The Job Interview Every NFL Player Must Go Through to Get Hired

May 5, 2016

You may think that getting a job in the NFL is as simple as just being an amazing football player. And, yes, that’s a big part of it: the NFL seeks athletes who can throw the farthest, run the fastest, read defense and protect a quarterback.

However, screening for soft skills — how a player behaves and thinks rather than how he hits and runs — has become a big part of the NFL’s recruiting game. Now, in addition to the strength and running drills they have to endure during the NFL Scouting Combine (the week-long event where the NFL evaluates prospects before Draft Day), young players face in-person interviews and, sometimes, personality tests.

One might think that soft skills wouldn’t be such a big recruiting factor in the hard-hitting NFL. And for the longest time, they weren’t. “Years ago you just didn’t stress it as much,” says Ken Herock, a nearly 40-year pro football veteran who's been a player, recruiter and front-office exec for a number of organizations.

But recently, we’ve seen teams lose millions on talented young prospects whose emotional and/or behavioral problems damaged their careers — not to mention their teams’ competitive and financial futures. Now, the NFL recognizes that choosing players based solely on athletic ability can be a risky gamble.

"A bad hire, whether it's in business or in sports, will set your franchise back decades sometimes," says Robert Troutwine, a former psychology professor who advises sports teams. "It's extremely costly.”

So, like the business world, NFL teams have started to incorporate behavioral questions and emotional intelligence tests into their recruiting. With hundreds of millions of dollars and the hopes of their die-hard fans at stake, these teams see it as a worthwhile investment.

“For the small amount that it takes to assess [prospects] on the front end,” says Dr. Troutwine, “it's a drop in the bucket compared to your risk exposure in terms of taking the wrong person."

The interview: Using behavioral questions to get to know how players think

"What you're trying to find out [in the interview] is how the kid handles himself," says Herock, who trains college players how to ace the team interviews that take place before the Draft. "He's there to sell himself. He's there to represent himself as a quality young man: the way he shakes hands, the way he meets and greets people, the way he departs the room.”

During the interview, recruiters size up a player’s leadership potential and his knowledge of the game. (Says Herock: “If he doesn't know what the hell he's doing out there, where the hell's he been for four years?)

But recruiters will also ask behavioral questions to evaluate players. If a young prospect has a history of trouble — run-ins with the police, disciplinary problems, failed drug tests, questions about his work ethic, etc. — Herock says he’s going to be grilled on it.

"I want to see how he's going to address those issues," says Herock. "Convince me it's never going to happen again. I'm looking for sincerity and honesty in that meeting. They gotta show some humility at a certain point. You got about a minute to say, 'Hey, I did this. It was a bad mistake and I will never do it again."

Herock says recruiters insist on total honesty from a player about past misdeeds. "You know if a kid's [b.s.-ing] you," he says.

The test: Are you getting a hothead or a controlled competitor?

As all recruiters know, you can't get everything you need from just an interview. So some NFL teams also use personality tests to get inside their recruits' heads.

"An interview is very inefficient from a time standpoint," says Dr. Troutwine. He's developed a test called the Troutwine Athletic Profile (TAP) that several teams from the NFL, Major League Baseball, and other leagues use to gauge a prospect’s emotional intelligence (the online test is available here).

"If I had to resort to an interview only, what I get in [my 20-minute test] would take me maybe 8 hours," says Troutwine.

The test uses questions covering a variety of topics to compile a personality profile of the player. The most revealing questions assess players in two key areas.

1. Ability to control their emotions (aka “hothead screening”)

Dr. Troutwine’s TAP survey includes questions to determine a player's worldview. The goal of these questions is to reveal possible warning signs for hotheads who lack emotional control.

  • NFL recruiting

"If you have a jaded attitude that 'everybody's out to get me' and 'life isn't fair,' and you're on the defensive, you're going to process events differently and feel threatened when there is no threat there," Dr. Troutwine says. That's a big red flag for the type of aggressive behavior that can get the player penalized on the field, and arrested off of it.

"Football [is] such a violent game, and you want people who can ramp up and be aggressive," says Troutwine. "But they have to have that switch in their brain to turn it off."

2. Mental toughness: What kind of competitor are you?

Troutwine's test also evaluates players on their overall mental toughness: how they respond to criticism, how they bounce back after failure, their penchant for self-doubt, and their ability to keep those emotions from affecting their game: 

  • NFL recruiting

"Emotional stability is tied to consistency of performance," he says. "Lots of things go into that, of course: that passion to win, that never-say-die attitude. Resiliency. Never giving up."

Advice for business world recruiters

Sure, Troutwine and Herock deal with a special kind of recruiting — the kind that involves elite athletes and multi-million dollar contracts. But both recruiting experts have strong opinions on how the art should be practiced, even in the business world.

For one, Herock is not a fan of  the "trick questions" some recruiters have been known to ask during interviews. "I'm not looking for a trick question," he scoffs. "'Are you a cat or a dog?' That has nothing to do with football."

For his part, Troutwine says all recruiters should look at objective performance measures, such as a college senior's rushing yards or a salesperson's quarterly volume. But it's important to go beyond that and get a measure of the individual and what Troutwine calls "the intangibles: being able to hang in there and keep plugging away in the business world, ability to get along with others, be a teammate." 

Such qualities can be just as important in the NFL as they are in the business world. When recruiting for both, after all, the goal is the same: to field a winning team.

* Image by The Big Lead

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.