Aaron Hernandez-The Need For Better Psychological Assessments In Sports


Aaron Hernandez by all accounts came from a troubled home and a checkered personal history especially starting in his High School years.  But since turning professional his home town of Bristol Connecticut took great pride in his accomplishments. But sadly, they had no idea that Hernandez led a double existence hiding the darker side of his persona.

Few could predict that he would be indicted for the murder of Odin Lloyd, be under investigation for a double murder, and be sued by a man who said he stabbed him in the face– all at the same time.The New England Patriot organization immediately cut Hernandez and severed ties with him. The Patriots did all they could to help and work with their fanbase, those within their organization, and Hernandez’s teammates to help them make sense of a nightmarish situation.  Hernandez had many friends and supporters on the team, and many were shocked.

There has been much speculation about whether the Patriots had done their due diligence before drafting Hernandez. Bill Belichick talked about the comprehensive process the Patriots use to evaluate players. He indicated that while they were pleased with their process, there was always room from improvement and change involving how they acquire players.

Choosing who to draft and sign has become more of a science that is a data driven process with millions invested. Yet expensive projected stars can become washouts and proverbial walk-ons can flourish, indicating that the predictive data being used– is far from perfect.

However, while nothing is perfect there are methods that can achieve the best possible predictions of performance—and the field of psychology possesses them, including the tenant that -past behaviors are the best predictor of future behaviors.

Moreover, psychological evaluations and tests which psychologists administer, are used in many fields including but not limited to; law enforcement, police science, clearance for certain types of surgery, as well as in schools and hospitals.

Psychological tools are powerfully predictive measures that when used properly could help teams assess an individual’s character traits and personality issues.

An individual psychological evaluation involves objective tests to assess among other things, cognitive abilities, memory and processing speed as well as academic functioning and ability levels involving the capacity to learn, as well as personality measures that yield complex information about the person being evaluated.

While the public is perhaps most familiar with the Rorschach test where people free associate and are asked questions about pictures on cards, the field of psychology has developed instruments well beyond this projective measurement.

These tests are highly objective, reliable, and valid yielding a wealth of information about an individual’s personality traits as a comprehensive profile emerges.

While not perfect (nothing is) these evaluations can be time consuming, but they can surely assist teams in making well informed psychometrically sound decisions.

Teams assemble a wealth of athletic and other background data on players they have interest in. Scouting reports on players can be quite lengthy.  However if they were integrated with an individual psychological evaluation done by a trained psychologist, that team would possess the greatest amount of reliable and predictive data possible for both on and off the field performance and behaviors.

Coaches frequently complain that they cannot reach players who often feel they are not understood or appreciated.  The data from a comprehensive evaluation could be used to assist both coaches and players in understanding not only how they optimally learn, but how to best be communicated with. Thus providing a road-map to help maximize performance— which is what sports is all about.

Sports organizations and all types of businesses are constantly monitoring performance in all areas and making comparative analyses among employees as well as individual previous performances in an attempt to project how they will perform in the future.  This is all done in an attempt to assist them in making decisions about future employment and the huge financial investments they make in their employees.

Psychometric–psychological evaluations would provide a cognitive-personality baseline for later comparison. Given the neurological and various injuries players sustain during their careers baseline data would be helpful to both the players and teams—and it should be thought of as a comprehensive baseline MRI involving all cognitive functions.

I can assure you that the a canned approach to assessment or some prepackaged one size fits all approach to assessment not only decreases reliability of the results, but leaves one with less than a full, clear and enlightened diagnostic picture.  Perhaps the Patriots and other organizations may need more light to better see their way clear.

In addition, I can certainly see how organizations and coaches who are under immense pressure to win and obtain talent might be tempted to take a chance on a player who has a troubled history. Especially when they have had success in doing so in the past, or feel they can turn a player around. However it would be far wiser to collect the most data available with the best tools available.

If you have not conducted a full psychometric battery you might not understand the value it has—I do. And it is most unfortunate that incidents with players are going to happen again–hopefully not the sort that involved Aaron Hernandez.

But when they do—you are going to want to have the best and most comprehensive information available on that player.  In this manner you can at least know you truly did your best.