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Top-League Referees Are Better At Spotting Fouls Because They Know Where To Look


Screenshot of a video clip of an open play situation as used in the study

Top-league football referees are better at spotting foul play. As a result, they’re more likely to issue the correct disciplinary action than lower-league referees. KU Leuven researchers have found that this is due to how elite referees look at the players and the field.

Thirty-nine referees from various leagues were asked to watch videos of staged fouls. The researchers tracked their eye movements to assess the referees’ visual-search behaviour – the location that their eyes fixated on and for how long.

fli-soccer-research_1“Top-league referees have visual-search behaviour patterns that make them better at assessing foul play situations than their lower-league colleagues,” explains lead author Professor Werner Helsen from the Movement Control & Neuroplasticity Research Group at KU Leuven. “When watching open-play fouls being committed, elite referees spend more time fixating on the body part involved in the foul than on other areas. And they don’t pay attention to the less important information that distracts their less experienced colleagues.”

Visual-search behaviour is an important skill for professional football players, who use it to adapt their movements to what is happening around them. Referees also rely heavily on the skill to translate what they see into a correct decision based on the rules of the game – no card, yellow card, or red card.

fli-soccer-research_2Experienced top-league referees made 15 to 20% more correct decisions than their lower-level colleagues. According to the researchers, this is due to their more efficient visual-search behaviour. “Our results suggest that the level of experience in top-league referees is reflected in the long-term memory. As a result, their visual-search behaviour is driven by acquired knowledge. Lower-league referees have less experience, and their visual-search behaviour patterns seem to be more random,” says doctoral student Jochim Spitz, who is preparing his PhD on the subject.

“Understanding what makes elite referees better at assessing foul-play situations can help us develop training programmes to improve the visual-search behaviour of less experienced referees,” Werner Helsen concludes. “After all, to paraphrase Thoreau: it’s not what they look at that matters, it’s what they see.”

Click here to read the study in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (open access)

Source: KU Leuven

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