Measuring the Immeasurable at the NFL Combine

Each spring, the top NFL prospects flock to Indianapolis to go through the most grueling and intense eight day event of their young lives. With NFL coaches, general managers, and scouts poking, prodding and looking under every rock to find the next diamond in the rough, it can be an stressful week for 20 to 23 year old kids. With their hopes of playing in the NFL clinging to their performance in Indianapolis, they know they have to be ready to perform when their name is called. So who do these future NFL stars look to in order help them manage their eventful time in Indianapolis? Psychologists. That’s not the end of how psychologists find their way into the NFL Combine either.

With the immense pressure that the combine brings, players have learned that the mind is a key aspect in their preparation. Not only do these elite athletes value and use the mental aspect of performance to their advantage, but NFL teams, coaches, general managers, and scouts are all finding ways to incorporate psychologists into their scouting and draft process. I spoke with Dr. Justin Anderson of Premier Sport Psychology about the role some psychologists in the NFL and the the Minnesota native had this to say:

I think more and more NFL teams are recognizing that they have to measure for the mental side of sport because it is differentiator. The talent at the NFL Combine and in the NFL is so great with the fraction of differences between somebody who is drafted in the first round and somebody who is drafted in the 7th round is very, very small. The differences in the players that make it and get beyond that rookie contract and the average 2.7 years for an NFL player is the mind. Coaches and front office know that is the case and what they’re starting to recognize too is that there are professionals out there that can help them make those determinant decisions on whether this person has that “it” factor or not. The field of psychology and sport psychology in general has done a better job of getting information and organizing information in ways which are helpful for these teams. Coaches used to think they could do that, but now they’re leaning on specialists to do that, much like coaches used to think they could do the strength and conditioning, and they can, many times coaches are really great at motivating and understanding whether these guys got it, assessing talent and stuff. They were also really great at developing muscles and getting guys in shape, but there also is another level, and that’s where sports psychologists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches all come in.

With the combine being imminently focused on the physical aspect and as drills have become a popular measuring stick for the athletes, its difficult to see that the mental aspect is measured at the NFL Combine as well. Dr. Anderson has been a key contributor for professional teams teams in their interview and draft process as the organization looks to find out more about their desired prospect. The nationally renowned psychologist explains, “There are several different ways that psychologists are involved in professional drafts. One is they often have assessments, whether they have IQ assessments, personality assessments, or some cognitive or learning styles assessments. At the NFL Combine, there is a whole testing section of the Crowne Plaza (a hotel in Indianapolis) where the athletes will go and different teams will have athletes that they want.” Many times, the psychologists will lead these assessment sessions, gather the data from the prospect, and put the information in a profile assessment giving the organization all the necessary information that the psychologist could gather.

These different assessments are extremely valuable for the team as the develop their draft board and look for potential fits into their system and culture. With IQ, personality, and learning assessments, an organization can learn more about a player than ever before. Personality assessments allow an organization to value how a player may resolve conflict or how they address adversity, which is key when a roster of 53 players can be thrown for a loop when one individual decides to cause problems. Along with personality tests, learning tests can give coaches insight to how prospects best take in their information. If a team relies heavily on reviewing game and practice film to learn from mistakes, a player that learns best through first hand trial and error and many repeated reps may not be the best fit for the team. A poor fit between a player and a system or coaching/learning style could be a direct reason for a player being dubbed a “bust” years down the line. While this may be viewed as underperforming it is possible that the “bust” just hasn’t been utilized properly by the staff. These assessments serve as a way to avoid these types of scenarios for not only the teams, but also the players.

As psychologists become more and more apart of the front office’s draft prep, they have a bigger hand in the draft preparations. This allows them to become more involved in the interview process. The co-founder of Premier Sport Psychology elaborated stating, “Psychologists will be in there to observe and just make notes about where this guy falls in some of those it factors determined by the front office and/or the coaching staff of what they are looking for. Other times it is to ask questions.”

The interview process can be a grueling and intense affair as organizations look to find any reason to reconsider their interest in the athlete. With athletes potentially doing dozens of interviews within the limited time at the NFL Combine, it can become tedious, but detrimental to the athletes to stay focused and prepared for these conversations.

Houston Texans head coach, Bill O’Brien explained what goes down in a typical NFL Combine interview during his press conference this year in Indianapolis. The Texans’ coach explained in an interview with Texans Radio, “It’s only 15 minutes” and he continued with, “I’ll watch tape with the guy and just try to gauge his knowledge of his own system that he played in college,” O’Brien said. Along with the psychologists, there may be a handful of individuals in the room during the interview. The head coach, general manager, scouts, and position coaches may all have their chance to ask questions to the athlete during this 15-minute window. O’Brien explained during his presser that they have done their homework on a the player if they’ve gotten to the interview with the team. The team will ask background questions and try to gauge the player as a person because they know the scouts invested time researching the prospect through film and other ways of evaluating their onfield talent (Houston Texans). If you want to hear Bill O’Brien’s full press conference, click here.  

When talking about NFL Combine and the interview process, the topic of absurd and unbelievable questions always comes to the table. As the mental side has become more and more popular among teams, these puzzling questions have become more popular. But they have their purpose as Dr. Anderson explains, “Often times that question is to just see how athletes respond to a challenge, how they deal with not knowing or trying to solve something impossible or absurd. It’s not the question of itself that people are looking at.” As Dr. Anderson alluded to, each year there are a handful of stories where the a prospect is questioned during an interview about an absurd topic that makes fans and prospects puzzled. In years past we have seen players questioned about their sexuality, their choice of murder weapon, and other questions that have nothing to do with football, but those have their purpose as Dr. Anderson hinted towards.

With the NFL Combine all wrapped up and all eyes look forward to April’s 2019 NFL Draft, all the prospects can do is sit and wait for their name to be called. In the meantime, coaches, scouts, and general managers, all look to to the help of sport psychologists as they look to find the NFL’s next hidden gem.

See Dr. Anderson was featured as apart of the NFL Network’s Undrafted with Upper Iowa Peackock QB Cole Jaeschke:

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