Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Intelligence in Ultimate- Is it Valued Enough?


Every year the NFL carries out an extensive "combine" of potential NFL draft prospects. It has been formed into a profitable sport event that has extensive TV coverage and is fodder for pre draft discussion and hype.

Players are weighed, measured and fitted. They are poked, prodded, and sampled. They sprint, run, jump, listen to beeps and read charts. They dash, cut, catch, tackle, and block. It's a very complete process. Everything is taped and technologies (Dartfish) are used to analyze players.

In fact, if I am selected to help with Team Canada U-23 team, any type of tryouts will borrow from these types of combines. Limited by manpower and funds, it might simply be a case of videotaping and coding all scrimmages in the tryouts, and recording vital sprint, shuttle, and jump stats for each player. These "stats" shouldn't decide a players fate.. but they can help put a true numerical value for comparison and it can be used over time to see the development of players and the ultimate development system. (e.g. Are the athletes getting better)

The NFL and IQ- The Wonderlic Test

I have never played Football but it fascinates me that one of the most barbaric sports in the world is so sophisticated in planning, preparation and evaluation of its players. It is very impressive.

The NFL understands the importance of athleticism. Seeing them overlook Heisman Trophy winners and college championship players for division three players from small town Arkansas is done for a reason- They understand the link between winning and various player traits.

One of these traits is intelligence. They use a simple IQ test called the Wonderlic to get a measure of how well each NFL prospect will be able to mentally understand and adapt to the rigors of the NFL game.

Wonderlic is used in many professions as well. Getting a score of 10 out of 50 means a person is literate. Below that score of 10 suggests a person might be mentally challenged. The average participant scores a rating of 24

Here is an article on the scores for this year's best QB prospects. It also lists some of the current NFL Starting QBs and great past QBs for reference.

What has the NFL learned from this process?
  • Intelligence certainly helps, but it is not the lone factor in deciding stardom
  • Players with low Wonderlic scores have a tough time playing the game despite any great physical dominace (Vince Young, who originally scored a 6 in his test, and is alleged to have gotten someone else to write the retest in which he scored a 15)
Player scores in the Wonderlic vary by position. Some positions have higher averages than others. Here is the breakdown:
  • Offensive tackle – 26
  • Center – 25
  • Quarterback – 24
  • Guard – 23
  • Tight end – 22
  • Safety – 19
  • Linebacker – 19
  • Cornerback – 18
  • Wide receiver – 17
  • Fullback – 17
  • Halfback – 16
Back to Ultimate- How do We Value Intelligence?

With respect to ultimate, our tryout process are a little more primitive. They usually involve tryouts where most of the spots are already decided before the tryouts (Few teams are upfront with that) and the majority of the spots are available for the following
  • Tall people
  • Athletic and Fast people
  • Flavor of the month (Those who make a few big d's or layouts at the tryouts, someone new in town, etc)
  • In co-ed it sometimes simply comes down to romantic relationships
One of the reasons for this is the majority of captains who serve as leaders or coaches are handler types. I hypothesize that they have longer careers, and assume such roles of leadership. Asking these people to pick players who can/might replace them on the field is a tough task. Naturally they will pick players that compliment their importance to the team. This is understandable, simple human nature. That doesn't mean it is best for the team though.

I can say with some pride that the teams I played for or lead did place value on the mental makeup of a player and intelligence. Just like "you can't teach tall", you'll also be hard pressed to teach players how to think, read and react both on and off the field if they have a limited amount of grey matter to work with.

Along with cognitive ability, emotional intelligence is very important in picking your ultimate team. It's a long season with ups and downs, and few things disrupt a team faster than people who can't keep their own goals and emotions in check for the team.

Yes, there are many "smart" people in ultimate. However, there are many great stories of incredibly smart people who cannot relate to the real world, let alone teammates. Their inability to read and react to teammates is not helpful to team success.

Failing Wonderlic exams for your tryouts, I pose some simple guidelines to use in spring tryouts
  • Value the cognitive ability of players being considered
  • Take the time to correctly know and understand the emotional intelligence of people you are considering.
  • Be very clear about the goals of the team and the expectations of how players will carry themselves.
  • Have leaders that talk the talk and walk the walk (competent leaders in their roles who carry themselves well)
I look forward to reader feedback on the importance of IQ in ultimate.


David Brook said...

