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Human Performance | May 9, 2016
Brad Steger, CoachMePlus

An article by Brad Steger 

Paul DePodesta is one of true pioneers of Moneyball sports with his baseball front office work at Oakland, Los Angeles and New York. He recently said that one difference between professional baseball and professional football is that many more undrafted free agents succeed in football compared to baseball. He told Dan LeBatard on his radio show that for his new job in football with the Cleveland Browns he was going to look at why.

Any conclusion he reaches is going to be multi-faceted, bound to involve a complex supply-demand dynamic between individual athletes and teams. The athletes work to improve themselves in ways that boost teams’ demand for them, while teams crunch data attempting to comprehend the supply of players available.

The stakes are high for teams picking players who will have multi-million dollar contracts. The game of football is already complex, and the job of evaluating unproven talent adds still more variables. It is difficult to see where the systematic analysis stops and the guessing begins.

For potential NFL draftees, however, the path to draft selection is simple in comparison. The interim between the end the college football season and the NFL draft (starts April 28) is time to get ready for on-campus pro day workouts and, for some, the NFL combine in Indianapolis (begins February 23).

Athletes and Their Trajectories

The combine tests (40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, 20- and 60-yard shuttle runs) are what the athletes need to prepare for, often enlisting training experts to help them learn and improve the techniques that will lead to top performances.

The short prep window and the financial payoff for building skill that lead to strong combine performance puts these athlete in a unique psychological state. There is pressure to maximize potential that builds anxiety for the high-stakes athletic tests, a situation much like the standardized SAT tests that college-bound teenagers take.

These athletes are also living, breathing examples of embodied cognition, what psychologists call it when the body helps the brain to do mental work. Here, the more that a young draftable football player can commit their in-training combine skills to neuro-muscular memory, the more likely that they will reach their performance goals.

And because the anxiety-afflicted brain and the locked-in neuro-muscular system are connected, these mental and physical tasks are also linked. Things can get complicated as a result. Anxiety can compromise athletic performance. Athletes who can effectively simulate their real-event anxiety can get better practice, making them more likely for maximum performances despite the anxiety-induced physiological changes.

Athletes who can effectively simulate their real-event anxiety can get better practice, making them more likely for maximum performances despite the anxiety-induced physiological changes.

The early-January to late-February time window is enough time to get something meaningful accomplished, but significant gains only materialize with focus and energetic effort. Athletes come into the process with different starting points in terms of their combine awareness and their athletic development, and combine prep will improve both. Another critical variable is the athletes’ genes, which affect their response to training and their ability to absorb complex information.

Teams generally can check out game film to see and assess all of the potential draftees and establish Point A for establishing a player’s development trajectory. The NFL combine provides a second data point for players that make a viable Point B. The way the NFL combine and draft work now, a players’ journey from Point A to Point B has become a useful, but imperfect proxy, for projecting the trajectory a young football player will progress along, moving from college to combine and then to a possible professional future in the NFL.

The best cases, the athletes who make the greatest gains in the combine prep window, would seem to have everything: focus, effort, and a disposition for advancing mentally and physically. They will also have proven capable of responding positively under pressure. The evidence shows which combine athletes have brains and bodies that are fused in a way that should lead to NFL-caliber performance.

Any football player at age 20 will inevitably become a different sort of player at age 21. Training and injury shape athletic development. Teammates, practice and coaching inform football development. Athletic advances enable new, previously impossible football skills to emerge. Playing experience leads to situational insights, ready to apply in practice and in games. Life experience will affect personal development.

Consider Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College (student population: 2400) was selected 61st in the 2015 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the highest a D-III player has ever been drafted. Marpet showed exceptional athleticism in his combine testing (4.98 40-yard dash, 4.47 shuttle run) and played well in the Senior Bowl all-star game. He also spent four years attending a top-tier liberal arts college after going unrecruited out of high school. Marpet’s football trajectory was established during his pre-draft testing period. He had the potential ceiling to have a long NFL career.

A top pro prospect can just as see his trajectory spiral downward. Teddy Bridgewater was in the conversation for the first pick of the entire 2014 draft, one reason he chose not to throw footballs for scouts at his NFL pre-draft combine. Instead his school, the University of Louisville hosted a pro day workout, where his throws fluttered and missed targets, over and over. Draft expert Mike Mayock called it the worst pro day he could remember. Bridgewater was selected at pick number 32, the last pick of the first round, by the Vikings.

Personal and athletic development move along longer term learning and growth paths, but the combine presents a major, high-stakes life event with all of its accompanying stress. Stress-related anxiety has been shown to impair mental and athletic performance. Remedies come in the form of familiarization, realistically rehearsing the test experience, and mindset, adopting the outlook that the stress is rewarding makes an athlete more likely to thrive under the pressure.

Adopting the outlook that the stress is rewarding makes an athlete more likely to thrive under the pressure.

Mastering the biggest moments of competition is prerequesite for reaching the highest levels of competitive excellence, delineating who’s good, who’s great and who gets a bust in the Hall of Fame. It’s important to realize that projecting athlete performance trajectories is far from exact science. The reason for the variability has everything to do with how the brain works, and the brain’s inherent variability.

Stress responses are executed in the brain’s front cortex while the anticipatory learned responses involved with catching, blocking and tackling in top-level football take place deeper in the brain, in the cerebellum. Still other parts of the brain govern the often-unconscious interactions with other people, friend and foe. Self-regulating these interconnected brain functions is what turns raw athleticism into successful playmaking within a collaborative team framework.

The gains that an athlete makes with their explosiveness, topline speed and change of direction are so simple in comparison to the actual game of football that they are poor proxies, but they are the tests that the players take and the teams use. Much of the downside risk in assessing NFL draft talent comes in gauging how well, or how poorly, a young player will integrate the combined mental and physical demands that professional football requires.

The practice of assessing talent is poised to change as psychological variables come on-line. Data analysts paint one picture with numbers for speed, wingspan, body-fat percentage, sacks, yards-after-catch and every other number at hand. Scouts get to offer a more nuanced outlook and talk in terms of makeup, maturity and motor. As performance psychology continues to improve its understanding of embodied cognition, the talent projections for teams that buy into the science should become more accurate (though never perfect).

The same science that will help teams can also help the players, by giving them an optimal age window to undergo combine testing and draft participation. Realistically, if teams can get good at calculating young players’ future development trajectories the young players should also be able to identify the right time, given their physical and mental performance and potential, to maximize whatever professional football upside they possess.

Realistically, if teams can get good at calculating young players’ future development trajectories the young players should also be able to identify the right time, given their physical and mental performance and potential, to maximize whatever professional football upside they possess.

There’s an argument to make that a 19- or 20-year old who is a physical specimen, an elite athlete who has progressed beyond college football, he might benefit from waiting to enter the NFL. It’s an athlete who would gain little or nothing from continuing to play NCAA football but who would put themselves on a much better pro development trajectory with additional life experience and personal development.

The sports sabbatical seems like an unlikely prospect considering the financial reward that an athlete get after establishing himself as an NFL-quality football player. The case of someone as young as a potential NFL draftee postponing a multi-million dollar income in order to improve their cognitive and social ability is almost without precedent.

Tyrann Mathieu, the Arizona Cardinals defense back, might be one of the closest cases to a sports sabbatical. He was dismissed from the LSU football team a few weeks before the team began its 2012 season for violating team rules. Later that fall he was arrested for marijuana possession. Eventually he chose to enter the 2013 NFL draft and was selected 69th by the Arizona Cardinals. This past season he dominated, earning first team All-Pro despite tearing his ACL late in the season.

Teams and Their Funnels

Player development is a trajectory for the athlete, but for the team, player development is a funnel. More athletes get looks at the top of the funnel than come out the bottom with professional football jobs. One reason for the fast progression from college season to combine prep to pro rookie camp is to make sure a young athlete gets on, and stays on the list of young talents with pro potential.

