Game Sense: Human Factors, Police, and College Football

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

On any given fall Saturday, Daniel Richard may be found officiating in one of fourteen historic Big Ten football stadiums. Ranging from Piscataway, New Jersey, to Lincoln, Nebraska, Daniel, a Head Line Judge, joins a team of eight officials charged with safeguarding the integrity of each game. To perform at this level, these officials must control their attention, make rapid and accurate assessments, and exercise expert judgment.

Readers familiar with police practices will quickly recognize the parallels between time-compressed decision-making on a football field and those experienced by law enforcement officers “in the field.” Even so, critics of police often imagine that “human factors” like “tunnel vision,” “selective attention,” and “cognitive load” are concepts manufactured by police to avoid accountability. The question is whether other professions experience these same influences on decision-making and performance, even after extensive training and experience. Head Line Judge Daniel Richard has an answer.

Between Two Fields

Head Line Judge Daniel Richard is uniquely qualified to compare the experience of professionals engaged in decision-making in time-compressed environments.  As a Major with the Massachusetts State Police, Daniel sat on the committee responsible for reviewing every use of force involving a Massachusetts State Trooper.  He also oversees the major crimes detectives responsible for investigating homicides and apprehending violent fugitives. Daniel was recently promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, where he now serves as Division Commander of the Massachusetts State Police Division of Standards and Training.       

As a 2022 Advance Force Science Specialist Course graduate, Daniel has developed an expert understanding of how human factors like memory, perception, and attention can influence use-of-force decisions.  During his studies, he recognized that these same factors were influencing the team of football officials even in the relatively safe environment of the gridiron.    

Human Performance and the Line Judge

Even before the ball is snapped, a Line Judge (“judge”) has multiple responsibilities placing demands on their attention. They must count the number of players on offense, watch players on the offensive line for false starts, and watch players on the defensive line for neutral zone infractions and encroachment penalties.  

Once the ball is snapped, the judge must focus on a particular offensive player—watching the player’s actions and those actions taken against the player.  Here, the judge assesses a variety of potential offensive and defensive infractions, including improper blocking, holding, and pass interference.  As this player moves away from him, the judge’s focus of attention moves to a general zone of responsibility.  If the play moves to the opposite side of the field, the judge watches the backside of the play.  If the play moves towards him, the judge focuses on the area from the front of the ball carrier forward.  If there is a pass, the judge must anticipate where the ball will travel and evaluate whether there are any penalties in the area.  Finally, once the play is over, the judge must focus on the players’ body language and anticipate (and intervene) any potential post-play pushing and shoving.  This cycle repeats every play throughout the entire game.

Developing “Game Sense”

During the Advanced Specialist course, students study the difference between how novices and experts perceive and interpret visual cues. Athletes and veteran law enforcement officers develop the ability to know “what to look for, where to look for it, and when to look.” This “game sense” optimizes the expert’s ability to perceive visual stimuli accurately, formulate the appropriate response, and position themselves to execute a response.1

Over the years, it became clear to Daniel that, on the football field, “if you try to see everything, you end up seeing nothing.”  In other words, officials must focus on specific things—a particular player, zone, or even specific body parts—to make the correct calls and even “no calls” during every play. 

Daniel shared his early experiences, “When I began working as an official for youth football games in the 1990s, focusing on the correct cues was particularly difficult.  Back then, while the athletes were far less skilled and moved much more slowly, I hadn’t developed the game sense to know where to look or when to look there.  It frequently felt like the game was moving faster than I could think.  Now, years later, with thousands of repetitions under my belt, I watch fast-paced games with incredibly fast athletes, but the game seems to have actually slowed down.”

After officiating well over 40,000 football plays over a 25-year career, Daniel reports that penalties often “jump out” at him because he knows the cues to look for and focus on.  He knows where to place himself for the best vantage to make a call.  From his real-life repetitions as a football official and police officer (Trooper), Daniel is uniquely positioned to quickly read body language and anticipate when players might attempt to engage physically after a play has ended. 

From the Field to the Street

Many law enforcement officers will simply not have expert judgment when they first face threats on the streets.  Like Daniel’s experience as a new youth football official, recruits will struggle with game sense—knowing what to look for, where to look, and when. 