An interesting and related question is whether the kinds of intelligence that allows you to excel at playing ultimate (in particular, the raw physical intelligence that lets you time your jumps accurately or huck 65 yards accurately) also makes you a good judge of other player’s talent, ability or capacity to contribute to team success. Generally speaking (and by generally speaking I mean my best guess which I am willing to assert is a general principle) there is no causal correlation between physical intelligence/acuity and intellectual/strategic prowess. There is, however, a direct causal correlation between physical ability and the esteem in which an individual is held by a team and, as a result, the ability that that individual has to influence decisions like team selection. Further, I would postulate that those with the greatest disparity between their physical and mental capacities are also those that are the least able to understand this discrepancy and hence those that are least likely to step aside to let others make the important decisions that will ultimately determine a team’s success. Not sure what could be done about this but it is an interesting challenge …

Jake said...

I'd think that a test like the wonderlic (not that I've ever seen one) could be a better indicator in then certain base line testing. I mean you can run 40's, test a players vert, or see how much weight he can lift. But none of that necessarily translates into game play; and before somebody says it yes I realize the same could be said for intelligence. BUT there is a difference. The wonderlic tests a players ability to think, now this maybe less important for someone who's say a downfield cutter. But for a handler, offensive centrepeice, or a chase in a cup or wall you need not only react but you need to be able to think and prove that you can understand flows, concepts and strategies.

Looking at baseline testing how often do you see a player end up with just a straight 40-50 yard sprint without some sort of cut that's used to open up the space. Same goes for a vert, a guy can have a great vert but there's rarely a need to have a great vert if you're uncovered. I'd rather a player/receiver that thinks and puts themselves in the best spot then one that just tries to utilize their athletic ability

David Brook said...

Thanks to wonders of Google I found the following articele:

The gist of which is as follows: there is no correlation at all between a QB's wonderlic score and their collegiate passing performance or their ultimate level of compensation in the NFL. This would suggest to me one of two things: a. intelligence really doesn't impact on a QB's performance, or b. the Wonderlic test is complete ass at measuring the kinds of intelligence that actually impact on a QB's performance like making accurate split second decisions based on limited data sets.

jhaig said...

I was going to propose a similar theory as Dave, but was too lazy to look up to see if I was right, so I didn't. But since Dave did the leg work I'll add my two cents :)

I completely agree with Steve's post that there is a lot of value in players who play smart. I would also say that teams appreciate smart play more then Steve might think. Why else would they still let me play? I am skeptical though that a written IQ test is going to give a lot of insight into someone's field sense and understanding of plays or defensive schemes. I remember very little from Psych 101, but I do remember that IQ tests can certainly be biased and aren't always measuring what you want to measure. Hopefully your tryouts are long enough and structurd such that you can get a sense for which players grasp concepts quickly, and make good decisions. I would take a lot of convincing on the validity of a written test before I would give it too much weight in team selection.

Smart play is certainly valuable, but it has to be weighed against what else the player brings to the table and what your team needs. No matter how smart a player is, if they are short and slow, they will be of little help to a team full of short, slow smart players who needs tall athletic defenders.

Jake said...

Ok obviously when someone is short and slow you're going to take those attributes into account. I was thinking on the lines of a competitive tryout where baseline tests are probably going to be very similar in terms of a 40, vert, or bench press.

Let's say Player A runs a 40 in 4.8 and Player B runs it in 4.88 is that really a difference that's going to weight in on your decision? Now lets say you administer the wonderlic. Player A scores a 14 and Player B scores a 24 (both realistic scores according to the recent results). In an instance like this I'd place more weight on the test then the 40. Yes the test has little at all to do with ultimate, and maybe you could design a test that relates better to that.

When an organization like the NFL which runs in the billions of dollars is using something like this it may not be such a bad idea. The NFL also runs interviews asking sometimes very rediculous questions (ie. True or False - You like tall women). In the end it's all still a guess, you'll never know until it happens how players will gel, work in a particular system and so forth. While I wouldn't base a selection on a players Wonderlic/IQ score I'd be hardpressed to ignore it if it's there.

T1000 said...

I am reminded of an observation the Dean of Applied Science once made at my alma mater. On the topic of student aptitude and success in the real world, the man shrugged with some sardonic sagacity and said, "The top third of the class make the best researchers; the middle third make the best engineers; the bottom third make the most money." If it were simple, the best students would perform best at anything they chose to do; alas, it's not so.

Here we have a fairly thorough data set, apparently measuring some combination of intelligence and effort, spanning four years and some fifty subjects and various tests, projects, lab reports, and what does it really tell us? If you were to choose among them for your ultimate team, would you want the A, B, or C student? Heck if I know. There are so many dimensions to intelligence; whilst they can combine to produce success in one respect, they can almost conspire to produce failure in another. If I had a room full of physicists, I might throw in someone who knows how to make money for good measure.

My skepticism with regard to the Wonderlic is similarly founded. A good score on the Wonderlic test means what to me? We hope that it is indicative of some other combination of aptitudes that we don't quite know how to quantify.

