Golf Sabermetrics Promises Antidote to Choking Over That Putt

First there was sabermetrics, using deep statistical analysis to predict athletic success. Now, get ready for mental analytics.

“That’s the next frontier,” San Francisco 49ers President Paraag Marathe said in an interview. “The spread in physical talent is so narrow. The spread in psychological, mental capacity, aptitude, all that, that’s so wide.”

The question is how to figure out who will lead and who will choke; whose mental composition is best suited for Sunday’s back nine of the Masters. Marathe and several startups are trying to figure that out.

Paul Rabil, a two-time Major League Lacrosse Most Valuable Player, is a member of the sports advisory board at MC10, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company whose stated goal is to make humans more superhuman by making high-performance electronics virtually invisible, conformal and wearable, thereby enabling measurable in-competition biometrics like brain activity, body temperature and heart rate.

While MC10’s products predominantly measure the body, Rabil said the “holy grail” for athletes is finding a way to replicate that unstoppable moment that all athletes have experienced -- in layman’s terms, being in the zone.

“Strength and conditioning, flexibility and balance and nutrition are evolving,” he said. “The next logical step is mental preparation.”

Marathe, who holds a master’s degree in business from Stanford University, declined to provide specifics of how he is using mind analytics at his National Football League team, showing concern other franchises would seek to copy San Francisco’s methods. “Hence my answer to you was very vague,” he said.

MC10’s Director of Sports Isaiah Kacyvenski, an eight-year NFL veteran with a cum laude pre-medicine degree from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said his brain, not brawn, kept him in professional football.

‘Fringe Player’

“Physically, I was a fringe player,” said Kacyvenski, holder of an MBA from Harvard Business School. “To last eight years, there was this arbitrage opportunity to separate myself by having this mental acuity. Let’s make intangibles something we can measure. That’s unlocking the next piece that Paraag and other general managers would like to see.”

University of Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez has only recently been a convert of studying the mind as well as the muscles. His offense fancies a breakneck pace that requires his players to not only think fast but learn fast, too.

One of the team’s first-year quarterbacks -- Rodriguez wouldn’t name names -- wasn’t digesting the traditional Xs and Os, dash-lined white-board tutorials as quickly as his teammates.

“But when he’s on the field taking reps, his progress is quick,” said Rodriguez, whose offense ran 2.78 plays-per-minute last season, 15th-quickest in the nation. “We know he can get it, but he just learns it better this way.”

Analytics Pioneer

The experience has made somewhat of an analytics pioneer of the 50-year-old Rodriguez, a self-described old-school skeptic who for the first time in his 10-year head coaching career put an entire team through an intelligence test.

Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, a statistical analysis devotee who presided over the Boston Red Sox when the team’s 86-year World Series drought ended in 2004, through a team spokesman declined to comment on his team’s interest or use of mental analytics.

Wonderlic Test

At the annual NFL Scouting combine, personnel executives record, among other things, a player’s standing broad jump and 40-yard dash. Some teams also administer what’s called the Wonderlic test, named after creator Eldon F. Wonderlic and designed to help would-be employers pinpoint potential based on intelligence. Critics of the Wonderlic, including Scott Goldman, the director of clinical and sport psychology at the University of Arizona, say it focuses on aspects of intelligence that aren’t fully applicable to athletes and misses important cognitive abilities that determine a jock’s success or failure.

As for Rodriguez, who previously coached at the University of Michigan and West Virginia University, he didn’t seek out to conquer mental analytics. The subject matter was delivered to him.

Shortly after he was named coach at the Tucson, Arizona, school in 2011, Rodriguez was contacted by Goldman, who is also co-founder of Athletic Intelligence Measures, which created what it calls the AIQ, or Athletic Intelligence Quotient. The AIQ is an overall score composed of four broad abilities: reaction time, long-term retrieval, processing speed and visual/spatial processing.

AIM’s testing is done on a tablet and mimics game play, said Goldman, who holds a psychology degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

Concrete Intelligence

The AIG is based on the principle that intelligence is concrete.

