Three boys, a Bot, and 12 Seconds

On a Monday night in the middle of September, three elementary school aged boys stood around a table looking at a pile of parts and considered their options.  Just a few months prior, two of them had gone to the Vex IQ World Championship.  They were quick to take up the task.  “Do we want a scoop?”  “How about a roller?”  “A 4-bar lift?”  “Gear it up for speed?”  Their new teammate – new not only to the team, but also to competitive robotics –  listened for a few minutes then stepped away from the table and headed for a quiet spot in a corner.  He sat down, pulled his legs up to his chest, and rested his forehead on his knees.

It took a few minutes for one of the remaining boys to notice their new teammate was no longer with them.  Glancing around, he spotted The Rookie, walked over to him, and began speaking quietly to him.  “I just need a break,” was all I overheard.  The third teammate continued to work on the robot, unaware of the struggle taking place within his young teammate, and oblivious to the kindness his more experienced teammate was extending.

The Rookie didn’t return to the table that night, and as we were leaving I pulled The Rookie aside with his mom for a minute.  I told them I was glad he was on the team and hoped he would come back to the next meeting.  I wasn’t sure we’d see him again.

Robotics is hard.  Competitive robotics is very hard.  For many parents – myself included – it’s painful to see our kids struggle and get frustrated and want to give up.  I have to remind myself that without that struggle, there is no growth: no growth in patience, no growth in determination, no growth in knowledge.  If we want them to grow, they’re going to have to hurt a little.  Yet, I’m convinced that’s no reason to give up.  I tell our kids often, but especially when they’re frustrated and want to give up, “This is hard, so you’ll need to work very hard to get this done.  This isn’t easy, but it _is_ good.  Do your best!”  And I believe it.

Throughout the season, I watched that young man grow.  He learned to confront his frustration through hard work and intense practice.  Where once he would drop the robot’s remote at the smallest mistake and refuse to try again, he began asking for another chance.  And another.  And another.  Through determination and perseverance, his lack of confidence began to give way to new found skill.

During tournaments, I saw him stand at the field and, under intense pressure, pilot the robot with cool handed skill.  At the last tournament of the of the regular season, his team took home the trophy as tournament champions.  When the day of the Maryland State Championship arrived two weeks later, he and his teammates were clearly one of the best teams in the State.  They were even routinely beating competitors 3 and 4 years older than them.

At the State Championship, The Rookie and his teammates had a great day.  By their last qualifying match, they were at the top of the leader board.  Their last match was with another of our teams: three middle school boys who had yet to lose a tournament, but who were having a bad day.  Our middle school boys needed to post their very best score of the day in order to qualify for the playoffs and a chance at the State title.

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[Before the big match at States: robots and drivers getting set]

Those two teams – our middle school boys and our elementary school boys – had practiced together dozens, if not hundreds, of times.  They were ready.  Forty five seconds into the 60 second match, they had been perfect.  All the scoring was done.  All they had to do was balance both robots on a ramp in the middle of the field and they would have the top score of the day – no easy task. The Rookie was driving and things were looking great.

Then, he missed the ramp, sending the robot tumbling to its side on the field beside the ramp. There were only 12 seconds left and you could see it on his teammate’s face and hear it in the groans of the crowd – disaster!

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[Missing the ramp: the teams in action as disaster strikes]

But then, in less time than it took for the disaster to strike, experience and the discipline developed through practice kicked in.  The Rookie’s teammate turned to the Ref, and after receiving permission to pick up the robot, righted it and set it down on the square where it began the match, a move that took expert knowledge of the rules and clear thinking.

Without any hesitation and with a cool hand, The Rookie positioned the robot at the ramp a second time.  He was perfect this time.  With 3 seconds remaining in the match, both robots were parked, the ramp was balanced, the crowd was going wild, and the boys at the field were exuberant.  It was the highest score recorded for the entire day.

I had seen the whole thing from a position on the side of the gym.  Like everyone else in the gym, I was going nuts.  Then I saw something that sent a wave of emotion crashing over me.  While his teammates pumped their fists, leaped for joy, and started to high-five each other, The Rookie “Dabbed”.

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[The Rookie “Dabs”]

In that moment, I saw all those scenes flash through my memory.  The kindness of that teammate as he talked to The Rookie during his lowest point of discouragement.  The frustrating hours of practice.  The determination to get better.  A kid who no longer shrinks under the pressure, but faces up to it and confronts his fears to drive the best match of the entire year.

It wouldn’t be fair to call him “The Rookie” now.  He’s an experienced, determined, accomplished competitive robotics veteran.  And I couldn’t be more proud of him.

Those middle school boys and elementary school boys went on to take 1st and 2nd in the State tournament, respectively.  In April, they’ll travel to Louisville, KY to represent Maryland and our team at the Vex IQ World Championship.  It would be easy to look at their trophies and banners and make the mistake of thinking that’s why we compete.  It’s not.

You see, it’s not about the robots.  And it’s not about the trophies.  It’s about hard work, determination, persistence, and courage.

It’s about the kids.  It’s about The Rookie.


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