The appliance of science to homo refereeus

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The Independent Online
Before we surrender our games completely to the cold-eyed surveillance of the video cameras there is one area left to explore in the despairing search for law and order on the pitch: and that is to make a final attempt to soothe the jagged passions of those involved with the simple human virtues of understanding, tolerance and mutual respect.

This may seem a laughable suggestion after a week during which even some of our senior football managers have been demonstrating a gift for tantrums not normally found outside a diva's dressing-room but a group of sports boffins believe that much of the confrontational heat can be taken out of football and rugby matches if those concerned, referees especially, reappraise the way they act.

Studies of recent flashpoints in both football and rugby suggest that the relationship between referees and players could improve just by the official changing his attitude, body language and the way he communicates. Some referees are far better at dealing with problems than others but there is no doubt that the manner in which refs react in certain situations can influence the response of players.

These studies involve the use of cameras in a far more subtle and discerning manner than that envisaged by the growing video lobby. Whatever it is imagined these wonders of modern technology can achieve - and recent events suggest there is a serious limitation on this - they are seen as no more than instruments of retribution, of helping us to be wise, and merciless, after the event.

There may be an element of deterrence in their presence but the cameras can only record the errors and crimes committed by the main participants in our sporting dramas. The rising clamour for the wholesale introduction of technical aids to refereeing is an admission that we have exhausted all other hopes of dealing with the source of the flash-points that seem to disfigure so many games.

Even if you believe that a fourth official glued to a screen behind the stand would solve all disputed decisions in a flash, the effect the process would have on the game could be catastrophic. Video recordings do have a disciplinary contribution to make at a later date but they have a far more creative potential than to be used merely as prying eyes and instead of fast- forwarding them to see the result of a fracas we should be pressing the fast-rewind to study what caused it.

Coaches have long used video to study the opposition in advance or to keep a check on their players' output; like how many tackles a full-back makes or how many accurate crosses a winger puts over. But the sports scientists at the Centre for Notational Analysis at the University of Wales Institute at Cardiff look far deeper into the picture in search of reasons and explanations.

Acknowledged as the finest of its kind in the world, the centre has been developing a scientific approach to sport through research and analysis for the past eight years and is gathering an impressive list of clients ranging from the Welsh Rugby Union to the South African Football Association.

Although many international teams in all codes have some sort of performance analysis service, this approach to sport is still largely unexplored territory and, not surprisingly, the southern hemisphere has shown the keenest appetite for the vital information that these services can produce.

Prompted by a glut of disputes and flare-ups over the past year or so, the centre has recently turned its research spotlight on refereeing under the guidance of Mikel Mellick who was one of Australia's top rugby referees before he came to Cardiff to complete a PhD in applying sports psychology to officiating.

His particular study recently has been verbal and non-verbal behaviour in referees and soon he will be returning to Australia to take up the whistle again and put into practice what he has learned. "My research has certainly showed me the need to be more specific in our communication with players.

"We tend to yell out our instructions during the game without realising how general those instructions are and how easily they can be misinterpreted by players who are busily hurtling their bodies about at the time," he said.

The centre, who also record what referees are saying during a game, have adopted a phrase to describe those crucial crunch times for both referees and players. It is "performance crisis vulnerability" and how they cope with that determines how great a disaster an incident can become.

The assistant director, Alun Carter, explains: "A referee can reach PCV in a number of ways. It can be in his character to start with or he could encounter the sort of player who is continually trying to influence him with non-stop comments that can eventually goad him into a hasty and unwise decision. And some referees don't seem to realise that their posture when giving a vital decision or showing a card can affect the response of players in PCV. Our video and audio research shows that there are problems in games which could be solved by studying our analyses."

The referees' study is still at the research stage and it was as a research unit allied to Uwic's renowned physical education course that the centre began its transformation into a commercial enterprise now in worldwide demand. The director, Keith Lyons, helped to create the market for studies into ball-in-play time, action sequences and a mass of information that a coach can utilise. The centre has the best information data base about rugby union in existence and the approach of the World Cup is bringing more and more demands on it.

"We use scientific means to gather the information but what the coach does with it is the art," says Carter, who played flanker for Pontypool, Newport and Wales and still turns out for the Uwic XV. Carter reckons that the team to have made the best use of notational analysis are the Australian women's hockey team who are the undoubted world champions. Carter has an interest in that area because he was performance analyst for the Great Britain women's hockey team at the 1996 Olympics, where they finished higher than expected in fourth place, and for the England team who took the silver as runners-up to Australia in last year's Commonwealth Games.

Now heading the analysis unit that has a full-time contract with the WRU and works closely with Wales's New Zealand coach Graham Henry, Carter believes that our sports are not using the back-up and support available as willingly or as well as the southern hemisphere.

"We still have a long way to go to catch up and it is about time our governing bodies realised that this is probably the last legal way of improving performance," says Carter.

As for the referees, they are used to being under the bleary glares of thousands but I doubt if they've been threatened with so personal and revealing a scrutiny. Were they to watch themselves and realistically analyse their actions, it is possible that they could step on to future fields better armed with the means to impose their control without inflaming the situation.

The poet Robert Burns did not have the advantage of notational analysis but he did recognise the absence of the gift...

To see ourselves as others see us

It would from many a blunder

free us.