Why Referees Cant Possibly Get It Right: The Neuroscience of Intention and Attention

Discussion in 'Columns' started by Thesoccershrink, Dec 28, 2010.

  • by Thesoccershrink, Dec 28, 2010 at 2:36 AM
  • Thesoccershrink

    Thesoccershrink Member

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    As a psychologist and founder of both the Rankin Center for Neuroscience and The American Brain Association I know something about the relationship between the brain and consciousness. And I can tell you this: consciousness is over-rated. The fact is that we often experience things AFTER the brain has reacted, and we often have the sense that we were in control of the action whereas, in fact, we had no such conscious control.
    There’s a distinction to be made between pre-meditated action, one that is intended and planned, and experience, which is conscious recognition of our brain’s innate, instinctive or well-rehearsed automatic routines, which occurs after the fact.

    This distinction is relevant to all aspects of life including sport. (Check out our sports division at www.therankincenter.com/sportsdivision.html). Take the golf swing, for example. You swing the club while focusing on the target, trusting your neuromuscular routine that is your swing. But your brain realizes half-way this particular swing that it is not going to be able to maintain balance and hit the ball squarely and thus adjusts the stroke making you hitch. About 300 milliseconds after your brain has done this you realize that you have altered your stroke. But actually your brain has altered your stroke and you have only become aware of it after the event. Of course, your playing partners watching will say, “You adjusted half way through your shot,” but actually you, consciously, did not do any such thing. It wasn’t intentional in the sense of planned pre-meditated action. (Of course, there are times when people do consciously focus on their swing and as a result totally interrupt the automatic neuromuscular routine often leading to a poor shot. If you’re really interested please check out my workbook The Seven Mental Challenges of Golf at www.scienceofyou.com. Video out very soonJ)

    You can see where I am going with this. A player, just let’s say its Jermain Defoe, jumps for the ball and hits the defender in the face with his elbow. Unless Defoe takes a very, very deliberate shot with his elbow, there’s no way anyone can accurately impute intent. His elbow might hit the defender, it might concuss him, but only Defoe himself can know whether it was his planned, conscious, pre-meditated intent to hit the defender in the head with his elbow. Let’s take another situation -- deliberate handball. When an object is hurtling towards your head it is the brain’s instinctive reaction to duck and put up your hands to protect yourself. You do not do this consciously. You are aware of doing it but it is not a consciously planned action. It is no more intentional than withdrawing your hand from a hot stove is intentional, although you’re conscious of both experiences.

    In sport, professional players have very well rehearsed neuromuscular routines. A batsman for example has learned to identify certain types of delivery and instantly produces a stroke to match the ball’s trajectory. His every stroke isn’t consciously planned! There’s not enough time, especially with fast bowling, to fully assess the delivery, think about it and choose a shot. Which is why when the very fast ball does something different than expected, there’s very little or no time to adjust consciously – instead there’s just an instant reaction, which the batsman is aware of a third of a second after his brain has made it.

    Given the distinctions between highly practiced neuromuscular routines, instinctive reactions, pre-conscious brain behavior and pre-meditated planning, I believe it is very, very difficult if not impossible in all but the most blatant of situations for a referee to impute intent with any accuracy or reliability.

    So, in short, this whole “intent” thing is a load of nonsense.

    And while I’m talking about experience and delays in conscious processing, let me add that it is not possible to look at two places at the same time and judge the relationship between them reliably. For example, if you’re watching a player pass the ball and then switch your attention to the most advanced forward, it takes 300 milliseconds to shift attention. In that time a striker can move a foot or so forward -- and so can a defender. It’s simply not possible to look at two places one after the other and reliably judge them as synchronous events. That the assistant referees get an offside decision right as often as they do is a minor miracle.
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Discussion in 'Columns' started by Thesoccershrink, Dec 28, 2010.

  1. spud
    I've followed your discussion with thesoccershrink with interest.

    This issue is also a bugbear for me, but apparently for a different reason. I find that instead of using the term 'cheat', commentators and pundits instead rely on a slew of euphemisms. For example, we often hear of players 'going down too easily' or 'playing for' a free kick when 'cheating' or certainly 'diving' would be more appropriate. In a similar vein, several times in a game we will see players from both teams (including ours) who, after little or no contact, appear to be mortally wounded; such play-acting is rarely commented upon, and certainly never described as cheating.

    With 'simulation' now enshrined in the Laws (and the questions of intention and morality thereby catapulted into them) I would far rather hear such behaviour described for what it is than excused - and, by extension, perpetuated - by myriad softer terms.
  2. Spur-of-the-moment
    Spud, thanks and I agree this opens up another field of argument. Personally, I don't think 'simulation' necessarily introduces the problem of morality (or intention for that matter) into the Laws. Without any special status, it appears alongside a long list of offences that would attract a caution for 'unsporting behaviour'. But, yes, it is the one that exercises the fans and pundits the most, and attracts moralising judgements in a way that the 'professional foul', for example, does not. These judgements are confused and inappropriate.

    For me, the careless use of the term 'cheat' devalues the term. The real 'cheating' in football occurs as a result of corrupt machinations away from the field of play that influence players and referees in particular games, or favour particular clubs in the league, and can also involve the very authorities that should be regulating the game. Many pundits, for example, who are prepared to use the term so inappropriately about events on the pitch are peculiarly silent when it comes to the real cheating elsewhere.

  3. davidmatzdorf
    What spud's contribution has opened up is the division between "cheating-on-the-spur-of-the-moment", such as diving, and "cheating-with-malice-aforethought", such as throwing a match (or pre-planning to bowl a no-ball). Similarly to the earlier discussion on "intention", they're very different things, both psychologically and in terms of their impact on the game at large.

    It would be useful to have another word than "cheating", so we could use one for a nefarious plot and another for an impulsive reaction, but I don't know one.

    I don't think that "playing for a free kick" is necessarily cheating at all. Bale did it very effectively (and legally) against Newcastle the other day: he collected the ball and tried a run up the touchline, but he was well-marked by two men and found himself facing away from the pitch with nowhere to go. Using his skill and ball control, he just kept the ball in front of him, under pressure, and waited ... until one of the defenders ran out of patience and put a hand in his back, at which point he went down: free kick. It was within the defender's choice not to push him in the back, but to wait until Bale ran out of tricks to keep the ball and then steal it or poke it out for a throw.

    There's a whole range of footballing techniques that are arguably part tactics, part gamesmanship and part cheating. We need a better array of words, or alternatively, we need to home in on exactly what it is that we want to stamp out and in what order of importance.
  4. Thesoccershrink
    Thanks! I've really enjoyed the discussion and your contribution.

    When I first saw your spirited defence of the Laws of the game I imagined you were either Martin Atkinson, Mark Clattenburg or Sepp Blatter :grin: But your comments about off the field cheating leaves me wanting to know more and what it is that you know about that? But if you have to kill me if you tell me, I prefer you stay silent.

    Happy New year!

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