Competitions are coming up! Competitions can be a great experience if you take the right steps, and they can be very boring if you don’t. In this guide, I will cover what I think are the most important steps for having a great competition experience in FRC, VRC, or FTC.


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Have a Robot

man controlling robot
Photo by Science in HD / Unsplash

This may seem obvious, but you can’t compete at a robotics competition without a robot. With the bag day removed, there is no excuse to show up to competition with a non-functional robot.

My advice, especially for rookie teams but also for veteran teams, is to have simple but reliable robot. My first year in VEX, we were in the finals in every event we competed in, because even though we had a chassis bot, it was more reliable than anyone else at the competition.

You can learn how to increase reliability here.

Make sure that Electronics and Software subteams have time with the robot, so you should probably not be building until the night before competition. Also, go through and make sure that all fasteners are as tight as possible to prevent robot dismemberment during a match.

Update Software

iPhone charging on MacBook
Photo by Szabo Viktor / Unsplash

Make sure that all software is up to date, especially in FRC. You don’t want to be known as the team that had a huge Windows Update half-way through a match, so make sure that you run Windows Update on any computer that will be going to competition.

In addition, all of the following should be checked before competition:

  • RoboRIO
  • NI Update Suite (Driver station)
  • CTRE Phoenix application
  • CAN Devices (Motor Controllers, PDP)
  • WPILib
  • Any packages installed on Linux computers

Be super careful with making sure that your devices are up to date, especially in FRC. Last year, there were major, mandatory changes that were released during the competition season, and FRC inspectors verify the version of your software at competitions to make sure that you are compliant. If you aren’t, you can’t pass inspection until everything is up to date.

Back Up Everything

One of the worst moments of my time in FRC was when I was at the World Championships and fifteen minutes before a match, I was sitting in the Foyer of the GRB Convention Center using my unreliable LTE connection to clone our gigantic monorepo to our driver station. Why was I doing this? We made software changes to try to help our autonomous that theoretically should’ve fixed the robot, but due to a variety of issues, made our robot unable to drive.

Code Freeze

Also, you should do a “code freeze” before a competition. This has two implications. First, you should have well-tested code before you show up at competition. By freezing your code, you can be certain that the code you bring to competition works.

Writing robot code in the car ride to competition is not a good idea. Secondly, a “code freeze” means putting code in a place where you can download it without anything else on it (such as a GitHub repo or branch, S3 bucket, Dropbox/SharePoint/Google Drive, or remotely-accessible NAS). In addition, put it on a USB stick that you have proven will connect with all of your computers.

My problem was that the drive was not supported on our laptop. In general, my team has had good success with PNY USB drives as well as old USB drives, since they tend to have good driver support on a variety of computers.

The code freeze should be the last thing you do, and after you freeze you should not change code until you reach competition. The code freeze should be well-tested so that nothing bad can happen. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it will matter in the heat of competition.


Research Your Event

black Android smartphone showing google site on white surface
Photo by Charles / Unsplash

When you go to an event, you should do extensive research about it beforehand. You should know where it is, what the agenda is, what food or lodging options are nearby, if food can be ordered through the event, and who to contact with any questions.

FRC

If you are in FRC, you probably will have to do a lot of research on your own. Some information is on the FRC Event page.

VRC

If you are competing in the VEX Robotics Competition, most of the info you need is on RobotEvents, the website where you registered for the competition. Each event has a web-page with basic info, which should be most of what you need.

You should also read through the agenda so that you know when you need to be at the competition, and when important events are.

All: Read The Following VEX Wiki Page

No matter what event you are in, I recommend checking out the 101 Things You Should Know Before Your First VEX Tournament list. You will see many of these ideas come out throughout this post.

This list is a huge help for understanding what you can do to be successful at your first competition, regardless of league.


Have a Binder

Photo by Iwona Castiello d’Antonio / Unsplash

In the heat of competition, the last thing you want to do is to try to find some critical information on a poorly organized Google Drive, Google Site, or SharePoint. I have found that creating a binder with tabs is a great way to help with this. Binders allow you to quickly identify critical information, and you can even decorate it to show team branding! My binder has:

Quick Reference

This section has things that I need to access quickly. This usually is event info (such as location and contact info for mentors and students), the I/O list, State Machine Diagrams, and our OI (Joystick) diagram. Most of the time I use this section.

Event Checklist

This section contains any checklists that apply to the whole event. This includes two copies of the pack list (for packing to go to and to leave from the event), and any lunch time checklists for robot maintenance.

Match Checklist

This section contains enough checklists with a pit and technician (on-field) checklist for each match. This means that we can physically check off each item, which make sure that nothing is missed.

Debugging

This last section is anything that is helpful for debugging. I usually put some of my favorite WPILib docs information here as well as custom diagrams that I made to help understand the flashing patterns on the motor controllers.


