Category Archives: Team Management


Any coach knows that you put a lot of time into helping your team prepare.  I try to let my team set their own agenda for meetings, while I nudge them in the right direction and remind them of time constraints.  One exception is core values activities. I need to prepare the practice challenges in advance, without the help of the team, so they get the experience of dealing with an unfamiliar task without any notice.  I love this activity, which I call Staying Aloft, because no prep is required.  That makes my life as a coach easier.


1 square of toilet paper

None required

Instructions to the team:
Here is a square of toilet paper. See how long you can keep it in the air by blowing it. You are not allowed to touch the square; you can only use your breath.

This game encourages teamwork and cooperation – but mainly, it’s just a fun thing for the team to do. Ask team members if they find it easier to focus on the FLL challenge after taking a short break. Does working together to keep the square of toilet paper aloft make it easier for them to work together on the challenge, too?



Help your team get ready to program their NXT or EV3 robot by “programming” a fellow team member to complete an obstacle course.

Your choice of anything to create an obstacle course! Ideas include:
Hula hoops
Tennis balls
Wood planks

Prepare an indoor or outdoor obstacle course for the team, with a mix of barriers to navigate and tasks to do. Your course might require that someone step over a string staked a few inches from the ground, drop a ball in a cup, navigate across a wooden plank, pick up an object, step through a ladder laid flat, and toss a beanbag into a bucket. Do not let the team members see the course until they are ready to start the game.

Instructions to the team:
You will be “programming” a robot to navigate an obstacle course. Choose one team member to act as the robot. This person will be blindfolded, so the only way they can get through the course is by following your precise instructions. You will have 2 minutes to view the course and discuss your strategy. The “robot” will not be part of this discussion.

Make sure that an adult coach or mentor or older team member stays close to the “robot” at all times to keep them from harm. For example, if the robot is programmed to move forward, expect them to continue moving forward until programmed to stop – so you may need to step in to make sure they do not hit a wall or walk into a street.

This game helps teach the team the importance of clearly and exactly communicating what the robot must do. Make sure the team understands how this game relates to programming for the FLL robot game. Having the robot teammate blindfolded prevents them from offering help or using their own initiative to navigate obstacles – just like the Mindstorms robot will only do what it is programmed to do.



Do your team members listen to you? Do they listen to each other? I like this twist on an old party game that tests a team’s listening skills. It’s very easy for someone to assume they know the rules and race ahead trying to solve the problem of how to win, only to find out later that they missed the point.

Enough chairs for every member of the team
Music player (smartphone, MP3 player, radio … anything that can be quickly started and stopped)
Place the chairs in a circle, facing outward. If you don’t have space for a circle, place the chairs back-to-back in two lines.

Instructions to the team:
You will be playing a game of musical chairs. While the music plays, walk in a circle around the chairs. The objective is to get everyone on the chairs as soon as the music stops.  (Note: it’s very important that you state this objective exactly).

The game:
Start the music and let the team members circle the chairs. Stop the music – each team member should find a chair and sit down. Remove one chair and start the music again. See what happens when you stop the music this time:

(a) If the team members each claim a chair for themselves, leaving one person “out,” you can repeat the instructions, or let the game continue until there is only one chair left and one person who will claim to be the “winner” of the game. At that point, you can ask the team whether they satisfied the objective.

(b) If the team figures out that the objective is for all team members to cooperate so everyone can get on a chair, continue the game so they can explore how to work together to get multiple people on one chair.

It’s easy for the kids to jump to the conclusion that they already know how to play the game. How long did it take for the team to figure out that the objective was to get everyone on a chair, rather than for each individual to try to claim a chair while leaving out other kids? Did they need prompting from an adult coach or mentor to reach this conclusion? Encourage them to use this lesson as the season continues. Are they taking the time to really listen to each other (and to you)? Or can they identify times they rushed ahead and wasted time chasing something that wasn’t their true objective?



Last week, we asked teams to build the longest bridge possible. This week, ask them to build the strongest bridge. Change the construction materials so that teams must come up with a new design, rather than simply replicating last week’s bridge.

