Fair call? What sport can show us about high-speed decisions

Sports officials make judgements in the moment, but are judged in hindsight. How do they meet that challenge? Harris Walker/Flickr, CC BY-SA

This is the third article in a series, How we make decisions, which explores our decision-making processes. How well do we consider all factors involved in a decision, and what helps and what holds us back?


Sports officials might be the most highly scrutinised decision-makers in the world. Split-second calls are videotaped in high-definition and slow-motion from three different angles, then pored over by fans and critics for days or weeks.

Football referees run roughly 11 kilometres in the course of a game. If you’ve ever tried to make a series of well-reasoned judgement calls while sprinting, you’ll understand why sports officials are trained to make good decisions.

Australian soccer fans are still haunted by the 2006 World Cup match when a controversial decision to award Italy a penalty kick in the final seconds of injury time cost Australia the match and a place in the quarter-finals.

Australian football commentators argue the toss. Skip to 4.26 to see the tackle.

So what lessons can we learn from the pile of data generated from trying to understand or improve the accuracy of quick judgements?

Pressure, persuasion and perception

Many researchers have studied the phenomenon of the home-team advantage, in everything from Muay Thai to English Premier League football.

Football teams playing away matches are awarded more yellow cards and gymnasts get more points from judges of the same nationality. While nationalism certainly plays a part, there is interesting evidence that sheer noise may be having an impact.

Muay Thai judges who were given noise-cancelling headphones judged competitors more evenly than the judges who could hear the crowd. In the end, the difference amounted to a statistically significant half-point per bout.

Another football study suggests the noise of the crowd makes officials anxious and more likely to make a popular decision. It’s not surprising that referees have said the most important quality to have is “mental toughness”.

Another vital aspect of fairness – or being perceived as fair – is the ability of officials to explain their decisions in a calm and reasonable way.

Athletes rely on personal and psychological cues when judging the competence of officials. An Iranian study found premier league referees had high-level emotional intelligence and communication skills.

Finally, experience is king. A wide-ranging study of 370 officials from ice-hockey to trampoline found that officials who can participate in the sport they judge, or have done so, made more accurate judgements. This suggests that experienced officials use this kind of knowledge to help them focus attention and make rapid decisions.

This agrees with Canadian research that tracked where ice-hockey referees looked and for how long. High-level referees looked at the same things for the same length of time as junior ones but their judgements were faster and more accurate. This suggests that less experienced officials rely on their sensory experience and this might lead to some hesitation while they prioritise what they have sensed.

Supporting officials

In Australia, most sports have an officiating support program. The aim is to ensure that officials develop their visual attention ability, mental skills and physiological fitness. There is significant investment in enabling referees and umpires to be in the right place at the right time to make a decisive and fair call.

The professional sports in Australia bring their officials together on a weekly basis within competition seasons to review performance and preview coming events.

Officiating programs observe and assess referees and umpires. Formal processes evaluate and develop performance and are designed to directly address officiating bias.

Most of this activity goes on unseen, but there are occasions when it becomes very public. Some sports “stand down” officials if there is evidence – rather than because of public protest – that they have acted inappropriately.

Referee Ben Williams was stood down from recent A-League matches after issuing a disputed red card. Paul Miller/AAP

Sometimes the mistakes are glaring. In a North Queensland versus Cronulla rugby league game in 2013, six officials were stood down for the rest of the season after not noticing that Cronulla had an extra play of the ball from which a try was scored.

Each sport’s attempts to counter bias depends on its nature. In judged events like combat sports, gymnastics and ice dance, for example, there is a continuing desire to address the impact of fellow judges’ decisions through automated scoring systems that are the subject of rigorous monitoring.

This is particularly important if judges are required to award marks for the artistic merit of a performance. Many sports are now drawing attention to the two dimensions of judging an athlete’s performance: encoding and evaluation.

A number of sports have developed mental skill programs for their officials and meet regularly to discuss these in one-to-one meetings and in groups. Most of the high-level sports in Australia have moved to building teams of officials for games, so that each official in that team is supported in and supports the decisions of team.

This has not prevented claims of institutional bias against non-Sydney teams in rugby league or against non-Victorian teams in Australian Rules football.

Augmented information

More sports are using video technology in real time to support officials. jamesmellor/Flickr, CC BY

The availability of video recordings has transformed the way we observe and understand sport performance. Referee and umpire development programs make substantial use of video to review performance. There is growing use of scenario-based training, which presents video and still images to enhance an official’s visual search and attention strategies.

Video replays are also increasingly used to check or challenge officials’ decisions. There was a great deal of discussion about goal-line technology at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

More recently, the International Volleyball Federation used a video challenge system at its World League Finals. There were 41 challenges in eight games. Ten decisions were overturned on challenge, and seven of these were on line calls.

Both forms of video use (training and challenge) offer opportunities to improve game performance.

We still have a long way to go to support volunteer officials at the grassroots of sport. Their ability to return each week is a vital contribution to the flourishing of sport. All of them and their more experienced colleagues deserve thanks for the invisibility of a difficult task well done.

Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interests to support officials as they deal with complex real-time decisions and their own perceptions of what is taking place.


Click on the links below for other articles in the series, How we make decisions:

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