Mar 9, 2016
Heads-Up Play
Dr. Scott Goldman, Dr. James Bowman, and Alex Auerbach

Considered by many to be the next frontier in athlete analytics, intelligence testing allows strength coaches to see how players learn, process, and apply information.

This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Training and Conditioning.

The shooting guard catches the ball on the wing and dribbles into traffic. Just when it looks like he has nowhere to go, he knifes his way to the basket for an easy lay-up. On the next possession, he attacks the rim again, this time whipping a no-look pass to a teammate at the last second for a corner three. The announcers praise the athlete’s feel for the game and rave about his high basketball IQ.

Until recently, the sport-specific intelligence displayed by the shooting guard was viewed as an intangible trait-something that couldn’t be measured with hard data. Although we had unlimited stats on each player’s physical capabilities, there seemed to be no sophisticated way to investigate how their mental capacities impacted their game.

As professionals in sport psychology, we began studying ways to fill this gap. The result is the Athletic Intelligence Quotient (AIQ), a test we created that assesses the innate cognitive abilities of athletes and provides information on how they learn.

Intelligence tests like the AIQ are viewed by many as the next frontier in athlete analytics. A number of sport coaches are already using them to assess talent and find the best roles or positions for their players. Less well known is that the AIQ can also be utilized by strength coaches and athletic trainers. By enabling them to understand each athlete’s learning style, they can develop more meaningful and effective relationships.


What exactly is athletic intelligence? It is the ability to learn, process, and apply information quickly. It is different from knowledge, which is information someone already possesses.

Viewing athletes’ knowledge as a basis for their intelligence runs the risk of comparing apples to oranges. Players come from different programs and experiences, so their base knowledge can vary considerably. Thus, assessing them solely on this criterion may prevent us from seeing their true potential.

Athletic intelligence, however, provides a more accurate idea of how adept athletes are at acquiring, processing, and applying information. In addition, because it is a stable trait, comparisons between players measure true ability, rather than system-based knowledge.

A superior level of athletic intelligence means having the ability to take in new material rapidly, grasp complex situations with speed and ease, and generate numerous solutions to a problem. It is akin to a quarterback scanning the field, identifying the defense, and making a quick decision to complete a pass. Individuals with high athletic IQs are also flexible and adaptable, able to adjust to unanticipated variables and discard a failed strategy when necessary.

There are a number of competitive advantages to measuring athletic intelligence. First, it allows us to identify why athletes who lack superior physical capabilities still find ways to be successful in the weightroom and during games. Similarly, it helps us recognize athletes who don’t understand what is required of them during training, despite being physically talented.

In a more practical sense, measuring athletic intelligence can lead to improved coaching efficiency and strategy. By revealing how athletes best learn, the test results allow coaches to adapt training and create an optimal learning environment. For example, if a group of athletes are shown to retain information quickly, a strength coach might only have to demonstrate a lift once. This avoids unnecessary explanations and maximizes time during workouts.


The underlying construct of the AIQ stems from the empirically validated Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory of intelligence, which says that intelligence is comprised of 10 to 12 traits. Further research has shown that four of these traits make up athletic intelligence: visual spatial processing, reaction time, processing speed, and long-term retrieval.

The AIQ takes the four broad categories and splits each of them into a number of more specified abilities. Here’s a breakdown of this hierarchy and a description of each trait.

Visual Spatial Processing:

Visualization: The ability of an athlete to visualize his or her surroundings.

Spatial Scanning: The ability to scan a visual field quickly and effectively and determine the shortest route to a destination.

Visual Memory: The ability to form and store mental images and then later recognize or recall them on demand.

Spatial Relations: The ability to maintain orientation with respect to objects in space.

Reaction Time:

Simple Reaction Time: The ability to respond quickly and accurately to immediate stimuli.

Choice Reaction Time: The ability to respond to stimuli while ignoring distractions.

Processing Speed:

Perceptual Speed-Search: The ability to rapidly search for information in a visual field.

Perceptual Speed-Compare: The ability to quickly compare information in a visual field.

Long-term Retrieval:

Associative Memory-Acquire: The ability to store and recall information through association.

Associative Memory-Recall: The ability to recall previously learned information quickly and accurately.

The AIQ test is conducted on a tablet and mimics game play. It is made up of several interactive exercises, each one requiring athletes to complete a series of tasks. They are assessed based on how quickly and accurately they respond. Scores are given in each of the 10 AIQ subcategories, and these are factored in to provide an overall score, as well as scores for each of the four broad abilities outlined above. The test takes about 30 minutes to administer. (See “In the Slot” below for results and analysis of a sample AIQ test.)


