Recent incidents with Ray Rice, Josh Gordon, and Adrian Peterson remind us that there’s more to an NFL player than freakish athletic ability. These cases represent a disturbing trend in recent seasons in which player character issues overshadow on-field performance. With the NFL draft looming, the recent rash of off-the-field issues is also a sober reminder that teams need better ways of measuring who players really are. With this premise in mind, we searched the psychological literature to find important (and more relevant) tests that the NFL could use to better assess player potential.
1. Grit: Perhaps the quintessential component for any player driven to win a Super Bowl, grit is an individual’s passion to pursue a long term goal. Research has shown that West Point cadets were more likely to graduate the back-breaking, 47-month military training if they maintained a high level of grit4. If NFL teams are looking for future players who will sustain effort over the long term, look no further than grit.
2. Transformational leadership: Transformational leadership (TL) is characterized by four behaviors: acting as an example to teammates, being optimistic and enthusiastic, encouraging creativity and innovation, and respecting teammates’ unique capabilities5. Research has demonstrated that TL is linked to increases in follower well-being, which in turn increases team motivation, health, and commitment. TL also contributes to on- and off-field performance6, meaning that transformational leaders are better at performing football-specific tasks and being good locker-room guys7.
3. Communication style/skill, etc: “Z-right high, toss power trap — New York bozo, on three.” Not always verbal, and not always in the huddle, communication is critical to working successfully in a group. In this context, communication style is the characteristic way people send verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal signals in social interactions8. Communication skill reveals how a person wants to appear to others, how they tend to relate to others, and how others should interpret their messages. Players high in communication skill can better express themselves without potentially dangerous emotional outbursts and facilitate growth within themselves and their teammates.
4. Self-regulation: Psychologists define self-regulation as the effortful control of external behavior and internal thoughts, emotions, and attention — all in the service of meeting long-term goals9. Increased self-regulation helps align intentions and goals (e.g., I want to eat well and work out everyday this offseason) with actual behavior. In the context of sports, research shows that self-regulation is related to increased performance and investment in the game and practice. NFL players’ ability to objectively assess their strengths and weaknesses, create a plan to improve themselves, and execute is imperative to their long term career success.
5. Passion: Not just the stuff of soap operas, passion is defined as a strong inclination toward an activity that an individual likes, finds important, and invests their time and energy. Players’ passion can be characterized in one of two ways: Harmonious passion (HP) is an innate desire to engage in an enjoyable activity; in other words, HP is the internally driven “for the love of the game”. Obsessive Passion (OP), on the other hand, is externally driven by fear of failure or a desire for acceptance or praise. Determining the type of passion that drives a player could distinguish those who truly love the game from those playing for fame and fortune. Though research has linked both HP and OP to players’ practice behaviors, only HP promotes healthy adaptation, higher levels of subjective well-being, and greater skill mastery. OP predicts undesirable player behaviors including a fear of failure, or playing not to lose, which is related to poor performance10
6. Mental toughness: Mental toughness is the innate or learned ability to maintain and thrive under pressure11. Research shows that being mentally tough enables a person to remain calm in demanding situations, and cope with stress constructively. It allows a person to stay determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure. Mental toughness could play an especially pronounced role in the success of quarterbacks who lead game-winning drives — like Peyton Manning, who happens to lead the league in this feat (category).
7. Athletic identity: Athletic identity is the degree to which people incorporate their role as athletes into their self-conception12. Recent studies have shown that having a strong athletic identity is related to healthy moral development13, the ability to transition fluidly through career phases14 (e.g., transitioning from college to the NFL), and overall competitiveness15.
8. Growth mindset: Arguably one of the most important aspects of sport is how an individual responds to failure or loss. Having a growth mindset allows a person to positively respond to adversity by doubling down on learning, adaptation, and improvement. As author Carol Dweck says, “[Growth mindset] is character, heart, the mind of a champion. It’s what makes great athletes… [it’s a] focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility (p. 107)16.
