Was Michael Jordan born to be a great pressure player?
Is there something in his genetic blueprint that makes him more dependable in times of duress?
Are athletes predisposed to success or failure?
Can you test your 10-year-old Jimmy to see if he is cut out to be a relief pitcher?
More important, does Laker phenom Kobe Bryant have what it takes between the ears to become the next Jordan?
The answers, according to Jonathan P. Niednagel, are yes, yes, yes, yes and, um, no.
Niednagel, a 50-year-old former commodities trader and youth coach, has devoted 20 years to studying brain types. He has emerged as a guru of sorts in sports, known as the "Brain Doctor" in NBA front offices and NFL war rooms.
Niednagel says he provides what even the most savvy baseball scouts can't: a radar gun for the mind.
The Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks--under the same ownership--so value Niednagel's work, they have signed him to an exclusive six-figure multiyear contract.
"Kobe will never be able to consistently come through under pressure like Michael," Niednagel says of the Lakers' budding star. "There's not a chance in the world because of the way his brain is wired."
Niednagel developed his beliefs after studying the work of Swiss psychologist/psychiatrist Carl Jung and, later, Katherine Briggs and daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, whose Myers-Briggs Type Index postulated that humans can be classified into 16 brain types.
Niednagel takes it further, claiming the types are not merely preferences, as those whose work he has studied suggested, but inborn physical traits.
"It's the single greatest determiner of why people do what they do in any phase of life," says Niednagel, who runs the Brain Typing Institute in Laguna Niguel.
Typing the Individual
Niednagel is not a scientist, but has combined years of research and a passion for sports to produce "Your Key to Sports Success," a book in which he "types" athletes and other luminaries. He even has his own brain-buffs Web site, http://www.braintypes.com.
Niednagel says everyone has one preference from each of four pairs of personality preferences: Introverted or Extroverted, Sensing or Intuitive, Thinking or Feeling and Judging or Perceiving.
The best clutch players in the NBA are generally ISTPs--Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving--Niednagel says, a hallowed group that includes Larry Bird, Jerry West, Bill Walton, Pete Maravich, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton.
And, the greatest ISTP of them all, Jordan.
Niednagel says ISTPs are the fiercest competitors in sports and respond consistently to pressure better than other brain types.
"There will never be another Michael Jordan unless he's an ISTP," Niednagel contends.
Niednagel says Jordan's rare combination of physical and mental superiority has made him an athlete for the ages.
"I could show you a picture of Michael's brain," Niednagel says. "He's strongest in the right posterior part. His No. 1 gift is spatial thinking. It's his No. 1 cognitive trait. It's what he's seeing now or what he's seen before. He can pick you apart because he has incredible visual memory. He'll just break you down until he's picked you apart."
Unlike Jordan, the Lakers' Bryant is an ISFP--Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving--the same brain type as Scottie Pippen, Jordan's teammate.
Not bad, but not Jordan.
Players with Jordan's brain type are fine-motor dominant, wrist shooters, whose shots consistently hold up better under pressure.
Players with Bryant's brain type are gross-motor dominant, who use larger muscle groups that tend to stiffen in tense situations.
"I love the Kobe types at two guard in a system where they don't have to do a lot of thinking and they can play defense," Niednagel says. "But they're always going to be fragile, always temperamental. You have to treat them with kid gloves."
Niednagel all but predicted that Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone would struggle under pressure in the recent NBA finals. He's an ESTP type--Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving.
"He's not predestined to fail in the playoffs, but until he learns how he is wired, he's going to continue to fail," Niednagel says in the den of his Laguna Niguel home.
He says brain types react different, depending on the situation and the sport.
Here's what he wrote about ESTP basketball players, such as Malone, before the NBA playoffs.
"They generally win the beginning rounds of competition, being harder pressed as they approach the pressure-packed national finals."
Niednagel writes that those with Malone's brain type tend to be streak shooters who, "in big games, have a tendency to get too hyped, speeding up the tempo to the point of adversely affecting shots and passes."
Niednagel's reputation is growing.
"I find Jon to be a very credible person," says Richard J. Haier, a professor of psychiatry and a brain-imaging researcher at UC Irvine. "I know the work he's doing is based on scientific ideas. He is not a flake."
Sun Coach Danny Ainge is so sold on Niednagel's work that he acquired guard Rex Chapman last year specifically because of Chapman's brain type--ISTP, the same as Jordan's.
