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To find the next LeBron James, use this test

An ‘SAT for athletes’ measures how good high school athletes really are

By Matt Crossman

Zack Bowman reaches down to the turf at D1 Training, an athletic facility in suburban St. Louis. With both hands on a chalk line of an indoor football field, he assumes a four-point stance to run a 40-yard dash. A high school junior and linebacker on the football team who aspires to play in college, Bowman takes one last look down the green field spread out ahead of him, as clean and unspoiled as the future he is chasing.

He drops his head, chin to chest, lifts his left hand off the ground and tucks it behind his back. Now in the ready position, he is 5 feet 9 inches and 200 pounds of balled energy waiting to be spent.

Watching from nearby is Mike Weinstein, owner of Zybek Sports. Think of him like a proctor for an exam: He will “score” Bowman’s work today in the 40-yard dash, the standing high jump, the standing broad jump, and two agility tests.

In these five events, Weinstein has created what he calls the SAT for athletes; he even copyrighted the phrase Standardized Athletic Testing. His SAT has been administered more than 100,000 times since 2008, including 30,000 times last year, at combines, gyms, and colleges.

Once he sees Bowman is ready, Weinstein says: “It’s on you,” a phrase stamped on Zybek’s equipment and shirts. It’s a philosophy and a call to action for the athletic SAT. 

“It’s on you” means the automated electronic timer starts when the runner starts, and it stops when the runner crosses the finish line, creating an inarguably accurate time. “It’s on you” also means the timing system does not care about Bowman’s age, ethnicity, or gender. It doesn’t care how much money Bowman’s parents make, where they work, or what kind of house they live in. It simply measures the time it takes him to reach the finish. 

Bowman’s face is tight with concentration. He explodes out of his stance and sprints across the field.

High school sports have been big business for decades, and hype has attached to prep stars for just as long. Sports Illustrated has put more than a dozen high schoolers on its cover, dating back to the mid-1960s. A few flamed out. Some had middling careers. A handful became superstars, including Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Bryce Harper.

Coaches and writers and scouts and boosters are forever on the lookout for the next big star. Their record of accurately identifying them is no better than Sports Illustrated’s. The athletic SAT is a result of that. Weinstein sees his test as a way to put facts where the hype is and to leave the chaff among the chaff.

“They might be the star of St. Louis. But they have to know how they compare to the kids in Texas. In Texas, they’ve been doing selective breeding for football players for a long time.”

Often the problem with discovering the next big thing is that its candidates are playing against players who are younger, smaller, or less skilled. As Weinstein put it, jokingly: “They might be the star of St. Louis. But they have to know how they compare to the kids in Texas. In Texas, they’ve been doing selective breeding for football players for a long time.”

If the next big thing who turns out not to be worth the hype isn’t a mirage created by bad competition, he or she is sometimes a mirage created by wishful thinking. Scores, sizes, times — anything that can be measured can be measured wrong, especially when a parent or coach deeply invested in the outcome manages the scales.

Those mis-measurements never make a player seem worse, always better. Players are promoted as bigger, faster and stronger than they actually are. “You can’t call up a college and say, ‘I got a great score on the academic SAT, and my dad graded it,’” Weinstein said. “That’s happening athletically all over the country right now.”

Too often, a student’s 40-yard dash is actually a measure of the person doing the timing rather than the person doing the running. On average, Weinstein says, hand-clocked speeds make an athlete appear 0.2 seconds faster than electronic speeds.

Two-tenths of a second might not sound like much, but spread out over the course of a career, with all other attributes being equal, it’s the difference between not making it and making it, between making it and being good, between good and great and between great and legendary.

Zybek sells a handful of timing systems, ranging from a $449 timer designed for agility drills to a $8,499 package geared toward events that test many athletes.

At the 40-yard dash, devices on the turf that look roughly like drink coasters flank the runner on each side. The runner’s hand in the three-point stance blocks the laser that shoots between them. The timer starts when the athlete lifts his hand to start running, because the sensor is no longer blocked. Sensors at the 10-yard line and 40-yard line look like cameras on tripods. They stop the timer when the runner crosses them.

Without prompting, Weinstein points out that his SAT is “a measure, not the measure,” of an athlete’s performance. A wide receiver can train to become faster and more explosive than his peers, but if he can’t catch the ball, blazing speed matters not. Conversely, a baseball player can start with slow times and get slower, but if he can hit .300, he’ll be a superstar. “We’re trying to make this one little part of athlete development standard,” Weinstein says. 

Fans who follow the NFL Combine closely will recognize Weinstein’s SAT. (The NFL Combine is like the world’s most elaborate job fair. The best draft hopefuls gather in Indianapolis to complete athletic tests in front of NFL executives and coaches.) The SAT covers the same events as the NFL Combine, minus the Combine’s 225-pound bench press test, which Weinstein eliminated for safety reasons. Weinstein has timed the 40-yard dash at the Combine since 2011.

