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Top-level football refs are better at spotting fouls because of enhanced visual perception

October 30, 2016

Top-level professional football referees have enhanced visual perception, which means that they are better at spotting foul play and issuing the correct disciplinary action than lower-level referees, according to new research published in the journal Cognitive Research.

The researchers, from Belgium and the UK, had 39 football referees from the top and lower leagues in Belgium watch staged videos of fouls being committed from the point-of-view of a referee on the football pitch. Eye-tracking technology was used to assess their visual-search behaviour - that is the location that the referees' eyes fixated on and for how long.

Professor Werner Helsen, co-lead author from the University of Leuven in Belgium, said: "Our results show that elite referees have visual-search behaviour patterns that make them better at assessing foul play situations in football compared to lower league referees. When watching open play fouls being committed, elite referees spend more time fixating on the body part involved in the foul than other areas, suggesting that they are focusing on and interpreting the most crucial information within their visual display."

Visual-search behaviour is a primary skill utilised by professional athletes that enables them to coordinate perceptual-cognitive function with motor skills. Referees also rely heavily on visual-search behaviour in order to rapidly translate what they see into a correct decision based on the rules of the game. When asked to state if they thought the open-play foul committed deserved a disciplinary sanction (no card, yellow card or red card), elite referees made the correct decision with an accuracy of 61%, compared to 45% amongst lower level referees.

Dr Jochim Spitz, co-lead author, said: "Visual-search behaviour is an in-built cognitive function that can be improved through training and development. Understanding what it is exactly that makes elite referees able to make better decisions than lower-level referees could help devise training programmes specifically aimed at improving visual-search behaviour."

The video clips used in this study were filmed with the help of competitive football players who were tasked with simulating a variety of foul play scenarios including fouls in open play and from corner kicks. The action was filmed from approximately 10 meters away to mimic the proximity of a referee to the game in a real life situation. In order to make the simulations as natural as possible, no specific instructions were given to the players related to the type of foul that should be executed. A total of 20 videos were made, 10 open-play situations and 10 corner-kick situations, out of which three showed no foul play.

In the open-play and corner-kick scenarios, there was no difference between the numbers of locations that the referees focused on when watching the videos but, importantly, the elite referees did spend more time fixating on the contact zone between the attacker and the defender than the non-elite referees. Analysing the data collected from incorrect decisions made by referees, it was concluded that the fixation time plays an important role translating perceived incidents into a correct interpretation according to the 'Laws of the Game'.

Professor Werner Helsen added: "We can speculate from our results that the level of experience in elite referees is translated into long-term memory which allows their visual-search behaviour to be driven by acquired knowledge. Sub-elite referees on the other hand have less experience and seem to apply a more random control of visual fixation".
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Notes to editor:

1. Example videos of foul play situtations watched by the referees are available here: https://goo.gl/tXpNrW
Please credit Cognitive Research.

2. Research article: Visual search behaviours of association football referees during assessment of foul play situations
Jochim Spitz, Koen Put, Johan Wagemans, A. Mark Williams, Werner F. Helsen
Cognitive Research 2016

DOI: DOI 10.1186/s41235-016-0013-8

During embargo period, please contact Matthew Lam for a copy of the manuscript.

After the embargo lifts, the article will be available at the journal website here: https://goo.gl/wx5FQj Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

3. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications publishes new empirical and theoretical work covering all areas of Cognition, with a special emphasis on use-inspired basic research: fundamental research that grows from hypotheses about real-world problems. We expect that authors will be able to explain in a Significance section how their basic research serves to advance our understanding of the cognitive aspects of a problem with real-world applications.

4. SpringerOpen, launched in June 2010, includes Springer's portfolio of 200+ peer-reviewed fully open access journals across all areas of science. In August 2012, due to the growing demand for open access and the success of our SpringerOpen journals, we expanded our offering to open access books. Published under the SpringerOpen brand they complement our established open access journal portfolio. SpringerOpen journals and books are made freely and permanently available online immediately upon publication. They are subject to high-level peer review, author and production services ensuring quality and reliability of the work. Authors publishing with SpringerOpen retain the copyright to their work, licensing it under a Creative Commons license. To cover the cost of the publication process, all SpringerOpen journals and books charge an open access fee.

5. BioMed Central is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Nature, a major new force in scientific, scholarly, professional and educational publishing, created in May 2015 through the combination of Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Education and Springer Science+Business Media. http://www.biomedcentral.com

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