Head games

An NFL psychological profiler says he can pick the winners.

Topics: Football, Psychology, Peyton Manning,

When you settle into the sofa to watch football this weekend, you probably
won’t be crafting psychological profiles of the players as they go
slam-banging around the field. But Dr. Bob Troutwine will.

Troutwine is a Missouri psychologist whose
consulting firm performs psychological assessments of players for NFL
franchises, helping them put together teams that are mentally as well as
physically fit. Troutwine has worked for 17 teams since breaking into
big-league sports psychology in 1984. During each year’s college draft, he
gives clients guidance on their picks by working up psychological snapshots
of the various hot-shot players coming out of college.

Through one-on-one interviews and written tests, Troutwine draws a picture
of each player’s mental condition and leadership potential. “It’s structural
behavioral interviewing,” he explains. “I dig for specific behavioral examples of what they’ve done in the past. I’ll say, ‘Give me an example of a time when you
impacted another player’s performance.’”

In one interview, a quarterback responded to that question with the story of
how he affected a particular teammate — a wide receiver who was slacking
off during a game. When the QB saw the receiver jogging through his route,
he went to the sideline and told the coach. Bad move, says Troutwine: “That’s
like running to mommy.” If you’re a coach, he says, you don’t want that; instead, “you want
someone who’s going to be a leader on the field.”

NFL teams eat up Troutwine’s player assessments, but psychological
profiles don’t always provide an accurate forecast of future performance,
says Andy Meyers, president of the Association for the
Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology
and chairman of the psychology department at the University of Memphis. “It’s always been a dream of psychologists that we could use assessment strategies to predict performance,” Meyers says. “But the historic evidence on these tests has not been impressive.”

According to Troutwine, his results have been impressive enough to keep
clients coming back season after season: “Believe me, you don’t last 16
years in the NFL if you’re not successful.”

Peyton Manning is one of Troutwine’s most memorable success stories. In the 1998 draft, the Indianapolis Colts had the No. 1 pick. They wanted to select a quarterback who would not only perform at a high level athletically but who would also fit into the team’s close-knit, family-like organization. Troutwine helped the Colts settle on Tennessee’s Manning over Washington State’s Ryan Leaf.

“They graded out almost identically on physical attributes,” Troutwine says,
referring to the size, speed and arm strength of the two star quarterbacks.
But Troutwine saw another kind of difference. “Manning had a lot more
maturity — mentally, emotionally. You saw a lower level of maturity in
Leaf.” Manning was more stable, too. According to Troutwine, “He’s the kind
of guy you’d have over for Thanksgiving dinner.”

Troutwine’s assessment has been dead on so far. Since the two quarterbacks entered the pros, Manning has become a reliable, productive player for the Colts; Leaf, on the other hand, who was drafted by the Chargers, has struggled with the team, alienating teammates and lashing out at journalists and fans.

Sometimes players with wildly different psychological make-ups can be
equally successful. “Steve Young is like an accountant, Brett Favre is a
rodeo star,” Troutwine says about the perennial Pro Bowlers from San
Francisco and Green Bay. “Favre is scary, but he makes things happen.”

So, besides that elusive ability to “make things happen,” what’s the most
important mental quality for an NFL player? “The ability to learn,”
Troutwine says. “In today’s league, with the zone defense, a player has to
make three or four reads right before the snap of the ball and three or four more reads
after the snap. This all happens in milliseconds. So the most important
thing is learning ability.” After a beat, he adds, “Notice I didn’t say

Troutwine also ranks old-fashioned meanness high among desirable qualities
for pro football players — especially linebackers. But you can’t really test
for meanness, Troutwine says. “It’s a complex trait. We look for a high
level of personal drive. This is a very violent game. You’ve got to have a
love of collision.”

But for a pro sports team it’s equally important that its players learn to
control those violent tendencies once they walk out of the stadium, because
bankrolling off-the-field psychos tends to mean bad P.R. for the team. “You can always find
crazies who’ll run down the field like maniacs,” Troutwine says, “but can
they switch it off when they’re away from the game?”

When they can’t, things get ugly fast. Troutwine points to the case of the
famously unstable Alonzo Spellman — the former Chicago Bear who in a string of
well-publicized 1998 freak-outs barricaded himself in his publicist’s home,
kicked his way out of a psychiatric hospital, got divorced, got evicted and
had several run-ins with the law before the Bears finally cut him loose.

OK, so Troutwine knows a gridiron psycho when he sees one, but the University of Memphis’ Meyers puts the big question to Troutwine’s brand of psychological headshrinking: Is this science? “The two key things in science are repetition and validity,” Meyers stresses. “Can he show you 1,000 cases where [his assessments] worked successfully? Can he show you peer-reviewed, published evidence that his predictions work?”

Troutwine says that allowing peer review of his assessments would be like
giving away money. “All our information is proprietary and competitive. We’ve discovered some secrets to athletic success, and we don’t feel like
sharing those.” Besides, Troutwine says, his peer review comes straight from
the top. “I consider the coaches, management and players my peers. Believe
me, we get peer-reviewed very seriously every season.”

As long as there are professional sports, Troutwine says, there will be a
role for the sports psychologists who minister to stressed-out athletes.
Playing week after week in the national spotlight takes a heavy mental toll
on even the most level-headed pros. “Players tell me it’s the psychological
toll more than the physical side that gets them,” Troutwine says. “There are
no easy games in the NFL. Every week you’re playing top-quality opponents. It’s hard to be up all the time.”

And when pro players finally retire or get knocked out of the league by an
injury, they face yet another psychological battle. “The
game has a seductive quality,” Troutwine says. “When your career is suddenly over, you miss the admiration.” In other words, selling used cars in suburbia just doesn’t
compare to plowing into the end zone to the screams of 70,000 adoring fans.
“You miss the life,” he says.

Meyers remains skeptical of the value of psychological evaluations for
predicting performance, but he’s willing to admit that Troutwine will rule
the NFL as long as he keeps nabbing the right players for the right
teams. “Can he do this repeatedly? If he can, he’ll be a very successful guy.”

Meanwhile, Troutwine hopes his NFL success will breed success in other
pro sports leagues. In the near future he plans to diversify his business by
moving into the National Basketball Association. So what’s his opinion of
the psychological state of a famously oddball NBA player like, say,
Dennis Rodman?

“Oh, he’s got everybody fooled that he’s some kind of renegade,” Troutwine
says. “He’s torn a page right out of the Muhammad Ali how-to-deal-with-the-media book. I wouldn’t be afraid to have him on my team.”

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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