Before he priced himself out of the market, Niednagel worked closely with UCLA athletics.
"This sounds like astrology, but this goes deeper than predicting the future," says Bruin basketball Coach Steve Lavin, a Niednagel believer. "This is not 'Psychic Friends.' "
In a preseason meeting with Jim Harrick's 1994-95 basketball team, Niednagel told coaches that freshmen Toby Bailey, based on his brain type--ISTP--would be the team's best player under pressure.
That spring, Bailey had 26 points and nine rebounds in UCLA's national-title victory over Arkansas.
"I've never known Jon to be wrong about a person yet," says Harrick, now at Rhode Island.
He Has Believers
Is Niednagel for real?
"Let's put it this way," Ainge says. "He's the best I've ever been around at judging talent."
Former UCLA football coach Terry Donahue once asked Niednagel to assess a group of freshman quarterbacks.
It took a three-minute conversation with Cade McNown to persuade Niednagel that McNown was an ISTP and UCLA's quarterback of the future.
"I said he's Mike Tyson in a football helmet," Niednagel recalls.
McNown is beginning his senior season as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.
And although Laker fans may be disheartened to learn that Bryant may not Be Like Mike, Niednagel says center Shaquille O'Neal is the right man, an ISTP, to return the Lakers to glory.
But Niednagel also classifies ISTPs as the NBA's best free throw shooters.
What's wrong with this brain-type picture?
Niednagel says O'Neal's legendary woes at the free-throw line are mechanical, not mental.
Niednagel is familiar enough with O'Neal's struggles, having been hired by the Orlando Magic in 1993 to assist in selecting the team's No. 1 draft choice.
On Niednagel's advice, the Magic took Penny Hardaway instead of Chris Webber because Niednagel convinced management that Hardaway would be a better brain-type match with O'Neal.
Niednagel offered to help O'Neal with his free throws, but the Magic bypassed "the Brain Doctor" in favor of Buzz Braman, "the Shot Doctor."
O'Neal maintains that a childhood injury has impeded his free-throw shooting.
"This falling out of a tree and hurting his wrist is total baloney," Niednagel says. "I'd go and help Shaq right now in a heartbeat, except for the fact he'd have a better chance of beating the Suns, and then I'd be in trouble."
(Pssst, Shaq, here's a free throw-shooting tip: You're fine-motor dominant, just like Jerry West. Go rustle up some old film of your boss).
OK, so how come O'Neal is a good free-throw shooter in practice?
"In a gym, when you're relaxed, you can do all kinds of things, shoot the wrong way," Niednagel explains. "But under pressure, your motor skills take over."
While ISTPs can thrive as NFL quarterbacks--witness Mark Brunell, Jim Plunkett and Stan Humphries--Niednagel says the best are ESTPs.
That list includes John Elway, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre, Fran Tarkenton.
ESTPs are better under pressure because they operate on automatic pilot; they see and react.
ESTPs can struggle under pressure in basketball, a sport in which spatial thinking is required, but ESTPs are better suited for quarterback because split-second decision making is an asset at their position.
So what about the NFL's latest stars-in-waiting, rookie quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf?
Niednagel says one is a classic ESTP, same as the NFL greats, while the other is ESTJ, same as Scott Mitchell and Sean Salisbury.
"You'll find the ESTJ is going to struggle," Niednagel predicts.
Which is which?
Niednagel isn't saying.
Although he says he has rarely been wrong about a type, Niednagel doesn't offer a money-back guarantee.
He once recommended that the Suns sign troubled center Dwayne Schintzius.
"He never panned out," Niednagel says. "But I had 58 caveats too, saying, 'I know this guy can flake at any moment, but it's worth the risk.' To me it's worth the gamble if you don't have a big man."
Niednagel also classified former Ram quarterback Jim Everett an ESTP, the premier brain type for quarterbacks.
How does he explain Everett's career slide after the "phantom sack" in the NFC title game after the 1989 season?
"Every time I look at it I want to pull it, just because I don't like to explain it," Niednagel says of Everett's entry in his book.
Everett has the brain type to have been a premier NFL quarterback under pressure, he says, but cautions that outside influences always play a role.
"Ten people with the same brain types have radical differences in terms of environment," he says.
Niednagel says Jordan not only has the optimal brain type for his sport, but rates a 10 out of 10 on the developmental scale, factors that would include strong parental guidance and having been coached by Dean Smith at North Carolina.
Elway, whose father was a coach, is probably going to be more advanced developmentally than Everett, whose parents are educators.
In the end, Niednagel does not make draft choices for the Suns or Diamondbacks. It is even stipulated in his contract that he not discuss the picks.
"They're fearful I will say they made the wrong choice," Niednagel says.
Niednagel says brain typing is best used as an adjunct to help coaches better understand their players.
"Sure, he's been wrong on some guys," Ainge says. "Wrong in the fact they didn't turn out to be as good as we thought. But not wrong necessarily on how they're wired. The characteristics of their wiring has held true in my experience with him. It doesn't mean guys are going to be great or not great. It's just one more measurement of a player."
The Coming Thing?
Niednagel is certain brain typing is "the wave of the future, a billion-dollar industry," and is working to validate his work scientifically.
So, where does the line form to have your kid typed?
Niednagel charges $500 a head, but says brain typing will one day be done with a blood test.
"Stop and think of the implications," he says. "Suppose son Jimmy is an ESTP, and you'd like Jimmy to be a concert pianist. You could know right away. All the evidence is there already, what the probabilities are for Jimmy being a brain surgeon or a shortstop."
Some think Niednagel may be racing ahead of the science.
"This whole field is really in its infancy," UCI's Haier says. "Where we'll be in 20 years is anyone's guess. Jon, like all nonscientists, when he thinks about the implications, he may go a little further than the data warrants."
Lavin still sends Niednagel tapes for evaluation, but the UCLA coach insists that basketball will not become "The Stepford Wives" in sneakers.
"I don't think it's going to get to the point where we're going to call time out and talk about 'this is so-and-so's brain type, so we should do this,' " Lavin says.
Yet, Lavin concedes, there are players he would not have recruited had he known their brain types in advance.
"Obviously," Lavin says, "if you have a roster at Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA that's full of brain types that are the least likely to succeed in the NBA, you've got a problem."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
WHAT THE LETTERS STAND FOR
Jonathan P. Niednagel, aka the "Brain Doctor," says everyone has one preference from each of four pairs of personality preferences: Introverted or Extroverted. Sensing or Intuitive. Thinking or Feeling, and Judging or Perceiving.
ENTJ / BASEBALL
Left-brain thinkers, ENTJs have a strong desire to lead, are very mechanical and are typically among the best athletes. They possess uncanny ability to work themselves out of trouble.
ISTJ / GOLF
Their deliberate, mechanical approach to the game makes ISTJs ideally suited for golf. They excel with the mind, loving to consider all the nuances of the game and the course.
ESTP / FOOTBALL
ESTPs make the best quarterbacks because as sensing, dominant right-brain athletes, they have superb visual awareness and athletic nimbleness. They are daring and love to excite crowds.
ISTP / BASKETBALL
ISTPs are the fiercest competitors in sports and respond consistently to pressure better than other brain types. Jordan's No. 1 gift is spatial thinking. It's what he is seeing now or what he has seen before.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
By Definition The traits and characteristics of the four pairs of personality preferences identified by Swiss psychologist/psychiatrist Carl Jung and later, Isabel Briggs Myers:
OR INTROVERTED (I)
* Are energized by being with other people.
* Like being the center of attention.
* Act, then think.
* Tend to think out loud.
* Are easier to "read" and know; share personal information more freely.
* Talk more than listen.
* Communicate with enthusiasm.
* Respond quickly, enjoy a fast pace.
* Prefer breadth to depth.
* Are energized by spending time alone.
* Avoid being the center of attention.
* Think, then act.
* Think things through in their head.
* Are more private; prefer to share personal information with a select few.
* Listen more than talk.
* Keep their enthusiasm to themselves.
* Respond after taking the time to think things through.
* Prefer depth to breadth.
OR INTUITIVE (N)
* Trust what is certain and concrete.
* Like new ideas only if they have practical applications.
* Value realism and common sense.
* Like to use and hone established skills.
* Tend to be specific and literal; give detailed descriptions.
* Present information in a step-by-step manner.
* Are oriented to the present.
* Trust inspiration and inference.
* Like new ideas and concepts for their own sake.
* Value imagination and innovation.
* Like to learn new skills; get bored easily after mastering skills.
* Tend to be general and figurative; use metaphors and analogies.
* Present information through leaps, in a roundabout manner.
* Are oriented toward the future.
OR FEELING (F)
* Step back and apply impersonal analysis to problems.
* Value logic, justice, and fairness; one standard for all.
* Naturally see flaws, tend to be critical.
* May be seen as heartless, insensitive and uncaring.
* Consider it more important to be truthful than tactful.
* Believe feelings are valid only if they are logical.
* Are motivated by a desire for achievement and accomplishment.
* Step forward; consider effect of actions on others.
* Value empathy and harmony; see the exception to the rule.
* Naturally like to please others; show appreciation easily.
* May be seen as overemotional, illogical and weak.
* Consider it important to be tactful as well as truthful.
* Believe any feeling is valid, whether it makes sense.
* Are motivated by a desire to be appreciated.
OR PERCEIVING (P)
* Are happiest after decisions have been made.
* Have a "work ethic": work first, play later (if there's time).
* Set goals and work toward achieving them on time.
* Prefer knowing what they are getting into.
* Are product oriented (emphasis is on completing the task).
* Derive satisfaction from finishing products.
* See time as a finite resource and take deadlines seriously.
* Are happiest leaving options open.
* Have a "play ethic": enjoy now, finish the job later (if there's time).
* Change goals as new information becomes available.
* Like adapting to new situations.
* Are process oriented (emphasis is on how the task is completed).
* Derive satisfaction from starting projects.
* See time as a renewable resource and see deadlines as elastic.
Source: "Do What You Are" by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger.
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Jonathan P. Niednagel has used the Carl Jung/Isabel Briggs Myers method to type athletes in various sports. He is trying to prove the traits are genetic.
Niednagel says the best "brain type" in sports is ISTP (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving), although some types are better suited for specific sports:
Best type: ISTP (Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, John Stockton).
Rarest type: INTP (Dikembe Mutombo).
Best types: ISTP (Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron, Roger Clemens); ESTP (Mike Schmidt, Mike Piazza, Mickey Mantle); ISFP (Mark McGwire, Joe Carter, Roy Campanella); ESFP (Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds).
Rarest type: ESFJ ( Gregg Olson).
Best type for quarterback: ESTP (Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Brett Favre, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino).
Rarest type: INTP (Art Monk).
Best type: ISTP (Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Steffi Graf).
Rarest types: ENFJ (Jim Courier) and INTP (Arthur Ashe).
Best types: ISTP (Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux), ISFP (Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Patrick Roy).
Rarest types: ESFP (Marcel Dionne), INFP (Luc Robitaille).
Best types: ISTP (Ben Hogan, Sam Snead), ESTP (Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman), ISTJ (Jack Nicklaus, Larry Nelson).
Rarest types: INFP (Tiger Woods) and ENFP (David Duval).
The top 10 breakdowns in sports in the modern era, post-1950s:
1: Donnie Moore: An American sports tragedy. Committed suicide three years after surrendering home run to Dave Henderson that cost Angels the 1986 AL championship series.
2: Greg Norman: Handled his 1996 Masters choke with uncommon class but, heavens, what a choke.
3: 1964 Phillies: The standard by which folds are measured; blew 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play.
4: Dan O'Brien: Couldn't clear puddle-jump 15-9 in pole vault at '92 Olympic trials, much to sponsor Reebok's horror. Redeemed self with '96 decathlon gold.
5: Jana Novotna: Blew five match points to Steffi Graf in 1993 Wimbledon defeat and later sobbed on Duchess of Kent's shoulder. Joined O'Brien in the redemption department with this year's Wimbledon win.
6: Jim Everett: So much promise, so much arm, so much poise . . . and then he heard those footsteps.
7: Mitch Williams: Recently reunited with Joe Carter for ESPN-staged bowling match. The joke: Williams throws another strike, Carter smokes it.
8: Scott Norwood: His sporting epitaph will be short and not so sweet: "Wide Right."
9: Steve Blass: Pirates' pitching hero of 1971 World Series couldn't hit the broad side of Pittsburgh two years later.
10: Ian Baker-Finch: Find Your Game? Baker-Finch lost his after winning the 1991 British Open. He recently called off the search and retired.
* SKULL SESSIONS
There are many forms of therapy availableto help today's stressed-out, struggling athlete cope with the mental side of sports. C12
Golf gurus say that the best way to play the game is to use your mind and learn from adversity. C13