The results of an intelligence test are nothing more than numbers in a report until they are applied directly to the athlete. With the AIQ, there are several ways to put the information in action- it all depends on how you interpret the numbers and what your needs are. We’ve successfully used the AIQ with both strength and sport coaches.

For instance, we once worked with a softball strength coach who was frustrated with a pitcher’s incorrect lifting form in the weightroom. He examined the player’s AIQ results to see if he could get any insight into why she struggled with the concepts. It turned out that her ability to retain information wasn’t strong, but she had excellent visual processing. As a result, the strength coach stopped explaining lifts verbally and switched to using more visual markers when teaching exercises, which helped.

The AIQ also recently enabled coaches to accommodate a Major League Baseball catcher’s learning style. The athlete was struggling to move up the minor league ladder, and his sport psychologist and coaches noticed that he had difficulty managing the game and calling pitches. His AIQ scores in long-term retrieval showed that he struggled to learn and retain information. Our solution was to create a “cheat sheet” armband that charted scouting report information, such as how to pitch to specific batters. With the material on his wrist during games, the catcher no longer had to waste mental energy trying to recall it. He reported the armband significantly helped him manage games and decreased his anxiety.

One of the more complex situations in which the AIQ became useful was when we partnered with a Power 5 conference women’s volleyball team. The squad had lost their right outside hitter to injury and was hoping to find a replacement among its left-side hitters.

However, switching sides in volleyball is no easy feat. Everything is different from a cognitive perspective-specifically, the hitter has to adjust to new angles and receive passes from different positions on the court. By moving to a new side, everything would feel and seem foreign, even though the tasks themselves were familiar.

The coaches used the AIQ to analyze which of their four left-side hitters would adapt well to playing from the opposite side. In particular, they looked at each athlete’s ability to visually scan the court, as well as their awareness of teammates, opponents, and other key court landmarks. The coaches reported that the AIQ was instrumental in finding a capable replacement hitter.

As these examples show, accessing how players process, retain, and recall information allows athletic personnel to make more informed decisions about how to structure training and competitions. Ultimately, this will lead to improved performance. Athletics will continue to focus on analytics in the future, and we foresee more teams taking advantage of intelligence testing.


Below are the results and analysis for a de-identified NFL wide receiver (Player X) who underwent the Athletic Intelligence Quotient test. A score of less than 70 in any category is considered very low, 70 to 79 is low, 80 to 89 is low average, 90 to 109 is average, 110 to 119 is high average, 120 to 129 is superior, and above 130 is very advanced.



Visualization 105

Spatial Scanning 84

Visual Memory 116

Spatial Relations 75



Simple Reaction Time 117

Choice Reaction Time 121



Perceptual Speed-Search 90

Perceptual Speed-Compare 98



Associative Memory-Acquire 120

Associative Memory-Recall 123


ANALYSIS & RECOMMENDATIONS: Player X displayed significant aptitude for long-term storage and retrieval. His capacity to learn and retain information is equally strong. Therefore, he is likely to learn and recall plays better than his peers, which means he needs fewer reps to digest what is being taught. His strength in this area may also enable him to pick up on opponents’ habits. As a wide receiver, this ability may help him remember defensive players’ tendencies from pregame preparation.

Similarly, Player X did very well in visual memory. This skill may allow him to study formation photographs on the sideline and then recall the information upon returning to the playing field.

Another strength for this player was reaction time. He was highly accurate and fast on both subtests. In game situations, he is likely to have an edge in reacting to immediate information, such as locating a ball that is thrown before he makes a cut.

However, significant weaknesses were found in Player X’s spatial relations and spatial scanning abilities. As such, he may have difficulty maintaining his positioning in relation to other players and landmarks on the field. Additionally, he may struggle to determine the shortest path to his destination while avoiding obstacles, which could impair his route-running ability.

Scott Goldman, PhD, is Director of the Performance Psychology Team for the University of Michigan athletic department and co-creator of the Athletic Intelligence Quotient. He is also a member of the NCAA Mental Health Task Force and the NFL/NCAA Mental Health Think Tank. He can be reached at: [email protected].

James Bowman, PsyD, has served as a psychologist for Great Neck (N.Y.) Public Schools since 2008, specializing in intellectual ability assessment, and is a co-creator of the Athletic Intelligence Quotient.

Alex Auerbach, MBA, is a doctoral student at the University of North Texas studying counseling psychology, with an emphasis in sport and performance psychology. He assists with the administrative aspects of the Athletic Intelligence Quotient.


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