Professional Hockey

What Professional Hockey Can Teach Us About Talent Science

I’m a sports fan, and this is a sports story. Some of the most enjoyable and educational experiences of my career have come from working with professional and college teams on a number of different sports. If you’re not a sports fan – in fact, if you’ve gotten there with the sports metaphor in business – take it to heart. First, this story is about hockey things – a sport I admit I knew absolutely nothing about at the time. So, there’s a slight risk of me losing you at the finer points of the game. Second, the things we found relate to at least recruitment and employee development as well as sport. The hockey part makes it a little more colorful.

What You Need To Know About Hockey

In 1979 we started working with George and Gordon Gund, two brothers who had recently purchased the Minnesota North Star from the National Hockey League (NHL). Their goal is to win the Stanley Cup – Super Bowl of Hockey. The Gund brothers knew they needed a superstar or two to become a Stanley Cup contender. To do this, they need to have pockets as deep as the New York Yankees, or they need to make the most of their draft pick. And that’s their focus: Use draft options to win superstars. It made perfect sense to us.

As I said, I know almost nothing about hockey at the moment. I grew up in Nebraska where football, not hockey, is the local religion. I had a lot to learn about skating, sticks and pucks in a very short time. One of the things I discovered early on was that in areas with a strong hockey culture, they started early.

It seems that kids of hockey culture are almost born with roller skates on their toes and dream of the Olympic and Stanley gold trophies in their hearts – not the Heisman or the Super Bowl trophies. For those with talent, youth hockey became a defining activity in their formative years.

Unlike basketball or football, where most athletes play at the college level for several seasons before they join a professional team, hockey players are sometimes recruited before they even finish high school. Teams are committed to players and sometimes have to nurture them through several years of league development before they are ready to turn professional.

This has resulted in a huge investment of time and money. It’s no fun if you’re wrong. And that raises the stakes dramatically when it comes to evaluating, at an early stage, who got it and who didn’t.

Talent Challenge for Minnesota North Stars from the National Hockey Leagues (NHL)

When we first met the Gund Brothers they had finished their initial review and concluded that, sadly, the team’s track record in drafts was largely waste and frustration. It seems that many of the league’s bona fide superstars haven’t been identified by their scouts prior to the draft. On the other hand, many children who they perceive as the stars of the future do not live up to expectations. What are they missing? Why is it so hard? Of course, any team that can crack this code will have unlimited potential.

With these facts in mind, George and Gordon asked us to create a psychological profile of the ideal hockey player. We’ll then create a process for comparing potential draft candidates against this profile.

This is fun for me. Even though I’m a hockey newbie, I love being part of a team that combines my two interests – psychology and sports – in one quest to be the best.

Lesson One: Attractive Doesn’t Mean Important

Our first step is to collect data. We need to gather all the ideas and characteristics of hockey players that we can handle so that we don’t miss anything important. So, among other things, I got to watch my first professional hockey game.

I remember spending two and a half hours as the audience thinking, what’s going on there? I don’t know the face-off of the facelift, and I think the red lines must have meant someone was skating too fast. I remember that fight. I especially remember the way the referee just stood and watched, as well as the slight pink tinge that remained on the ice from the bloodshed.

In the following weeks, our team met with a group of hockey players, coaches and staff members. We asked every question we could think of and listened carefully to the answers. We even recorded sessions for further study. We try to learn everything we can about hockey players. We learn later, this is part of our problem.

Our original plan was to interview about sixty professional players at the moment. We try to think of the best and most open-ended questions to ask them so that we can separate really strong ideas from the rest. In the end, we included almost every question we could think of about how they play hockey and what makes them so great at it.

It’s an exciting experience for everyone on our team. We found that hockey, even more so than most sports, really is a world unto itself. For example, we’ve all seen football or basketball players on TV making big games and then recording them for the cameras. What do they always say? Hi ma’am! In contrast, with hockey players, this is “Hey Dad!” We wonder, what is it all about?

Like everything else, it’s part of the culture—and it starts early, in more ways than one. Hockey players—and their fathers—talk about the days when they were just starting out, getting out of bed at 4:30 AM, in the dead of winter to go get time on the ice. The big kids were skating all day, and this was the only time the little guys could get their ice time.

Usually, it’s not moms who get up early to make this trip. Not only would he rather sleep until the more civilized hours, but he would also soon see juniors reaching graduation with all his teeth intact. Hockey is a great father-son culture and a huge investment of time and effort and money on the father’s part over the years. Children never forget it. And it’s played on ice. Something I found out almost by accident is that the team did better on Dad’s Night. With this understanding, if I had a hockey team, I would fly dads all over the country to attend every big game!

We found more examples everywhere we looked. The gameplay is unique, the appeal is unique, and even the fans are unique. And what is certain is that the players are their own descendants. They are the most unusual group of people I have ever studied, either before or after. Several dominant patterns are sure to emerge.

For example, we ask about their hobbies and special interests. By now, I’ve been asked the same question hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and I’ve never come across a group of people who considered fighting to be a hobby or a special interest. But for this group, that was not an uncommon response. Wow. Brawling. But after seeing my first hockey match, I understand.