So why do undrafted free agents make it in football more often than in baseball? It has everything to do with the funnel and what young football players experience as they move through it.

Baseball’s minor leagues, as well as its winter pro leagues, are a wide, wide mouth at the top of that sport’s player development funnel. The NFL has Arena and Canadian football as early-career pro alternatives. Both leagues only approximate NFL football and neither is a true feeder system. There is less information and more risk at every decision-making step of the NFL football development funnel compared to MLB.

Pro football makes it easy for marginal talents to wash out. The ones who stick long enough to have the chance bloom late are self-selecting. They stick around even after getting cut and put out of the game. Holding a grudge can help these guys. Motivation to prove teams and scouts wrong after a poor combine showing, a draft day disappointment or a miscalculated development trajectory can get a borderline player through the disappointment and the confidence-killing days that push lesser mortals to surrender their dreams.

Motivation to prove teams and scouts wrong after a poor combine showing, a draft day disappointment or a miscalculated development trajectory can get a borderline player through the disappointment and the confidence-killing days that push lesser mortals to surrender their dreams.

Strong-armed quarterbacks, so crucial to winning NFL football, are a sticky exception to the development funnel. Deep, accurate throws in the face of fast-rushing, sack-minded defenders are an obvious key that unlocks huge advantages for an NFL offense.

Ryan Mallett is an example of a quarterback who has won the genetic lottery and possesses true NFL arm strength. The first round arm became a third round pick (to the Patriots, number 74) in the 2011 NFL draft because teams lacked confidence in Mallett’s off-field focus. It was widely felt that Mallett failed to adequately address concerns about his 2009 arrest for public intoxication as a University of Arkansas student.

Mallett has spent five season climbing depth charts. He moved from third string to second string with the Patriots in his first three seasons, then from second string to first string after his trade to the Houston Texans. His time at starting QB for the Texans was not at all successful. Poor performances by Mallett were a major part of the team’s 1-4 start. Brian Hoyer replaced Mallett for the next game against Jacksonville, a 31-20 Texans win. Mallett missed the team’s flight to Miami on October 25 and was released by Houston two days later. The Texans would finish the season on a 7-2 run.

Mallett would get picked up by the Ravens in mid-December after lots of due diligence by the Baltimore front office. He started, played superbly and led the team to a 20-17 upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 27. “The risk is still out there,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told ESPN after the season. “We all have those issues — every player, every coach. There are always things that can happen, but you would hope and pray that Ryan is to the point in his life where he has realized there are things more important than the things that were bringing him down before.”

The season ahead with Baltimore is going to be crucial for Mallett. “I feel part of the family, but I have a lot to prove in my own eyes, and probably a lot of other people’s eyes,” he told Jon Meoli from the Baltimore Sun in January.

Technology to Sort It Out

The rise of analytics and sports science in football makes talent identification and player development more and more of a numbers problem, both in terms of the player’s development trajectory and the team’s funnel for managing developing players. Teams that succeed will have better systems for financial risk management that merge and blend with systems for athlete management than competitors. The task comes down to managing complex data with software and effectively collaborating with the data and interfaces across the organization.

Teams that succeed will have better systems for financial risk management that merge and blend with systems for athlete management than competitors.

For all of the drama that the combine and draft process delivers the real drama behind NFL team-building will be going on in the technology backrooms, like the one Paul DePodesta is running in Cleveland.

 

CoachMePlus provides an applied sports science software platform designed to meet the needs of athletic trainers, front office professionals, and strength and conditioning coaches. CoachMePlus was founded in 2012 to meet the demands of the increasingly sophisticated sports performance industry, and it continues to transform the management of athletic performance data. Information from the CoachMePlus system integrates with data from third party wearable technology, measurement devices, and game data feeds. By rapidly building customized solutions for each team, CoachMePlus has become the standard for teams across the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, MLS, CFL, NCAA, NCAA D3, and military. CoachMePlus is headquartered in Buffalo, NY with offices in New York City.

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