Psychological profiling to identify future winners.
by, 25-08-2010 at 07:22 AM (2224 Views)
This story opens with a question: if a new recruit into an NFL franchise will cost them $30-50 million (about £20-33.7 million) over five years, how can the teams making these signings be so sure that they are getting value for money? Look at it another way: when the Miami Dolphins signed Jake Long for $57.5 million last year as first pick in the NFL draft, he was not a proven talent; he was, by definition, a rookie. How did the Dolphins know they had picked the right man?
It was with these questions in mind that UK Sport recently dispatched Chelsea Warr, its Talent ID head, on a fact-finding mission to the United States. And as Warr toured the NFL in search of answers, what struck her more than anything was the extent of the search to identify the kid with the perfect psychological profile.
“We asked, ‘What are you looking for?’ ” Warr explained. “And they talked about perennial overachievers.” They also talked about private investigators being hired to dig deep in the search for underachievement, to go to the players’ home towns, dig up ex-girlfriends, school reports, teachers, friends and enemies.
The NFL employs Milt Ahlerich, a former FBI assistant director, as its head of player investigations. Pete Williams, author of The Draft — A year inside the NFL’s search for talent, followed the Atlanta Falcons for a year and confirmed that “the Falcons employ a former US secret service agent to conduct such character investigations. And that is hardly unusual.”
What Warr, the NFL franchises, or anyone trying to identify talent are attempting to divine is the difference between “thrivers, survivors and decliners”. In the US, Warr stopped off at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, in Florida, and was struck by Friday afternoons — when Bollettieri stands in the middle of the courts, shouts “Go!” and every pair on every court has five minutes to complete a 200-shot rally. She watched the tension rising as rallies neared the 200 mark and afterwards, she saw how those who had failed the test of focus, pressure, concentration — in other words, character — would undergo the standard punishment, a 3½-mile run around Consequence Lake.
How much do we, in this country, understand the psychology of the talented? Warr asked herself this question and on her return, she enrolled online on an NFL scouting course.
Thursday morning, at Sheffield Arena. Warr’s search for talent continues and this is fascinating: a project called Pitch2Podium that seeks to pick up boys who have been in the professional football clubs’ academy system and gone out the other end. On hand as a success story is Matt Elder, who spent five years with Everton, was let go at 18, went through Pitch2Podium last year and has been identified potentially as either a cyclist or a bob skeleton slider.
So here in the arena, over two days, some 80 footballers are being tested — height, weight, speed tests, power tests, etc — to see if they have a different sporting future. Because they have been through years of discipline, physical and skills training, academy footballers are regarded as an unusually high-quality community.
If these boys pass today’s tests, they will be invited back for phase two and somewhere down the line there lies the goal of lottery funding and a fast-track scheme to the Olympics. But while these physical tests represent an indicator to potential, Warr and her team will be simultaneously building, for each of them, a psychological profile, too.
In having had their dreams of professional football dashed, these boys have gone through a process of what is described as “significant bereavement”. Which boys get the golden ticket to another sporting future will hang significantly on which personalities have the capacity to endure the bereavement and then bounce back.
Does this mean that UK Sport now employs private investigators to rifle through the trash? No, but the science of psychology, which already informs the talent identification process, is expected to be used further.
Already lined up down the line for these boys is an interview with a psychologist. “We also build in situations where they are under pressure,” Natalie Dunman, who works on Pitch2Podium, said. “For instance, in canoeing, if it’s absolutely freezing, almost ice on the water, we are still expecting them to get in there and complete the session. Do people give up and say, ‘I’m out of here’ or do they fall out, get back in again and give it another go? We are building up a picture all the time.”
Thus, for those boys who progress, UK Sport will start a file on each of them. There will be sections on their physiology, their skill acquisition and their psychology. And, yes, some time soon it is likely that they will be asked to bring in a school report.
Do not surmise from this, though, that we, in the UK, are in any way lagging behind in the science of psychology and talent ID. We just do it differently. An example of best practice in this country? “The Yehudi Menuhin School of music,” Warr said. “Very impressive, very careful and extensive psychological profiling.”
And it just so happens that at Blackburn Rovers they are so advanced that they have been invited to make presentations as far and wide as the Premier League and Harvard University. At Blackburn, they have a “profiling model” in which boys with the potential to join the academy are assessed and marked in five areas. This involves two questionnaires and an interview process and those boys who do not make the grade are not recruited.
However, Tony Faulkner, the head of the academy medical department, says that a player’s psychological profile is not a fait accompli that he is stuck with for life. At Blackburn, the emphasis is on “brain training to help our kids maximise their potential”. “The mind messes up more performances than the body,” Faulkner said. “If you don’t control your emotions, that will have an effect on your performance.”
To be specific, he cites Phil Jackson, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA, who acknowledges that when his pulse rate goes above 100, his anxiety can affect his decision-making. Likewise, when a player loses his temper — “emotional hijacking” — he explains it is because of a hormonal imbalance. In other words, it is not necessarily personality but the body’s chemistry that catalyses an emotional reaction. So at Blackburn, they coach a “negative automatic thought-stopping process”. Does that mean they could cure Wayne Rooney of emotional hijacking? “You can,” Faulkner said specifically, “control emotional hijacking”.
The point about the NFL, then, is that it is too late to nurture. The NFL franchises get their players once they have finished college. The triumph of the football academy system is that clubs can sign up talent from the age of 8 and let the nurturing begin.
Originally printed in the Times a while back. I thought it may be of interest considering Saints development team under Les Reed.