Article: Sports coaches meet recruitment best practices
How to assess talent to produce a winning team
“Many in the corporate world have long recognised the cost of hiring the wrong person for a role (typically four times the cost of salary) and hence understand the need to employ optimal selection practices.”
As the football seasons have come to a close, several Australian Football League (AFL) clubs who have not experienced success this year, have been heavily involved in deciding who amongst all the aspiring coaches is best placed to develop the talent within their teams and produce a winning enterprise. In the case of both Essendon and Melbourne, their extensive selection processes have produced surprise appointments in Mathew Knights and Dean Bailey, two low profile assistant coaches who were regarded as very long shots in the highly competitive race for senior AFL coaching roles.
As the media has reported each element of the selection process, and commentators have had their say, it has been interesting as an observer who has had experience in both the world of the AFL coach and organisational psychology, to hear the various reactions of commentators. A common response has been skepticism and suspicion, particularly when the role of psychological testing has been discussed. This reaction is best captured by Mick Malthouse’s, coach of Collingwood’s comments that, if he were to be on the coaching market, “anybody who insisted on a psychological test would be advised to take their test and insert it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
What reactions such as these demonstrate is that many people, even those who work with sport psychologists as Malthouse does, have a poor understanding of what psychology, the science of human behaviour, actually offers when it comes to making important decision about selecting the people that drive a business.
On the other hand, what has also been demonstrated is that club administrators, often at the urging of their board members who are typically successful business people in their own right, are working to adopt the best practices that they have observed in the corporate world. Many in the corporate world have long recognised the cost of hiring the wrong person for a role (typically four times the cost of salary) and hence understand the need to employ optimal selection practices.
Predict future performance
“…when you select for a role based on interviews alone, the chances of predicting the best performer for the job are only 50 /50 ”
Research in personnel selection has been conducted for nearly a century and what the data typically shows is that the most reliable way to predict future performance is to combine an interview with psychological assessments and ‘in-role’ simulations. It has also shown that when you select for a role based on interviews alone, the chances of predicting the best performer for the job are only 50 /50. That is, despite conducting an interview, your gut feel judgement of who is the best candidate is no more reliable than a toss of a coin. So when the headhunters have assembled a field, there is still much work to be done.
Complementing interviews with psychological tests, which are interpreted by appropriately qualified people, can tell the prospective employer a great deal. Typically a suite of psychological assessments will include a personality test, as well as some cognitive abilities tests. Commonly the abilities tests will measure an individual’s conceptual reasoning ability and logical and deductive reasoning; however the combination of abilities tests may vary significantly as a function of the target role.
In the case of an AFL coach, one would expect that conceptual or abstract reasoning would be one test that was a must within any testing suite. Conceptual reasoning is the ability to see patterns, themes and interrelationships in what might appear to be ambiguous and disorderly information. An AFL coach should be strong in this ability as a game of football, which looks unstructured to some, can be won and lost by the ability to see a pattern emerging and responding quickly to change that pattern or exploit it. This is also one test that bears little relationship to education and is commonly regarded as a good measure of pure intellectual horsepower and problem solving ability. So the AFL coaching aspirant, who may have sacrificed formal education to pursue sporting excellence, need not fear a test such as this.
While personality tests traditionally arouse the greatest suspicion, the prospective coach should also feel comfortable with these. While commentators have jested about inkblot tests, within organisational psychology, personality tests are in fact ‘self-report’ measures in which individuals respond to a question by selecting the answer which best describes their preferences. The pattern of responses that the individual provides can give tremendous insight into an individual’s work and leadership style.
Assessment and Development Centres
‘While many applicants can talk a good game, before employing them it is useful to see if they can actually demonstrate the skills they claim to possess. ‘
While it’s helpful to have data from structured behavioural interviews and psychometric tests, the data from these measures is effectively self-report data as it is based on the individuals’ perceptions of themselves. In order to get another view of individuals the most rigourous selection processes will include role-plays in which others are able to observe how individuals work.
Assessment and Development Centres, which simulate some of the challenges that an individual will face in the target role play a very significant part in completing the picture for the prospective employer. While many applicants can talk a good game, before employing them it is useful to see if they can actually demonstrate the skills they claim to possess.
These simulations also provide the opportunity for individuals who may not sell themselves so well in an interview (consider the contrast in interview between the modest introvert and the extravert with a high desire to impress others) the opportunity to demonstrate their capability.
Simulations are particularly good predictor of behaviour because they place people in an environment in which there is a good deal of performance pressure. When people are placed in pressure situations, they will generally display their strongest traits and skills as these are the factors that have reliably called upon in the past. It is for this very reason that a successful track record is held in such high regard as a history of competence is associated with displaying effective skills under pressure and the employer feels it knows what it is getting.
In the case of AFL clubs selecting coaches, role-playing provides the opportunity to contrast the performance of the seasoned performer with a young up-and-comer who may not yet have had the same opportunities to demonstrate their capability. Reports from the Melbourne Football Club indicate that it was Dean Bailey’s performance in the various simulations, such as preparing for a game and a post-match review that gave him the upper hand over other candidates, which included the highly experienced Kevin Sheedy.
The fact that simulations also provide both the employer and employee with a snapshot of the future is why they are also widely used in fast tracking the development of those who are regarded as high potentials with a long term future within an organisation.
So while suspicion, skepticism and in some cases ridicule may be the initial response to a what is a new trend in football, this will in some cases simply be a reaction to or even a fear of the unknown. Perhaps the skeptics should reflect on the fact that the best way to gain a competitive advantage in any industry is to select the best people, and those clubs who are now applying the same type of rigour to their key appointments that the football departments happily apply to their draft selections are doing their best to find a competitive advantage.
Dr Rob Kerr