How To Measure An Athlete's Intangibles

Bob Schafer Prophecy Sciences
Dr. Bob Schafer (seated) of Prophecy Sciences at SSAC14
One of the unmistakable takeaways from the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is that teams across all sports are looking for the “next big thing” that will offer a competitive advantage.  For most of the 2,000 attendees at this year’s event, the holy grail was assumed to be buried somewhere in the Big Data world of sports statistics and their endless permutations and combinations.  Unfortunately, data of any kind represents the past rather than a true prediction of your team’s future performance. Stats can tell us what happened but struggle to explain the intangibles of athletes, like leadership, tenacity, stress and team chemistry that coaches admit are the real determinants of sports success.

Quietly tucked away in a corner of the conference’s “start-up trade show” was a company demonstrating technology that just might provide the missing proactive measurement of an athlete’s “soft skills”.  Bob Schafer, CEO of Prophecy Sciences, was offering demos of their system to brave souls passing by their booth.  As Dr. Bob (he and his co-founders are Stanford neuroscience PhDs) connected a watch-like device to the left wrist and sensors to the left fingertips of one such brave soul, it became apparent that this system was in a different league than your standard “brain training”.  With an eye tracker staring back at the user and a headset for infrared sensing, a 30 minute set of games begins on the computer screen.

What Makes Athletes Cognitively Different
Courtesy of Prophecy Sciences
The idea is that as an athlete plays these games, their physiological reactions are being recorded, including eye movement, pupil dilation, heart rate and skin response.  As the games create an atmosphere of competition, mistakes and time pressure, the biological responses tell a lot about how each person reacts. 

"There is currently no good way to make concrete measurements about the ways that athletes strategize, make decisions, and respond in tough situations," said Schafer. "Coaches, scouts, and trainers rely on observations and instinct, and everyone makes mistakes. We use neuroscience-based games and biometric signals to quantify the behaviors and biosignals that actually matter for predicting athletic performance."

Consider a college coach on the recruiting trail trying to find a player with the right mix of technical skills and emotional maturity.  Rather than just relying on game film and a few interviews, he could get a complete analysis of a player's emotional toolkit, based on objective data from Prophecy's system.

Want to find the leaders on the team?  Test them for pupil dilation and electrodermal response when they make mistakes and time is running out.

By continually adding test results from a spectrum of novice to elite athletes, Prophecy uses predictive machine learning algorithms to reveal the differences between low and high performers.  How does an experienced D1 quarterback compare with a high school junior? What specific biometrics explain composure and faster decision making?  In addition, by comparing results across a team, coaches can learn why certain combinations of players produce better results.

Knowing more about the physiological traits of athletes is helpful, but the ultimate goal is to improve their skills from a starting benchmark.  Prophecy is working on training solutions that can help athletes manage their emotions and responses in competitive situations.  Like training for faster speed or greater strength, having objective data to measure progress is also key to growing cognitive skills.  

The bottom line is to raise the performance of each individual athlete, according to Schafer, "Our goal is to provide a cognitive training program that is tailored to each athlete's mental makeup.  For every area of improvement, we target exactly what matters the most for development.  We'll help every athlete achieve his or her full cognitive potential."

After finishing the demo at the conference, under the pressure of other attendees watching, that brave soul was shown his specific results compared to others, along with a plan for raising his game.  For athletes and coaches, the Prophecy system won’t help teach a zone blitz or how to rebound but it will build an understanding of their core cognitive traits that will no longer be “intangible”.