SSA Blog: Who's to say it was a dive?

Last week, as part of a number of reforms regarding the game in England, The FA agreed to a new offence of “successful deception of a match official”. This will allow a panel to administer a retrospective ban for up to two games, if they find unanimously, that a player has deceived the referee by diving.

The move has been backed by footballing associations and many journalists have already covered the story, highlighting various incidents from this past season, when the rule could have been applied and players banned.

In Scotland, a similar rule has been in place since the 2011-12 season. This hasn’t eradicated diving and some of the criticism from high-profile managers has centred on being able to make decisions in real time rather than waiting to act retrospectively.

The panel will consist of an ex-player, former referee and former manager who will be given the power to sanction a player if they believe that player has dived. Diving, isn’t a black and white issue however. It’s not like the ball crossing the line in goal line technology, it remains subjective. It is this subjectivity that means getting the right people on the panel is crucial to the success of this new initiative.

So who should these people be?

It’s fair to say most people can recognise a blatant dive. This is because the kinematics or movement patterns of a player falling just don’t look right. But with the sophistication of players in the Premier League, the classic swan dive associated with the early 90’s isn’t where the problem lies. Several studies across Rugby, Basketball, Handball and Football suggest that actual experience of deceptive movements seem to add further expertise in the ability to recognise them in others. This theory is further supported by Rizzalotti and Craighero, who in 2004, published their thoughts regarding the “mirror-neuron system”. They showed that areas in the brain become more activated when watching movements that are part of one’s own ‘repertoire’. In essence, they are saying that these subtle movements are more recognisable if you can and have done them and not just see them. Numerous authors have subsequently made the case that experienced performers will, therefore, be better predictors of other people’s movements based on their own.

In 2014, Renden and his Amsterdam-based team decided to test the theory that motor (movement) experience supports better recognition of diving in football. They split their subjects into four groups. Expert referees, skilled footballers, wheelchair bound football fans (no motor experience), who had similar hours of watching football as the players and referees and finally novices, who didn’t watch football regularly. They found that referees (72.2%) and players (72%) were significantly better at identifying dives than fans (61.1%). They also found no great difference between fans and novices (57.4%) in identifying dives.  

The authors argue that despite no formal training or task specific experience, players were able to match referees due to superior motor experience of the situations. They highlight, that despite having similar viewing experience as wheelchair bound fans, because of the lack of motor experience, these fans were not able to identify the subtlety of dives with quite the same accuracy. Indeed, they were no better than complete novices at identifying game situation dives.

This brings us back to The FA panel. The research shows that referees are the experts. They have task specific experience regarding making decisions, training, visual experience and in many cases probably some motor experience from their own playing days. 

But to get the best outcomes from the ex-player and former coach, if we take Renden et al’s research to its logical conclusion, the player and coach selected to be part of the panel should have been ‘divers’ themselves. You could take it further and say they should be attacking players, as they create more opportunities to dive or stay on their feet i.e. task specific experience, rather than defenders/defensively minded players who are often the ones making a tackle.

I'm sure anyone reading this, taking the above criteria, will be able to think of numerous candidates to fill The FA’s panel. But a governing body looking to clean up foul play could find it hard to convince the public that those best positioned to help may be those with the worst reputations.

So, who’s to say it was a dive? The research suggests referees and ex-offenders…