The Importance of Psychological Evaluations for NFL Players

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Whenever the combine rolls around, one of the hot topics inevitably becomes the psychological evaluations. Whether it’s a report about a red flag appearing in a player’s past, or an anecdote about an insane question, some aspect of the tests actually become news (for example Dez Bryant and Miami). What was probably part of a private psychological or character evaluation become front-page news. At least one player is asked, “What’s the craziest question a team has asked you?” to fill a kitschy segment on the nightly news. However, these tests have a purpose greater than just a background tests for NFL teams.

While most teams have publicly stated that they use psychological tests to determine off the field character or discipline issues, these tests are often used to determine if a player’s personality allows him to succeed on the field. Bill Polian famously said, "You want to look at the whole person, not just the football player," when referring to how psychological tests helped the Colts select Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf (Chappell 2006). Earlier this off-season, Polian alluded to the Colts relying heavily on psychological evaluation for more than just character issues. The Colts have a personality mold they like for each position, and they use psychological tests to see if the player fits this mold. Therefore, they have a greater chance to succeed on and off the field.

Today, I’m going to use the most common and simple personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), to explore how different personality types fit different positions. The MBTI is covered in most basic psychology classes, and is often given to introduce beginners to psychology. Using a simple set of questions, this test can place someone into one of 16 personality types. The MBTI uses four sets of dichotomies. The test determines which side of each dichotomy a person favors to give them a personality type. For example, the first dichotomy is extraversion VS introversion. Extraverted people tend to act before the think. Introverted people tend to think before they act. Mix this dichotomy with three others and you have a maximum of sixteen personality types. The four dichotomies are:

Extraversion (E) VS. Introversion (I)

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Sensing (S) VS. Intuition (N)

Thinking (T) VS. Feeling (F)

Judgment (J) VS. Perception (P)

Today, I’m going to choose which one of the sixteen MBTI personality types is the best for each position, simplifying what the different NFL teams do. Hopefully this allows us to understand the importance of psychological profiling to the draft process.

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Quarterback: Extraverted/Sensing/Thinking/Perception (E/S/T/P)

In all honesty, you want a quarterback to be a balance of all the types. However, you want an extraverted quarterback. Introverts could tend to over think a play and hesitate to make the crucial throw. A quarterback should be able to both use concrete facts around them (sensing) and their own gut feelings (intuition) to perceive information in order to make the correct throw. Overall, quarterbacks have to have the rare ability to skirt between MBTI psychological types.

Running Back: E/N/F/P

Running backs need to want the rock. They can’t be afraid to get the tough yard on 3rd and 1 or take a beating all day long. Therefore, they should be extroverted. Running backs often discuss how they feel the hole opening, or how they just know where to run. A big run doesn’t happen because a running back sat around waiting to see a gap open. They just hit it. Running backs certainly should favor intuition and feeling over sensing and thinking. However, Colts’ backs need to use both, as they are asked to block, receive, run and catch on every drive.

Safety: I/N/T/P

Safeties, personality wise, are the defensive counterpoint to running backs. Safeties are the last line of defense, and must often use intuition and feeling in order to make the right play. They must decide in a split second if they should go for the pick or just make the sure tackle. Unlike running backs, however, safeties should be introverted. They must make sure every one of their efforts has a positive effect on the team, and introverts tend to analyze the data around them before they act. When a safety makes a mistake, it’s usually obvious.

Wide Receiver/Corner: E/S/F/J

Wide receivers and corners are the divas of the league. While football is one of the ultimate team sports, these two positions have the closest that exists in football to a 1 on 1 competition. They must have the rare combination of confidence, data analysis and gut feeling to continually win their 1 on 1 or often 1 on 2 match up. Therefore, a wide receiver and a corner should be extroverted, use logical sensing to collect information, but use their gut feeling to make the quick decision necessary to beat their opponent.

Tight End/Linebacker: I/S/T/P

While newer schemes and philosophies have changed these two positions drastically, tight ends and linebackers typically need to be jack-of-all-trades. Tight ends need to know how to both pass and run block, while knowing how to run the routes and catch the ball with the proficiency of a wide out. Linebackers need to be able to defend the run, cover, and rush the passer on any given play. Therefore, these players need to have extremely cerebral personality types. They should analyze the situation around and determine how they can best help their team on that play. An introvert who favors sensing and thinking over intuition and feeling fits this bill.

Defensive Line: E/N/T/P

I once saw a piece on the Colts’ defensive line, where coach Teerlinck showed the players a video of a lion hunting a gazelle, to instill in the players the attitude necessary to succeed at the D-line in the NFL. An extravert that mixes the skills of intuition with thinking fits this profile. D-lineman, especially on the Colts, are like that hunting lion; Instinctual yet calculating, smooth yet fast, and punishing when they deliver their shots.

Offensive Line: I/N/T/P

The offensive line is similar to the defensive line personality wise. However, instead of being on the hunt like the D-line, they are protecting. They cannot afford to make a single mistake, or their quarterback is going to pay. Therefore, they need to be introverts, more willing to think out every decision and less likely to act on their intuitions. However, they still need to use their gut feelings to quickly fix a mistake or stop an unexpected stunt from an opposition defensive line. The offensive line needs to be willing to have less glory than other positions, as they rarely (purposely) score.

These personality types don’t guarantee success at a position. Plenty of players who fit the mold of a position perfectly have failed and plenty more that don’t have succeeded. However, by using tools such the MBTI test, teams can raise the chances that a draft pick succeeds.