The value of cognitive testing
How do we go about assessing athletes and more importantly helping them develop and reach their full potential? Of course this varies considerably depending on circumstances – for example, a 10 year old in a football academy compared to the elite Olympian athlete – but the underlying theme should be the same. Physical tests, anthropometric measures, genotype, DNA profiling are all used to predetermine the likely success of a young athlete. However, without discounting the importance of these types of assessment and tests, there is one obvious drawback and that is that all the physical tests in the world can’t tell you how an athlete thinks, what his/her learning style, or anything about his instinct, ambition or leadership abilities. Given that the mental strength of an athlete can make all the difference between success and failure, it is an area that coaches and competitors are keen to know more about.
What is cognitive testing?
In Athletic Insight’s ‘Testing the Relationship Between a Cognitive Ability Test and Player Success: The National Football League Case’, Arthur J. Adams and Frank E. Kuzmits, explain that cognitive testing has long been used as predictors of job performance. He notes that numerous definitions of cognitive ability have been put forward, including the ability to reason, solve problems and understand complex ideas. Another straightforward definition is that it is “the ability to learn”. Therefore it is no surprise that a greater understanding of such concepts can have a bearing on athletic performances Adams and Kuzmits noted.
The development of psychological profiles of athletic success also enhances the development of selection models that assist in choosing successful athletes. In a research review of personnel selection practices in athletics, Humara (2002) found a number of psychological constructs related to various athletic endeavors, including aggression, leadership, coachability, and self-confidence.
Naturally, the challenge was to come up with a test that would help provide the information required and various attempts were made over the years. One of the tests that became popular was the Wonderlic test which was used by the NFL since the 1970s in an effort to measure a player’s ability to think quickly. It was updated in the 1990s to include a personality aspect to the test. Despite its use around this time period, no study has ever shown a positive correlation between the wonderlic results and subsequent performance/success. A 2009 study showed that a player’s wonderlic score whether high or low gave no predictable projection for their eventual productivity as an NFL player with the exception of 2 positions that showed a negative correlation (tight ends and defensive backs).
Player Assessment Tool
In recent times, this test has been replaced by the Player Assessment Tool (PAT) which has been used since 2013 for the NFL draft. Like the Wonderlic test, the aim of the PAT test is to somehow accurately predict player success. The PAT approach, which was developed by Cyrus Mehri, Kenneth Yusko and Harold Goldstein, sees players profiled in the following four ways:
- Football smarts — how quickly they process information.
- Psychological attributes — their works habits, ambition, conscientiousness, etc.
- Learning style — is a player a visual or aural learner, for example.
- Motivational cues — what inspires a player to work and achieve.
The approach may only be in its infancy, but the good news for coaches and athletes is that in the first two years, the results indicate that the correlation between how players perform on the PAT and on the field is stronger than had been anticipated. The proof that this approach has a lot of merit comes from the fact that many NFL groups have been satisfied with the test. Louis Bien warns in ‘How the Player Assessment Tool may save NFL teams from themselves’ that the PAT, is not something that should be done in isolation, but in conjunction with interviewing the player to allow you complete an overall picture. Like all the other aspects that go into preparing an athlete in the hope of getting that competitive edge, cognitive testing is just one more component. As Karen Blockman cautions,
These tests will never capture or perfectly predict performance; they are always limited
However, if any information can be garnered that might ultimately help in the preparation of an athlete or which athlete to select over another, then they have value to coaches and teams.
Benefits in the long term
Jed Hughes in ‘NFL Combine: New Player Assessment Test Examines Prospects’ Psychological Makeup’ sums up the benefits this system may have in the long run.
Coaches and general managers can use this assessment tool to determine the likelihood that the prospect will fit into the system a team currently has in place. This test aims to give clubs a better understanding of an individuals’ behavioral makeup and coachability, and will define if a personality fits into team chemistry and the direction the franchise is pursuing.
He points out that it is a concept that will be embraced by NFL organisations given the importance of drafting well. He highlights the example of Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks who have seen an upturn in fortunes based on successful NFL drafts.
Making accurate assessments of draft choices is critical to sustained success in the National Football League
N.F.L. Tries New Method for Testing Mental Agility by Judy Battista
NFL Combine: New Player Assessment Test Examines Prospects’ Psychological Makeup by Jed Hughes
How the Player Assessment Tool may save NFL teams from themselves by Louis Bien
Testing the Relationship Between a Cognitive Ability Test and Player Success: The National Football League Case by Arthur J. Adams & Frank E. Kuzmits
Integrative Evidence-Based Athlete Assessment and Intervention: A Field-Tested and Validated Protocol by Roland A. Carlstedt
Metrifit is an athlete monitoring system that gathers subjective and objective information from both coaches and athletes in a simple but effective manner with intelligent visualization helping coaches and athletes to act on that data. Why not have a look at our Ready to Perform product and gain insight on the physical and mental state of your athletes through our daily wellbeing questionnaire? To find out more visit our Metrifit Product Overview page or get in touch for a free demo.
Emma Hawke, PhD Exercise Physiology
Coach - Sweden Climbing, Olympic Offensive - Female Coach Swedish Olympic Committee, Senior Lecturer - Coach education programme (Sweden)
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