The I-O Playbook: Bringing Psychological Assessments to the NFL

Three industrial-organizational psychologists have brought a whole new field to psychology—Dr. Harold Goldstein, Dr. Kenneth Yusko, and Dr. Charles Scherbaum have given the National Football League (NFL) an innovative and evidence-based tool for selecting players during the draft using their extensive research and experience in personnel selection and industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology. Their work designing, implementing, and validating a new psychological test called the NFL Player Assessment Test (NFL-PAT) has shown how the science of I-O can be applied in new, sophisticated, and very cool ways.

The Kickoff

The NFL has a long tradition of bringing in exceptional talent and fostering a culture of constant improvement. With that end in mind, they were interested in identifying new ways to help NFL clubs make draft decisions. Cyrus Mehri, a lawyer who worked with the NFL for years and who was instrumental in implementing the Rooney Rule (a policy that requires clubs to interview minority candidates when hiring for coaching positions), introduced the NFL to what the research team could do.

The Big Play

The team’s goal was to develop a psychological test that could be used in player assessments at the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis. During this event, eligible players for the draft go through a series of assessments to provide information to the NFL clubs that might select them.  The focus of the Combine is predominately on physical tests but it also involves medical testing, club interviews, and some psychological testing. Though a general intelligence test was already in place at the Combine, the new test was meant to provide data on a wider range of job-related factors, such as personality traits, temperament, and motivation, as well as to expand measurement of the intelligence domain.

To start, the team used their extensive I-O experience to develop a competency model using interviews from key subject matter experts that included general managers from a number of  NFL clubs. Then the team used cutting-edge assessment techniques to design a one-hour computer-based test (the NFL-PAT) that captures the 16 competencies from the model. The test has now been administered to all players who attended the Combine since 2013. Players’ scores on the test are sent to all NFL clubs to help them select players during the draft.

In order to see how well the test works, Drs. Goldstein, Yusko, and Scherbaum took the opportunity to validate the test against actual performance in the NFL. Using test scores from 1,538 different players across five years, they examined how well the test scores predicted confidential performance ratings made by NFL general managers and coaches. They also explored how well the test predicted critical on-field performance metrics provided by the NFL, such as the number of penalties a player receives and the number of snaps a player is on the field.

The Touchdown

The results of their predictive validation study were very strong. The scores from the test significantly predicted football performance, as rated both by general managers/coaches and by on-field metrics. These results from the NFL-PAT study shows the value of including psychological assessments in a wide variety of selection contexts. The scores add a lot of new information that NFL clubs can use as part of their draft decisions, and Drs. Goldstein, Yusko, and Scherbaum have paid special attention to following up on the test scores to provide information that can help players and teams grow long-term. They even provide coaching reports, generated from the test score data, to the NFL club that select a player in the draft—reports that can be used to better grow and develop the players after they have been drafted.

The Winning Advantage

The team cites their expertise in I-O as critical to the project’s success, but they also had to use some creativity to develop and implement the assessment. Professional sports create a particularly unique environment, from a traditional personnel selection perspective, especially because of the heavy focus on physical abilities, the high level of performance players operate at, and the high-stakes and high-visibility aspects of the draft decisions that are made. Drs. Goldstein, Yusko, and Scherbaum were excited to see that their efforts paid off in such a unique context.

The team hopes that this project will show the value that psychological assessments can add to sports analytics. They stated how impressed they were by the NFL’s commitment to cutting edge science and forward thinking. The team is excited by the contributions of I-O psychology to people analytics and concluded, “As organizations start to value their talent more and more, the role that I-O psychology can play in helping make that talent an asset is why the field is becoming more and more promising as a field for students to join.”

If you’re interested in learning more about I-O psychology as a future career path, check out some of our past posts on the topics for more information, like our Guide to Getting Started in I-O or our overview of everything the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology has to offer!

About the Author

MacKenna is currently in her last year as an applied psychology Ph.D. student at Portland State University, majoring in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology and minoring in occupational health psychology (OHP). Her research focuses on occupational health, the work-family interface, and economic stress experiences. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. In her free time, MacKenna likes to squeeze in as much traveling as she can possibly manage and explore Portland’s vast collection of food carts.