After observing the players’ toughness and the immense physical demands of the game, we speculate that stamina might be a key characteristic of hockey players. They are not the first high-stamina group we have ever studied. People in the restaurant business, as well as in fast-paced entrepreneurial situations, are generally also individuals of high stamina. Since we might as well ask hockey players the same question item we ask people with high stamina, we first asked them how many hours of sleep they needed.

More surprises: We heard the opposite of what we expected. Businessmen and restaurant owners don’t get much sleep. They are too busy working. In fact, if you don’t like working eighty or ninety hours a week, you shouldn’t run a restaurant, and never launch a bootstrapped business. You have to enjoy that speed.

However, this is not the case with hockey players. Many report preferring to sleep ten to twelve hours each night. At another point, some of these people reported taking naps or even twice a day.

What? Really? Ten to twelve hours plus naps? Our first reaction is that this must be one of the most tired groups of people on the planet. But further thought and investigation revealed that we had completely missed the ship.

As it turns out, many hockey players have a trait that we call “need for stimulation.” They need constant perceptual and / or physical stimulation to get their attention. They get bored faster than other groups of people by a sizable margin.

Hockey players don’t sleep because they are tired; they sleep because they are bored and have lost interest in waking. It is an adjustment to their need for constant stimulation, not a reaction to exertion.

We found the same thing with the fight. They don’t fight because they are angry – they fight because it excites and satisfies their need for constant stimulation. The proof is in the ice because when the action slows down, that’s when someone will start a fight.

This discovery, as well as all the colorful and entertaining stories that led to it, is very interesting. We can’t wait to share our insights with the North Star staff. I am sure it will be the pinnacle of my career.

Long story short, they weren’t impressed.

Lesson Two: Important Findings That Come Out of Science

After consuming a large chunk of our simple cake, we go back and re-evaluate the usefulness of the discoveries we made. Even though we found our insights very open-ended, in fact, very useless. We became so enchanted by this interesting and colorful group of people that we were thrown off track. We have lost our mission.

To make matters worse, our findings have the potential to make the team worse, not better. All we do is articulate conventional wisdom that is known to all.

Our clients don’t need to know more about hockey players. They are experts. All they need to know is what is different from superstars?

It turns out that there are some real pearls of wisdom hidden in our research, but we missed them. It was only around two o’clock that we discovered the “unusual genius” of the best hockey players.

We stuck to conventional wisdom because we lost track of the best. We pay attention to the majority, not the elite. After all, there are always more of them, so naturally, they create more noise. We listen to the noise and we get worse, not better – dumber, not smarter.

Luckily, we’ve recorded all of those interviews and our entire sample includes about half a dozen bona fide superstars. That’s not a very large sample size for a research study, but we have to start with what we have. We systematically went through the six interviews with neat combs, focusing all of our attention on what made them different from the rest.

Suddenly, something strange happened. We’re starting to get a lot smarter, a lot faster – so much so that it’s almost scary. We’ve asked our small population of superstars question after question what makes them so much better than other players. At one point, one of our subjects waved with a dismissive shrug and said something like, “Nobody’s going to believe me anyway.” When we asked him what he meant, he became very quiet. He looked around to make sure no one else was listening. Both her voice and demeanor make one wonder if she has paranoid tendencies. Finally, when he was sure he was not being watched silently, he leaned in close and in a soft voice he said, “I have … magic.” He actually whispered the last word. Of course he was asked to explain. He refused,

Surprisingly, one of our superstars went through almost the same training. He expressed the same doubts that anyone would believe him.
Then he said, “I can see things in slow motion.”

The third player actually admits he can, “slow down time.”

Three players from a small group of elites, all expressing similar magic. And the most interesting thing is that none of the average players mentioned it.

We only heard about a unique type of magic from the most elite players in the study. The difference is tremendous. What is lacking in one group is a common thread in another. It still makes hair stand on the back of my neck whenever I tell this story.

After more listening and consideration, we started to find out what those elite players called magic. First, they are not making it up. But what they meant wasn’t magic at all. We can explain their magic with science.

So what are they talking about? It turned out that they were describing a rare gift that was actually a special perceptual ability possessed by very few people. Unfortunately, it seems that someone has this gift or not. There is no middle ground when it comes to this truly rare talent. All of us who don’t have this talent can never be trained to do what they do, naturally.

Perceptual psychologists will tell you that our eyes and brains can process about sixteen images per second. While it may seem like a continuous stream, it really isn’t. However, there are people who for a brief moment can double or double the speed of this eye-to-brain processing.

In other words, for a moment, these people probably saw three times as much as the average person. This creates the illusion of slow motion. We call this phenomenon “extended time.” This is very real, and it is a real factor in the superior performance of this select group.

Whether it’s a hockey team or a workforce, replicating the best of talent is key to driving performance. But this isn’t just an exercise in gathering an interesting set of data, it’s a combination of data with science that reveals what really matters, what makes a particular talent great, and what will drive the need. Knowing the difference between what is attractive and what is important is key.

Bill Erickson, Author of No Pegs, No Holes: The Psychology of Elite Performance and Co-Founder of Workforce Science Associates, a leading employee engagement firm.