Of course, there are significant distinctions between new officials and new police recruits.  New officials can learn and gain experience in a controlled, safe environment where judgment errors are not a matter of life or death.  Even so, game sense is developed only after extensive experience—whether that experience is a product of the real-world operating environment or frequent participation in realistic, high-quality training. 

Reviewing the Film

To supplement game time experience, football officials may be encouraged to review recordings of their games and critique their performance.  Daniel Richard noted that this process has been immensely helpful in improving his game sense, “Despite having officiated over 40,000 plays, I recognize there is always room to improve.  Through post-game film review, I noticed that missed or incorrect calls were often due to being in the wrong position or focusing on the wrong visual cue.”  Daniel continued, “Police officers may gain valuable game sense by reviewing and critiquing their body-worn camera footage.  For officers, this practice can be a safer but no less critical training piece to speed up their learning because the threats aren’t going to wait for them to develop the skills necessary to know where to look and when, and, for them, it can be the difference between life and death.”

Perceptual Narrowing and Focus of Attention

Officers are often criticized for failing to notice every detail later observed on video.  When experts explain that perceptual narrowing and focus of attention can influence what officers see or hear, they are often accused of manufacturing this phenomenon to avoid accountability.  The experience of Daniel Richard can help settle this question.

Daniel has officiated in front of 80,000 to 100,000+ noisy fans.  Even so, he reports that ordinarily, he is completely unaware of any noises—from the crowd, players, or coaches–when he intently focuses on his officiating responsibilities.  Daniel explains, “Sometimes I hear the crowd’s discontent after a penalty, but only after I’ve shifted my focus away from my responsibilities during a stoppage of play.  I can’t really speak with coaches about particular calls until the play has stopped, and I can shift my attention away from my other responsibilities.  Until then, my mental workspace is simply too focused on officiating to pay attention to anything else.”

Tunnel Vision

Daniel has also experienced tunnel vision on the field, particularly when attempting to discern whether a player has made a catch on the sideline.  To make this complex determination, an official must determine whether one of the receiver’s body parts landed in bounds, whether the receiver possessed the ball at that time, and whether the player possessed the ball through the process of the catch.  All this occurs in mere fractions of a second and requires immense focus for the official to make accurate determinations.  Daniel reported, “When I watch game film, I occasionally see a penalty that I completely missed during the game.  Even though the penalty occurred right in front of me, I never perceived it on the field because I was so focused on whether a catch was made.”  “When I’m watching a catch on the sideline, you could drive a tractor-trailer across the field, and I wouldn’t see it,” Daniel jokes.

Irrelevant Information is Irrelevant

Perhaps not surprisingly, when Daniel is narrowly focused on his particular duties, he is often unaware of information that may be important to a casual game observer.  After a game, for example, Daniel reports being completely unaware of which players had a “good” or “bad” game, whether a quarterback passed for 400+ yards, or whether a particular running back ran for multiple touchdowns.  Although obvious to a casual observer, these stats are unrelated to Daniel’s narrow focus of attention and are left unnoticed.

Police are Not Players

While Daniel has experienced perceptual narrowing as a football official, he quickly distinguishes the experience of officials in a game from those of Troopers facing threatening situations on the streets and highways of Massachusetts. 

“To be sure, some stress comes with making judgments in time-compressed situations in front of thousands of spirited fans.  But players on the football field are typically trying to follow the rules as part of a concerted effort to win the game fairly.  The same is not true for those who pose deadly threats to law enforcement officers.  Life-or-death determinations are at least as complex as determining whether a player has made a catch.  Still, awareness of potentially fatal consequences and high levels of uncertainty influence perception, attention, and memory in ways football officials will never have to experience on the job.  If an official encounters tunnel vision when his life is not in danger, consider how much more a law enforcement officer may experience perceptual narrowing when faced with a deadly threat.”

Stop the Clock

It should be clear by now that, regardless of the profession (or any activity), human performance is influenced by time compression and the perception of significant consequences.  But Daniel identifies an important distinction, “Football officials can stop the clock and confer with one another before making a final call on the field.  The official waiving his hands over his head to stop the clock is one of the most welcome signals to a football official.”