9. Conscientiousness: If only the Browns had measured Johnny Manziel’s conscientiousness before they drafted him. Conscientiousness is defined as the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be goal directed, to plan, and to be able to delay gratification. Those higher in conscientiousness show healthier behavior17, motivation to learn after performance feedback, and earn higher supervisory ratings18
10. Cohesiveness: Or, team chemistry as some like to call it, is the tendency of a group to stick together in pursuit of a common goal19. Several studies have shown that cohesiveness is positively related to team performance20. Cohesiveness is not a trait; the need to belong is a fundamental human attribute21. In this sense, measuring cohesiveness assesses a players’ likelihood of positively contributing to a cohesive team.
1 Dallas Cowboys were the first to do so in the 1970s.↩
3 Created by Harold Goldstein, professor of psychology at Baruch College and Cyrus Mehri, a Washington lawyer↩
4 Kelly, D.R., Mathews, M.D., & Bartone, P.T. (2014). Grit and hardiness as predictors of performance among West Point cadets. Military Psychology. 26(4), 327-342.↩
5 Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.; Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. (2006). Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.), Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.↩
6 Dvir, T., Eden, D., Avolio, B. J., & Shamir, B. (2002). Impact of transformational leadership on follower development and performance: A field experiment. Academy of Management Journal, 45(4), 735-744.↩
7 Yusof, A. (1998). The relationship between transformational leadership behaviors of athletic directors and coaches’ job satisfaction. Physical Educator, 55, 170-175↩
8 De Vries, R. E., Bakker-Pieper, A., Alting Siberg, R., Van Gameren, K., & Vlug, M. (2009). The content and dimensionality of communication styles. Communication Research, 36, 178-206.↩
9 Wagner, D. D., & Heatherton, T. F. (2015). Self-regulation and its failure: The seven deadly threats to self-regulation. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, E. Borgida, J. A. Bargh, M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, … J. A. Bargh (Eds.), APA handbook of personality and social psychology, Volume 1: Attitudes and social cognition (pp. 805-842). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. ↩
10 Vallerand, R. J. (2008). On the psychology of passion: In search of what makes people’s lives most worth living. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49, 1-13. ↩
11 Gucciardi, D. F., Hanton, S., Gordon, S., Mallett, C. J., & Temby, P. (2015). The concept of mental toughness: Tests of dimensionality, nomological network, and traitness. Journal Of Personality, 83, 26-44. ↩
12 Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or Achilles heel? International Journal Of Sport Psychology, 24, 237-254.↩
13 Proios, M. (2013). Athletic identity and social goal orientations as predictors of moral orientation. Ethics & Behavior, 23, 410-424. ↩
15 Tuŝak, M., Faganel, M., & Bednarik, J. (2005). Is athletic identity an important motivator?. International Journal Of Sport Psychology, 36, 39-49.↩
16 Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindset the new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.↩
17 Bogg, T., & Roberts, B. W. (2004). Conscientiousness and health-related behaviors: a meta-analysis of the leading behavioral contributors to mortality. Psychological bulletin, 130(6), 887.↩
18 Barrick, M. R., Mount, M. K., & Strauss, J. P. (1993). Conscientiousness and performance of sales representatives: Test of the mediating effects of goal setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78(5), 715.↩
19 Carron, A.V., Bray, S.R., & Eys, M.A. (2002). Team Cohesion and Team Success in Sport. Journal of Sports Sciences. 20(2). 119-126. ↩
20 Carron, A. V., Colman, M. M., Wheeler, J., & Stevens, D. (2002). Cohesion and performance in sport: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 24, 168 – 188. ; Stevens, D. (2002). Cohesion and Performance in Sport: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 24. 168-188.↩
21 Carron, A.V. & Brawley, L.R. (2012). Cohesion: Conceptual and Measurement Issues. Small Group Research. 43(6), 726 – 743. ↩
22 Credit for photos: Leonard Williams (http://grantland.com/the-triangle/a-few-nfl-draft-prospects-to-keep-an-eye-on-this-college-football-season/)↩
23 Credit for photos: Brandon Sherff (http://distinctathlete.com/2014/10/5-nfl-draft-prospects-jets-fans-should-already-be-watching/)↩
24 Credit for photos: Danny Shelton (http://www.footballsfuture.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?p=17330171)↩
25 Credit for photos: Eric Kendricks (http://ky.sporttu.com/athletes/eric-kendricks-2275651/images)↩
26 Credit for photos: Marcus Mariota (http://www.sikids.com/blogs/2014/08/27/college-football-preview-2014-heisman-contender-marcus-mariota-has-oregon-thinking-)↩