I’m a sports fan, and this is a sports story. Some of the most fun and educational experiences of my career came from when I have been able to work closely with professional and college teams in several different sports. If you’re not a sports fan—in fact, if you’ve had it up to there with sports metaphors in business—take heart. First, this story is about hockey—a sport I admittedly knew absolutely nothing about at the time. So, there is little risk of me losing you in the finer points of the game. Second, the things that we discovered have at least as much to do with hiring and developing employees as they do with sports. The hockey part just makes it a little more colorful.
What You Need to Know About Hockey
In 1979 we started working with George and Gordon Gund, two brothers who had recently purchased the Minnesota North Stars of the National Hockey League (NHL). Their goal was to win a Stanley Cup—the Super Bowl of Hockey. The Gund brothers knew they needed a superstar player or two to become Stanley-Cup contenders. To do this, they either needed to have pockets as deep as the New York Yankees, or they needed to make the most of their draft picks. And that was their focus: Use draft picks to get superstars. That made sense to us.
As I said, I knew virtually nothing about hockey at this time. I grew up in Nebraska where football, not hockey, was the local religion. I had a lot to learn about skating, sticks, and pucks in a very short time. One of the things I discovered early on was that in regions with a prevailing hockey culture, they start ‘em young.
It seems that hockey-culture kids are almost born with skates on their feet and have dreams of Olympic gold and Stanley cups in their hearts—not Heisman trophies or Super Bowls. For those with talent, youth hockey becomes the defining activity of their formative years.
Unlike basketball or football, where most athletes play at the collegiate level for a few seasons before they are signed to a professional team, hockey players were sometimes drafted before they were even out of high school. Teams commit to players and sometimes must nurture them through a couple of years of developmental leagues before they are ready to go pro.
This makes for a massive investment of time and money. It’s no fun if you get it wrong. And it ups the ante dramatically when it comes to evaluating, at an early stage, who has got it and who does not.
The Talent Challenge for Minnesota North Stars of the National Hockey League (NHL)
When we first met the Gund Brothers, they had completed their initial review and concluded that, unfortunately, the team’s track record in the draft was mostly one of futility and frustration. It seemed that many of the league’s bona fide superstars had not been identified by their scouts ahead of the draft. Conversely, many of the kids that they had pegged as future stars simply had not lived up to expectations. What were they missing? Why was it so hard? Certainly, any team that could crack this code would have unlimited potential.
With these facts in mind, George and Gordon asked us to create a psychological profile of the ideal hockey player. We would then come up with a process to compare potential draft candidates to this profile.
This was exciting stuff for me. Even though I was a hockey neophyte, I was thrilled to be part of a team that combined two of my passions—psychology and sports—in a single quest for excellence.
The First Lesson: Interesting Doesn’t Mean Important
Our first step was all about data gathering. We needed to collect all the ideas and characteristics of hockey players that we could get our hands on so that we didn’t miss anything important. So, among other things, I got to go to my first professional hockey game.
I remember spending two and a half hours as a spectator thinking, what the heck is going on down there? I didn’t know a face-off from a facelift, and I figured red-lining must have meant that someone was skating too fast. I do remember the fights. I especially remembered the way the referees just stood by and watched, as well as the slight pink tinge left on the ice from the bloodletting.
In the weeks that followed, our team met with groups of hockey players, coaches, and staff members. We asked every question we could think of and listened intently to the answers. We even recorded the sessions for further study. We tried to learn everything we could about hockey players. We learned later, this was part of our problem.
Our original plan was to interview around sixty current professional players. We tried to figure out the best and most revealing questions to ask them so that we could separate the really powerful ideas from the rest. In the end, we included just about every question we could think of about how they played hockey and what made them so good at it.
This was a fascinating experience for everyone on our team. We discovered that hockey, even more than most sports, is truly a world unto itself. For example, we’ve all seen football or basketball players on TV who make a big play and then ham it up for the cameras. What do they always say? “Hi Mom!” With hockey players, on the other hand, it’s “Hi Dad!” We wondered, what’s that all about?
Like everything else, it’s part of the culture—and it starts early, in more ways than one. Hockey players—and their fathers—talk about the days when they were just starting out, getting out of bed at 4:30 AM, in the dead of winter to go get time on the ice. The big kids were skating all day, and this was the only time the little guys could get their ice time.
As a rule, Mom is not the one getting up early to make this trip. Not only would she rather sleep until a more civilized hour, but she would also just as soon see junior reach graduation with all his teeth intact. Hockey is a huge father-son culture and a huge investment of time and effort and money on Dad’s part over a period of many years. The kids never forget it. And it plays out on the ice. Something I discovered almost by chance was that teams just play better on Dad’s Night. Given this understanding, if I owned a hockey team, I would be flying the dads all over the country to attend every big game!
We found more examples wherever we looked. The game is unique, the appeal is unique, and even the fans are unique. And most certainly the players are a breed unto themselves. They were the most unusual group of people I’ve ever had a chance to study, either before or since. Some predominant patterns definitely emerged.
For example, we asked them about their hobbies and special interests. Now, I’d asked similar questions hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and I’d never met a group of people where so many considered brawling as a hobby or special interest. But for this group, that wasn’t an unusual response. Wow. Brawling. But after seeing my first hockey game, I understood.
