The Future of Combines: What is the Goal?

By Sparta Science

January 1, 2019

With the NFL regular season completed, the majority of teams have now shifted gears from a “Win the Day” mentality to winning the offseason. During this crucial time, each team’s front-office staff is laser-focused on building a talented, healthy, championship caliber team. The question then becomes, what is the best way to do this?

The Job Interview

Building any successful team, whether in sport, military, or business begins with a selection process. These processes evaluate both historical performances, as well as an interview process. A wide net will then be cast to bring in a pool of talented individuals, with the goal of narrowing down this pool into only the best candidates for the job. Businesses, sports teams, and military units all use different recruiting services and tactics to create this initial pool, primarily based on specific qualification criteria and their past performances. Do you meet the minimum qualification criteria? What did you accomplish with a previous company, unit, or team?

Once the pool has been narrowed down the interview process begins. In military and sport this “interview” also often includes a physical evaluation using a series of different tests: a combine.

What is the Goal of a Combine?

Is it Talent ID? In a word, NO.

Different simple physical assessments have been used for decades with the hopes of identifying talent. While some can be useful for qualification, most of these quantitative tests aren’t great differentiators when applied to a single talent pool. For example, if we evaluate a high school wide receiver’s 5.4 forty yard dash compared to an NFL prospects 4.5 we see quite a difference. However, the difference between two NFL prospects with forty times of 4.51 and 4.59 at the NFL combine does not correlate to better performance in the NFL.

The use of combines for talent identification can be helpful for identifying potential outliers that may deserve a closer look. From an under qualified sales rep who nails their interview to an undersized athlete who records a record breaking pro-agility time, these “interviews” can influence our thoughts about identifying talent, but they cannot be the sole source.

The first step to identify talent isn’t a series of tests that may correlate, but to look at previous performance: what is on your resume? For example, a 2014 study found that though physical size and athleticism predicted draft order, the only variables that predicted success in the NBA were college quality, college performance, and youth. Physical assessments can be an important tool, but when it comes to talent identification there are better places to start.

So what is the value of these combines? Luckily with data science and technology, physical assessments are taking a step into the future. We can now objectively measure both the quantitative side and the qualitative side, allowing us to identify not only what an individual can do, but how they go about doing it.

In the past, the physical assessments of the combine simply measure a pass/fail according to many front office executives. You knew there was going to be a test, did you prepare or not? The other, more valuable pieces of these combines have been much more qualitative in nature. How well did you do in the interviews? What did we see during the medical testing? How well did you handle the pressure on this big stage. These qualitative pieces can be extremely valuable, however by nature they are often much more subjective. What interview questions did you ask, and is there a right answer? How much shoulder internal rotation strength do you need, and is this measured objectively?

This past year our software and the underlying data and assessments have been used in a variety of combines from high school, the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and the many regional combines around the country. Because the data we collect is both quantitative and qualitative in nature it not only allows us the measure the numbers that are thought to relate to athleticism (how fast or how high), but more importantly how it occurs. This 2016 Sports Illustrated article simplifies this concept with a great quote:

“Athletes that have a high, but slow, force production may perform well on a vertical jump test but not be able to translate that into game time explosiveness.”

Return On Investment (ROI)

In every study that aims to use quantitative physical assessments to predict success in sport, the outcome they are measuring is really a measure of availability, or resilience. It is this combination of health and performance that is the best measure of success. If an NFL player was available and on the active roster for 16 out of 16 weeks, it is a pretty safe bet they are both talented and healthy. This is the goal. If they weren’t talented they would get cut, if they were injured they would be inactive.

When it comes to selection, it is easiest to understand this as an ROI. If I sign this player for 20 million, what am I getting back in return - is it worth that investment? In the military, millions of dollars can be invested in training by each special forces operator. The term they use as a measure of this ROI similar to availability is “readiness.” Is each individual operator ready, or fit to perform a task at any specific time, or not? By using a series of physical assessments that are both qualitative and quantitative we are able to clearly see what can predict this availability, or readiness. For example, we have discussed before how different force variables from a vertical jump relate to minutes played in basketball. To have a high value for minutes played it is a prerequisite to be both talented and healthy.

Movement efficiency leads to availability.

We have also seen a higher Sparta Score related to higher minutes played in basketball, telling us that not only are specific types of movers likely to be more available, but more efficient movers as well. These qualitative measures of movement don’t just apply to one population, as we see these relationships between movement efficiency and availability in military, soccer, baseball, rugby, and football, as well as the “general population.” Movement efficiency is not biased to one type of mover nor to only the elite. Being able to objectively measure both qualitative and quantitative measures of human movement allow us to more accurately predict success: health and performance.

Do keep in mind their fate is NOT predetermined.

The real value of interviews or combines is not simply to identify individuals with a high probability of succeeding, but also to continue to improve those odds. As we know, previous performance is a great indicator of future performance, but there is always risk involved. By identifying an individual’s weaknesses that may put their success at risk we can supply interventions to mitigate that risk. It is extremely common to identify someone as extremely talented based on their past performances, but to be concerned about their long term availability. Instead of simply disqualifying this individual, we can work to improve those odds by addressing weaknesses.

Combines of the Future

As technology becomes more scalable and affordable, we foresee the standard assessments getting a significant upgrade at all levels, and in all industries. When building a team it is critical not only to select the right individuals, but develop them as well. The historical quantitative measures at sporting combines such as the NBA and NFL are no doubt impressive displays of physicality, but they unfortunately don’t have much value when it comes to predicting true success. Objective quantitative AND qualitative measures that help not only to predict, but to improve the success of that individual (and therefore the team) are the future.

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