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While the Combine is Steering Away From Psychological Testing, NFL Teams Are Doubling Down

the Combine is Steering Away From Psychological Testing

In early January, the NFL made headlines with a memorandum disclosing that Wonderlic testing at the NFL Combine will be discontinued. The Wonderlic had long been seen as an obsolete cognitive measurement, with studies showing that it did not correlate with on-field performance and that it may be culturally biased, so its elimination from the Combine was seen by many as progress.

However, not only did the NFL Combine eliminate the Wonderlic, they eliminated all psychological testing of athletes at this year’s event. And considering the increasing number of teams using third party psychological testing, such as the Athletic Intelligence Quotient (AIQ), as part of the evaluation process, this may have an adverse effect on teams and players.

Originally, the NFL Combine was a way for teams to centralize the medical and athletic measurements for teams. Somewhere along the line, the NFL realized that televising the event could draw ratings from avid football fans looking for entertainment in the doldrums of the offseason. Then in 2019, the league doubled down on making the Combine a media-centric event, shifting the events from taking place in the morning and afternoon to afternoon and evening slots to be in prime television time — a push for publicity that may not exactly be in the best interest of players. For example, many of the agility testing drills have been moved from the morning to the evening to be in prime television viewing hours, which may not be preferable to the athletes.

“I think that moving the drills to the evening would hurt the players’ performance, especially if they have other engagements prior to the workout,” says Laveranues Coles, a former NFL Pro Bowler who ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine in 2000. “That process is very stressful and waking up off of a decent night of rest to perform would be best in my opinion.”

While increasing the media coverage of the event has grown its popularity, one of the things happening behind the scenes of the Combine over the past few years is that more and more teams have been interested in psychological testing measures. As that interest has grown, the psychological testing evaluations have commanded more and more time.

For most players, the NFL combine is a gauntlet of tasks and interviews. And as more and more teams have tried to use as many psychological measures as possible, the process for collecting that information got longer and longer.

The rationale behind eliminating the Wonderlic and all psychological testing from the combine is to protect athletes from the amount of time demanded of them. In the memorandum previously discussed, the NFL essentially told teams that if they want to do psychological testing, they will have to do it on their own and find their own method.

What’s the problem with that decision? Well, if you’re a late-round player or someone the league is intrigued by and not sold on, psychological measurements like the AIQ can help teams feel more confident about selecting you. Like with both medical and athletic testing, psychological testing is simply designed to help teams make more well-informed decisions.

“I tell General Managers and Head Coaches that the AIQ is not about opting a guy in or out, it is about better understanding a player,” says Dr. Scott Goldman of Athletic Intelligence Measures, whose AIQ metric is now the longest running cognitive measure used by NFL teams. “Once a team has selected a player who has been through an AIQ test, they know exactly what they are getting, how the player will fit, and can use that information to prolong a player’s career.”

While studies have shown the Wonderlic to be culturally biased, tests like the AIQ are more robust and are unaffected by socioeconomic status, race, or religion. In fact, 10 of the top 11 AIQ scores of 2021 NFL Draft picks came from minorities.

While this change could have potentially harmed teams trying to obtain sports psych evaluations on the coming pool of draft eligible players, sports psychology companies are doubling down and going to a plethora of All-Star events and attending multiple training facilities to get their evaluations done. It has just become harder to obtain the data now that the place that was once made to help centralize it is no longer allowing that type of testing.

“Historically for the last 10 years we would test 400 guys at the Combine,” Dr. Goldman says. “We set up a room that players would come in and out of, and the players didn’t complain and didn’t seem to mind much.

“Regardless of the new Combine rules, we are going to get everybody eventually. We had to ship iPads to people to get to 400 guys last year and it was a challenge, but we did it.”

Teams no longer value the Wonderlic like Tom Landry once did in the 1970s, but modern teams still place a high value on the data gleaned from psychological testing. Psych tests such as the AIQ help teams make more calculated determinations on players, aid the player onboarding process, and optimize player development. If the data is harder to capture and harder to gather, then there will be teams that will make less informed decisions and players that may be avoided because there is a lack of clarity around them.

The NFL had good intentions when it eliminated the Wonderlic and tried to ease up on the number of hours that players will be stuck in the building during the Combine, but their decision may hurt teams and players more than it helps.