Dr Ed Coughlan: Fewer errors go a long way to securing sport’s integrity

Soccer has embraced VAR and it has proved successful at the World Cup. Though it will take time for it to become a seamless part of the game, it must be seen as a positive development for the sport, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

Dr Ed Coughlan: Fewer errors go a long way to securing sport’s integrity

When you have two people playing a game, conflict is never far away over decisions about who is right and wrong and whose interpretation of the rules is more accurate. We do not need officials to complicate games; it appears that we are capable of doing it all on our own.

From a game of Jenga between siblings to an All-Ireland football final, when there are rules, there are decisions to be made that will no doubt affect the result, and that is when emotions and conflict make an appearance.

Even for the most uncompetitive person, a win tastes better than a loss. We appear to engage in less dramatic postmortems following a win, even though there may be plenty still to learn for the disciplined self-analyst.

However, when the stakes get higher, the need for officials is paramount. Unfortunately, we live in a world where athletes will bend, stretch and sometimes blatantly break the rules to gain a competitive edge on their opponents. The job of officials is to judge, in-situ, each of these scenarios and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport enforce the law to protect those who are playing by the rules.

Retrospective adjudication is often the only way to resolve some issues, such as Tom Brady’s deflategate and Lance Armstrong’s serial doping, but all too often the damage is done and any resolution leaves the vanquished with nothing but a sour taste in their mouth.

Some sports fare better than others do, though none escapes with a perfect report card. Rugby appears to have its house in order when it comes to being proactive on conduct and respect towards officials. The success of TMO interventions has improved the game and the extended use of communications between officials is improving the welfare of players suspected of serious injury.

Golf’s reputation will hope to survive the backlash from Mickelson’s on-the-run putt at last week’s US Open. It has a long history of exceptional acts of honesty and sportsmanship down through the years, but Mickelson’s cheeky conduct smacked of a superstar taking on the establishment and winning.

If the rules appear to be different based on who you are or where you are, then the purity of the game can quickly lose its sheen. Memories of some shocking refereeing decisions in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea still rankle with fans, especially those from Spain and Italy.

However, the baying for blood of officials by home fans has long been known to influence a referee, albeit unintentionally, which is why it is important to recognise the influence of bias on a person’s ability to make decisions in the heat of the moment. Not to forget the influence players themselves hope to impose on referees. Roy Keane’s Manchester United were famous for aggressively challenging and confronting referees to send a message loud and clear that they were not a team to make an error against.

Sometimes there are cumulative incidents in a sport that force its association to make a rule change to protect the integrity of the game.

The once commonplace tactical and cynical fouling in Gaelic football brought rise to the black card that has largely resulted in higher scoring and more open play. Not surprisingly, it had teething problems as both players and officials worked hard to figure out its exact use, but time has largely favoured its introduction and equipped referees to run a better game.

It is also great to finally see soccer embracing technology with the video assistant referee (VAR) and goal-line technology for this year’s World Cup in Russia. Though it will take time for it to become a seamless part of the game, it must be seen as a positive development for the sport.

However, more can be done to help referees of all sports to improve the likelihood of better decision making for those players who often put their lives on hold to compete.

Surprisingly, on the basis that there was such reluctance to introduce technology, soccer is the most proactive sport when it comes to education, training, and research on the topic of decision-making and spatial awareness for their matchday officials. Such skills are tantamount to improving the respect players and fans have for officials. Mind you, human error will never be removed from sport, but fewer errors will go a long way to securing a sport’s integrity.

Like all skills, decision- making and spatial awareness respond very well to practice and appropriate training. Sport science has returned some intriguing evidence that should continue to encourage sports associations such as the GAA to explore better officiating protocols.

On top of the education sessions, fitness testing and physical training, GAA officials would benefit from what is known as perceptual-cognitive training to improve their capacity to read plays more accurately.

Even though the research to date is not done in Gaelic games, there is a lot to be taken from the findings. Incidentally, officials across sport have reported similar experiences during their games, even ones as distinct as tennis and football, as the one common theme that binds them all is the skill of making the correct decision under pressure. Be that on the pitch during the run of play, or even to decide to engage with an assistant on the sideline or finally to defer to some off-field technology support such as Hawk-Eye or VAR.

For instance, web-based training of the offside rule in soccer has been shown to result in significant improvements in achieving greater accuracy in on-field decision-making performance when deciding whether a player is onside or not.

Next, the use of slow motion video as a tool to determine foul play and simulation, the likes of which Iran engaged in consistently during Wednesday night’s match against Spain, has been shown to reliably improve the rate of correct calls penalising the deceiving player, much of which can be done while play continues.

Sport science has shown us that elite athletes do not have better vision than your average Joe.

What they do is use the information that comes to them in a more efficient manner, choosing more pertinent information to focus their attention, a skill that can be improved with training.

The same evidence has been found for referees who have undertaken this perceptual-cognitive training. They appear to be no better than a passer-by on the street at making everyday decisions.

In sport-specific situations, their experience does come to the fore.

However, with training and practice, the difference becomes even greater, illustrating that skills such as decision-making and spatial awareness benefit from structured practice; further highlighting the fact that experience is not sufficient to ensure expertise.

Being a referee, umpire, or linesman is a thankless job at the best of times. Every sport is indebted to the men and women that take on the mantle of officiating games, but more needs to be done to help them be better for the athletes whose season can end prematurely because of a game-changing call that should have gone the other way.

Technological advances have proven to be a great addition to sport at the elite level, but before we lose the run of ourselves with our shiny new toys, let’s first remember to invest in the people at the heart of the action.

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox