Can ‘Athletic Intelligence’ Be Measured?

Unlike me, every single player in the N.F.L. is a genius-level athlete in some respect, and every position requires some form of superior cognitive ability. So maybe it’s not so surprising that Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones, the New York Giants’ two young emerging stars, both crushed the A.I.Q. The gifted wideout with all the maybes, D.K. Metcalf, went in the second round to the Seahawks, an A.I.Q. client. (Goldman permitted me to name specific players only if I received permission from their teams.) He blossomed right away, finishing among the top three rookie wide receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns. Udoh, the lineman from Elon, went in the sixth round to the Minnesota Vikings, and he made the team, but he played in only one game, the season finale, in Week 17. Horsted, the receiver from Princeton, wasn’t drafted.

The Giants don’t use the A.I.Q., and they didn’t need it to conclude that Saquon Barkley is good at football. Where the test really starts to pay off, Goldman believes, is late in the draft and during the post-draft free-agent free-for-all, which is when teams are panning for flakes of gold. And if you’d asked the A.I.Q. after the 2019 draft to spit back the name of the undrafted rookie most likely to start a N.F.L. game in his first season, it would beep and whir and give you your answer: Jesper Horsted. All the way back in January, in that hotel room in St. Pete, the A.I.Q. spotted him, like a needle in a stack of needles. This one. This kid.

Aside from quarterback, Goldman told me, tight end is football’s most cognitively demanding position, because tight ends are both blockers and pass-catchers — they must remember complex protection schemes as well as receiving routes. And according to his A.I.Q. results, Jesper Horsted’s brain is built for the job. His full-scale score was 111, which is very strong, and he scored at least 100 on all 10 sections, which is very rare, and he tested off the charts on the sections most relevant to tight ends: “navigation” (“the ability to scan a visual field quickly and effectively and determine the shortest route to the destination”) plus a pair of sections that measure learning efficiency, “acquisition” (how quickly you download information) and, my nemesis, “recall.” Horsted scored 121 on the navigation test, 124 on acquisition and 122 on recall.

Goldman gives players their own A.I.Q. results free, if they ask for them, which they almost never do. Horsted did, though, right after he finished the test. Sure, Goldman told him: “It’s your brain.” The Chicago Bears are not A.I.Q. clients, but two weeks after the 2019 draft, the team signed Horsted as a tight end. He made a strong impression during training camp, scoring touchdowns in each of Chicago’s final two preseason games. Then, on the final day of camp, the Bears cut him. Undrafted rookies pretty much always get cut. A few days later, though, the Bears signed him to the practice squad — cannon fodder, basically, but still. He was on the team. On Nov. 19, he was promoted to the Bears’ active roster. Four days later, in his first N.F.L. game, he made his first N.F.L. catch. Four days after that, the guy ahead of him on the depth chart was injured, and Horsted was named the Bears’ starting tight end.

People with higher A.I.Q. scores tend to get on the field sooner, Goldman had said outside that stuffy hotel room in Florida. They tend to start more in their rookie years, and then they also tend to have longer careers.

The A.I.Q. got its start nearly 20 years ago as a two-man “pop and pop shop,” as Goldman calls it. He and Bowman hatched the idea at the Albert Ellis Institute, a psychotherapy training center in New York, and during long commutes on the Long Island Railroad. When they first met in 2004, Goldman and Bowman seemed headed down different career paths. Goldman wanted to work with pro athletes. Bowman wanted to work with children. What they had in common, though, was a love for sports. One night, Goldman shared an idea he was turning over in his head about building a new kind of sports I.Q. test, one rooted in cognitive theory and developed with the care and rigor of an academic endeavor.

The idea intrigued Bowman, but he cautioned Goldman that a test of this sort would need “a solid theoretical base,” otherwise, Bowman explained to me, “you can just pick and choose factors to measure.” The logical choice, he told Goldman, was the Cattell-Horn-Carroll Theory of Cognitive Abilities, a composite of multiple peer-reviewed advances in the field of brain science that represents the most current understanding of how intelligence actually works.

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