This & That for Odyssey of the Mind Teams

Once upon a time, I was an Odyssey of the Mind coach. Seven years worth to be exact! It was such a memorable experience that I had no choice but to write a book about it. And then another, and another! The books aren’t exactly about OotM, but they certainly were inspired by the program and my team’s trip to the World Finals.

Are you a member of an Odyssey of the Mind team, or a coach? Then this page is for you! I don’t proclaim to know everything about the program, but hopefully these tips can help you and your team get the most out of your experience. Not sure what OotM is? Well, here’s the gist:

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving program for kids. Teams of 5-7 members, from kindergarten through college, work to solve long-term and spontaneous problems. Then, after months of brainstorming and working together to create their solutions, they present them to judges in regional, state, and world wide competitions. The problems range from things like building structures out of balsa wood, creating technical objects and vehicles that perform tasks, and creating and performing humorous or classic skits complete with sets, scripts, and costumes.

The program not only encourages teamwork, creative thinking, and problem solving, but it’s fun for the kids, coaches, and judges too! I had a blast coaching and my teams had even more fun participating. Hopefully you’ll find my tips helpful. Scroll down below to see what they are. But first, if your team has or is interested in reading my book(s) together during the season, let me know and I’ll send them free signed bookmarks. Hopefully it will motivate them to work together and create amazing things!

And new this year, I’m offering a limited number of free 20-30 minute Skype visits to OotM teams too! Email me at swirlandspark@gmail.com for details! I’d love to answer your questions about my OotM inspired books, my experience at the World Finals, living an author’s life, or competition day. But don’t worry…I promise never to give any outside assistance. I know better than that!

Things that can help your team have a fun and memorable OotM experience:

Tips for Brainstorming

● Once you’ve decided on a problem to solve for the long-term portion of the program, read through the synopsis packet together as a team. There are many parts and you want to be sure everyone is working to solve the same thing.

● Sit in a circle, call out ideas, and write them down as quickly as possible. The more the better. Save this list to use throughout the season.  

● There’s no such thing as a bad idea because even if it isn’t an idea your team ultimately uses, it may lead to another one that you do use.

● If your team is stuck for ideas, have team members think of their favorite hobby or sport. An idea may come from those.

● Set objects around the space while your team thinks. Tennis balls, coins, paper, pencils, crayons, cardboard boxes, or rolls of duct tape can inspire your creativity. Many people are hands on thinkers.

● Play music in the background. Music relaxes everyone and it’ll make the session more fun. And when kids are having fun, their ideas will swirl more freely!

Tips for Script Writing

● Play to each other’s strengths. Does one team member love the spotlight and speaking in front of a crowd? Give her lots of lines to say. Does another shy away from it? Give her less lines, if that’s what she wants. Is another team member funny? Write humorous lines for him, if it makes sense to the story. Is another team member sooooo dramatic? Write a character for her that reflects who she wants to portray. Work together to make each team member comfortable… and happy!

● Be sure your script tells a story. That means it must have a beginning, middle, end, a problem, and a solution.

● Keep the lines short—and easy to remember!

● Let everyone have a say in what they say. Letting each team member tweak their own lines as they practice will make their characters more memorable.

● Once it’s complete, print out copies for everyone and read it through at every meeting. It’ll make memorizing easier.

Tips for Teamwork

● No one is talented at everything. But everyone is good at something. Play to each other’s strengths and make an effort to learn from each other.

● Search for the good in your teammates. You don’t have to like everything about each of them or be best friends. But you should respect each other like you respect your best friends—and their ideas too!

● It doesn’t matter whose idea is chosen. It’s not one teammate’s idea, it’s the team’s idea.  Think that way and you’ll have no problem working together!

● Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The best creations come from working together and reworking something you’ve messed up.

● Think up ways to do things that are unusual and unexpected. Make skirts out of tortilla wrappers or a car out of pretzels. The originality will energize you and bond you together.   

Tips for Performing

● Sing a song, cheer, or chant as you carry your sets and props out from behind the taped-off line to the performing area. You’re being judged from the time the judge says, “Team Begin,” so use it! It will entertain the crowd while you set up and help you to calm your shaky nerves and voice. Because you’ll have already spoken as a team in this way, you won’t feel so awkward speaking when it’s your turn to say your first line.