Daniel explains, “Stopping the clock gives officials time to reflect, deliberate, and ideally, make the correct call.  After a sideline catch, it is not uncommon for each official to have seen something slightly different.  These differences might be due to their focus of attention, angle of view, or just the presence of obstructions from their vantage point.  Including each official’s perspective before deciding on a call can greatly improve our accuracy.”  Daniel continues, “We still don’t always get it right.  But in football—unlike law enforcement–when the on-field officials make the wrong call, video replay officials can view the video and consider information the eight officials did not perceive on the field.  If the officials on the field got it wrong, the integrity of the game is maintained by video review.”  

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Richard makes the critical connection “It’s obvious that human factors influence decision-making and performance, regardless of your profession.  In football officiating, we can overcome a lot of our human performance limitations, especially with video.  But, even though deadly-force encounters are often captured on video, when police face imminent threats, there may simply be no time to confer with other officers or use video replays before the decision to use force must be made.” 


  1. Vickers, J. N. (2007) Perception, Cognition and Decision Training: The Quiet Eye in Action. Human Kinetics. []
7 Responses
  1. Mike

    You wrote, “Readers familiar with police practices will quickly recognize the parallels between time-compressed decision-making on a football field and those experienced by law enforcement officers “in the field.”

    You also wrote, “Life-or-death determinations are at least as complex as determining whether a player has made a catch.”

    Please tell me you are not comparing the stress of officiating to the stress of a police officer?

    1. Von Kliem

      No… “at least as” was an attempt at obvious sarcasm. Apparently not as obvious as hoped. We agree, force encounters are more complex.

  2. Kal

    Great article. A hockey referee is also an example of this time reduced decision making, reacting to body language and flow of play to determine how to enforce ‘the rules’ of the game.

  3. Alan Kerby

    An interesting article, while trying to find an answer to the human factor problem, ends up highlighting the big problem in developing what is described as “game sense” for armed professionals – faulty training design.

    A couple of examples from the article: “Of course, there are significant distinctions between new officials and new police recruits. New officials can learn and gain experience in a controlled, safe environment where judgment errors are not a matter of life or death.”

    Question: Why are recruits in the “controlled, safe environment” of the training academy not learning the visual skills needed to recognize and respond to rapidly changing visual stimuli, focused attention, cognitive skills, and ultimately good decision-making while using their firearm? Why is the training to perceive and interpret visual cues, to know what to look for, where to look, and when to look, assigned to an Advanced Specialist course?

    Continuing: “Even so, game sense is developed only after extensive experience—whether that experience is a product of the real-world operating environment or frequent participation in realistic, high-quality training.”

    Another question: Outside of specialized units that participate in frequent, realistic high-quality training, how many “experiences” of good decision-making using their firearm does a new academy graduate get during field training on an average day? As a Head Line Judge, Daniel Richard would participate in about 160 decision-making plays during a single football game. How many years of OTJ experience is needed to attain expert judgment, or to reach that quantity and quality of good decisions in a life-or-death operational environment without a negative outcome?

    The answer is not just reviewing body cam videos to see what is missed. Many believe it will take a new paradigm and training design. The New York Municipal Training Council recently approved a new curriculum to be introduced into all state law enforcement training academies, designed to address many of these issues. Dustin Salomon (www.buildingshooters.com) has been a central contributor to this new curriculum using his brain-based training model and visually-based firearms skills training. Armed professional training academies, large and small should pay attention as this training model is fully implemented. After all, it is literally a matter of life and death.

  4. John GrosVenor

    I was a police officer 21 years and deputized 4 years. People in “intellectual “ environment invited police to learn how to relate to civilians
    But, there had been a gathering to learn how to relate to police officers.
    The attitude of the intellectuals was to challenge authorities and argue instead of. Respect authority.
    I’m the cace of trespass on private property, several things could have been done
    +Police officers could respectfully
    explain the purpose of the stop
    +The driver could have kept his mouth
    shut and respectfully lisen
    +The shift commander…being a third
    party could have gone over to the
    property owner and ask him/her to
    over to the scene and speak in a
    cordial manner thst the driver is in
    traspass and ask him to leave & not
    trespass again
    +If the driver refuses to leave and
    continue to play miniature lawyer,
    the property owner could sign a
    complaint- if the driver continues to
    argue & refuse to leave, the officer,
    authority of law, can have the car
    towed and driver arrested.
    The verbal exchange is healthy. To a point
    .I’d say, after observing the influence of
    Parents, public “education “ (indoctrination) systems, there has been
    a spirit of lawlessness, disrespect.
    Just a few thoughts

Leave a Reply