Having observed the toughness of the players and the sheer physical demands of the game, we speculated that stamina might be a key characteristic of hockey players. They wouldn’t be the first high-stamina group we’d ever studied. People in the restaurant business, as well as in really fast-paced entrepreneurial situations, are generally high-stamina individuals, as well. Figuring we might as well ask hockey players the same question items we asked the other high-stamina folks, we first asked them about how many hours of sleep they needed.
More surprises: We heard the opposite of what we expected. Entrepreneurs and restaurateurs don’t sleep much. They’re too busy working. In fact, if you don’t like working eighty or ninety hours a week, you should never run a restaurant, and should never launch a bootstrapped venture. You have to enjoy that pace.
However, this simply was not the case with hockey players. Many reported preferring to get ten to twelve hours of sleep a night. At other points, some of these individuals reported taking a nap or even two during the day.
What? Seriously? Ten to twelve hours plus naps? Our first reaction was that this must be one of the most tired groups of people on the planet. But further thought and investigation revealed that we’d missed the boat entirely.
As it turns out, many hockey players possess a trait that we came to call, “stimulation need.” They require constant perceptual and/or physical stimulation in order to hold their attention. They get bored faster than other groups of people by a considerable margin.
Hockey players don’t sleep because they’re tired; they sleep because they’re bored and have lost interest in being awake. It’s an adjustment to their need for constant stimulation, not a reaction to exertion.
We discovered it was the same thing with the brawling. They don’t fight because they’re angry—they fight because it’s exciting and it fulfills their need for constant stimulation. The proof is on the ice because when the action slows down, that is when somebody is going to start a fight.
These discoveries, as well as all the colorful and entertaining stories that led up to them, were fascinating. We couldn’t wait to share our insights with the North Stars staff. I was sure it would be the high point of my career.
Long story short, they weren’t impressed.
The Second Lesson: The Important Findings Come Out of the Science
After choking down our big slice of humble pie, we went back and reevaluated the utility of discoveries we were making. Although we found our insights very revealing, they were, in fact, pretty useless. We had become so enthralled with this interesting and colorful group of people that we had gotten thrown off the track. We’d lost sight of our mission.
Even worse, our discoveries had the potential to make the team worse, not better. All we had done was to articulate the conventional wisdom that everyone already knew.
Our clients didn’t need to know more about hockey players. They were already experts. What they needed to know was what’s different about the superstars?
It turns out there were some real pearls of wisdom hiding in our research, but we had missed them. It wasn’t until around two that we picked up on the “unconventional genius” of the very best hockey players.
We got caught up in conventional wisdom because we lost track of the best. We paid attention to the majority instead of to the elite. After all, there are always more of them, so naturally, they create a lot more noise. We listened to the noise and we got worse, not better—dumber, not smarter.
Fortunately, we had recorded all those interviews and our entire sample included about half-a-dozen bona fide superstars. That’s not a very large sample size for a research study, but we had to start with what we had. We systematically went through those six interviews with a fine-tooth comb, focusing all of our attention on what made them different from the others.
All at once, a strange thing happened. We began to get a lot smarter, a lot faster—so much so that it was almost unnerving. We had asked our small population of superstars question after question about what made them so much better than other players. At one point, one of our subjects waved us off with a dismissive shrug and said something like, “No one is going to believe me anyway.” When we asked what he meant, he became very quiet. He looked around to make sure that no one else was listening. Both his voice and his mannerisms made one wonder whether he had paranoid tendencies. Finally, when he was sure he was not being secretly observed, he leaned in close and in a soft voice he said, “I have…magic.” He actually whispered the last word. Of course, he was asked to elaborate. He refused, saying that he wished he hadn’t brought it up in the first place.
Oddly enough, another one of our superstars went through almost the same drill. He expressed the same doubts that anyone would believe him.
Then he said, “I can see things in slow motion.”
A third player actually claimed to be able to, “slow time down.”
Three players from a small group of the elite, all expressed a similar sort of magic. And the most fascinating point was that not one of the average players had mentioned it.
We only heard about a unique type of magic from the most elite players in the study. The difference was uncanny. What was so utterly lacking in one group, was a common thread in the other. It still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time I recount this story.
After lots more listening and consideration, we began to figure out what it was the elite players called magic. First, they weren’t making it up. But what they were referring to wasn’t really magic at all. We were able to explain their magic with science.
So what WERE they talking about? It turned out that they were describing a rare gift that is actually a specific perceptual ability possessed by very few people. Unfortunately, it appears that one either has this gift or one does not. There is no middle ground with regard to this truly rare talent. The rest of us who lack this talent can’t ever be trained to do what they do, naturally.
Perceptual psychologists will tell you that our eyes and our brains can process about sixteen images per second. Even though it seems like a continuous flow, it’s not. However, there are people who for brief moments in time can triple or quadruple this rate of eye-to-brain processing.
In other words, for a brief moment, these people may be seeing three times as much as the average person. This creates the illusion of slow motion. We named this phenomenon “elongated time.” It is very real, and it was a real factor in the superior performance of this select group.
Whether it’s a hockey team or a workforce, replicating top talent is key to driving performance. But it isn’t an exercise of simply gathering a bunch of interesting data, it’s a combination of the data with the science that unveils what is really important, what makes specific talent great, and what will move the needed. Knowing the difference between what’s interesting versus what’s important is key.
Bill Erickson, Author of No Pegs, No Holes: The Psychology of Elite Performance and Co-Founder of Workforce Science Associates, a leading employee engagement firm