1 3-foot piece of string
15 paper clips
6 straws
2 index cards
5 marshmallows
1 12-inch piece of masking tape
2 bricks (for bridge towers)
Scissors (for use in construction only)
Dried beans (for weights only)

Set up 2 bricks on a table. Lay out all other construction materials so they are clearly visible.

Instructions to the team:
You have 7 minutes to build a bridge between two bricks. Your bridge must hold as many beans as possible. You may use the scissors to modify the construction materials, but the scissors cannot be part of the bridge. At the end of the building period, you will place the beans, one at a time, on to the bridge, counting how many beans the bridge can hold before it collapses or the beans spill.

Did the team decide to use a planning period, or did they immediately start construction? How was this bridge different than the “longest bridge” built last week? Did last week’s experience make this week’s task easier or harder?

Combine this “strongest bridge” activity with last week’s “longest bridge” activity. Choose one set of construction materials, and have the team build one bridge, then the other. What was different about the two construction projects? What was the same? Were there also changes in the team’s decision-making process or teamwork?


FTC Decision

Saturday, a group of parents and I took some of the team members from the Capital Girls and Code Crackers to the FTC qualifying tournament.  FTC is very different but looks fun.

The Code Crackers want to do FTC next year but things are still up in the air as people wait to see what high school they will be attending.  With the unknowns of high school, right now it is a wait and see.

The Capital Girls want to stick with FLL.  I learned yesterday how much they love the project component.  I also think seeing the age of most of the teams, they feel more comfortable in FLL.  FTC looks fun but is also looks challenging.


Coaching Parents

For rookie coaches, here is the email I shared with my teams to prepare parents for the tournament.  Also, remind your team no talking when waiting for a judging sessions.  Even whispers distract from the judging of other teams.

The tournament is here!  The kids have worked hard and I have confidence in both teams.  As we do our final practices, I think it is important to remember it is not the destination but the journey that counts.  There are no guarantees and past performance is not an indicator of this year’s outcome.   I am hopeful for both teams but want to keep expectations realistic and humble.

Tournament Logistics:

  • Tournament schedule is attached
  • Wear your team t-shirt and bring your notebook.
  • Arrive at XXXXXXX Cafeteria by 8:30 AM.  Park near the tennis courts.
  • Our team’s pit stop will be in the Cafeteria, please bring any team items to our table.  The tables will have the teams numbers on them.
  • There will be drinks and snacks for sale, please bring cash.
  • I will limit the team’s electronics.  There is no reason for them to use an electronic device.   If they need to contact you, have them ask to use my phone.
  • I will be jumping between the two teams, even changing shirts.  I don’t plan to go in every judging session.
  • The Capital Girls and Code Crackers are not competing against each other, they are in different age divisions.

How FLL is scored:

There are three judging sessions –  Core Values, Technical and Project.  After each session, the judges rank the room.  At the end of the tournament, the judges combine room rankings.  The team with the best ranking and a robot score in the top 60% will be the tournament champion and will get an invitation to the Championship.  The judges then award Project, Technical, Core Values and Robot Performance.  A team can only win one judges award (Champion, Project, Technical and Core Values).  A team who wins a judges award can also win robot performance.  After all the awards, they announce who has an invitation to the Championship tournament.  The number of invitations is based on tournament size, typically there are 3 to 4 for Division 1 (Capital Girls) and 1 to 2 for Division II (Code Crackers).

Robot Game:

The robot game is 2:30 minutes (150 seconds).  The robot will not work perfect, we don’t expected it to be perfect.     I have learned in 4 years of coaching, luck is a key component.  For robot performance, our goal is to be in the top 60%.  Also, the robot games is a small part of FLL but is the most visible.  The judging rooms are where it matters most and the teams are prepared.   I personally do not track the score.

What can spectators do?

Only two coaches and a historian are allowed in judging sessions.  All spectators can watch the robot game.    We will try to video tape the judging sessions and share with the entire team.

Parent Expectations:

  1. Work with your child to make sure they know and are confident in their project lines and technical talking points.
  2. The kids know what they are doing but will make mistakes.  It is ok, we are team and we fail and succeed together.
  3. The kids feed off of you.  If you are nervous, they will be nervous.
  4. The robot will NOT work!  For those new to FLL, the robot will not be consistent.  Last year the girls destroyed missions on the table and the boys had flying balls everywhere.  It’s ok.
  5. I do not care about score and do not track it.  For robot performance, our goal is to be in the top 60%.
  6. The most important thing at the tournament is to Have Fun!
  7. As parents and coaches, we are expected to demonstrate Gracious Professionalism and Core Values.

–          We are a team.

–          We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.

–          We know our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together.

–          We honor the spirit of friendly competition.

–          What we discover is more important than what we win.

–          We share our experiences with others.

–          We display Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® in everything we do.

–          We have FUN!


Parent Things to Bring:

–          Comfortable Sports chairs for parents

–          Entertainment (Book,  IPad).  I will have a rubber band bracelet jig and some games.



Oh the places you’ll go!

On Monday, both the Capital Girls and Code Crackers visited NOAA’s Forecast Center at Dulles.   The featured image is the team getting to experience a weather balloon launch.  We talked to meteorologist and learned many cool weather facts, like how snow fall is measured.

This year, both teams have gotten some great experiences.  Our research has taken the teams to the Fairfax County Emergency Operations Center, Virginia Task Force 1, USGS and NOAA.   We have met with emergency management, search and rescue, hydrologist, climatologist and meteorologist experts.


Looking back

Last Tuesday, the Code Crackers and Capital Girls co-hosted a Core Values Challenge Night at our elementary school.  There were 4 to 6 rookie teams who did Duct Tape Team Challenge and Balloon Person Challenge.  For the Duct Tape Team Challenge, the team is given a roll of duct tape and instructed to make a duct tape object that represents their team.  They can only stick the duct tape to duct tape.  For the Balloon Person Challenge, the teams are given a role of masking tape and balloons.  They are instructed to stick as many balloons to one person in five minutes as possible.  Nothing can be taped above the neck. The trick is not to inflated the balloons. The instructions say nothing about inflating.

After the team core values challenges, Angie (our FIRST Coordinator) and I did a tournament prep Q&A for rookie coaches.  It brought back memories.  It reminded me of our first year, total chaos.   It was hard and emotional.  On Saturday, the team was still programming and the tournament was Sunday.   As a coach, I even forgot to give the team information sheets for the judges.  Sensors and master programs where not on our radar.  I remember after the first run, every kid was ready to give up.  As a team, we had to decide how to react to failure in our eyes. We could drag our heads or we could lift them up high and have fun.  After a team talk, the team decided to have fun.  Every since that moment, we have focused on having fun. The next year, they qualified for the Championship. 

As the teams are preparing their core values poster, I realize what a amazing and fun time the teams have had together.  It does not matter how they do at tournament, the experiences, friendships and core values skills they developed will last a lifetime.

As we do our final week of preparation, I think it is important to remember it is not the destination but the journey that counts.

For rookie coaches, I can promise you it gets better. Focus on fun!




The Candy Drawer

On the VA/DC list serve, the topic of team motivation and how to get youth to try new things came up.  To keep the team motivated and focused, I hate to admit it but I use candy.   In our robotics practice area, I have a candy drawer.  It has dividers and has multiple types of candy.  When I see the team needs some motivation or focus, I just indicate that once they finish what they are working on, they can have candy.  Candy has amazing powers. 

badge_linedetectormasterTo develop FIRST skills, I use a Robotics Badge reward system.  To learn about the badge system, check out the blog post Boy Scout and Girl Scout Methods.


Technical Judging Prep

For technical judging, my teams will carry in two documents this year, robot design and program summary presentations.  The key word here is summary, we used to carry in every program and more information about the robot and process than anyone could care about in 5 minutes.  For some great examples of these summaries and what we are using to guide our technical prep, visit  To download our technical robot design presentation template, click here.  My teams have to populate the content, the template only helps guide them to telling a story.

My teams have not found a formula that works for them in technical, so we are no experts but we are learning.  In the past, they talked over each other and just were not great at explaining their work.  We tried a room captain that controlled who talked and a presentation script.  The challenge with these approaches is when the team was taken off course, they froze up and did not know how to react.

Based on our experience, have the team practice talking about their program and robot.  When you think about it, teams start building and programming around August.  They will most likely not remember the details after three months.  After observing this last year, we gave each team member a team notebook with a robot design and programming section (available for download under resources).   Every week, we try to put the programs on the big screen and make them present them.  Everyone takes turns.  You can’t expect them to remember what a block they wrote weeks ago  when you can’t remember what you had for lunch yesterday.  Practice explaining and fielding questions.

