Scouting Talent: Should You Trust Your Gut?

Matt Waldman shares his experience with coming to terms with intuition’s role in scouting football.

One of the most qualified and experienced professionals I have met in scouting is a former Division-I player who has been a mentor to me despite only knowing his first name. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave a different name.

We have met up a few times at football events, usually on the edge of town away from the bars and restaurants where most coaches, scouts, GMs, owners, and media frequent. I always had to provide a tentative guest list in advance for his approval.

For the past decade, it’s like I have developed a working relationship with a spy. And to maintain that trust, there’s little that I can divulge. There are even people with whom I have a strong work relationship that met him in a different setting and believe he is working in a capacity that he isn’t.

What I can share is vague: He’s highly educated in multiple disciplines that serve as excellent training for the entire spectrum of scouting players. Jene Bramel summed it up as the one guy he’s ever met who can call bullshit to scouts, data scientists-analytics professionals, and medical-injury analysts.

I have seen his work. It’s high level. I have shared some of his work with people in different disciplines who could verify I wasn’t being professionally catfished.

I have even used him as a resource to speak with people who have sought me out for networking or career opportunities. He has provided excellent guidance to me and others.

What he told me early on and continues to tell me is that scouting talent will always have an intuitive component because the ball isn’t round and there are too many players in motion.

In other words, the variables are so great that the predictive elements in player evaluation are far fewer than what’s sold to the public. This is coming from someone whose analytical work with scouting is far beyond what I have seen in any public outlet.

What role does intuition play in scouting?

Last week, I shared that I have intuitive flashes and that I honor them while sticking to the processes I use for the RSP:

To be honest, I only needed a series for my intuition to recognize that Nick Chubb, Patrick Mahomes, and Travis Kelce were special players. It’s why I understand how Dave Wannestedt says he watched 2-3 plays of Dion Lewis in high school and told his recruiters to give Lewis a scholarship.

Here’s the deal: I am not paid to operate solely on intuition. If I have an intuitive reaction to a player, I honor that I have one but I still approach them with the same process. If anything, I watch an extra game or two and still rigorously follow the defined criteria I have for evaluation of the position.

Intuitive flashes are other reasons why having defined and weighted criteria in writing to follow is vital. After one phone call, I knew I would marry my wife, Alicia, and upon walking into the foyer of our past two houses that we eventually bought, I immediately said “this is it,” without seeing any more of the house at that point. These thoughts were unique to these moments. I wasn’t thinking anything remotely like that after dating several women and looking at dozens of homes.

Still, I didn’t tell Alicia I had this intuitive flash until we had dated for months and marriage had been a topic of conversation. And we looked at the rest of the houses—and other potential homes before making a buying decision.

When I have an immediate intuitive flash about a player, it doesn’t change my process. Diontae Johnson is an example of a prospect where I had that gut feeling he was good but he had difficulty with his technique as a pass catcher and dealing with certain behaviors of press corners. His grade wound up lower than my gut feeling.

Still, I try to point out overarching scenarios that may explain some of that intuitive insight.

None of what I shared gets at the larger question: How does one learn to trust their intuition while reconciling it with a process-oriented approach?

I have no definitive answer, but I do have nearly 30 years of experience and perspective when it comes to building, implementing, and managing people and processes that measure, evaluate, train, and manage performance. And, the answers that I have will require methodical work over the span of years.

Our intuition comes from our unique experiences, which means we’re at fundamentally different starting points. If we are open to our emotional intelligence, we continue to enhance our intuitive skills as we gain a strong base of knowledge in our field.

There are potential obstacles. One is being closed off to your intuition. The other is relying on your intuition too heavily and too early in your development as a scout. This is the most common problem.

It’s easy to cop-out of the methodical work of studying detailed criteria at every position. Getting lost in the detail and losing sight of what has the most value is the rationale.

The problem with this rationale is that it presumes one is trained in the fundamentals of their field. For scouting, this includes positional techniques and concepts that many armchair scouts presume the have learned through the osmosis of watching football as fans.

