Keys to a Successful Drive Team: An Interview with Travis Covington

After Ty Tremblay and I finished up our thoughts on how teams can use their human player to their advantage, we decided to further explore the drive team and the people that are on it. To do this, we talked to Travis Covington, a 19-year participant in FIRST and a Woodie Flowers Finalist Award Winner. He has been both a student on team 115 and a mentor of team 968 RAWC and (currently) team 254 The Cheesy Poofs, who is a member of the FRC Hall of Fame and have won two world championships (2011, 2014). Travis is currently driveteam coach for 254, and provided us with some great insight into how his team runs their driveteam. We hope you enjoy our interview with him and pick up some tips about how to run your team more effectively.

What do tryouts for drivers look like on 254?

TC: We try to bring up new drivers early and retain them for as long as possible.  We feel that the driver can be one of the most important roles on the team, and requires some skills that need to be taught and that can be honed with time/practice.  The more experience once trained initially, the better.  Many of our best drivers started as Freshman/Sophomores and drove for 3+ years.  

When do tryouts take place, when is the decision on drivers made?

TC: If we are filling a role for a graduating driver/operator, we try to have new potential replacements drive at one or more off-season events prior to the next year’s kick-off.  We like to decide and announce who the driver will be soon after kick-off to allow the drive team to practice as much as possible and know their roles (and attend as frequently as they can).  It also allows us to stabilize the rest of the team and set expectations early.  We can more easily solidify the pit-crew, presentation teams, etc.  If those those decisions are drawn out, some people become antsy and it can kill productivity during build.

We feel that the driver can be one of the most important roles on the team, and requires some skills that need to be taught and that can be honed with time/practice.

What factors into your decisions on drivers?

TC: Many things, least of which is actual skill driving the robot.  We have a large list of criteria which we send to the whole team prior to tryouts or selection.  It is a prioritized list, from most important qualities to least important.  At the top of the list is Maturity.  The “Driver Qualities” list is as follows: 

  • Mature
  • Communicative
  • Respectful & Cooperative
  • Humble & Accommodating
  • Dedicated & Hardworking
  • Experienced
  • Skilled & Assertive
  • Knowledgeable in Mechanical, Electrical & Controls aspects of the robot

As you can see, knowledge of the robot is not a huge concern.  Many of the things above cannot be taught and are harder to find.  We also have attendance and GPA requirements of our drivers.  These bullet points are explained on our selection criteria document but are summarized here for simplicity.

How often do you practice in the offseason? During Build Season? Between Competitions?

TC: We practice very little in the off-season.  During build we try to practice every day we meet for as long as possible.  Same with practicing between official competitions.

We have a large list of criteria which we send to the whole team prior to tryouts or selection…. least of which is actual skill driving the robot.

Are there any drills you have drivers do every year, or is it game dependent completely? 

TC: Some years we run drills and some years we don’t.  Truthfully this varies a lot based on how hectic the build season has been and how complicated the robot is.  The more difficult the robot is to build, the less formal the practices are (because people are burned out a bit and a tad unorganized).

How do your drivers practice when not at competition?

TC: Same as during build.  Mock matches, drills, and just goofing around sometimes behind the sticks.  Making the drivers as comfortable with the robot as possible tends to lead to the best performance on the field.  We also try to make sure the drivers understand the physics/dynamics of game play and game element interaction.  When they know what happens if they go up a ramp wrong, or pick up a game piece in a weird way, they are more easily able to adapt their driving and prevent those mistakes from happening on the field.

What kind of strategy discussions do you have with your drive team?

TC: Ideally our drivers know what strategy to execute well before the match and can coordinate that themselves with the other alliance partners and then can ideally execute it autonomously without the coach.  The coach is best used to facilitate cooperation between the three teams on the alliance.  We try to avoid micromanaging the drivers, but again, that varies year to year, drive team to drive team, and changes dynamically.  Strategies are usually determined and practiced at home.  Discussions are had regarding which strategy makes the most sense and how it might change on the fly.  The drivers know this well, and usually there is very little discussion other than to agree on which strategy makes sense.

How does your style of coaching change from the beginning of the season to the end?

TC: Ideally it varies very little.  If for some reason the type of play has changed over the course of competition, we adjust how we interact with the other teams and we learn how to best set up the strategy and game play to ensure success within our alliance.

How do you keep your drivers from getting stressed after they make a mistake?

TC: The students are not responsible for mistakes on the field.  We still feel strongly in having an adult mentor as a coach for a few reasons.  One reason is it gives the students another opportunity to be inspired and be mentored by someone with more experience who they can learn from, but it also ensures that no student is responsible for a lost match or a failed strategy.  The drivers are there to execute a strategy to the best of their abilities.  The adult coach is there to take sole responsibility for a lost match, failed strategy or bad call.  Other teams or team members on our own team can get mad or upset at the coach, but we ensure that it ends there.

As a coach, how much of your time do you spend watching your robot vs watching the whole field?

TC: This varies year to year.  In 2014 there was a lot of whole field interaction and defense which needed to be avoided/watched.  The drivers typically pay close attention to the robot and sometimes may not have great whole field situational awareness.  The coach tries to help in those instances, but ideally the coach is ensuring the alliance is executing the strategy.  Sometimes that requires standing behind one of your partners to ensure they are executing the strategy to the agreed upon plan, other times you can bounce around and pay more attention to the robot(s).  Ideally though, the drivers have enough practice and are comfortable enough with the robot that individual robot actions do not need to be watched.  In the last few years I cannot recall watching the robot that closely unless there was a mechanical or electrical issue that we were trying to diagnose through the glass.  We do tend to watch the robot very closely during autonomous mode, however, for obvious reasons.

..the drivers have enough practice and are comfortable enough with the robot that individual robot actions do not need to be watched.

What is your philosophy on the debate of adult coach vs. student coach?

TC: I think it varies on every team and should be discussed on every team, but we feel strongly that an adult coach makes a positive impact on the student’s experience for our team.  This will be my 19th season in FRC.  I was the driver on my High School team and had both student and adult coaches who coached me.  Either way works and both ways are allowed within the rules.  No one should be able to tell a team their way is good or bad.  We know what works for us now, but are also cognizant to changing philosophies and opinions and know that everything doesn’t work the same for everyone.

What does a typical day at a competition for your drive team look like?

TC: Their day is pretty boring and relaxed.  The drivers are lucky and have a pretty plush job.  They are sometimes allowed to roll in late and are encouraged to remain stress-free however necessary.  Many times they assist the pit-crew with robot maintenance, etc, but are not usually official pit-crew members.

After a match is over, how do you go over what happened with your drivers and how to improve?

TC: We don’t spend a lot of time reviewing the previous match unless it was not executed to our planned strategy.  In those instances, because of the amount of practice we have done at home, it is usually a quick review of what went wrong and a refresher on how to avoid it. 2015 required very little in that regard.

What kind of drive teams do you enjoy having on your alliance?

TC: We enjoy working with teams who are very objective about their robots abilities and can be flexible with strategies.  We enjoy teams who are very communicative and let us know if they need help or are having an issue on the field.

Who are some of your favorite coaches from other teams? What makes them easy to work with?

TC: There are a lot of great teams/coaches – almost too many to mention.  I personally enjoy the coaches who are very objective, can accommodate differing strategies and change their strategy on the fly.  I appreciate those who are very analytical and know the game inside and out.  I enjoy those coaches who coach the alliance as a whole and not just their drivers.  In the last few years, I think Michael Corsetto has really set an example on how to be a great coach.  He is very objective, works closely with the other teams on a personal level, knows the robots extremely well, and does everything passionately and with a kindness that I have sadly seen too little of in FRC.  We have had the opportunity to work with him and his team closely over the last few years and feel fortunate to have had those experiences.


 

Many thanks to Travis for taking the time to talk to us!  If you’d like to see more interviews like this, let us know in the comments.

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