As often happens in sports, combines have trickled down from the NFL to the rest of the sports world. There are uncountable high school football combines now, each holding out the hope of discovery to promising athletes and the college coaches who attend. Weinstein scores many of them, and he has branched out into other sports: baseball, tae kwon do, lacrosse, soccer. He tweaks the SAT based on what measurements are most valuable to the sport.

Other businesses, such as Sport Testing, based in Canada, and Fusion, based in Australia, also offer athlete testing. Weinstein differentiates himself by focusing hard on students. He built Zybek’s name and reputation on his participation in the NFL Combine and expanded his reach by partnering with combines, gyms, and colleges. He sells them his equipment and teaches them to use it. He calls the gyms “testing centers,” to further associate his SAT with the academic one. He has deals with 49 gyms, which each administer tests to an average of 800 students a year. The cost to the student varies, but Weinstein said it’s typically $75. The gym gets $55 and he gets $20.

Combines for high school athletes sometimes draw more than 1,000 kids, but Weinstein prefers smaller gatherings where athletes get more attention. For example, Bowman talked with a trainer and Weinstein before and after each “test”; that would be next to impossible if there were hundreds of kids waiting in line.

The farther down you go in sports, the harder it is to find valuable, accurate, unbiased data. The NFL is overrun with data. High school football, less so. Junior-high football, even less. The SAT for athletes was born out of that market need. Comparison might be the thief of joy, but it’s invaluable in sports.

The SAT was also born out of disappointment Weinstein experienced as a father. His daughter was an avid club volleyball player who wanted to join her high school team as a sophomore. But 110 girls tried out for only 10 spots, and she didn’t get one. Weinstein wishes the coach could have given his daughter some direction, some skill to get better at, to give her hope of making the team the next year.

“It brings objectivity and specificity. You can work on it if you want. I wouldn’t care if the coach made this crap up to some degree,” he said. “Some might get motivated. They’ve got something objective, more than just, ‘You didn’t make the team.’”

Arms and legs churning, Bowman rips down the field inside the gym as the seconds tick away. He bursts across the finish line and slows before hitting a pad on the far wall. To my moderately trained eye, he looked fast. But the point of the SAT is to eliminate “looked fast” and replace it with “was fast.”

And fast is a relative term anyway. Fast compared to what?

Bowman hasn’t even made it back to the starting line when Weinstein reports his time: 5.177 seconds. “He’s not going to be happy,” says Zack’s mom, Susie, on the sideline.

And he’s not. “That’s horrible,” Zack says. 

Which is only true — if it is indeed true — because he’s comparing his time to what he wants to run. Because Weinstein has administered the test more than 100,000 times, he has an immense data set for comparisons. In a matter of seconds, Weinstein can tell Bowman how he compares to any set of players he wants — sorted by Bowman’s age, position, size, all college players, or college players at his position.

It is soon clear that Bowman is being harsh on himself. Relative to linebackers his age, Bowman’s time is faster than average (5.262). Weinstein digs into the splits of Bowman’s time and finds better news there. He was impressive for the first 10 yards. For a linebacker, a quick burst is more important than speed over long distances.

Still, Bowman takes Weinstein’s offer of a do-over, a standard practice of the athletic SAT. His second time is better, 5.073 — and again, he got off to a strong start. He ran the first 10 yards in 1.747, faster than the average college linebacker, according to Weinstein’s data. But after 10 yards, Bowman’s pace relative to others slows down. Over the whole 40 yards, though faster than linebackers his age, he was not faster than the average college linebacker (4.946).

Though his second time was better, Bowman is still not happy with it. When he was a high school freshman, he ran a 4.8 40-yard dash. If he wants to run a 4.8, it’s more understandable that he thinks 5.177 is horrible. But in the two-plus years since he clocked that fast 4.8 time, he has had two knee surgeries and added 50 pounds of muscle, most of it in his legs, which are as thick as fire hydrants. (“It’s hard finding pants for that kid,” his mom says.)

Bowman’s goal is to get back to 4.8 speed. At the very least, he wants to cut time off his 5.073 speed to show prospective college coaches he’s improving. Improvement is what today’s test is about for him. He will show his scores to his trainer, who will devise a plan for him to get better, not just in his 40-yard time, but in all of the events.

It’s exactly like trying to get a better score on the academic SAT. The better his scores, the better football program he’ll get to play for at the next level. It’s on him to put the work in. The fact that he’s here doing football drills in February suggests he’s self-motivated. His mom affirms that and says events like this push him to get better.

Between events, Bowman snags a water bottle off the wall separating the field from the viewing area and takes a swig. Apparently, it’s not his.

“Sure, you can have a drink of my water,” his dad, Brian, cracks.

“I’m competing right now,” Zack says.

“Against yourself,” Brian says.

“That’s your No. 1 opponent,” Zack says.

The test over, Bowman slips out of his spikes, packs up his gear and heads home. He’s not thrilled with how he did on the test, but he’s not bummed either. He’s established a baseline for measuring his future self.

He trains six days a week, but his life is not all football, all the time. He faces another big test in school on Tuesday, one that will also play a role in getting him into college: Nope, not the SAT. The ACT.

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis.


Illustration by Martin Elfman


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