Have (and run) a Packing List

Before a competition, you will need to pack up everything that you have to bring to competition. Usually, it is a good idea to:

  • Bring extras of everything critical on the robot
  • Bring extras of things that you think will be hard to get from other teams (such as weird sizes or certain colors)
  • Anything that will help with diagnosing your robot (multi-meter, stethoscope, etc.)
  • Your driver station setup (laptop, box, joysticks, backup laptop and backup joysticks, power cords, etc.)
  • BATTERIES (be careful if travelling on a plane to competitions, especially internationally; read up on laws for your origin, destination, and any transit countries or contact your airline to avoid seizure of batteries )

If you are competing in Vex, Team 1666 has a great packing list for competition.


The Magic Bag!

This name originates from the VEX team that I mentored. They had the so-called “Magic Bag” which was a way to have everything you need in one place for a match. Putting one of these together with a joystick, binder, Ethernet cord, and anything else you may need allows you to just grab and go when it comes time to go to a match.


Show Up, Check In, Get Inspected Early

Photo by Aaron Huber / Unsplash

When you get to a competition, there are certain steps that you need to take before you can compete. These vary from league to league, but it usually involves checking in, turning in forms (if not submitted online), and getting inspected early.

You want to make sure that you do this all early so that if something goes wrong, you can fix it quickly. Running a pre-inspection, where you run inspection as if you were an inspector) can be a huge help.

The process is different depending on your event, so read through RobotEvents or ask a volunteer if you are unsure what to do.

In VEX, there usually is a screen in the pits that has color squares with team numbers. This screen helps you figure out when you are ready to compete. If you are at a VEX competition, look for this screen to see when you are ready!


Driver’s Meeting

Every competition that I have ever been to has a driver’s meeting. Make sure that your drive-team is there, even if they already know the rules. They should be paying attention and making friends with people near them before the meeting but not during.

In VEX, these usually happen in the stands while in FRC, it usually happens on the field. Since it is on the field for FRC, make sure that team members follow appropriate safety procedure. Usually this includes only entering the field through the gates (never jump over the fence) and not touching any field elements. You theoretically could be carded before an event for failing to follow safety procedure, so make sure that you are treating the field as if it was before a match.


Finding match schedules is frustrating with RobotEvents. This is because you spend lots of time navigating to the page, and it is often difficult to both get context for your own team and other teams. If you are in FRC, The Blue Alliance is a great resource, but it can also be helpful to have paper backups. Learn more about options for each league below.

FRC

A Match List in the Blue Alliance
A Match List in the Blue Alliance

Match lists are usually put on the Blue Alliance. When the match list is made, download it as a PDF (print and set the destination to PDF or Adobe PDF) and highlight your matches. This is then easily printable and able to be distributed, making sure you don’t miss a match. This makes it super easy to find when you need it quickly, and allows several people to look at the match list at the same time.

Web Interface

If you would like, you can also just use the web interface. While it can take time to find, you can leave it in the web browser on your phone or access it quickly. In my experience, it can be helpful to have a physical print out if something goes wrong that you can easily give to a runner (I don’t feel comfortable giving my phone to others on the team, and I can’t trust that people have TBA open). So even if you primarily use the web, having a print out that can easily be given to anyone on the team is a huge help.

One of the biggest problems that I have had with TBA is not with the software, but rather events (especially off-seasons) not frequently updating data. This is why I started using physical lists as a backup, since at some off-seasons TBA data was so inaccurate that it was virtually unusable. It is a great piece of software, and a combination of TBA and paper makes sure that you don’t miss anything.

What is The Blue Alliance?

The Blue Alliance is a website that aims to help teams at competitions. It has match schedules that update as the event goes on, very quick updating of scores, live ranking, and other tools that help teams be as successful as possible at competition. It is available online and through mobile apps (for iOS and Android), and everyone should create an account. The MyTBA feature addresses some of the problems that I have had in the past, so I recommend checking it out before competition.

VEX

The experience with VEX differs widely between competitions. Sometimes you will only have a print out, in which case you should scan and reprint. If it is on RobotEvents or the Spyder mobile app, you can get info from there.

It can be helpful to have a small portable printer to print schedules at the event. At one event we had to go to the nearest FedEx Office, which was not a great way to start out the event.


Talk to Alliance Partners and Make Friends

Photo by Rémi Walle / Unsplash
Photo by Rémi Walle / Unsplash

In order to make sure that your alliance has a viable strategy, you should talk to your partners before a match. In general, I have found that it is good if your team initiates the Alliance Talk with other teams, since then they usually respect you more which means that your team has more power in the discussions.

Beyond being alliance partners, making friends with your alliance partners can be a huge help. Some of our alliance partners exchange parts with us (which is why FRC Parts was created). Even if they aren’t nearby, it can be great to have another team who can support you.


