“Are you blind?! That was never offside!” The man in the stands has spotted something and the ref’s visual ability is called into question. But just how well do referees see? And do poor referees have bad eyesight? Science to the rescue!
Two papers from the same lab assessed the visual abilities of referees. Acuity (the ability to see small detail) wasn’t measured, but this perhaps isn’t that important for refereeing. Instead, the visual skills of the men in black were assessed by measurements of rates of repeated accommodation (maintaining focus at different distances), large and small saccades (eye movement), object recognition (usually basic shapes) and peripheral vision. In the first paper, experienced referees from the Iranian top-flight football league were found to have significantly better visual skills on all measures when compared to both novice referees (from an adolescent league) and non-athletes. There were no significant differences between novice referees and non athletes. Although there was no intervention or any attempt to establish cause and effect, there were no real differences between the spread of abilities of novice referees and non-athletes, suggesting that there are no especially skilled referees at the novice level that may go on to referee at higher levels. Instead, improved visual skills are likely to develop with experience.
That covers experience, but what about when experienced referees get decisions wrong? Are their eyes actually performing worse? The study suggests the answer is yes. This study used the same measures of visual skill as the first paper, plus visual memory. It compared the visual skills of experienced referees who made correct decisions to those who made incorrect decisions after watching clips of football matches, and found that the successful referees actually had better visual skills. Poorer visual skills aren’t necessarily the whole reason for poor decision making – mistakes might also be due to lack of attention or influence by players’ appeals – but they certainly plays a part.
So it turns out that professional referees, on the whole, actually see better than the general population. Poor decision making, it seems, can be blamed on poor vision. But optometrism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as they might say at the Referee’s Association.
Ghasemi, A., Momeni, M., Rezaee, M., & Gholami, A. (2009). The Difference in Visual Skills Between Expert Versus Novice Soccer Referees Journal of Human Kinetics, 22 (-1), 15-20 DOI: 10.2478/v10078-009-0018-1
Ghasemi A, Momeni M, Jafarzadehpur E, Rezaee M, & Taheri H (2011). Visual skills involved in decision making by expert referees. Perceptual and motor skills, 112 (1), 161-71 PMID: 21466089