Sports Are Games Played by Humans

Can we just enjoy sport and stop analyzing like we are at a crime scene?

Posted Apr 16, 2017

It was a recent NHL playoff game that finally put me over the edge--I have had it with instant slow motion replay in sport. I was watching a tight game (home team was leading by one in the 3rd period) and played at a breakneck pace. It was a thrilling example of the exhilaration you can feel simply by watching the amazing exploits of others. And to make matters better for uncommitted observers (I didn't care who won but was enjoying watching), the visitors scored to tie!

Or did they? A "coach's challenge" came out suggesting the play was offside and thus the goal shouldn't count. So was it off side? The linesman thought it was onside since no whistle was blown. Enter instant replay and endless slow-motion of the attacking team moving back and forth, back and forth even slower, back and forth on a timescale appreciated only by the smallest insects, all to reveal...that it wasn't clear but certainly there was no evidence for offside. The goal stood and the game carried on.

But why did we have to sit through the minute examination of a skate blade that may (or may not) have been the width of a paper off (or on) side? The officials on the ice thought there was an issue and more importantly none of the players on the ice were concerned. Yet there we all were, hostage to technology.

We can blame a lot of this on George Retzlaff. In 1955, Retlzaff was working as a producer on CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" show (the show continues and was, in fact, the one I was watching when I went off the edge...) when he got inventive and created an instant replay of a goal for the TV broadcast.

But probably we shouldn't blame Retzlaff. He didn't take things to the next step that causes all the problems (in my view), that of slow motion replay. I have to admit I really don't mind if we had a quick look at an event in a game to confirm issues that the officials themselves aren't sure about. In hockey, did the puck enter the net or bounce off the post, in soccer did the ball cross the goal line, or in baseball did the ball hit the foul pole in baseball? These are all reasonable questions and having another chance to view things is still at least perceiving reality on the same terms it evolved with initially.

Instead, what we often actually get is the slow motion, frame by frame replay (forward and backward) to tell us something we couldn't have noticed in real time no matter how many times we were shown it. That's because our perceptual systems operate in real time. We, humans, have evolved two timescales to appreciate the world around us. The first which we are all good at is usually on a second to second time scale. We have difficulty resolving differences between a performance, a motion, or a move that is less than a second. That's where a second sort of perceptual clocks seems to come in play. And that is what we are usually getting with slow motion instant replay.

Usually, our perceptions of very short time intervals (in the 100ths of a second) are distorted. But it turns out that highly trained athletes have also highly trained sub-second clocks and perceptions of time. In a paper "Time flies when we view a sport action" published in Experimental Brain Research, Yin-Hua Chen, Fabio Pizzolato, and Paolo Cesari looked at how well athletes could train to adjust their perception of very short time intervals.

Chen and colleagues studied a group of elite pole vault athletes and had them identify details in images that were familiar to their sport (pole vault images), random, or images from a different sport (e.g. fencing). The athletes were exposed to the images for different millisecond intervals and asked to determine details. These results were compared to age-matched participants with no pole vault experience.

Amazingly this (and later) research shows a certain "trainability" of sub-second time intervals. Elite athletes clearly outperformed controls in perceptual ability that was clearly linked to their own backgrounds and experiences related to the images shown. Clearly, our practice can improve our perceptions even at very short time intervals and there's a certain specificity at play.

Sports are played outdoors, indoors, on courts, on the water, in the water, in the air, basically everywhere--but they aren't played at crime scenes. Time to push back on instant replay and slow-motion re-enactment. You are a human and you perceive the world in real time. I want us to move from "get it right" to "get it as right as a human could distinguish".

So, with all of this in mind, I would like to pitch an idea for sports where instant replay is really, really over used (yes I'm looking at you MLB and NFL). I want to get away from coaches or managers calling for replays. Instead, it has to be initiated by players--those with the best perceptual ability to detect time and motion details. This makes sense since they are the ones actually playing but also because their brains are better tuned to the action at hand no matter where or when it's played.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)