● Practice. Practice. Practice. Plan to have your script, costumes, and sets completed at least one week before competition day. Two would be better. That’ll give you plenty of time to rehearse your skit with your object, vehicle, or machine over and over to ensure that everyone knows their lines and that your skit doesn’t go over time. You don’t want to get a time limit penalty and you’ll feel better prepared when you step into the presentation area.

● Speak loudly. Like really yell. Imagine that the person in the back row of the room, the person standing against the back wall, is straining to hear you. It may feel like you’re screaming, but no one will understand your skit if they can’t hear you.

● Make your physical movements big. Overemphasize them. Exaggerate them. Again, so the people in the back can see what you’re doing.

● Have fun while you’re presenting! Remember that competition day is a day to celebrate your team- created solution.

● Hold your final pose. It will help you to be memorable to the judges and give the audience (including your parents) a chance to take a good picture!

● The judges will approach you on stage once you’re finished to ask you questions about anything and everything that you’ve created. Be ready for the things they may ask you like, “How did you think up that idea, or where did you get all those toothpicks?” Practice your responses ahead of time and you won’t dread their questions on competition day.

● Remember, the judges are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for creative thinking and teamwork. And, they’re looking forward to watching your solution. They’re not trying to mess you up. So, relax and enjoy the moment. Eight minutes goes by superfast!

Tips for Spontaneous

● Practice at least one or two problems at each meeting. Be sure to practice all types: verbal, hands-on, and verbal/hands-on.

● If you’re stuck for a response, think of your favorite sport, hobby, or vacation place. Images of those will spark an idea.

● If you’re really stuck when it’s your turn, say anything. No one else can respond until you do, and the clock will continue to tick.  Saying something that doesn’t make one bit of sense is better than holding the team up.

● Act out your response whenever possible and appropriate to the problem. Show your spontaneous and creative side!

● There is no right or wrong answer. Judges are looking for different thinking. So, don’t be afraid to respond with a surprising answer.

● Dress alike for the spontaneous portion of the competition. You don’t need to wear the costumes from your long-term presentation, but teamwork is a valued skill and a unified looking team will show that. Besides, it’s fun to show your team spirit with matching stuff!

● Don’t forget to thank the judges. They’re volunteers and manners are always in style!

Tips for Competition Day

Be sure to complete all your required paperwork including yourStyle form. This is where you explain your skit. When filling it out, make it memorable and use the space to tell a story. Write it in the voice of one of the characters—or the whole team. It’s a chance for your team’s personality to shine—and get the judges excited to watch you present.  

● The Style form is also used to choose two elements that your team is not already being scored on, that your team would like to be scored on. They’re bonus things like a costume that’s extra creative, a team handshake that’s unexpected, or a set piece that’s unusual. If you think you can get extra points from it, choose it. Altogether, style is worth fifty points. That’s a lot! The key to earning a lot of STYLE points is to be memorable!

● Don’t forget about the Team Sign! Not only do you want to make a sign with all the required elements like your school name, team, and division, but make it creative too. Though it’s not a scored element, it is required (or you’ll get a penalty) and it could be scored if you choose it as one of your STYLE elements!

● Stick together as a team—that includes your coach! All day. Go early (like 6:00am) to get a good spot in the hallway to hang out. They fill up so fast. Even if your compete time is later in the morning, it’s a great chance to fix last minute problems with your sets or costumes, rehearse one more time, practice spontaneous problems…and eat! So bring snacks too!

● Watch as many performances, in all problem categories and age groups, as you can. The creative stuff other teams think up will amaze and inspire you! But don’t watch teams you’re competing against because if you think they’re amazing, you’ll get discouraged before you even begin, and if you think they’re not so amazing, you’ll get overconfident. But it’s great to support other teams from your school, watch teams from schools you’ve only heard of, and make new friends!

● Have fun at the awards ceremony. Winning is not the most important thing here. It’s a celebration of creativity at its finest! And once it’s all over, like the next day, don’t forget to have a prop crushing party. No one has room to store all their giant sets, props, and costumes so celebrate by crushing them, recycling them, and taking a well-deserved break until next year!

Best of luck. I hope these tips help! If your team is interested in Skyping with me for free, email me at swirlandspark@gmail.com. I’d love to talk with them about all things Odyssey of the Mind, Spin the Golden Light Bulb, Flip the Silver Switch, and living an author’s life. But most of all, I’d love to inspire them this season to Think More. Work Hard. Dream Big!

Purchase links can be found here.