Field hockey: psychological characteristics help identify latent talent

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
It would be possible to predict the future performance of young players using variables other than on-ice performance.

Martin Saint-Louis: never drafted. Jonathan Marchessault: never drafted. Tom Brady: drafted 199th. The cases of these three athletes, who rose to the top of their sport after being grossly underestimated by scouts, illustrate just how perilous an exercise it can be to identify promising youngsters. A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences by a research team from Laval University’s School of Psychology suggests that the risk of making such mistakes could be reduced by assessing certain psychological characteristics of young players, particularly those whose talent has not yet fully emerged.

To demonstrate this, the researchers enlisted the help of 95 field hockey players aged 15 or 16. In 2019, a few weeks before the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) draft, members of the research team met with these players to subject them to tests measuring certain psychological characteristics that influence thoughts, emotions and behaviors. One of these variables was the ability to self-regulate learning. "In a nutshell, it’s the ability to learn as much as possible from what we’re given," says postdoctoral fellow Daniel Fortin-Guichard, one of the members of the research team.

In addition, the researchers used videos to measure the anticipation, decision-making and attentional processes of each participant. Subjects were asked to watch videos presenting various game situations. At various points in the action, the image was paused and participants were asked to predict what would happen next. Those who were attackers had to predict what the player in possession of the puck would do, while those who were defenders had to predict the defender’s response. Each participant was then asked what he or she would have done in the same situation. During viewing, a device recorded the participants’ eye movements.

Of the 95 players evaluated, 70 were drafted after the second round, i.e. beyond 36th place. "This means that scouts did not consider them among the elite of their cohort," points out Daniel Fortin-Guichard.

Three years later, the researchers met with Quebec Remparts scouts to find out their assessment of these players based on their performances in the QMJHL. The scouts’ responses identified 15 of these 70 players whom they would select for their team if given the chance again. "When these players were 15 or 16 years old, the scouts had not been able to detect their potential by relying on their on-ice performances. Their talent was latent," emphasizes the postdoctoral fellow.

The researchers analyzed psychological data collected three years earlier to find clues to the potential that lay dormant in these players. The result? These youngsters had higher self-regulation scores than the others, and their strategy for visually scanning video images was more dynamic. "They would look for information in more parts of the image, stopping their gaze less often - in other words, they would make a single information capture per important element, while looking at each important element," explains Daniel Fortin-Guichard.

These variables make it possible to correctly classify 84% of late-drafted youngsters who have or have not become key players on their teams. "In theory, we could therefore identify a high proportion of latent talent in young players from tests that measure these variables," points out the postdoctoral fellow.

"The same method could be applied by studying 18-year-olds to detect which variables would be the best predictors of their future performance."

-- Daniel Forin-Guichard, on the possibility of transposing this approach to the NHL draft

Could these variables also help National Hockey League teams make better draft picks? "It’s likely that the psychological variables that predict later performance in 18-year-old players are not the same as those we found for 15- or 16-year-olds. On the other hand, the same method could be applied by studying 18-year-olds to detect which variables would be the best predictors of their future performance," believes Daniel Fortin-Guichard.

The other authors of the study, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, are Émie Tétreault, David Paquet and Simon Grondin, from Laval University’s School of Psychology, and David Mann, from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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