Are you on the ball in your field of work?

Atest to iden­tify fu­ture sports stars could also vet ap­pli­cants for jobs, writes David Gau­vey Her­bert

Weekend Herald - - WORLD -

bout a decade ago, when Eric Castien was writ­ing a his­tory of Real Madrid soc­cer stars, he asked scouts and coaches what de­fined the greats.

“They all pointed to their head and said, ‘ It’s in be­tween the ears, some­thing com­plex, maybe even magic’,” the Dutch jour­nal­ist and en­trepreneur re­calls. Could they be more spe­cific? Not re­ally.

Castien went look­ing. In 2012 he met Ilja Sligte, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Am­s­ter­dam and a ris­ing star in a field called cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science. Two years later the pair founded Brain­sFirst BV ( orig­i­nally called SportsQ), an Am­s­ter­dam start- up that prom­ises to iden­tify the world’s next soc­cer su­per­stars.

Although there’s no peer- re­viewed data to sup­port it, the com­pany claims its neu­ro­science games can iden­tify nat­u­ral affini­ties for the sport that may not be im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. A scrawny, in­ex­pe­ri­enced player, for ex­am­ple, may have a work­ing mem­ory and spa­tial aware­ness on par with Lionel Messi’s. The goal, says Sligte: “Match cog­ni­tive sup­ply and de­mand.”

The sig­na­ture test on Brain­sFirst’s NeurO­lympics plat­form is a rather mun­dane, 45- minute se­ries of sim­ple drills on its web­site: re­mem­ber­ing which boxes in a grid lit up blue, tap­ping the key­board’s ar­row keys as quickly as pos­si­ble af­ter a prompt, and so on. The idea is to test a player’s abil­ity to con­cen­trate, quickly make com­plex de­ci­sions, and shift at­ten­tion when needed.

Brain­sFirst charges cus­tomers 10,000 to 70,000 ( about $ 16,600 to $ 116,000) a year to li­cense its soft­ware. The com­pany has found an ea­ger au­di­ence among Euro­pean sports agents and soc­cer clubs. In Europe, agents of­ten sign play­ers at age 15 or 16, well be­fore their full po­ten­tial is known.

Brain­sFirst hasn’t sub­mit­ted its soft­ware to the Dutch As­so­ci­a­tion of Psy­chol­o­gists, which au­dits the qualit y of tests for stu­dents as well as hu­man re­sources de­part­ments and health­care ser­vices. Nor has Sligte pub­lished any ar­ti­cles about the com­pany’s meth­ods or ap­plied for a patent There’s ba­si­cally no ev­i­dence for the claims they’re mak­ing,” says Fred­er­ick Morge­son, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment at Michi­gan State Univer­sity who spe­cialises in or­gan­i­sa­tional psy­chol­ogy. “That’s not to say it’s com­pletely bo­gus, it’s just to say that we don’t know.

“These games are all based on well- val­i­dated cog­ni­tive tests,” says Sligte, adding that he can pre­dict a per­son’s age by com­par­ing their test data against re­sults from 1000 un­signed youth play­ers and 200 in­ter­na­tional pro­fes­sion­als.

Bram Meurs, a Dutch sports psy­chol­o­gist and for­mer pro soc­cer player, says Brain­sFirst tests showed him a phys­i­cally im­pos­ing 17- year- old client had cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties bet­ter suited to de­fence than his long­time mid­field po­si­tion, and the player is start­ing to thrive in his new role.

Sports agents are look­ing for ways to make sure they’re in­vest­ing in the right play­ers. “We lose a lot of money and time and en­ergy if we rep­re­sent the wrong tal­ent,” says Kees Vos, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Am­s­ter­dam’s Sports En­ter­tain­ment Group, one of the world’s most valu­able soc­cer agen­cies.

“We have put time into cer­tain play­ers we wouldn’t have three or four years ago” based on Brain­sFirst’s test, Vos says.

The test­ing com­pany also counts among its clients top Dutch soc­cer clubs PSV Eind­hoven and AZ Alk­maar. Lack­ing the re­sources of Europe’s rich­est squads, these clubs tend to de­velop their own stars in youth acad­e­mies rather than buy­ing them from ri­vals. The acad­e­mies may be cheaper, but they aren’t cheap; given a typ­i­cal an­nual cost per player of 15,000 to 75,000 ($ 24,900-$ 116,00) there’s a clear in­cen­tive to weed out dead- end play­ers early. The clubs de­clined to com­ment. Brain­sFirst, which says it will take in 500,000 in rev­enue this year and turn a slight profit, is ex­pand­ing be­yond sports into the broader field of so- called peo­ple an­a­lyt­ics.

Its other clients in­clude McKin­sey & Co, which from Oc­to­ber to Fe­bru­ary ad­ver­tised a Brain­sFirst game on its of­fi­cial Dutch Face­book page and in­vited high scor­ers to meet its re­cruiters. McKin­sey de­clined to com­ment.

In the US, start- ups are al­ready pitch­ing games they say can mea­sure the risk tol­er­ance and at­ten­tion to de­tail of ap­pli­cants for more con­ven­tional jobs. Morge­son, the Michi­gan State pro­fes­sor, says that be­cause the av­er­age adult’s cog­ni­tive func­tions start to dip at around age 40, HR de­part­ments that em­brace such sys­tems should pre­pare for lit­i­ga­tion.

“I’m sure we will get sued in the fu­ture,” Brain­sFirst’s Sligte says.

So far, sports are dif­fer­ent. Amer­ica’s Na­tional Foot­ball League has been us­ing the Won­der­lic Per­son­nel Test to gauge cog­ni­tive rea­son­ing since the 1970s, even though that test has led to hun­dreds of dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suits in­volv­ing work­ers in other in­dus­tries. To­day, the 12- minute set of 50 ques­tions re­mains a pre­draft rit­ual

.“for as­pir­ing pros.

And in the Nether­lands, where Brain­sFirst is ex­pand­ing into vol­ley­ball, hockey, and ten­nis, the sports world is sud­denly full of brain- game faith­ful. “Does Messi have a dif­fer­ent brain than you or me?” says Meurs, the sports psy­chol­o­gist. “I want to be­lieve that.”


Ilja Sligte, Brain­sFirst

Pic­ture / AP

Com­pa­nies claim they can quan­tify and mea­sure the men­tal ap­ti­tude of foot­ballers that make them great play­ers like Barcelona's Lionel Messi.

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