The Intricate Cognitive Challenges Faced by Soccer Referees

Soccer referee deep in thought during a match.

The World Cup is in full swing, and as teams advance, star players like Ronaldo and Harry Kane frequently make headlines. However, another pivotal figure on the field is the referee. How does a referee’s brain process everything in a high-paced game setting? Dive deep into the cognitive aspects of refereeing, especially in soccer.

Read more: The Intricate Cognitive Challenges Faced by Soccer Referees

The Art of Unnoticed Decision Making:

Renowned referee Björn Kuipers once remarked to NOS, “Our goal is to remain unnoticed; to be invisible.” However, achieving this unobtrusiveness, especially at the elite level, is challenging. Referees must master anticipation, pattern recognition, and rapid decision-making—all under the intense pressure of time and scrutiny.

Referee’s Cognitive Journey:

The executive system plays a pivotal role in our decision-making processes. It processes visual information, holds it momentarily, and then translates it into actionable responses. Referees are continually tasked with keeping their eyes on the ball, interpreting situations in real-time, and comparing these situations against a vast list of rules (equivalent to 63 A4 pages). Central to accurate decision-making is the referee’s positioning on the field. All processed information funnels into the executive system, which filters and finalizes the decision. Amidst this, maintaining concentration and focus is paramount. Studies have emphasized the significance of a strong working memory for maintaining focus. Interestingly, research also suggests referees can be influenced by the crowd. Kuipers adds, “Of course, crowds can influence decisions. Only the top-tier referees can effectively nullify this influence.”

The Enigmatic Assistant Referees:

Perhaps the most commendable task lies with the assistant referees. Their primary responsibility, detecting offside violations, is a daunting cognitive challenge. This job requires simultaneous tracking of the ball and the players—a task known as multitasking. However, scientific studies suggest that true multitasking might be a myth; our brains switch between tasks (task-switching). This switch can cause a delay. For instance, an assistant referee’s eye movement might take up to 200 milliseconds, during which a fast striker can cover up to 1.5 meters. This subtle difference can be the deciding factor between an onside and offside decision. Furthermore, the angle of view can deceive an assistant referee, causing unjust offside calls. In bustling stadiums, assistant referees must also avoid distractions from flashy advertisements and loud crowds.

Referee graph

The Role of Experience:

With time and experience, referees internalize many aspects of the game, enabling them to operate somewhat on “autopilot.” Familiarity with recurring situations lets them store and retrieve game scenarios, making decisions more fluid. This cognitive ease ensures their working memory remains unburdened, ready to focus on novel situations.

Physical Fatigue and Cognitive Decline:

Referees, often a decade older than the average player, cover nine to thirteen kilometers during a match, requiring peak physical conditioning. Physical exhaustion can impair cognitive functions. A study led by Terry McMorris from the University College Chichester revealed that exhaustion significantly reduces working memory performance—a key factor for concentration and focus. As Kuipers aptly puts it, “A referee can perform flawlessly for 90 minutes, but a single incorrect judgment overshadows everything.”


While this article primarily zooms in on soccer’s main referees, it’s crucial to acknowledge assistant referees and officials in other sports, each with unique challenges. Cognitive training could become invaluable for referees in the future. Interested in how Björn Kuipers prepares for a match? Check out the linked video below.

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