Have a starting team assigned to technical.  Last year, we had decided to show the green medicine run and the girl who would run the mission was not on a starting team but knew this run.  When the judge asked to see more runs, the team froze.  We focused so much on not talking over each other and the script that the team was not fluid.

This year we are focusing on summaries and cross-training, only highlighting the key aspects of the robot and programs.    They have done some really cool stuff, so that is where we are going to focus and there will be no scripted presentation.  We are also doing cross-training to avoid the technical blood bath we experienced last year.  If the person who did the work gets pulled in two directions, they will be prepared.  Every program and build task has been completed by a minimum of two and they both have to know how to explain it.  

For new coaches, think of technical as a guided conversation about the robot and programming.  Use the presentation slides/summaries to guide the conversation.  Also, when you practice, draw an imaginary line that the team will stand behind around the table. No one except the team running the missions should be able to reach the table.  The goal of this is take away the temptation of playing with mission pieces, which is a major distraction. Also, volunteer at a tournament.  It is one of the best ways to learn.

I am going to apologize for the following rant but I think this is important.  Technical Judges, please don’t split teams. I hate being the first team in a room, especially with experienced judges.  When you are first in the room, the judges who just met that morning are still figuring out their judging roles. When two judges start asking different questions at the same time or talking over each other, it really is not fair to teams who have worked months preparing.  I appreciate all the FLL volunteers, all I am asking is for judges to know your role before the first session.  Sometimes you have to comprise, stepping back and letting another judge take the lead.    



Introducing Fidget Sticks

Every team has one or more, a fidget kid.  It is the the team member who is always playing with the mission pieces, hair or just can’t keep still.  It becomes more apparent in the judging room where it is a big distraction.  I once had a youth start playing with mission pieces during technical judging.

You have two options, fight or embrace the fidget.  I tried fighting, it is useless.  To embrace the fidget, put something in the youth hands.  We call this a fidget stick.  For fidget sticks, I like to use Lego shocks.  They are entertaining and small enough they don’t cause a distraction.  Fidget sticks are a great tool to use.  I ordered 10 this morning from ebay.

Team Roles & Status


Last week, the Capital Girls worked out team roles and filled in the team roles worksheet (download here).  We actually do this as a core values activity.  There are many roles and some are more popular than others. Last year, no one wanted to be a starter but this year six girls wanted to be starters.  I loved their solution, instead of two starting teams they decided to do three teams.  This means more starting practices but I thought this was a great solution so everyone who wanted to be starter has a starting opportunity.

We are still continuing with robot sub team meetings and I do have one Capital Girls sub-team who is done programming.  As sub-teams finish their runs, the sub team meetings shift to documenting and tweaking runs.  Team meetings are now focused on practicing the research project presentation, technical judging and core values.

The code crackers had a victory this week, they came up with a solution for the truck and ambulance.  They started with a big plow but the friction from the truck and ambulance wheels made any program inconsistent.  I was very proud of the team.  After last Sunday, the sub-team sent a team email saying they were stuck and needed the help of the entire team. It took some guts for 8th graders to say we are stuck.  After some experimentation, one team member came up with a solution that traps the truck and turns it up so not all wheels are touching.  It was a simple yet effective solution.


Limiting Creativity

dreamOne challenge we experience with the 8th Code Crackers team is their big ideas.  It is good they don’t see limits but as coaches, we have to ask questions that bring things back to reality.   They will take the simplest mission and see how cool they can make.  For example, we can collect the people and catapult them to the red zone in a net.   Really, catapults again!

They have some great ideas, like building a carbiner to pick up the loops when a rod would do.  They build it, it worked.  They could have attached a rod and programmed the mission in 15 minutes but they elected to take the entire meeting for this cool carbiner.  I admit, I get caught up in the excitement and want to see if they can do it.  Once the meeting is passed, I have coaches remorse.   We wasted an entire meeting on something that should have taken 15 minutes.

