Sports fans and the people controlling this weekend’s big games will be looking at the same things but in some cases making vastly different calls. Is that because “the ref’s blind!” – or because they know something we don’t?
Sport and exercise science researchers Dr Job Fransen, Professor Aaron Coutts and PhD candidate Matt Jeffriess decided to find out.
The study by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Human Performance Research Centre in collaboration with the NRL, working out of UTS's new high-tech facility in the Moore Park sports precinct in Sydney, aimed to assess the expertise of that code’s referees by investigating their ability to make decisions.
To do this, the researchers compiled a battery of videos containing multiple in-game scenarios from real NRL matches. They then asked both elite referees and well-informed non-referees (‘armchair referees’ to the rest of us) to make the appropriate decision in each of the video scenarios.
The participants scored points based on how well their decisions matched the predetermined optimal responses, Dr Fransen explains.
Meanwhile, every participant's visual search behaviour – where they looked in the videos and for how long – was also recorded using sophisticated eye-tracking technology.
“What this showed us was that the 'punters' and the referees had reasonably similar ‘gaze behaviour’, but they made significantly different decisions,” Dr Fransen says.
And, sorry folks, the referees were much better at making the right call.
Dr Fransen explains that expert referees need two things: procedural knowledge, which is knowing “how to do something”, and declarative knowledge, which is knowing “what to do” to referee games at the highest level. So, referees not only require flawless knowledge of the rules of the game (declarative knowledge), but they also need to apply those rules to the game within the appropriate contexts (procedural knowledge).
“These findings shed light on why many fans are so quick to criticise referee decisions,” Dr Fransen says. “The punters and the elite referees obtained the same information in our study, but it was in the application of that information relative to their knowledge base where the punters fell short.
“Both study groups possessed declarative knowledge – they both knew the rules of the game – but referees' procedural knowledge was far superior thanks to years of rigorous training and game experience.”
In other words, the referees were much better at putting what was happening on the field into its specific context at the time.
So, yes, you may know the rules of the game back to front, but the man in the middle does know what he’s doing. His eyes aren’t painted on, it’s not his “first time”, and it’s probably not a “BS call”.