Is Finding the Next Tom Brady a Matter of Psychological Testing?
Each year, hundreds of college football players gather at the National Football League (NFL) scouting combine for a week of rigorous physical testing, performed in front of the league’s coaches, general managers, and scouts. Implications of an athlete’s performance at the combine can ultimately determine their future in professional football, and implications of each team’s assessment of draft choices can have a major impact on the organization’s future direction and success in the league (4).
What exactly are teams looking for? What makes a player great, and how can one identify the skills, qualities, and characteristics that contribute to this greatness in the context of the combine? These are the kinds of questions Cyrus Mehri, Harold Goldstein, and Kenneth Yusko set out to answer when they devised the Player Assessment Tool (PAT), which was introduced at the 2013 NFL combine (3). The PAT is a psychological assessment designed to determine and quantify the nebulous qualities believed to make the most successful players (2).
The PAT is not the first attempt by the NFL to include psychological testing in the combine. Since the 1970s, the NFL has included a standardized psychological measure of intelligence and cognitive ability called the Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT) (2). Although the validity and reliability of the WPT has been established in employment settings, the test does not appear to have utility in professional football (1). Furthermore, several concerns have been raised about its use. For example, there has been some evidence of the test being biased against test-takers from lower socio-economic backgrounds (4, 5), and of it being useful only for specific positions (2, 3, 5).
In light of this criticism, Mehri pitched the idea of the PAT, a football-specific psychological test, to the NFL. Upon receiving the green light, Mehri, Goldstein & Yusko set out to devise an unbiased, holistic test to give teams a clearer insight into a broader range of players (2, 3, 5). First, they asked a group of NFL general managers what qualities they wanted in a player and came up with 16 aspects thought to be predictors of NFL success (2). Based on this broad range of qualities, the PAT was designed to measure both cognitive and non-cognitive ability, as it pertains to football, by assessing players in 4 domains: football smarts (e.g. how quickly they process information), psychological attributes (e.g. work habits, ambition, motivation), learning style (e.g. is the player a visual or aural learner?), and motivational cues (e.g. what inspires a player to work and achieve) (3). The test is also structured to reduce the benefit of prior knowledge, which may account for cultural differences in test results (3).
Although it is unlikely that any test will perfectly predict performance, preliminary validation studies have shown a stronger-than-expected correlation between how players perform on the PAT and their performance on the field (3). Furthermore, many NFL teams have already made use of the results, requesting detailed summaries to better inform coaches about how to get the most out of their athletes (3). Although optimistic, this evidence is still preliminary. In order to determine the test’s true ability to predict whether a combine athlete is indeed the next Tom Brady, the first class of players to take the test will need more time to develop in their NFL careers.
(1) Adams, A. J., & Kuzmits, F. E. (2008). Testing the relationship between a cognitive ability test and player success: The National Football League case. Athletic insight, 10(1).
(2) Battista, J. (2013). N.F.L. Tries New Method for Testing Mental Agility. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/22/sports/football/nfl-introduces-new-way-to-test-a-players-mental-agility.html.
(3) Bien, Louis. (2015). How the Player Assessment Tool may save NFL teams from themselves. Retrieved on March 16, 2016, from http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2015/3/19/8181301/2015-nfl-draft-player-assessment-tool-wonderlic-scores.
(4) Bell, J. (2013). Watch out Wonderlic, there’s a new combine test in town. Retrieved on March 16, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2013/02/17/nfl-combine-aptitude-test/1926409/.
(5) Howard, Johnette. (2013). NFL Draft 2.0. Retrieved on March 16, 2016, from http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/8970979/nfl-improving-wonderlic-test.