So we have a coaches challenge, how to allow their creativity and still get missions accomplished.  We devised two approaches, KISS and Time Permitting.  KISS stands for Keep It Simple Stupid.  I know stupid sounds bad but the kids remember it.  If they have an idea, it has to pass the KISS test before they start on it.  If it does not pass the KISS test, they can come back to it once they have their runs completed or work on the idea in their free time, just not meeting time.

We just implemented this and I am curious to see how it works out.  If you have ideas on managing creativity, I would love to hear them.   Please comment.



Sometimes you have to fail to succeed

Last night, I had a sub-team meeting with the Capital Girls working on the truck and ambulance mission.  This team made great strides, they had a great attachment and a working mission after their first meeting.  At the start of their second meeting, it would veer off into the buildings.  Turns out the friction from the truck and ambulance wheels play a big role in the success or failure of this mission.  Something that looks simple can be very hard.

This will happen during every teams season and is very frustrating.  Something will work, then it want.  Sometimes it is battery level but for the most part, there is no rhyme or reason. I tell my team we just increased the sample size and it is better to know now than later.  The more your teams test, the better they will understand the characteristics of a mission and can adjust.   The girls did not realize it was the truck and ambulance wheel friction that was causing the inconsistency until after 20 runs.  By then the meeting was over.  They have some stuff to figure out. 

You can count on luck, it has helped us, but having a large run sample size really matters for having a consistent robot and knowing what to expected at tournament.  Log each run, note if it was a happy or sad face.  I don’t like using the terms successes and failures, the terms are to black and white and just because a mission did not work perfect does not make it a failure.  If you learn something from an unsuccessful run, then you succeeded at learning something.  Download a copy of our Mission Log to use with your team.  It uses :) and :( faces to indicate how the team felt about the run.




Capital Girls Too Drop Test

Boy Scout and Girl Scout Methods

I am a Scout Master for Boy Scouts and a Troop Leader for Girl Scouts.  Several members on my teams are also in my scout troops, which is great because I can just hold up the Scout Sign and get everyone’s attention.  These organizations have been helping develop youth for over 100 years, so I thought, what can I borrow from scouting for First Lego League?

Three things come to mind, badges, closing circle and the EDGE method.



Both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have a badge reward system.  Boy Scouts have over 100 merit badges, including robotics.  You have to earn certain merit badges to get Eagle.  Girl Scouts have different badges for each membership level.  The badge reward system works. I developed badges for First Lego League and am trying it with the Capital Girls.   So far, the results have been encouraging. I use the badges to recognize team contribution and more importantly, to encourage team members to learn and try new things.   I think we have about 30 badges. For example, you can earn a line following or wall squaring badge. Because they want to earn badges, they take the time to learn about a concept.  When they are doing run strategy, they figure out how to apply a badge concept like wall or line squaring.  The badges are not just robot focused, they also cover project and core values.  My two favorites are Team Spirit and Supporter.  Theses are badges any team member can award to another team member and there is no limit to how many you can earn.  If someone encourages a team member, they tend to get a supporter badge.  If some has a really positive attitude, the often receive a Team Spirit badge.  Once a team member earns a badge, they stick it on the back of their team notebook.  Download our team badges and requirements to learn more.  

Closing Circle

corevaluesbuttonIn Girl Scouts, we do a closing circle at the end of each meeting.  The girls cross their arms and holds hands.  One person starts, squeezing the person’s hand on the right.  When your hand is squeezed, you stick you right foot forward and squeeze the hand on the right.  When it gets to the last person, they say something they liked about the activity and then everyone spins out of the circle.

In my Boy Scout Troop, everyone crosses their arms and does the Scout Blessing, “May the great Master of all Scouts be with us ’til we meet again, be prepared.”

For Robotics, I adapted the closing circle from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  We call it a confidence circle.  The team gets in a circle and each team member must say something positive about the person to their right.  The positive comment has to be related to the meeting or activity, not “I like your hair”.  Once the circle completes, we reverse the direction if we have time.  I sometimes make the team switch around so people are not always next to the same people.  When I first started this, the girls really struggled with giving a word of encouragement.  It was not something they were used to doing.  Now, they are instant and meaningful. The real purpose of the circle is to have them lift each other up and focus on the positive.   I was touched at our last meeting when they did an impromptu group hug.

