Brian Decker was a Special Forces officer with multiple tours in Iraq before being put in charge of the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Program (SFAS) in 2011. One of the first things he did was revamp the course which had changed little from its inception in 1988 to better meet the changing role that SF soldiers will need to fight and win in the modern battlefields of today. It is a metric that shows the successful soldier will have common traits that can carry over into any profession.
Decker’s overhaul consisted of finding out what makes people, in this case, Special Forces soldiers tick and what common traits make them so successful. His goal at the time was to not just identify candidates that wanted to be Green Berets but find ones that wanted to be great ones.
He collected 1200 data points on every SFAS candidate measuring everything from their peak physical performance to psychometrics, the science of measuring mental processes. Thus, and despite misgivings from the old guard of SFAS instructors who were there in 1988 (raises my hand), he churned out better SF candidates and the failure rate plummeted by 30 percent.
Decker changed the course to more closely resemble the factors that the soldiers would face in modern warfare. A look at how our Special Forces soldiers have been performing in areas all over the world daily would prove that his system works. He then took his model upon retirement from the military to the civilian world.
The old clichés that military and the world of sports share have always been common but the most prevalent ones have always been around the NFL. Listen to nearly any NFL broadcast and the military jargon permeates the reporting. How many times have we heard, Blitz, Drop the Bomb, Neutral Zone, Battle in the Trenches, Red Zone, Formations et al?
So, it was a natural fit that Decker first tried to sell his idea to the NFL. It is a fact that 50 percent of the league’s first round draft picks fail. The reason why had nothing to do with physical traits or football skills but of mental makeup. Decker identified that what makes an SF soldier a valuable member of an A-team is the same innate qualities that make a successful football player.
In a fantastic piece by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, he detailed how Decker sold his idea to the Cleveland Browns. Mike Lombardi the Browns GM was sold on his metric and CEO Joe Banner and Head Coach Mike Chudzinski was soon brought on board.
That year at training camp, Banner met Decker. He was there as a guest of Lombardi, then the Browns’ GM, and head coach Rob Chudzinski, who had both gone to Special Forces camp a few months earlier in search of training tips. Decker described to Banner his methodology for picking soldiers. Banner immediately saw connections between the military and football. Special Forces teams operate much like an offensive or defensive unit: There are blocking-and-tackling activities, isolation of matchups based on analysis and game planning, and execution that draws on reservoirs of intangibles. Most of all, both pursuits rely on mutual ambition and sacrifice. “He could pick out, within a group of top achievers, who could really take the next step,” Banner says now. “His techniques and studies were amazing.”
The problem was that the bottom-dwelling Browns fired the entire staff before Decker could implement his system. New GM Ray Farmer let him interview 60 prospective candidates at the NFL Combine. And Decker changed everything in the way that they interviewed players.
Decker, though, tried to profile players. He asked zero football questions. He did interviews at round tables instead of square to avoid intimidating prospects, and he asked open-ended questions, many adapted from the ones he asked soldiers. He was less concerned with the existence of what scouts would call character issues – failed drug tests or arrests – than with why those issues existed.
Decker’s work with the Browns is proprietary, so he can’t get into the data details. But in his office, he demonstrated a sample interview by interviewing me. He had done his homework: He wanted to know about the impact of my parents’ divorce. He wanted to know how I coped with stress. He wanted to know my professional goals. He wanted to know whether I’d ever quit a sport, and why. He wanted to know a moment in my life when I was broken, and how I responded. Decker took notes, not of my answers but of how I answered. He watched for eye contact, for the rate of speech, for clarity of answers — all tells if I happened to be lying or filibustering. If I were a draft prospect, he also would have probed to see what teaching method worked best for me and tested my ability to adjust on the fly and solve problems. The goal is to work up a behavioral analysis that is not only deep but predictive.
It was a tremendous start, but the Browns as they are apt to do, fired Farmer and his staff and let Decker go too before he had a chance to implement even more of his data-driven systems to help them.
He then got some time with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots at the 2016 NFL Combine and Decker asked Belichick what player trait he most struggled to identify. Belichick answered bluntly, he had trouble finding players willing to buy into a team-first mentality.
Decker talked about how the Special Forces persuaded candidates to think in terms of a unit, in part by creating leaderless teams in training so every soldier will lead…After all, in the military, soldiers sign over their lives and will die for one another. There’s an all-encompassing sense of duty and pride and, yes, love.
To read the rest of Seth Wickersham’s piece on Decker click here:
You will no doubt see Decker again this year, at the NFL Combine speaking with coaches and GMs about identifying the better NFL player. The system works. And it will work with any profession, it will just take someone with the vision of Brian Decker to fit it to their particular set of parameters.