Sports Psychology And The Edmonton Oilers

Dan Barnes had a recent piece in the Edmonton Journal entitled, "Oilers suddenly serious about psychology", in which he explains the organization's new push towards psychological evaluation in their drafting and player development process.  Barnes quoted Steve Tambellini as saying:

"It's a very big project.  We are working on all components of our player development system. One of those components is the psychological aspect.  Call it whatever you want, a consultant or a sports psychologist, but I want that position to be part of our player development model. I think it's very important. Some (players) already have their own. We need to do that as an organization."

Tambellini talked about using psychological evaluation as part of the draft process this season, and adding it to the player development wing of the organization beginning this year.  Barnes also interviewed Dr. John Dunn, an Edmonton sports psychologist about some of the psychological testing methods that the Oilers may or may not employ with this year's prospect class. 

That the Oilers are adding sports psychology to their cadre of developmental tools is a bit of a surprise.  That they are adding psychological evaluations nearly twenty years behind the curve is not.

Last off-season I wrote about the Oilers' predilection towards drafting intelligent players, a trend that began with Chuck Noll and continued with Bill Walsh in the NFL, and slowly spread through football and professional sports to varying degrees.  NFL gurus now focus on Wonderlic test results as a measure of intelligence, and NFL teams now do full psychological workups, but Noll and Walsh dug much deeper much earlier than anyone else, conducting prospect interviews that had little or nothing to do with football, but that helped both coaches gain insight into the minds of the players that they intended to draft.  In essence, Noll and Walsh were doing their own precursors to psychological profiles or evaluations.

Psychological profiling was made famous by Walsh's San Francisco 49ers the year after he retired.  The 49ers hired controversial professor Harry Edwards, who holds a PHD in sociology, to consult on a variety of issues, one of which was profiling potential draftees through a series of pre-draft interviews.  The 49ers have had Edwards on the payroll since 1988 and have since added support staff for him.  Most other NFL teams followed suit, and nearly all of them (I can't speak for the Raiders) now employ sports psychologists not only for draft purposes, but throughout the year, using them to evaluate players during the season, coach players through difficult times, and at times, call them in as slump busters.

Dr. Jack Llewellyn was the first sports psychologist to achieve national fame. via The Center For Winning

Atlanta Braves pitcher, John Smoltz, is single-handedly responsible for turning Jack Llewellyn into a nationally-recognizable figure and the most famous sports psychologist in the country.  Smoltz started the 1991 season by going 2-11.  Out of ideas, he turned to Dr. Jack Llewellyn, at the time a noted Atlanta-area sports psychologist.  Dr. Llewellyn began working with Smoltz, and as the story goes, the results had an immediate impact: Smoltz went 12-2 to close the year.  Dr. Llewellyn's face was plastered all over Braves' broadcasts, his story turned up in Sports Illustrated, the USA Today and the New York Times.  The Braves were convinced - they added Llewellyn as a full-time consultant to work with the entire team.  Dr. Llewellyn continues to consult for the Braves today and turned his fame into a best-selling book, "Let 'Em Play", in which he dispenses advice on youth baseball.

We know that the Oilers were twenty years late to the nutrition, and strength and conditioning revolution, so as I said previously, that they are twenty years late to sports psychology doesn't come as a surprise.  But does it matter?  Does sports psychology have a marked impact on individual athletes and organizations as a whole?  After all, even though the 49ers have been screening their draft prospects since 1988, essentially blazing the way for the practice in the NFL, they've spent first round picks on such players as J.J. Stokes, Jim Druckenmiller, Reggie McGrew, Mike Rumph, Kwame Harris and Rashaun Woods.  At this point, all teams in the NFL are using psychological profiles on draft prospects, so is there any competitive advantage in them or is psychological profiling merely keeping up with the Joneses?  A simple study comparing each best available player by statistical measures against the best available player combined with their profile compared to their career results should be able to quickly establish the efficacy of profiling, but no such study has been attempted.

Although the Braves have had Dr. Llewellyn on staff since 1991, that didn't stop the Braves from bringing legendary bigmouth John Rocker to the majors, nor was Llewellyn able to curtail Rocker's outrageous behavior.  The Braves also watched as Andruw Jones went from a superstar to an overweight, under-motivated anchor on the payroll.  If Llewellyn is responsible for saving and extending Smoltz's career, can he also be held responsible for not being able to keep Rocker under control, and should he be blamed for not being able to keep Andruw Jones away from the buffet?

Psychology remains a social science rather than a natural science, and research in the field is more often qualitative than quantitative - the branch of sports psychology is no exception.  Sports psychology has much more to do with bluster, news snippets, and reputation than science.  Though there are plenty of people working in the field and loads of papers on the subject, this is a common result in published papers:

Specifically, it was found that 38 of the 45 studies examined (85%) had found positive performance effects, although causality could only be inferred in 20 of these studies.

After reading the summaries of way too many of these studies, the common theme is that the subjects are author-submitted rather than controlled, and the results are always driven by correlative relationships rather than anything causal.  Part of the reason for that is that the types of things sports psychologists actually do with players are fairly commonsensical: goal setting, visualization, relaxation, self-talk, etc.  So how do you separate a sports psychologist from, say, Stuart Smalley or Oprah? 

Another problem is that, as anyone that reads this corner of the the internet knows, quite often a slump is nothing more than a run of bad luck, and breaking out of a slump is nothing more than breaking that string of bad luck and getting back to a regular distribution.  Given that a sports psychologist is often called into a situation where a player is under-performing, and that player will likely move towards his proven performance levels eventually regardless, how much of his recovery is attributable to the sports psychologist and how much is good, old-fashioned reversion to the mean?

And what happens when the therapy doesn't work, when the players don't respond, or the techniques aren't effective:

Misel has a simple explanation for these less impressive case studies. "We're only as good as the people we work with," he told the Los Angeles Times. "The talent has to be there." Other sports psychologists chalk up failure to players who won't stick with the program. It's a reasonable premise—you can't expect to see results if your client lacks ability or motivation. But from a scientific perspective, it's a sham. If you just write off negative results, how do you know your intervention does anything at all?

In the end, sports psychologists are just like any other coach or player development personnel.   Sometimes the message connects (Shawn Horcoff and Craig MacTavish, or Pat Quinn and Gilbert Brule), sometimes the message doesn't get through (Rob Schremp and Jeff Truitt, or Quinn and Lubomir Visnovsky) and sometimes the message is ignored (Joni Pitkanen and Charlie Huddy, or Dustin Penner and MacTavish).

Taken as just another tool meant to help the organization get through to players in addition to coaching and player development, rather than a panacea meant to solve every troubled player's problems, it's worthwhile to add sports psychologists to the organization.  As long as Daryl Katz is willing to foot the bill for some possible but not verifiable results, the Oilers can be no worse off than they were before.

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