Ultimately, I can't perceive a single test that would inform me of those dimensions of intelligence and character that really matter to me on the ultimate field: coachability, focus, field sense, visualization, perception, and communication. To date, I have yet to find a more reliable method than just watching and talking with people, observing their words, decisions and reactions. And I've certainly got it wrong before.

jhaig said...

If you have no evidence that it helps you win more frisbee games why would you use it?

If you read the journal article that Dave linked you'll find that the author's there think the NFL teams are wasting their time and money with IQ testing. There are plenty of examples of huge billion dollar industries having bad ideass, this might be another.

T1000 said...

If I recall correctly, the only significant and positive aptitude correlation the NFL has found (with respect to career performance) is the vertical leap. Is that right?

Sean said...

I'd like to echo John's comments that the Wonderlic or any other traditional cognitive tests are imperfect tools for measuring an ultimate player's mental aptitude for the game.

Having once played on a reunion team composed entirely of former Harvard players (excluding myself of course). I was astounded that this cadre of neurosurgeons, mathematicians and business elite completely lacked fundamental understanding of strategy and tactical adjustments.

Conversely, I have played with several players who self-admittedly are baseline literate, not academically inclined and would probably score poorly on most cognitive tests. Some of these same players possessed the deepest understanding of every nuance of the game I have ever encountered. Their mental preparations for ultimate nearly rival that of NFL coaching staff.

It is possible that these discrepancies might be attributed to variations in years of experience. But instead, I believe that the mental accumen necessary to excel at a sport is combination of obsession, real time analysis and creative problem soving for which no appropriate IQ test will ever exist.

Pierre-Paul Champagne said...

For establish competitives players, we won't choose a player because he is intelligent, but the fact that he is intelligent will make him a better player.

For drafting or choosing a potentiel competitive player, cognitive capacity related to team sport (example : capacity to understand strategies) can have an inluence on the choice of the player, but I don't think general IQ does.

But, like the others sports, the main criteria to evaluate a player in ultimate are his physical capacity.

With all the problems they have with there players in the NFL, I think a personnality test will be a better investment for them.

Sport Management Steven said...


Excellent study link. A major limitation of the study is the uneven amount of play time for rookie QBs in their NFL year.

So, they administer the Wonderlic but IQ isn't a significant factor in drafting or college performance. This makes some sense, because a smart player with no skill/athleticism is a terrible idea. We shouldn't expect Bill Polian to raid Harvard engineering department. :)

Perhaps they administer the test merely to wipe out the guys who can't stay out of trouble. Exceptions are made only for Michael Vick's or Vince Young's of the world who have a true competitive advantage when it comes to athleticism/speed. That might be an issue of emotional intelligence rather than raw IQ (depends on the case)

Sport Management Steven said...


Love your university example. The results of students (i assume) are heavily affected by any of the following

-Actual capacity to learn
-Previous education and preparation
-Extra curricular activities (work, sports, etc)
-Subjectivity of profs in scoring.. different profs in the same course)
-Romantic relationships
-Motivation/ Willingness to Compete

An employer needs to realize that the top of the class student A, with a better educational prep, better finances and more dedication to scoring well may still not be smarter than student B who works, plays sports, lives life more in college. However, student A may be a safer bet to work hard.

Tying it over to ultimate, I see the same predicament for ultimate captains. Do you take the tall athletic stud who won't show up to practice.. or do you take the less talented player who will?

Kevin Korecki said...

Steve, thank you I had a pretty solid discussion over the weekend with a guy from the TDDM and it included this.

In ultimate things change at a moments notice and you need to know and run a field like football, jump and pivot like basketball, react like in hockey all while playing a point full-out for minutes at a time. Tall task to ask.

What if someone plays just one sport? What should they play? What about a combination of sports?

I'd like to argue that a lot of smart people play (good) ultimate. I don't necessarily mean the classic Harvard definition of smart, but athletic smart. Harvard folks may have some dizzying interpretation about the 11th edition over beers. They may even run set-plays to perfection. But ultimate doesn't reward that memory ability on the field. What the mind needs is athletic prowess.

Prowess will come from the ones who have played many sports to bring into ultimate. Prowess players improvise field movements instantly. If you had a team full of iso's that can throw through a mark, tell me how you beat that?

Those kinds of players cause handlers stress, get all kinds of open, have Jedi-D, and pull miracle moves out of their back pocket. That is a tough ass skill to nail down to pad and paper.

Do you think those type of players need a "set" play? Are they the ones asking for an up call?? Those both may help, but prowess players know before hand.

I would argue an athletic resume selection qualifier with a FPS showdown as a better type of intelligence "test" to administer.

Happy Birthday Stevie!!
May strafe keep you strong.

T1000 said...

What's the "Harvard definition of smart" again? Whatever it is, they play ultimate pretty well.