In the closing seconds of a tied soccer game two opposing players sprint into the penalty box in pursuit of a loose ball and collide, limbs flailing as they both fall to the turf. Instantly, all eyes are on the head referee, tasked with the unenviable job of making a game-changing decision without the benefit of a slow-motion replay. Recent research suggests, however, that elite soccer referees have something working in their favor—enhanced perceptual and cognitive skills that help them make the right call.
In the study, published this week in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, researchers had elite and sub-elite referees make calls based on video footage of soccer plays while an eye-tracking system recorded where on the screen they were looking. The elite referees were not only better than the amateurs at making the correct call, they were also better at anticipating where the foul would occur before it happened.
As humans, we rely on our perceptual-cognitive skills to navigate the complex events that continuously unfold around us. Any given situation starts with the perceptual—we watch an event as it happens, relying on our eyes to capture what we see and relay it to our brains. Then the cognitive phase begins, as our brains process the information and help us interpret it so we can decide what to do next. Of course, the more intense the situation, the more challenging this becomes—for example, if we are asked to process information and make a decision under pressure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, elite athletes have top-notch perceptual-cognitive skills—they are adept at focusing their attention on the most relevant part of an event and using the information to react accordingly. But what about referees, the oft-overlooked individuals charged with keeping the athletes in line?
Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium enrolled 20 elite referees from the two highest-level professional soccer divisions in the country, along with 19 sub-elite referees active at lower competitive levels. The referees watched video clips of foul play situations filmed from a first-person perspective near the action, categorized as either open play situations (where one or two attackers engaged with two defenders) or corner kick situations (where six or seven attackers scrapped with six or seven defenders in front of the goal). Each clip contained one interaction, and referees were asked if a foul had occurred and how they would rate the severity—that is, whether they would assign a yellow or red card. Meanwhile an eye-tracking system consisting of a camera and infrared lights recorded where on the screen the referees were looking to assess how they were focusing their attention. “Eye movements are the mirror of the mind,” says Werner Helsen, a kinesiologist and the study’s senior author. “Whatever you look at, you pay attention to.”
The researchers found that elite referees made the correct call 61 percent of the time, compared with 45 percent for the sub-elite refs. Furthermore, elite referees were better at honing in on the bodily appendages and areas the players would use to commit the foul. “It was clear that the more elite a referee you are, the more you anticipate and the more you look at the specific spots where the foul will be committed,” explains Helsen, who adds that less experienced referees were more likely to be looking at the wrong location. For example, the ref might focus on a player’s arms although the foul was committed with the offender’s legs.
According to Helsen, elite referees do not have an innate talent for making accurate calls—rather, they develop their skills via extensive practice. The key to success for refs then is not only to know whereto look but to have the experience to interpret what they see and make a correct decision. “The eyes are useless if the mind is blind,” Helsen says.
The next step is finding new and innovative ways to train referees so they can gain experience and improve their perceptual-cognitive skills outside of a game situation, much like the intensive training athletes engage in prior to a competition. Helsen has already developed a Web-based application that referees used to prepare for the 2016 UEFA European Championship in France.
Gershon Tenenbaum, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at The Florida State University who was not involved in the research, praises the study but points out that it was conducted in a laboratory, which means referees did not have to contend with game dynamics such as external pressure from coaches, players and spectators as well as physiological factors such as an elevated heart rate or fatigue. Nevertheless, he adds that the study confirms the findings of previous research on experts in a variety of areas.
Helsen points out that even mundane tasks such as driving require us to use our perceptual-cognitive skills under pressure. And the stakes are much higher for police officers, firefighters, pilots, soldiers or surgeons—where the way they focus their attention and how they interpret information and make decisions can be a matter of life or death. “I see more and more that the way people become experts across disciplines is very, very similar,” Helsen says.