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Putting draft prospects to the psych test

The Mavericks -- the only NBA team with a full-time sports psychology coach -- operated with ruthless efficiency down the stretch, while the Heat lost a championship to an odd case of acute crunch time passivity from LeBron James.

The era of sports psychology is upon us.

And it is informing the draft. We've known for years that a lot of NBA teams put prospects through pre-draft psychological tests.

Eric Weiss is the director of research and analysis for Sports Aptitude, a firm that he founded with his father, psychologist David Weiss, that has put close to 600 NBA prospects through psychological testing in recent years, on behalf of a list of NBA clients that includes nearly half the league.

You know how a lot of teams that "look good on paper" just don't pan out?

Weiss says some of what happens to make good teams fall apart is stuff that you really can see on paper. But what can you actually see? I got myself tested to find out.

More than identifying stars

Weiss emphasizes that only a part of what his company attempts to do is identify players who are generally likely to succeed. (Although, for the record, he says, players like Arron Afflalo, Tyler Hansbrough and J.J. Hickson tested well, shone in the pre-draft interview and workout process, and have since proven to have been good value picks).

A more refined use of the technology is to learn things like who will wither in a backup role, who will embrace the pressure of being a star, who can play well alongside a big name, and who has psychological traits to succeed in a given role.

The firm's growing database features a number of current NBA stars -- and some teams even ask their retired players working in the front office to take the test to see how their brains work. What that means is that clients can see how prospects' traits like dominance or self-assurance are or are not similar to Derrick Rose, Monta Ellis or any other player in the database.

Testing me

The people at Sports Aptitude were nice enough to let me take the test.

The company's test itself is not public, but if you've ever done a Myers-Briggs personality test (here's a vastly simplified free version) you have gone through something that feels very similar. It takes about 30 minutes, and it happens on a secure part of the Sports Aptitude website. Mostly I remember lots of questions about how aggressively or passively I'd handle different things.

The Sports Aptitude results are expressed all kinds of ways. The report has scores in oodles of categories. Self-assurance, self-confidence -- I rocked those. I'm also, I learned, resourceful, adaptive, emotionally stable, reliable, up front, influential, adventurous, risk-taking, socially bold, and calm under pressure.

However, I could use more than a little work on "takes responsibility," "action-oriented," "high need for achievement" and "self-disciplined."

The bulk of the report focuses on ten traits the firm has identified as Critical Core Dynamics:

  • Team identity

  • Mental toughness

  • Awareness

  • Dominance

  • Internal motivation

  • Leadership potential

  • Adaptability

  • Influence and presence

  • Accepts instruction

  • Resistance to burnout

In each category, the test subject gets a score between zero and ten.

Overall, I guess I did fairly well, with an average score of about five-and-a-half. In addition to "exceptional" mental toughness, I scored "strong" results in "team identity," "dominance," "adaptability," and "influence and presence."

On "leadership potential," "accepts instruction" and "resistance to burnout" my scores were average.

And then we get to my "awareness," where I get a 1.7. Out of ten.

Worth pointing out here that the database suggests the player with mental makeup most like mine is Mario Chalmers. He is the point guard of note on a Finals team. But he's also a player scouts often accuse of not understanding what's happening on the court, and the guy who was reportedly busted with marijuana at the NBA's annual session teaching players to make good decisions.

Yes, I took the test sober.

Internal motivation

Then there was one last Critical Core Dynamic, "internal motivation."

I recognize that, as a human, I'm ill equipped to identify my own personality traits (especially with awareness like mine!) but this internal motivation thing ...

I'll spare you a long list of arguments (Successfully self-employed for more than a decade! Virtually unsupervised as I set an ESPN.com record for most words published in a year and started a blog network!) and point out that I live in the land of harsh Northeast winters, and still get up in the snow and the dark, on short sleep, and run just about every morning of the winter -- even the mornings when every step makes a hole a foot deep in the new-fallen snow and even my dog thinks I'm crazy.

There is no medal for that. But surely there's a halfway decent score for internal motivation.

And yet my "internal motivation" was deemed "weak," at 2.1 out of ten. As in, 78 out of 100 people self-motivate better. Of all my scores, it was among the most extreme -- if you read my full report, this is probably what you'd remember most. (The report identifies my "personality combination" as "complacent/undisciplined/relaxed" which amuses my friends and family.)

Recognizing it'll just sound like sour grapes, nevertheless I'll stick to my guns (don't mess with my mental toughness or self-assurance) and declare that strikes me as inaccurate and misleading -- to the point of making me question the entire affair.

If I were an NBA prospect, and some team were to draft me and treat me like a guy who needs special motivation day in and day out, well, that would probably just creep me out. It's "insight" so wrong as to be potentially harmful.

Tough to be a test

Research in recent years has been hard on the predictive value of testing of all kinds.

Want to know who's going to do well in school next year? I.Q. tests might help a little, but not nearly as much as looking at who did well in school last year. Similarly, the SAT is an endlessly honed, and yet still incredibly blunt instrument when it comes to identifying those who will do well in college, work or, indeed, life.

Want to know who's going to play well in the NBA? Well, there are all those measurements from the draft combine about who can bench press what, who runs the fastest, and how tall everybody is in and out of their shoes. But pore through years of those results and you'll see that successful NBA players are all over the place -- some future All-Stars can bench press a lot, and others almost nothing.

Perhaps you've seen the research showing that job interviews aren't all that helpful in determining who will perform well on the job?

Predicting the future is tough as hell, and any system for doing it is bound to be wrong often. But NBA teams have to do just that anyway, especially at the time of the draft.

As humans, we have this fascination with the idea bringing somebody in for an examination will tell us what we need to know about how they'll perform in the future. But increasingly researchers find that lessons from tests, interviews and the like are not nearly as useful as lessons from months or years of recent past performance.

If you want to know who's going to play basketball well in the future, the best predictor is not who can run this fast or jump that high, but who has played basketball well in the recent past.

As a half-hour test taken in the present and designed to predict the future, the Sports Aptitude exam has its work cut out for it. It is further challenged by being a personality test. They are common in the American workplace, but evidence suggests this is a particularly tough nut to crack, which makes sense as we are only beginning to understand the nuance of how the human brain really works.

Personality tests have been mired in controversy for decades. See the "validity" and "reliability" sections of this Wikipedia entry on one of the most widely deployed personality tests.

The core assumptions are that permanent personality characteristics exist, show up on tests and predict future behavior. All three of those ideas are controversial, but especially the ability of a test to isolate what's important.

Upon retaking the Myers-Briggs test, according to one study, 39-76 percent of people are classified with a different personality than the first time they took it. (No such data exists for the Sports Aptitude test I took.)

Think about that.

Messy

In the end, thinking about NBA executives poring over personality test results this week, my key thought is: this is messy.

Not that the report is messy, it's not. It's incredibly organized, with nice colorful bar graphs and scores with decimal points to the nearest tenth.

What's messy is us. For all the tidy precision expressed by such a report, the human mind is all over the place.

Today The New York Times published a rudimentary diagram showing how a worm thinks. Even though it's a worm, for crying out loud, this is the most complex thing you'll see in a major American newspaper all year -- because it's an attempt to be clear about something really complex.

Of course, our human brains are vastly more intricate still. Maybe every tidy report is doomed to miss, at least a little.

There is no final word, and there isn't likely to be one anytime soon -- not on human personalities.

But there are tests, and discussion to be had. We know some stuff. Plenty of people find personality tests helpful, swear by them even, and as conversation starters or tools for self-examination, who could argue?

I am convinced Sports Aptitude whiffed on some elements of my personality.

But the broader exercise -- including talking to experts about tests, getting friends and family to weigh in on my personality, and writing this blog post -- has been enlightening and helpful, if not tidy.

And in my experience, that's just how the truth really is -- more than a little messy.