Queue On Time

Queuing mechanisms differ by competition. In VEX, there may be a system called VEX Text that can send SMS to up to three people when it is time to queue. Otherwise there may be a person who comes to your pit. However, it is important to be proactive in queuing. Usually, one person in the stands is sending information down to the pit on when we should start preparing to queue so that we are ready when the time arrives.

If for whatever reason, you need to spend a couple of more minutes in the pit, send someone to the queue to talk to the other alliance partners. It is a really bad experience for the other alliance partners to be stressed that a team isn’t in the queue, and there are several times that we have had to send both students and mentors to get information about how long a team is until they are ready to queue. The person who goes to the queue should say something along the lines of:

Hi! I’m {name} from Team {number}. Our {mechanism} broke and we expect it to be done in {time} minutes. I am staying in touch with the pit team, so they are able to answer any questions that you have. We {expect/do not expect} our mechanism to be fixed for the match, so it might be helpful if we could create an alternative if our mechanism is not fixed. I am so sorry that this happened, we are working as quickly as possible to get it fixed and will have a robot on the field.

Safety First

It is important that unless the robot is a safety hazard, that a robot end up on the field. It reflects very poorly on your team to miss a match, regardless of the reason, and will kill your ranking score. Even if you have to disable the entire robot in software and duct tape it to stay in the frame, your alliance partners would rather you be able to do defense than not show up.

If you cannot make a match, you must send a representative to the field (C6).

Lastly on this note, if you are not inspected, do not show up to a Qualification or Playoff match. Per the diagram below, all teams on the Alliance receive a RED CARD. If you are not eligible to play and cannot pass initial inspection, you should not compete in the competition. If you are new to robotics, ask the volunteer near the weigh station if you are inspected or look at the display next to the weigh station.

C6 and C7 are VERY IMPORTANT
C6 and C7 are VERY IMPORTANT

Run the Field Checklist

YOU DIDN’T TURN THE ROBOT ON!

I would rich if I got a dollar for every time I heard that. I have often be the one screaming it. Usually this ends up with chastising by the FTA (in FRC) or being off for a match (in VEX).

By having a checklist, you can make sure that everything happens when it needs to. If you need to tether to pressurize the pneumatics before entering the field, that should be on the checklist. Joysticks have the wrong ID on Driver Station? That can be solved with a checklist. Add whatever your team thinks is necessary and then make changes as time goes on.


Something Has Gone Wrong!

Something will inevitably go wrong at your competition with your robot. When this happens, the pit turns into a very stressful location, especially if the next match starts quickly. This isn’t a full guide to debugging, but it hopefully can help not have things go from stressful to chaotic or potentially even dangerous.

Remain Calm

Being frantic is a great way for you to overlook something obvious or potentially make things worse. It is important to remain calm when something goes wrong.

Critical People In the Pit, EVERYONE ELSE OUT

When things go wrong, if you are not needed, be on standby but away from the pit. It usually helpful is to have one mechanics person, one electronics person, and one software person to help diagnose the initial issue.

This kind of goes along with the previous tip, but you want to do everything you can to make sure that the people debugging aren’t getting more stressed because there are people. I operate on three rules when things go wrong in the pit:

  • If I am needed, I am standing as close as I can without getting in the way of people doing work. This means that I can quickly get involved if responsibility falls onto me.
  • If I am not needed, I make sure that nobody in the pit can see me. This usually means standing about 10 long strides away. I hate it when I can see people who are just standing around, so I try to make sure that if I am not needed, I am not seen. Sometimes, I go as far as sitting in another hallway with my phone in my hand waiting for a text or call.
  • If it isn’t helpful, it isn’t helpful. This means anything that I say or do is based on what will be the most helpful to the process. No jokes, no blaming, no useless questions. I trust the experts in other areas to do what they are good at, so I don’t ask questions pertaining to their role. I also don’t try to explain what is going on, since that isn’t helpful to the problem at hand. My team does an email after an event where we explain what happened so that people can learn without being an annoyance to the people debugging.

Look at the Logs

If you are diagnosing a problem, look at the Driver Station Logs or Shuffleboard recordings. This can help you establish if anything went wrong besides the obvious issues and may help reach a conclusion of the root cause.

Look for Collateral Damage

Once the primary problem has been fixed, look for potential collateral damage. It very often works out where one problem causes problem causes others. Make sure that when you have time, you look to see if any other problems could’ve been started due to the original problem.


Talk to Other Teams

I mentioned this before, but becoming friendly with other teams can be a huge advantage during and after the competition. At my first robotics event, I made it my mission to talk to every single team at the competition, and it ended up making us significantly more visible during Alliance Selection. A great way to do this is to walk up to a pit and ask someone who is not busy to explain how their robot works. If teams are near to you, ask if they have a team social media which can be useful if you need a part last minute or want to organize a scrimmage.