“Just like how fast people can run, how far they can jump and how strong they are,” said Goldman, whose company has contracts with five professional sports teams, including a Super Bowl winner, and a few colleges that he wouldn’t name. “It is the backbone and foundation to learning and application. An athlete’s ability to learn how to do something and know when to apply it is essential.”

Also working in the field of mental analytics is San Francisco-based Prophecy Sciences, a Y Combinator-backed company founded by Stanford University neuroscience Ph.Ds.

While AIM is psychology based, focused mainly on intelligence, Prophecy is neuroscience based, combining physiological indicators like eye movement and biometrics like skin conductance to go along with intelligence. Test takers wear sensors on their hands and wrists while infrared video tracks eye movements and pupil dilation.

Computer Games

The company, which started last year and whose clients include college sports teams and individual athletes that Chief Executive Officer Bob Schafer wouldn’t name, has developed a series of five-minute computer-based games that generate scores in five areas: intelligence, composure under pressure, maturity, team chemistry and leadership. The company charges $500 for each assessment and is developing a $40 version without the biometric portion.

In one game, cards have different numbers of colored shapes on them and the test taker must sort them by a certain rule. Screeners can measure not only how good the subject is, but what happens physiologically when it gets more difficult. Another game measures how people react while dividing a pile of money. Some athletes show a physiological response to failure, while others change strategy after failure or when playing from behind.

Measuring Leadership

Schafer says one of his goals is to help clubs quantify supposed intangibles like leadership. “We are able to draw really strong correlations between the concrete things that we measure,” he said. Prophecy also works with tech startups and finance companies.

IMG Worldwide Inc., the management firm whose clients include Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and tennis player Novak Djokovic, started using AIQ’s testing with 28 NFL hopefuls before February’s NFL Combine.

One prospect was having difficulty with his 40-yard dash, particularly at the critical moment just after the start when he’s supposed to rise out of his crouch. Even after watching video the player had trouble fixing it, said Justin Sua, head of mental conditioning at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. After he took the AIQ the coach tried a new approach of instruction through analogies, telling the player what he wanted was like an airplane taking off. “And the player said that really helped him a lot,” Sua said, declining to name the athlete.

Addressing Weaknesses

Additionally, Sua said the intelligence tests empower these particular athletes by giving them a vehicle to address and discredit perceived weaknesses when talking with NFL decision makers.

“It helps to train them how to speak to a coach or general manager,” Sua said. “‘Hey, this might be the perception, but I’m good at board work, or good at using analogies, or I can watch video very well.’”

Former Harvard University tennis coach Tim Gallwey said we’re “relatively ignorant” as to how people learn and what makes one athlete superior to the next. As technology and science develop, so too will the sports world’s approach to mental analytics.

“It’s a very fruitful inquiry,” said Gallwey, whose books include “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance.”

Not everyone is ready to embrace intelligence testing -- at least not for college players.

Duke Lacrosse

Duke University lacrosse coach John Danowski said he’s constantly evaluating his program, including its approach to things like nutrition and sleep. While he put all of the team’s coaches through personality testing, and discovered that he’s somewhat of an introvert, the coach said he isn’t ready to impose such things on his players.

“Sometimes we just want our kids to relax and have fun,” said Danowski, whose Blue Devils have won two national titles in his seven full seasons, including last year. “In some ways it frightens me a little bit.”

No such hesitation exists at the next level for Danowski, who said he wholeheartedly endorses the use of intelligence testing in the win-or-else world of pro sports, where some teams are worth billions of dollars and where jocks can command hundreds of millions in salary.

There’s plenty at stake for college coaches, too. Alabama’s Nick Saban, for instance, earns more than $7 million a year, making him the highest-paid college football coach.

Arizona’s Rodriguez, meantime, said most elite football programs within the next 5-7 years will institute some form of intelligence testing.

“I still hang on to the old-school quite a bit,” he said. “But I like winning too much not to try something that we think will help us get that result.”

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