped them develop.