To give this blog post a little back story, I was lucky enough to inherit a small six-person CyberPatriot team, so the initial groundwork for the ‘team’ was in place but over the past seven years. Now the team has expanded in numbers and in the array of competitions we compete in.
High school is different from college. There are different goals and motivations. High school students are motivated by an interest in the topic and a sense of fun, where college students are looking to increase their skill base and also to fill in that all-important resume. Therefore high school students tend to feel that they have more ‘time’; there is always another season or game to compete in.
Advice on Team Choices
You have two avenues of attack in this case, build a team that has people from all skill sets (i.e., the best team to get the furthest in the competition), or build a team of friends who are going enjoy the competition and by some bizarre osmotic process learn something along the way. The problem with the first option is that you might have some members that don’t get along, which is never fun. Personally, I stick to the friend groups specifically to avoid personality conflicts as much as possible.
CryptoKait has also written a methodology for selecting teams for the NCL Games here.
A Culture of Learning
This is important for solo competitions and for recruitment. I often tell despondent students that no-one comes out of the womb knowing how to parse a Wireshark file or reverse engineer a binary, but there is someone in the ‘team’ that might know, so the best thing you can do is ask. Over the years, I’ve found that the biggest barrier to making the whole cyber competition scene ‘fun’ is the fear of failure. In this case, it’s the coach’s job to do just that ‘coach’ laugh, joke, and generally be enthusiastic about the learning process. It’s infectious and you’ll probably learn something along the way too!
A Culture of Friendly Competition
Within your team, feeling like the top dog can be great, but it has to be tempered. I like having a team captain whose job it is to lead the team, but from the standpoint of being an “old hand.” This person will serve as someone who might have competed before and someone who can act as an assistant coach so you can focus on the people who really need some help. Meanwhile, in the background, you should encourage team members to try and knock the king of the hill of their throne. Chasing a front runner and the pleasure you get from catching them is REALLY good fun!
A Culture of Unfriendly Competition
Pick a rival and go for them. You don’t have to announce this to the world, but find a team that’s better than you, and then use them as a yard stick. It adds a little edge to any competition.
Hit the gym! One of the greatest facets of the NCL is the gym, being a high school teacher, it’s invaluable for challenges to keep the team members interested prior to competitions. Going over the previous year’s problems, or competitions like PicoCTF, allows you to spend time with the team outside of the heat of competition and also keep them focused with new challenges and new things to learn. This is fun for you, which in turn should be fun for them, (I mean who doesn’t like getting one over on the coach by solving a problem before they do??).
“If you feed them, they will come” – not the actual quote, but it still works; therefore, lots of snacks! An army marches on its stomach; a cyber team competes on coffee, hot chocolate, donuts, and pizza – so keep those snacks rolling.
“Competing in the NCL and other cybersecurity competitions is not only a great learning experience, but it’s a fun experience overall. When competing, I’m able to enjoy time with friends and explore a subject that I’m interested in. I can learn more about the different aspects of cybersecurity and how they can be applied, as well as bounce ideas off of my friends. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy. I always look forward to participating, and since cybersecurity is my intended focus in college and the job market, competing teaches me skills that I’ll utilize for the rest of my life, in a way that keeps me engaged and entertained. Plus, I’d never pass up on an opportunity to eat pizza with my friends and argue over the right way to solve a cryptography challenge.”Quote from High School Junior