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Study Explains Why Some Soccer Referees are Better than Others

A player from the Philippines receives a yellow card while playing against North Korea. Researchers are studying what makes a soccer official "elite."
Study Explains Why Some Soccer Referees are Better than Others
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Soccer fans around the world love to question the calls that the referees make during games. One common insult is to say the referee must not be able to see well.

A new study says most referees can see just fine. Belgian and British researchers found that the best referees, however, are able to pay attention to the parts of a play where a foul is most likely to happen.

These referees can ignore other less-important parts of a play.

Inexperienced referees, however, are not as precise, or exact.

The study was published in October in the journal “Cognitive Research.” Werner Helsen was a co-author of the study. He is a sports scientist and a professor at Belgium’s University of Leuven. He also helps train officials for FIFA and UEFA, the governing body of European soccer.

Helsen said there have been several studies done on soccer players. Researchers have studied how some of the best athletes see the games they play. Researchers ask the players to look at pictures or videos of a game. They follow the players’ eyes to see what they look at first and for how long.

Before the new study, researchers had not examined soccer referees in the same way.

Referees who call games from top soccer leagues and lower soccer leagues took part in the study. Helsen and his team showed 40 referees videos of soccer games. The researchers used special technology to watch how their eyes moved.

The study says some referees are better at interpreting confrontations like this one. Those referees have more experience and are able to make the correct call most of the time.
The study says some referees are better at interpreting confrontations like this one. Those referees have more experience and are able to make the correct call most of the time.

Helsen said the best referees focused their eyes on the most important parts of plays. That means they did not pay attention to what Helsen called “irrelevant” -- or unimportant -- details.

The best referees do not, in fact, have better vision than the others. But they do have more experience and they know what they should look for.

“It is the meaning your mind can give to something you are looking at that makes the big difference and that makes the difference between being elite, or not elite.”

Helsen compares what the best referees see on the field to what an experienced doctor might see from an X-ray. A less-experienced doctor might take longer to look at an X-ray to find the problem.

Soccer organizations like FIFA and UEFA want to have the best referees at the biggest games. But there are not many chances for referees to practice calling foul plays. Helsen says referees need more chances to train and practice -- just as soccer players do.

“The refereeing is practice-poor. We need to find more tools to give them more experience outside the game.”

Helsen and other researchers are working on a website that can help train referees. It is called “Perception 4 Perfection.”

Referees used the website before the 2016 European Championship tournament. They looked at 700 videos that showed how a soccer team can be offside. It is a difficult call to make because players are moving very fast. The referee needs to see three things at the same time: the ball, the offensive team’s player and the defensive team’s player.

After watching the videos for less than 24 hours, the skill level of some of the referees increased by 30 percent.

Helsen and his group are working on another on project that could make referees’ jobs easier. They are studying whether slow-motion video replays should be used to review disputed calls.

It is something already being used for sports like tennis, baseball and American football.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Joe De Capua wrote this story for Dan Friedell adapted his report for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Will you be less critical of soccer referees now? We want to know. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

foul – n. an action that is against the rules and for which a player is given a penalty

call – n. a decision made by an official in a sports contest

precise – adj. very accurate and exact

irrelevant – adj. not important

cue – n. something that indicates the nature of what you are seeing, hearing, etc.

elite – adj. the best or most successful at a task

practice – n. the activity of doing something again and again in order to become better at it

offside – adj. in a position in a game (such as football or hockey) on the opponent's part of the field where you are not allowed to be; not onside

slow-motion – n. a way of showing action that has been filmed or photographed at a speed that is slower than the actual speed

replay – n. a recording of something (such as an action in a sports event) that is being shown again

referee – n. a person who makes sure that players act according to the rules of a game or sport