Some thoughts from a second-year FLL coach

Here are some second-year coach (this year with three veterans and four rookies) thoughts/observations/reflections from our tournament. They might be helpful for rookie coaches (since I know many of you have tournaments still coming up). And I'm still processing yesterday.
1. My kids needed to educate the local refs on scoring a couple times. (They use some "over the target" language to park a robot holding mission models where those models need to be at the end of the game.) We practiced this before going, and they got it scored each time, although it had to run up to the head ref once. They also had a great interaction with one of the tournament organizers about a spot where they were concerned their practice round might have been incorrectly scored in their favor. Making sure that your kids know the rules sets them up for this sort of success. We modeled "let's look up what the rules actually say" repeatedly. We also practiced how to ask refs for things - can you verify that space travel is rolling smoothly? Can you straighten the mat? [We also talked about NOT fussing about things that didn't matter. If you aren't doing the mission, don't bug the table setters about it.] All with lots of emphasis on gracious professionalism - at a qualifier, many of the table setters and refs are new to this season's models and rules and all are doing their best.
2. It was clear by the end of the first scored robot game run that one of their missions (that they broke our house-rule to edit three days ago) needed more adjustment. I was able to snag table time for after their second run (it was a /tight/ schedule!), and they successfully tweaked that run. I do NOT like making code changes at the tournament. My goal is to ignore the practice tables and never take my laptop out of the bag all day, but it was the last turn in a standalone mission, so it was a pretty safe change. [One of my rookies wanted to also change a turn in the middle of a complex three-mission run. I pulled out the coach veto on that one.]
2.5 Our house rule that code needs to stop changing about a week before the tournament lets us practice timed table runs and talk strategy. Should you grab (interrupt) the robot? When? How long does the next mission take? Can you run that mission twice (if the first time fails) or not, based on time on the clock? My kids made several very strategic choices on the fly yesterday: three points of interruption penalty to get the robot launched CORRECTLY to do 60 points is always worth it, but grabbing the robot with ten seconds left when your remaining mission scores its first points at 20 seconds is NOT.
3. Our practice in the week before tournament includes coming into judging rooms - who is carrying what, and where does everyone stand? Who holds the door for the cart? Who will give the team info sheet to the judges? We practice in all sorts of bad spaces (too small! too narrow! huge!), and we repeatedly send kids out of the room, move the judging table to a different part of the room, and call them back in. They knew who needed to be in which order, so there was no jostling through the door. They got really good at walking in and ending up perfect position, but they sure didn't start there. Getting the kids in the right spot compensates for a kid with a softer voice, and getting the posters right close to the judges makes it much likelier that the judges will be able to see what's on the poster.
4. At our qualifier, it was ten minutes in the room and (I think?) 5 or 10 minutes between teams. Judges weren't going to have time to look at anything left behind, and we were told during the coach's meeting not to bother leaving anything. We worked a lot on "if you don't tell it to the judges, they can't score you on it correctly", but we still had a few spots where they didn't cover a rubric sub-area, and I can see it on the rubric sheets we got back. I should have had them rubric score themselves again last week, but we got busy and didn't quite get there. Judges asked about one area they didn't cover well in the planned project presentation (and then gave them a four when it was clear they'd totally hit it and didn't talk about it), but the CV judges left the rubric blank on coopertition, discovery, and integration when the team didn't cover it.
5. In robot design, we enlarged the (heavily commented) code they wanted to talk about and put it on posters, along with lots of pictures of the design process. That worked much better than normal-sized code printouts.
6. We like posters, apparently. We brought six posters to robot design judging (with a planned 3.5 minute presentation that wasn't quite scripted, but had every kid with a specific topic to cover). We brought three posters and a prototype on a wheeled cart into project. We make smaller posters (the smallest size in the store) on rigid foamboard, and we stick each one right in front of the judges as we're talking about it, so that they can actually see it. Much easier to pack and maneuver than one big trifold. I suspect it also prompts the judges for which kid to ask which question (if your kids are holding posters they're ready to discuss).
7. I've found it important to let my kids know what's going on in CV judging, and that they can be asked to do more or less anything. We talked explicitly about how you can build the tallest tower and get horrible scores if one kid shoves everyone out of the way takes over the process, but that you can also get horrible scores by sitting in a circle singing a team chant and ignoring the challenge. [They thought both extremes were funny, but its a tricky line to thread for some very competitive kids.] My oldest (and loudest) kid had a specific script he practiced - ask who has an idea and shut up, check that everyone's ideas have been heard, confirm that the team agrees on what they're doing, etc.
8. Things we did at tournament: Sing the team chant a lot, but NOT near the judging rooms. Insist (roadtrip rules!) that everyone pee when you go past the bathrooms. Go outside and run around (even if for only 15 minutes) if you have a break big enough. If your pit area is too small, find a spot to be basecamp, and park the stuff you're not using (and parents and sibs who aren't watching the robot game) there. Take a break in the pits when you can (bring games, madlibs, playdoh, etc). But don't be committed to having to go back to base between events. It doesn't make sense to rush back to pits for five minutes if you could regroup in a hallway and then walk calmly to the next event. [Having a non-coaching parent who is responsible for knowing where all the rooms are and walking the kids (and coaches) there is a good thing.]
8.5 My kids' goal is always to cheer for other teams, and it's hugely fun if you can get another team to play along, but my kids don't remember to do it if not prompted. (The five minutes in the queuing box before robot game is stressful, go figure!) We do "Let's go _otherteam_ let's go!" at the teams around us in the queue, and often they look flummoxed, figure it out, and start cheering back at us.
9. I confiscate fidget items, buttons, stray hats, and everything else except needed props before sending my kids into an event. There's one kid who needs to empty her pockets before judging. Every single time. I have a purse full of plastic rubber ducks, pins, and candy that I'll need to return to the kids tomorrow. Yesterday, they got past me with a new sticker stuck to the back of a nametag lanyard that turned out to be irresistible for pulling on and off during judging.
10. Help the kids prioritize and adapt. It is very important to show up at robot game with all the robot parts. It is very important to show up at judging with all your presentation materials (and all team members!). If you have to run robot game without your rhino hat or while still dressed in an astronaut suit (because we had no break between project and one robot game run), you'll live.
11. My kids DROPPED the robot yesterday. Luckily, our robot lives in a plastic bin with a latching lid at all times when not in active use, so nothing happened. I was surprised to see so many robots without boxes in the queuing area and in the hallways.

Cathy Sarisky is a second-year FLL coach, biochemist, robot enthusiast, and parent of two.