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5 Lessons My Kids Have Taught Me About Coaching Robotics

Sep 12, 2017

by Frank Tappen

Recently, I had an opportunity to recruit some new kids to our community-based robotics team. As I was trying to explain to their parents what I do as a coach, it dawned on me that the most important skills I have to offer, I have learned from my children. You see, while I have been raising my kids and teaching them all about life, they have been teaching me how to be a better coach/mentor. What follows are the 5 lessons that my children have taught me about coaching robotics.

1. Playing Is Learning.

Somewhere along the way, people stop playing. The time spent playing is often when inspiration comes, when skills are honed, when interests are discovered, and when learning happens. My children remind me that, just as it’s important for them to have playtime, it’s important for me to play as well. Make your job fun! If you’re having fun, you’ll enjoy what you do and improve your team. I once worked at an ice cream shop and we posted cute cartoons on the machines as reminders of how to run the equipment. Instead of saying, “check the temperature of the freezer” we posted a picture of a melting polar bear. Instead of placing labels above the light switches that read “turn off the lights,” we drew a picture of all of our eyes in the dark. We made a game out of doing our job. And in the process, a whole new language was born. The employees started asking questions like “Why are we melting the polar bears?” which led to discovering better ways of keeping our ice cream cold. Make playtime a part of your robotics meetings. And as a coach, you need to play too!

2. Be the Hero.

When my child tells me a story about school or football, they are usually the heroes of their story. The world revolves around them. As we age, we don’t want to appear conceited or egotistical, so we downplay our accomplishments and achievements. We don’t want to brag. Modesty becomes an admirable quality and we start to convince ourselves of our own mediocrity. When forming a new robotics team, I always brag about my past team’s accomplishments! I love to share stories about how a girl saved the day by rewiring the robot. Or rewrote the code in the middle of competition to score a few more points. As a coach, it’s my job to be their hero; to be their role model; and to remind them that it’s OK to speak up and take risks. As a coach, my role is to cultivate a team of heroes. Take more selfies!

3. Listen Twice!

As my children began to speak and form sentences, I learned to listen to what they were saying. Really listen. I learned to pay attention to not only their words, but also their body language and the context we were communicating in. I remember a time when my 2-year-old son kept pointing at a bunch of bananas on our counter and repeating the words “nana, nana, nana.” At first I thought he was just bragging (being the hero) that he knew the word for banana. But then I quickly came to the conclusion he must be hungry, because he kept repeating “nana” and wouldn’t stop. So I cut up a few pieces for him. Turns out my son hates bananas! What he was really trying to tell me was that he wanted the yellow crayon. At the time, we were coloring together and I wasn’t paying attention. While coaching robotics teams, it’s important to know that the commonest of words can mean different things to different people. For example, what I call a Lego “5-bar,” other kids might call a “pole,” or “brick,” or “Lego piece.” By carefully listening to what the kids are saying in the context of the moment, we are able to communicate better. Adjust to their terminology. Listening is key. And then listen, again!

5. Try New Things.

My children are not afraid to play a new game. They will slide down a water slide, go down a zip line, or camp in the woods even though they have never done it before. As adults, we tend to fear the unknown. We stay safely in our comfort zones and rarely venture out. As a coach, I’m always trying to improve. I’m always searching for new things for my teams to try. And in doing so, we sometimes come up with new ideas. The ice cream making company that I mentioned earlier would, once a month, hold a contest to see who could come up with the wildest recipe for a batch of ice cream. All the employees were able to experiment and share samples of the “new” ice cream with their families. The company was not afraid to try new things. And in the process, we invented some new flavors! When coaching a robotics team, it’s important to try out new ideas. Let the kids build whatever they want to. Not everything will work, but once in a while, you’ll discover something cool. Go make some ice cream!

Teams from The Mentors Robot Shop won last year’s Wonder League Robotics Competition from Wonder Workshop. Join this year’s competition for free. Registration open through December 31st.

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About the author:

Frank Tappen currently resides in Hartland, Mich., with his wife and four kids. They own a small shop called The Mentors Robot Shop that offers robotics classes for kids in grades K-8. Frank has coached youth football, Science Olympiad, Jr. FLL, FLL, FRC, WRO, and Dash & Dot robotics teams. If you would like to share your experiences about coaching robotics teams, feel free to contact him via e-mail at ftappen@tmrshop.com or find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheMentorsRobotShop/