Even though judging sessions looks very different depending on what FIRST program you are in, one idea runs through all of them---PRACTICING IS IMPORTANT. Judging to a lot of teams can feel like an afterthought; it’s something you have to do at competitions. But it’s something few teams prepare for as much as they should.
Judging is the way your team conveys everything you’ve done in a season and why. It’s easy to forget that all of your work as a team doesn’t automatically make sense or even come across to judges. Judges don’t see your team during meetings or events, and they won’t know what you don’t tell them. This is why practicing, and practicing in front of lots of people, becomes important. I like to say, especially to FLL teams, that they should explain themselves to judges as if they were talking to their grandmother. This meaning that teams have to put a focus on being extremely clear and concise in judging sessions. It’s hard to do when you, as a team member, know your own motivations and decisions so well that it seems excessive to have to explain them. So if you can wrangle someone’s grandmother, run judging for her! If she doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, then there’s a good chance judges won’t either.
Practice is also important so that everyone on your team ends up on the same page. Everyone on your team should be able to explain the basics of everything that’s happening on your team. Teams who are too segmented in this way seem to defeat the purpose of being a robotics TEAM (emphasis on team). Too many times I have seen teams having mid-tournament meltdowns because the team didn’t communicate with each other when making decisions and part of the team doesn’t like the direction the team went in. Practicing judging can help with this. Because judging is meant to convey EVERYTHING, all team members must have a chance to explain their work and must listen to the rest of their team doing the same.
Because judging runs in incredibly short periods of time, teams who don’t practice what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it run into problems of talking too much or too little. For some teams, this means practicing conciseness, for others, this means practicing thoroughness. Either way, an important thing to note is that every team member should have about the same amount of time to talk.
So how and when do you start preparing for judging sessions? In FTC, where the structure is pretty free-form, it’s a good idea to make an outline sometime early the week before your tournament and use at least that week to prepare. This works well because most of what your team is working on should be about finalized in this week and so judging information will be up to date. An outline should lay out generally what your team needs to talk about in what order and who is responsible for saying what. Teams I’ve been on have laid out judging based on what our team thinks makes our team impressive. Scientifically, people remember best what came at the beginning and end of a speech or performance, so we always structure our information so that things we want judges to remember start and end our session. Judges are looking for things that make a team stand out from the teams that come in before and after you, so emphasize what your team is proud of and sell it!
If there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s that practicing is crucial. It makes tournament day less stressful and gives your team a far better shot at having a good day.
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