Scout

turned on black and grey laptop computer
Photo by Lukas Blazek / Unsplash

If your team has the resources, it can be helpful to “scout” or track how other teams do. Some teams have custom-built apps for scouting while others just use a piece of paper. Scouting can be very helpful, especially if you are highly ranked in the competition, for using during Alliance Selection. It can also be beneficial for making match strategies, though that often takes more work.

Scouters are critical to team operation, and even though it is hard to understand the impact they have on the event, scouting can win or loose matches. It is more than just putting information into a SQL database. Scouting is just as important to winning matches as pit crew, so scouting is a great way to spend time if you aren’t in the pits.


Spirit

In my experience this applies more to FRC than VEX, but every event has space for team spirit. If you see a mob of people leaving the stands to start line-dancing, feel free to join! Showing team spirit is a great way to have a great competition experience. In FRC and VEX there is an award for spirit, so make sure that your team is more spirited than any other team!


Alliance Selection

After the qualification matches are complete, it is time for Alliance Selection. If your team has scouting data, use it to help make a decision. Otherwise, if you are in FRC, look at the Blue Alliance rankings. The Blue Alliance has all of the official data about teams, and can be a great way to learn about teams. If you are in VEX, VexDB and VEX Spyder can help you find more information about teams. If nothing else works, look at the screen with team numbers. Rankings go from top left to bottom right.

If you are picked by another team, you can accept or decline.

If you decline, you cannot be picked again. However, if you end up being one of the eight picking teams, you can pick other teams.

If you want to accept, say something along the lines of “Team {number} gratefully accepts.” That phrase tends to be pretty cookie cutter and respectable at competitions. Some teams have creative responses, but it is probably a good idea to stick to that template for your first competition.

If you want to decline, check with the rest of your team before saying “team {number} unfortunately would like to decline.”

However, I will reiterate that if you decline, you cannot be picked again. Be SUPER careful that you know what you are doing before declining.

You can then work with your alliance partner to pick future robots, if applicable.

How Is Picking Ordered

There are two fundamental ways to pick: standard selection and serpentine selection.

The Constant Part

No matter how selection happens, alliance 1 starts off by picking any robot. Ordering is determined by Ranking points, and reported by the event management system (such as FMS, Tournament Manager, or Chezy Arena). The responsibility for picking continues to move down the alliances until alliance 8 has picked their first robot. An alliance can pick a team that is lower ranked than them but still in the top 8, in which case the next highest-seed gets picked. Alliances then go through again and pick their third robot, and the fourth (depending on the competition: this is more common in FRC than Vex).

Standard Selection

This is what VEX used to use. After alliance 8 picks their robot, alliance 1 has the opportunity to pick again. The pick order looks like the following (assuming 4 robot alliances):

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8

Now with two robot alliances, it only goes 1 through 8 picking once.

Serpentine Selection

This is what FRC uses. After alliance 8 picks their first robot, alliance 8 picks again, followed by 7, etc. At 1, it bounces again and heads back. The pick order looks like the following (assuming 4 robot alliances):

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8


Playoff Matches

Einstein Finals Matches, Houston, TX
Einstein Finals Matches, Houston, TX

If you quality for playoff matches, it works similar to qualification matches. There will be a bracket that dictates what match you are in and against whom.

The biggest difference is that your alliance can call a time out. You should call this if a robot on your alliance needs extra time to be prepared for a match. Each alliance only has one time out, so use it wisely.


Packing Up

When you pack up, make sure to run your pack list again. This makes sure that you don’t forget anything. If you loaned a part to another team and you intend on getting it back, now is the time to request for it. If you borrowed something from another team, now is the time to return it. My FRC team has found success with having some people pack up the pit while other people transport to the van, though smaller teams may want to put everyone on pit clean up.


Finish Matches

It is generally considered okay to pack up during matches, but in my experience, it is considered rude to leave before finals matches are over (if possible, it tends to be considered more gracious and professional to stay through the awards). The only time that I have been on a team and not done this is when an event was running five hours behind and we left at 22:00 (awards were given out at around 01:30 the next day). It can be a great time to cheer on other teams.


A Word About Awards

The meat of this post is over, but I wanted to address something about awards. There is a culture in both FRC and VEX that there are “throw-away” or “consolation prize” awards. In my view, even if you win something like the Spirit award (one that I have frequently seen referred to as a consolation prize), you are getting one more award than most other teams. Any award is an achievement, even if it isn’t Chairman’s or Excellence.

Awards can add up (VRC 1666)
Awards can add up (VRC 1666)

It also reflects negatively on your team if you receive an award but nobody is there to pick it up. My FRC team in 2017 only had five people pick up an award, since everyone else had already left. Unless an event is massively behind schedule, make sure that you have people who can pick up the award so that it does not reflect poorly on your team.


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