Scientists in UK and Belgium find less experienced referees are more easily distracted and focus less on contact zones. The proficiency of elite football referees could be down to their eagle eyes, say researchers.
A study of elite and sub-elite referees has found that a greater tendency to predict and watch contact zones between players contributes to the greater accuracy of top-level referees. “Over the years they develop so much experience that they now can anticipate, very well, future events so that they can already direct their attention to those pieces of information where they expect something to happen,” said lead author Werner Helsen from the University of Leuven.
Keith Hackett, a former football referee and former general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, said the research chimed with his own experiences. “In working with elite referees for a number of years I have recognised their ability to see, recognise think and then act in a seamless manner,” he said. “They develop skill sets that enable them to see and this means good game-reading and cognitive skills to be in the right place at the right time.” Mistakes, he believes, often come down to poor visual perception. “Last week, we saw an elite referee fail to detect the violent act of [Moussa] Sissoko using his arm/elbow, putting his opponent’s safety at risk,” he said. “The review panel, having received confirmation from the referee that he failed to see the incident despite looking in the direction of the foul challenge, were able to act.”
Writing in the journal Cognitive Research, researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium and Brunel University in west London say they recruited 39 referees, 20 of whom were elite referees and 19 were experienced but had never refereed at a professional level. Each participant then viewed a series of video clips, filmed from a referee’s perspective, showing footballers interacting on the pitch, either in open play scenarios or taking corner kicks. Of the 20 clips, 17 involved a foul. For each clip, each referee was asked whether there was a foul, whether a player needed to be shown a card, and what colour, and whether a direct, or indirect, free kick or penalty kick should be awarded. By using eye-tracking technology, the researchers could analyse where the referees directed their eyes and for how long - their so-called “visual-search behaviour”. The results reveal that the elite referees were, overall, more likely to make the correct call. For corner kicks, elite referees correctly decided upon whether free kicks or a penalty kick were in order 69.5% of the time, compared with 56.8% for sub-elite referees, although no clear difference was seen for open play scenarios. When it came to decisions about whether to flash a red or yellow card or not, the elite referees outperformed their sub-elite counterparts in open play, correctly showing a card when necessary, and of the right colour, 61% of the time, compared with 45.3% for the sub-elite referees. From the eye-tracking data, the authors found that elite referees spent more time than sub-elite referees during open play scenarios looking at the area of the attacker that made contact than the non-contact zone. The authors add that while no clear differences were seen for corner kicks, the data hint that a similar trend might be at play. “What we now see very clear[ly] is that elite referees anticipate in a very efficient way, and obviously seem to know in advance where the contact will happen, and already focus in that contact zone” said Helsen. “While less experienced referees are much more distracted by other things happening.” Further analysis, taking into account the length of time the referees spent watching the contact zones between players, revealed that mistakes in decisions made by referees appear to be down to both errors in perceiving the situation and in their categorisation of that situation, according to the laws of the game. The researchers say the findings could be useful in the development of referee training programmes, including web-based applications.
Mike Riley, the managing director of the Professional Game Match Officials, said: “The research demonstrates that the level of training referees at the elite level receive, as well as the fact they are evaluated and assessed, means that they are more likely to make correct decisions more consistently compared to those that don’t receive that level of training at grassroots level.”
Source: The Guardian