I have had former professionals tell me that they learned more about these skills and concepts while watching my videos as educational resources for scouting than they did during a decade in the NFL. When you think about it, it’s logical: Teams don’t coach up players on technique as much as Gameplan. They expect players to figure out that part of the game on their own time.

In order to develop our gut feeling, you have to continually feed it as much fundamentally-sound knowledge as possible. This takes time. You didn’t learn arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus in 2-3 years. Why do you expect to master all of the silos of football knowledge in that time?

Just because you listened to music your entire life doesn’t mean you will master the piano in a few years. Yes, some do, but we’re not talking about the extraordinary cases that prove the rule.

Speaking of silos, studying talent, technique, and athletic ability is a different arena than scheme. There’s some overlap and learning one can help you with the other but learning one doesn’t make you skilled at the other.

Learning across silos will, however, eventually help your mind recognize seemingly disparate sources of knowledge that you can combine to generate valuable insights you otherwise wouldn’t have recognized. This is also true with gaining expertise in non-football subjects.

The more knowledge you gain and the more you seek out ways to connect how they relate, the greater the frequency of insights you gain that translate across subjects. As this was occurs, the more likely you have moments where you recognize a dynamic or quality about a player that is positive or flawed and do so with a flash of insight that seemingly skips multiple steps.

I believe your mind is simply processing these steps faster because it has already developed the individual building blocks of knowledge in a way that it can now subconsciously stack them in patterns of multiple blocks than just one at a time. In order for this to develop, you have to get the basic knowledge and work at it as if there is no such thing as intuition.

And when you experience what you think is an intuitive moment, remain methodical. Note that you had a moment and describe what it felt like, what you believe from it, and where and how you feel it. Then, follow your process as if that insight didn’t exist and see if you can arrive at the same conclusion.

If your process has enough detail, you’ll arrive. If it doesn’t, note this and stick with the process.

Don’t worry about going against your gut feeling, if you want to become a good evaluator, you’re playing the long game. It means you stick to your process and note what you think could be changed if your gut feeling proves correct over the span of 2-3 seasons.

Keep in mind, “correct” isn’t production or playing time. It is the specific skills and behaviors that put a player in position to generate a positive outcome for himself and/or his teammates.

When you examine your process this way, you may discover that your criteria was too general and you need to break it down into separate components. You might find that you place too much value in a piece of criteria. You could also realize that you aren’t accounting for specific techniques or concepts.

It’s best that you don’t make changes based on one occurrence of a flash with one player unless it is due to your process not accounting for a technique or concept that you were missing that applies to the position. Give yourself 2-3 years to watch how this plays out for the player in question and other players.

By all means, develop potential solutions and experiment with them alongside the current method you’re using. Just be methodical about it. Otherwise, you may discover that what was intuition was a psychological imprinting of traits you like as a fan that aren’t grounded in sustaining skills and concepts.

You might see the way a player moves and it reminds you of Walter Payton. Your mind has what you think is an intuitive flash that this prospect is good when, in reality, you saw him do a pony kick, deliver a stiff arm and he has a similar build as Peyton while wearing No. 34.

Additional study through a methodical process reveals that he’s slow, only breaks the easiest tackle attempts, and only runs toss plays with any competency. Or, you learn that his footwork like Payton and hundreds of good backs had a common thread, that combined with good decisions between the tackles makes him as good as that flash of insight felt.

Either way, lean on the process. Use the potential moments of intuition to test your methodology in a methodical way. In the end, you will make your processes better because you will identify knowledgeable gaps you need to refine or improve you methods of defining and tracking information.

You will also learn more about your intuition — how to distinguish it accurately from things you’ve conflated with it and if you’re patient, eventually when and if you might want to lean on it.

My advice on that last part: if you are providing a service to the public, lean on process and how observing your intuition might help refine it or else you won’t gain knowledge you can use to communicate and educate.

Also, give yourself years to do this. This is the hardest part. Few of you will. Not because you are incapable, but because you will discover it’s not that important to you.

Good luck.




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