Measuring the Intangibles: Brains Over Brawn

When it comes to measuring an athlete’s skills there are a lot of things we use to evaluate them. Things like size, strength, speed, endurance, ball skills and more depending on the sport itself. There is also something we hear about called ‘intangibles’, which is something some athletes have and some don’t. ‘Intangibles’ includes several things like personality, leadership, brains, decision making, attitude, heart, effort and all those attributes that can be harder to quantify and thus they are not tangible.

To create a successful sporting team you don’t need every single player to have those intangible qualities, but you definitely need a core of them. Culture is so important in sporting teams and the ones that create success for sustainable periods are those with an inbuilt culture of success.

Now obviously we can’t measure every aspect of the intangibles but we certainly can try measure elements of it. If I were running a sports team and able to choose the players we sign (and hopefully one day I will be), I would implement a system to make sure I was bringing in players not only of high character, but also of high intelligence, decision making in limited time and logic/reasoning ability.

Quite simply, I would make all players take an aptitude test. Some players would probably hate it and to be honest it might rule out certain players who shouldn’t be ruled out. But overall, I think I’d be doing pretty well on average if I was signing primarily players who scored highly on an aptitude test.

In the salary cap world, the actual talent of the players across most teams is relatively even. Yes there are outliers at the top and the bottom, but by and large most teams have a few stars surrounded by a bunch of role players with enough talent to be playing in the league. What separates the good teams from the bad are things like decision making in important moments, playing and sticking to the team plan and structures as well as some luck with injuries and the bounce of the ball.

The Melbourne Storm aren’t just built around three of the most talented players in the league, they are built around three of the smartest. The same can be said for the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has been in the title picture without fail since 1998. The Storm and the Spurs have a lot of similarities. They both are built around a coach and system that ties in perfectly with their star players and then smartly surrounded by underappreciated role players. These role players are crucial because they need to completely understand not only their role, but everyone on the team’s role. If one guy gets hurt, they are easily replaced because everyone buys into the system and understands it.

It sounds simple and easy, but if it were, everyone would be doing it successfully.

Up until they reach the professional level, a lot of athletes have relied purely on their natural talent levels. But at the professional level everyone else has that talent level too. This is why we see guys with immense talent become ‘busts’ and never reach their potential at the pro level.

For this reason, if I was comparing an athlete with A level talent but a C level brain to an athlete with B level talent but an A level brain, I’d likely take the B level talent. I want to know I can maximise the talent of the player and get the consistency that comes with someone who will fit in to what the coach is trying to accomplish.

To evaluate this, I would likely look to implement the Wonderlic Test used for players entering the NFL Draft. The Wonderlic is a multiple choice test of 50 questions to be answered in 12 minutes or less. A score of 20 indicates average intelligence and 10 points is required to at least be considered literate.

It is considered important in the NFL primarily for positions with the most decision making, namely quarterback and the offensive linemen who protect him. It may surprise you, but those monsters protecting the quarterback are usually the smartest guys on the field and average the highest scores in the Wonderlic. This is because to be good as an offensive lineman, you need to process a lot of information very quickly and make the right decision, or else your pretty boy star quarterback will end up getting smashed. It is a high pressure job and requires brains, not just brawn. For reference, the average score for a quarterback is 24 and an offensive lineman is 26.

In rugby league for example, obviously the positions that would need to score the highest would be the ‘spine’ of the fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker. They are the playmakers and decision makers pulling the strings and implementing the coach’s system.

Without naming names, there are many players I have never rated or felt like were overrated because I felt like they didn’t have these qualities to lead their team. They had natural ability, but that doesn’t get you as far at the elite level. These are the players that lead fans to look at each other in shock when the player makes the worst decision at the worst time as opposed to someone maybe less talented, but does the smart thing and keeps his head and composure.

Cameron Smith looks like he should be doing your taxes and yet he is one of the greatest footy players of all time because he is like a coach on the field. Darren Lockyer was the same way and believe it or not larrikins like Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler were genius decision makers, not just talents, when it came to football. I bet they would score higher on the Wonderlic than some would imagine.

Look at a guy like Jeff Robson at the Cronulla Sharks. He would barely have enough natural talent to be in the NRL and yet he has become the glue of that team and Todd Carney absolutely needs Robson next to him to harness his own abilities. Fans of other teams and even some Sharks fans may wonder why they stick with Robson, but I’m sure Shane Flanagan trusts no one more than their number 7.

Obviously teams need some X-Factor type players and you don’t need an entire team of brain surgeons to win. But you need brains where it matters and you certainly do not want the lunatics running the asylum.

I think it would be fascinating if the AFL implemented the Wonderlic prior to the draft the same way the NFL does. I wonder how much it would accurately predict success at AFL level and whether teams would value it as highly as I do.

Also teams struggling and in need of a rebuild, like the Wests Tigers or Melbourne Demons, could implement the test to their own players and potential recruits, looking to use a different edge to get back to challenging for the NRL premiership. They already evaluate other factors; the brain should be in there too.

Getting a bunch of big, strong, fast guys will get you so far, but you need to make sure you have enough smart guys pointing them in the right direction. If the big, strong, fast guys also double as the smart guys, then that’s even better and how you end up with LeBron James or Greg Inglis.

Sometimes the best ideas are to steal other people’s ideas and implement them where they aren’t being used. The NFL has a good idea and it’s time we look to steal it.

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