As the money for contracts to recently drafted professional athletes continues to increase, the necessity to predict future performance becomes even more critical. Millions of dollars are given to top draft picks in the major professional sports leagues to snare the most coveted of prospects. The goal for front office officials is to correctly identify those young athletes that will become superstars, and just as importantly, to identify and stay far away from the young studs that will never pan out.
In recent years many professional sports organizations have expanded their scouting departments. While many of them still rely heavily on statistics of past performances for their projections, a large majority of them are now realizing the necessity to assess mental skills in addition to performance and physical attributes. Speed, strength, agility, height, and other athletic characteristics are much easier to measure than mental toughness and leadership capabilities. So how does a coaching, scouting, and/or front office staff begin to identify some of they key mental attributes that are associated with peak performances?
The Philadelphia 76ers basketball team recently took part in the NBA draft just a few weeks ago. Their participation was the culmination of intense strategizing and evaluating over the last year. For the last 14 of those years the 76ers have employed the director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Center City, Joel Fish, as the team’s staff psychologist. In preparation for this year’s draft, Fish was given the duty to evaluate the mental makeup of all the 76ers potential draft picks.
This excerpt from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 28, 2012 sheds some light on Mr. Fish’s duties leading up to draft day:
"The NBA is not a lightbulb league," Fish said. "If you've got some gaps in your personality, it's not like a lightbulb goes on because all of a sudden you are in the NBA. In fact, in my experience, if there are some issues there with the player, under the increased stress of the NBA, those patterns can get worse."
After the Sixers worked out Illinois center Meyers Leonard on Tuesday, Fish spent about an hour with the 7-foot-1 center. He gave Leonard a standardized test designed to determine his mental toughness, competitive nature, willingness to be coached, and people skills.
The other 30 minutes of the interview included a series of situational questions to give the Sixers an idea of how the player might respond under stressful conditions on and off the court.
Fish then submits a report to the Sixers that is used as part of the player's profile.
"He plays a big role," said Tony DiLeo, the Sixers' senior vice president of basketball operations. "We have all the info that we need to know about a player from a basketball standpoint, but we can't pinpoint what's inside.
"If there are a lot of red flags that Joel has identified, yes, it will probably prevent us from taking a player," DiLeo said.
As a certified sport psychology consultant, I can give some insight on what it is that Joel Fish and other professional team psychologists may be looking for in their search for future elite athletes. While there may be no universal definition of what “mental toughness” actually is, we do know that there are key mental skills found in most peak athletic performers. These areas include:
- A very high level of self-belief, also commonly referred to as confidence.
- An internal desire to succeed and improve, also commonly referred to as motivation.
- An ability to maintain focus in any situation, regardless of distractions or setbacks.
An attempt to measure these areas can prove to be difficult even through questionnaires, interviews, and observations. Therefore it is often beneficial for coaches or scouts to use a psychological skills inventory. This type of assessment evaluates the use of the skills that can have an effect on the previously mentioned areas of mental toughness. Often times the skills that are measured in these inventories include assessing the athlete’s use of proper self talk, goal setting, imagery use, and relaxation strategies.
As a coach, athlete, or parent, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings on how mental skills assessments can be best used to attempt to predict athletic success. My goal for future blog posts will be to expand on how proper assessment of mental skills can be achieved, as well as how to develop these skills. Any suggestions or requests are much appreciated for my future blog posts.
Source: Mitchell, John. "Psychologist gives Sixers a complete picture of prospects." Philadelphia Inquirer. N.p., 28 June 2012. Web.