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While Most Athletes Possess Great Physical Skills, It's the Mind That Separates the Best From the Rest : BRAIN MATTERS

Want to know what type of athlete you have? Jonathan P. Niednagel thinks he has it wired, and pro teams are even paying for his services.

August 09, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

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."

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