Seeing red cards

Top-level football referees have better visual perception and abilities to see foul play


Football fans may dispute it, but new research has demonstrated that elite football referees are better able to correctly identify foul play.

This ability comes from their enhanced visual perception, University of Leuven and Brunel University London researchers concluded, in a new paper published in the journal Cognitive Research.

The scientists pitted 20 Belgian top-level football referees and 19 non-professional referees against each other. Each were shown staged videos shot from the point of view of a referee 10 metres away, and asked to identify if an action deserved a yellow or red card or no card at all.

Eye-tracking technology recorded the study participants’ eye movements, to monitor where the referees’ eyes fixated on and for how long.

The group of elite referees correctly picked the sanction required 61% of the time, while the non-professional group had an accuracy of 45%.

University of Leuven researcher, Professor Werner Helsen, highlighted that: “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 they are focusing on and interpreting the most crucial information within their visual display.”

Fellow university researcher, Jochim Spitz, explained that visual-search behaviour is critical to picking the correct response to foul play.

He added: “Visual-search behaviour…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.”