Getting inside the minds of the prospects
Psychological tests can help NHL teams compile their pre-draft rankings
|Phoenix Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky, who
doubles as the team's amateur scouting director, says that testing prospects for their on-ice decision making is a key to their ability to be coached.
Dr. Ralph Tarter had answers.
By the end of Tarter's explanation to the Phoenix Coyotes of how his psychological testing of players can help teams, Gretzky had answers.
Tarter was explaining a component of his testing in which players take a test before and after exhausting physical testing. He explained that they use the comparison of the tests pre- and post-workout to measure a drop in decision-making ability.
Gretzky asked how that correlates to on-ice performance.
Tarter offered blood samples as an example. A small sample is reflective of the entire blood supply, he said.
"You have to have predictive validity," said Tarter. "It's crucial that this test accurately reflects on-ice decision making. How can you measure that without putting the players on the ice? Skating around pylons is not predictive because it's not a hockey game. This testing can indicate what needs to be changed in a player's game."
Tarter is Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. He was joined by his son, Barry, an accountant with a masters degree in business administration who is the executive director of EXACT Sports, which conducts the psychological testing for the NHL's Central Scouting Service.
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Bahn also was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Puget Sound’s Exercise Science Department for four years, teaching biomechanics and serving as the strength and conditioning coach for the men’s basketball team. It gives him a foot in the hockey and academic worlds.
"Dr. Tarter uses a lot of jargon specific to his field, as you would expect, but you don't always hear these words around a locker room," said Bahn. "But I got my masters in this field and I'm pretty conversant with the scientific matters he's discussing.
"The link between fatigue and mistakes is well established. We want to be able to find ways to delay fatigue. The neurological testing is fascinating and an important facet. We're trying to take as many facets as possible into account – this testing, our scouts and the Central Scouting Services data."
Tarter listened to Bahn and smiled.
"Basically, you just gave my spiel," said Tarter. "And it was very accurate."
"All we're doing is the computer technology that can serve as a prosthesis to decision making," added Tarter. "You're seeing what the computer can do that the human mind can't do – gather tremendous amounts of information, organize it, analyze it and prioritize the importance of the information."
"You're compiling information from different areas to try to predict an outcome?" Treliving asked. Of course, that's what general managers and scouts already do before making draft selections. Treliving, Gretzky and Bahn were here to determine what value Tarter's work has to their decision making. They wanted to know if it is accurate, if it's been tested and how much weight to give to it compared other sources of information.
"Using the Central Scouting data, we can predict if a player will be on an NHL team five years from now,” said Tarter. “I can tell you whether he will score 30 goals, plus or minus 5, with 90 per cent accuracy. We have 16 years of data and can predict whether a player will have an NHL career with 78.3-percent accuracy, based on 5,000 prospects evaluated from CSS data."
Gretzky then touched on an important point. Team scouts' opinions invariably will differ from the Central Scouting staff – it's just human nature. If they didn't differ, we wouldn't need to have a draft. The teams could just take players in the order in which they are ranked.
"The Central Scouting rankings are different than ours," said Gretzky. "I know what I'm looking for when I scout a kid. I don't know if I can pick players from a machine. CSS might have a 5-foot-7 kid who is the fastest skater or a 6-foot-7 kid who is the strongest and I might not want either of them. I will always go with what I see."
"Every team has important additional information," said Tarter. "If you want to know the risk factors, I can help you. Just take one question on the test: ‘Is your father an alcoholic or drug addict?' Fifty per cent of those answering yes will have behavioural problems.”
"Can it tell me anything about a kid's coachability?" Gretzky challenged.
"We have identified a dozen characteristics or traits that will reveal that," Tarter answered.
Treliving asked if the information could be customized, giving more weight to things he might be interested in than is in the standard program made available to NHL teams.
"It can be customized," said Tarter. "We do it all the time."
"We are not interested in the CSS rankings," Tarter added, explaining that is a different area of expertise undertaken by other people. "We look at raw data in a way that is mathematically correct. This is useful not so much for picking a Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby, but for further down the draft when you are getting into shades of gray."
Author: John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer