Football Prediction

As a clinical and sports psychologist and former athlete and coach who loves football, I grew up loving everything about the NFL. My father took me to my first game when the Dolphins played the Saints in 1970, one week after Tom Dempsey kicked the longest field goal in history, a 63-yard blast with only half a foot. I was thrilled to see Tom on the field that day, the vivid green of the grass, and to witness my first Dolphins victory 21-10 at the start of something very special that would end in the three Super Bowl appearances, two championships, and a perfect season. Studying all my helmeted heroes live and in person was exciting. My love of the game remains to this day but in a different form. Today I work with players and teams to improve performance mentally, but one of my real thrills in the past 5 years has been what I have achieved in the area of football prediction, and the reasons for this might not be immediately apparent.

While my initial professional interest in football was to help coaches and players achieve breakthroughs in performance, and I was working with teams and individual players to win games, I wanted to go beyond that and develop a way to rate how well these teams were actually performing regardless of the score, and including mental aspects of performance in the ratings. I developed an entirely new statistic called “The Mental Performance Index” or “MPI” for short, and I found to my amazement that this metric was explaining which team won the game better than any other more traditional statistic like yards gained or yards given up. I was arriving at correlations between this score and winning in the 83% to 87% range, and the next best more traditional statistic was turnovers, in the 40%-45% range (correlation with winning). When I saw this I knew I was onto something big!

My work on developing this statistic culminated in a book by the same name, which I wrote in 2011 and revised in 2013. The name of the book is “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History” and I was fortunate to receive cover endorsements by the likes of the one and only Don Shula, Steve Sabol of NFL Films, and several big-time players. Four-time Super Bowl champion Raiders coach Tom Flores wrote the foreword and football hall of fame inductee Lesley Visser wrote the epilogue. This book explained what I was doing with the MPI but what I did after that book with the MPI between 2013 and 2018 is even more exciting, and it was never addressed in that book. I will explain in this article.

I turned that book and my unique MPI into a football prediction machine. By studying 40 years of past NFL games, using advanced statistics and countless programs, and common sense which combined the physical and mental parts of the game, I developed an entirely new way to ensure that football prediction was based on science rather than hunch. Beginning in 2018, I rolled out my weekly predictions against the spread to the public in a website (https://www.FootballShrink.com) and the results in the first year were extremely impressive: 54 wins, 41 losses, and 3 pushes (57% success).

Anyone who has studied how well the best football prognosticators do over time realizes that the best in the world can rarely do better than 51% to 53% success against the spread over a large number of games. It is far more typical for those making football predictions against a spread to get between 49% and 51%, which is no better than average. Forget about the television commentators as they are terrible at predicting! It ends up being a coin flip for most, because those who make the lines in Las Vegas are extremely good at getting as close to equal money on each side of the bet. Their accuracy is essential because they are handling millions and millions each week and they cannot afford to be off very often. Even with this, however, they are usually at least 12 to 13 points total off the final score on average. But that is still good compared with most people who are about 16 or 17 points off! Doing well against a spread is indeed one of the hardest things to do in sports. Maybe that is why I like the challenge, like a difficult golf course! It is like trying to beat the 50/50 heads/tails coin flip as the spread acts as a sort of handicap in golf, but in this instance for football.

While I am well on my way with a 57 percent record over almost 100 games, I am also humble and statistically savvy enough to realize that to establish this more securely I need to show this over 300 or 400 games, not just 98 games as I have done so far. Still, my archival research demonstrated that I should be able to get 55% or so, and I am encouraged that I just might have built the best football prediction algorithm in history against a spread or line!

Picking football games straight-up, saying just who is going to win the game, is a far easier task and should not be confused with picking against a spread. By simply choosing the favorite each game, anyone in the world will get over 60% to 65% success, so the challenges of football prediction are immensely more difficult when you have to pick the team that will cover the official spread. It is a far more frustrating endeavor. In the official Las Vegas NFL football picking contest, known as the “Super Contest,” held each year at the Westgate Resort and Casino, contest entrees are given a t-shirt with the memorable slogan “Good teams win, but Great teams cover.” This says it all in showing how impressive it is to cover, or beat that darn coin flip which most people never surpass.

On my site at FootballShrink.com, I make a select few picks each week (usually between 2 and 8 depending on how the numbers look that week in all the games) and I also include the betting house I am using for my line when I made the pick and at what exact time on that day, and I always make these picks well in advance and post them for the world to see. While I do not bet, I use the line to show what I am picking against. Transparency and honesty is the only way to establish credibility. The website does a great job and calculates my running percentages, the +/- values, and it gives the dates of the games, the final scores, and whether I got a win, loss or a push. It is my home for football picks and I plan to do exactly the same thing in year two this upcoming 2019 season after which I will have about 200 predicted games in the tank.

Some might wonder why a clinical and sports psychologist who is respected for working with top athletes and teams would venture into an area that is usually associated with gambling and betting. The answer is that my purpose makes sense. I do not bet on games and never have wanted to. I am doing this as an offshoot of my MPI to show the entire sports world that mental skills and mental performance matter enough to influence predictions! I am arriving at my statistic using a variety of methods, but a big part of it is the previously ignored mental aspects of football. The argument goes like this: since I am studying and quantifying something that is not formally represented in other more traditional statistics, I have privy to something quite rare and indeed unique in how I configured it. Having vital data that others do not have or use is what makes this MPI so accurate in correlating with games in my Super Bowl book. It is this same rare data that makes my football prediction system more accurate than those who have not taken the time to properly include the mental game in the mix.

The mental game was always vital in all sports. In fact, it is a key in all performance situations from the earliest caveman days to the present day. When a group of hunters got together to bring home a wooly mammoth beast with their spears in 10,000 BC, like that display I once saw in the Museum of Natural History in New York City, the spear thrower with the most poise, confidence, and focus was helping his village survive for the winter much more than the hunter who got anxious, choked and missed. We always knew that mental performance mattered to success, and you can still hear tons of chatter about this fact after a current NFL football game about how smart Tom Brady was or how well a running back used his mental skills, or how a kicker had ice in his veins for the winning kick, or choked away the win like Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl with the Bills against the Cowboys! Despite all this, nobody had taken the time, until me, of quantifying this essential factor!

The mental game was never comprehensively represented by one statistic until 2011 with the Mental Performance Index. That I was able in my lifetime to make a small contribution to the evolution of sports science makes me very proud. I am not sure what population of NFL fans, coaches, players or media understand this yet, or have even been exposed to my book or the MPI, I place my reputation on the fact that it is 100% true and accurate. One of the best ways that I figured I could break out of anonymity and get more people to realize the impact of mental factors was to turn this new stat into a prediction machine and let the success in predicting speak for itself. So far so good but a long way to go!

There is also a tremendous value in showing teams, coaches, players and fans that sports are much more than graceful moves, big hits, speed and eye-hand coordination. There is an element beyond physical that I call mental performance or “smart play” that involves things like passion, resilience, discipline, confidence, focus, emotional control, planning, imagery, good decision making, and many of the same skills that I teach in my daily practice as a sports and clinical psychologist. They can actually be observed within the context of any sporting event. It just so happens that I began with America’s biggest sport on the biggest stage of Super Bowl Sunday to do my research and write my book. My dad always told me to think big, and I think I listened!

Another way to describe the findings from my football book is to say that if a team were to focus all week leading up to a game in developing their mental skills to the highest level possible, and to have that superior mental performance show up on Sunday, that team will be very difficult to beat (given that they are roughly the same physically). That is the case in the NFL. The parity from week to week is astounding. Cellar dwellers all the time upset league leadings teams, adding veracity to the phrase “on any given Sunday.” If you can’t beat em physically, often a superior mental performance does the trick! No team can afford to neglect the mental side.

What I am proposing now is that mental skills and mental performance wins football games, and knowing about mental performance in a more precise way combined with the power of statistics and past data allows for much better success in predicting outcomes too. It is a bold and audacious declaration that I am making, but my research bears it out. When you apply my algorithm to NFL games, you do better than the coin flip in beating that elusive NFL spread, or covering that line. I am no longer the paw of a cat!

I encourage you all to sit back and enjoy my picks each and every week in 2019 as I continue on this mission to show the entire sports world how valuable the mental game is to performance. Go to https://www.FootballShrink.com for all the exciting updates. Let’s see if I can do as well in 2019 as I did in 2018. Time will tell.