EDGE Method

The EDGE method is a Boy Scout concept for experiential learning, or “learning by doing”.

Explain how it is done – Tell them

Demonstrate the steps – Show them

Guide learners as they practice – Watch them do it

Enable them to succeed on their own – Use memory aids, practice it, they teach it


We start with EDGE in the summer months, doing challenges like the SUMO Challenge, to help the youth understand sensors and to develop advanced programming flow.  Once we get into the season, we use EDGE as part of Robot Design and programming, the team does several experiments, like what wheel size is the fastest.  Once the team has a base robot, we do robot test or field mat challenges that leverage EDGE. The drop test is the youth’s favorite.  Hold the robot 3 feet, then drop it.  Then, 6 feet.  Takes lots of pictures before the drop test.  This teaches the kids about solid robot design.  See Robot Design and Program Team Notebook section for some of the EDGE exercises.  To enable, we use badges and a series of reference posters (Program Flow, Line Following) on the wall that are used as memory aid.  We also have each youth teach the rest of the team what they learned when they figure out  a new concept.


Run Strategy

For our run strategy meeting, we used the elements pictures from glued to index cards.  Each team member has a scoring sheet from techbrick and the field mat has Avery round label stickers 5472 with the mission points next to each mission model.

IMG_3254 cg-strategy

We appointed a team member to facilitate the strategy session, treating it like a core values challenge.  The team uses the cards to layout mission runs, taking into account attachments, location and difficulty.  After about an hour, the team had a run strategy.  If everyone starts talking over each other or if a couple team members are dominating the session, we use a talking ball.  You have to have the ball to talk.  This allows the shy team members to have a voice.  The next step is for each team member to rank their run preferences.  Meeting availability and run preference are used to form sub-teams.  Below are the two teams run strategies.  What always surprises me is how they sometimes go down the same path but with a different thought process.  In looking at their strategy, they stayed the same for runs 1 and 2, deviated for a couple runs and then both elected to get the supplies when going for the red.  The debate is also interesting.


Strategy-CC-v1 Strategy-CG-v1IMG_3255 20130907-073406.jpg

Why Sub-Teams?

Sub-teams require more meetings for the coaches but work great for our teams.  We find that sub teams make the team more productive.  With only three team members present, they are able to focus better, ask hard questions, and challenge themselves to tackle more advanced programming techniques.  Having all 7 or 10 people working on a robot or program at one time is just not productive. 

Our meeting strategy is to meet as an entire team once a week to work on project, core values and common tasks.  The sub teams meet once a week to work on their specific runs. There are team rules about robot changes that could impact other sub teams.


How do you keep code safe?

Many teams have horror stories about a team member changing or saving over someone’s program.  To avoid this nightmare, teach your team to do code management and version control.  If you are a software developer, this should make complete sense.  Create a GitHub or CodePlex project and go.  Sounds simple but trust me, figuring out these solutions is not easy.

My teams took the easy path, we use DropBox.  You can get 2 GB for free!  What is great, you can share files and programs with the entire team.  No more thumb drives!

We use a naming convention for files and backup all program files after each meeting.  We can get back to any point in time and are protected against a computer crash.  Below is our process.

File Naming Convention:

When programming, the teams follows a naming convention for program names.

{RUN Name} – V {Version Number}

The version number is incremented when a team member starts a new program unit.  For example, using the Nature’s Fury Challenge, a unit might be triggering the airplane and the next unit could be picking up the water.   Some of the team members, not all, break up units using My Blocks.  My Blocks also follow the same naming scheme.  I love My Blocks, the only issue is the 15 minutes you lose waiting on a kid to pick an icon.


dropboxfoldersAfter each practice that involves programming, we do a backup.   In the team’s Dropbox program folder, we create a folder based on today’s date, e.g. 9-6 and copy the team’s program folder into the newly created folder.  This backup process enables the team to get back to any point in time.

badge_outsidetheboxTwo 8th grade boys came up with new base escape program.  It uses dual color sensors to know when the robot reaches the base black border line.  To avoid being tripped up by the black text in base, both color sensors have to detect black.  The “And” logic block triggers the loop exit when both sensors detect black,  I thought this was outside the box thinking.   To see how we enable youth to understand and apply program logic, see the Program Logic Poster.