As a father of two active boys, I’ve spent countless hours at my sons’ sporting events of one kind or another, both as a spectator and a coach. But this weekend I attended my first high school robotics competition — a FIRST Robotics regional competition in Central Illinois. I was surprised at the similarities between sports and robotics. But I was amazed at the differences. And it left my experience with sports wanting in some very important ways. Athletes, parents, and coaches, take note. THIS is how to prepare kids for life.
The tournament itself was like a combination sporting event, dance contest, NASCAR pit crew competition, costume party, and rock concert all in one! Thirty-nine high school teams came from as far away as Istanbul, Turkey. Each spent the last three months working every day after school and on weekends to design and build their own robots, and then hone their skills to compete in speed and accuracy performing tasks in center court.
Like in athletics, these kids were learning sportsmanship: how to work hard, be team players, and learning to compete strongly but fairly. And in both sports and robotics, the events themselves are filled with excitement and tension, including last-second, game-winning plays at the buzzer. But I couldn’t help noticing several very telling differences worth sharing. Here’s my top 10:
#10 The fans – If you spend any time in the stands at a basketball or football game, for example, you can’t help but notice the constant barrage of verbal abuse hurled at the referees (“Hey, that’s a foul!” “Get your head out of your a–, ref!” “Are you f-ing blind!?!?”) and at the players (“Yeah, in your FACE!” “Is that all you got?!?!” “You suck, #21!”). That kind of disrespect is completely absent at a robotics event. The only thing you’ll hear are shouts of encouragement.
#9 The role of girls – At a typical high school sporting event, the only role girls play is to cheer for the boys. In robotics, girls are part of same team as the boys, play the same roles, and they all cheer for each other. Yeah, I know there are girls sports teams, too. But they’re girls teams, so there aren’t any boys on them. And that’s the point. Life is not segregated by gender unless you’re going to the bathroom.
#8 Learning skills they’ll actually use later in life – According to the NCAA* only 3% of high school basketball players go on to play in college, and only 1% of those make it to the NBA. That means only 0.03% of high school basketball players will go on to make a living at basketball, and 99.97% will not. The numbers for football, hockey, and soccer are not much different. But 55% of FIRST robotics participants** go on to major in science or engineering in college (double the national average) and therefore are more likely than not to directly earn a living with the skills they develop in robotics.
#7 “Coopertition” – Unlike most sports, in life there is much to be gained by cooperating with others in your field. So it is with robotics. One of the ways teams can earn points during the tournament is to actually cooperate with their opponents during the match. Teams can earn 40% or more of their final points by by playing with and not against their opponent.
#6 Language on the field – As any parent of an athlete can attest, their kids learn some of their most offensive and “colorful” words from their opponents on the field during a game, or in the locker room from their own teammates after the game. The kind of words they’re more likely to learn in robotics are ‘arccosine,’ ‘relay-switches,’ and ‘servo-motor.’
#5 Treatment from coaches – You won’t catch a robotics coach in an angry, red-faced tirade yelling at their players or slamming clip boards on the ground. Certainly not every sports coach behaves that way. But we all know many that do. Where in life is that ever the norm of behavior or an acceptable way to get things done? Nowhere. And that’s why you won’t see it at a robotics meet.
#4 Brain injuries – Concussions are all too common in contact sports. And we’re now learning of the unfortunate life-long impacts of those injuries. The only time a robotics participant’s head hurts is from thinking too hard.
#3 Playing time – By the time they’re in high school, only the very best at any sport will actually make the team. And of those that do, the vast majority of the playing time goes to the few starting players. The rest spend their time sitting on the bench wishing the coach would put them in the game. In most cases, everyone that wants to be on the robotics team can be. And everyone plays an active role — either driving the robots, performing maintenance in the pit, competitive reconnaissance of the other teams, or the marketing and management of the team.
#2 Fighting – it’s not uncommon in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey to see a fight erupt on the field. Sometimes (most notably at college and professional levels) it escalates into an all-out melee with every player sprinting from their bench to join the fracas. In robotics, the only time the entire team leaves their seats and rushes to the court is to collect a trophy.
#1 Humility – There’s just something about sporting culture that seems to foster a self-congratulatory arrogance and bravado. You have to look no further than the most common chants of any little league team to find it (“We’re number one! We’re number one!”). But I found the atmosphere at the robotics tournament this weekend remarkably absent of anything like that. Every team cheered for every other team when it was their time to compete. And there was certainly no booing. Despite being comprised entirely of teenagers, the participants showed a self-awareness and humility that normally takes decades of life to develop. You can see that demonstrated quite creatively in this video produced by team #1448 from Parsons High School in Kansas.
I sincerely hope my son continues with robotics, and not just so I can keep going to events like this. Oh, I’ll continue to go to whatever sporting events my boys participate in as well. And you should for your kids, too. My goal here isn’t to denigrate or turn anyone away from sports. They can be a wonderfully positive part of any young person’s upbringing. But after this experience, I’ll almost certainly be holding the athletes, coaches, and fans to a higher set of expectations, now that I know what’s possible. I’ll also be inviting them to support their local robotics team as well.
I encourage you to do the same.
[Update for 2017: #11 The role of the family – In most sports, the role of the family of the players is to attend the game as spectators and cheer them on. Occasionally, you’ll have a mom or dad who are the coach or assistant coach or team administrator for uniforms or scorekeeper. But in robotics, entire families can play and do play an active role on the team. This year I served as a team mentor during build season. And for the competitions themselves, my wife, younger son, and I all three served as scouts during the matches, assessing the skills of the competing robots to help determine which ones we wanted to have as alliance partners. Of course, we had time to cheer on our team as well. But we did it as part of the team, not just as spectators. Robotics is a family sport!
Paul Smith is the author of Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share.
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