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NBA referees are using psychology to keep up with the speed of the modern NBA

The modern NBA game demands more from its officials, so they’re using a new tool to adapt.

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Joey Crawford remembers calling a travel on Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas years ago. Details like the opponent, the score, and even the date of the game have all faded, but one of the NBA’s most well-known officials still vividly recalls Thomas’ tone after the whistle.

“He said to me, ‘Always remember something, Joe: I practice my moves more than you practice your walk call,’” Crawford says now. “And he was 100 percent correct!”

NBA games are filled with similar referee-player exchanges, but Crawford took much more from it. Thomas wasn’t just imparting wisdom while slinging a backhanded putdown. He was offering insight into why an NBA referee’s job is so difficult.

“We’re always catching up,” says Crawford, who retired in 2016 after a 39-year career and now serves as a referee developmental advisor for the NBA. “Our [players] are so smart and so good. [But] we eventually catch up to their moves.”

Until, as Thomas’ story proves, the cycle starts over again.

This is reality for NBA referees. They must use three sets of eyes to track 10 crisscrossing bodies with pinpoint accuracy across horizontal and vertical planes, in a game where the difference between legal and illegal contact comes down to the subtlest of movements. Oh, and they must do so when the players they’re tracking know they’re being watched and take great pains to obscure what’s seen.

NBA officials estimate they make 500 call-or-no-call decisions in a given game. They get about 92 percent of these calls right, per sources and previous reporting, though the league itself is hesitant to use that number because evaluation systems can differ slightly. But even as the NBA has revamped everything from training processes to transparency, there’s a growing perception among players, coaches, and fans that the refs simply aren’t good enough.

“The No. 1 issue on [players’] minds is officiating,” Michelle Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association, told USA Today last January. “And it’s only gotten worse over the years, (and) probably now is about as hot as it has been.”

Relations became so strained that a group of players and referees held a summit over last season’s all-star break to smooth rising tensions. This came on the heels of strong public criticism from several prominent players.

“It’s bad,” Warriors forward Draymond Green told The Athletic. “It’s horrible. It’s really bad. I don’t know why it is. But I think it’s ridiculous. It’s ruining the game.”

How can players think the quality of officiating is so low at the same time the league is beefing up its training process? Because the modern game makes an official’s job especially difficult.

“One of the most fascinating aspects of our profession [is] we allow ourselves to try and figure out problems from night to night that are different,” Monty McCutchen, VP of referee development and training for the NBA, and a former official himself, tells SB Nation. “Every time you’re handed a Rubik’s Cube, it’s in a different position. That’s what makes it exciting, but also what makes it difficult.”

Wherever possible, the league tries to at least set a baseline template to counter these nightly challenges. That starts with positioning three-person officiating teams in a flexible triangle on the floor.

The lead official patrols the baseline, as veteran referee Zach Zarba does in this example from Game 3 of June’s NBA Finals. They can move around the baseline to get a good sight line, but must operate under a rule known as “tandem officiating”: two officials on the side of the ball at all times.

The slot official stands at the free-throw line extended on the sideline. They begin on the side away from the ball, though this can change during possession as the ball swings.

That leaves the trail official, who stands furthest away from the hoop. The trail is responsible for anything that happens above the free-throw line extended, as well as scramble plays like rebounds or loose balls.

Responsibilities get more complex when play switches from end to end. What if a call needs to be made as this transition is happening?

“The primary mission at that point is simply to get to a good vantage point,” current NBA official Courtney Kirkland tells SB Nation. “Then, worry later about re-acquiring your positioning.”

These basics have become much harder to follow over the years. Veterans like Crawford are quick to note the game’s speed — the average NBA game features more than 97 possessions for each team, compared to less than 92 possessions 20 years ago. Teams push the ball more and take quicker shots, which affords officials less time to get in position. Referees don’t have time to stop and think about where to stand or which one is supposed to make the call.

“If I’m the trail, I have to be able to look at the slot’s eyes to make sure they’re not looking at the same thing I’m looking at,” Crawford says.

This is impossible to do consciously, so referees cope through a psychological shortcut known as pattern recognition. That recognition allows Crawford to position himself, watch the play, and make sure other officials aren’t watching the same thing, all without thinking. Without pattern recognition, the game becomes too complicated.

“One thing that’s unique about basketball is the fluidity of the game. There [are] a ton of permutations,” says Scott Goldman, a sports psychologist active across the athletics landscape and the creator of the Athletics Intelligence Quotient measure, used in various forms by roughly 30 North American sports teams.

Many of these common permutations become second-nature in short order thanks to pattern recognition.

“It’s about seeing things and recognizing how they unfold in patterns,” Goldman says. “If I were to say, A, B, C, [what would] you most likely answer after that…?”

When one sees these repeated hundreds of thousands of times, the brain naturally develops familiarity with them. If a player takes three steps without dribbling the ball, referees immediately know he traveled. If they cup their hand under the ball to hold it aloft, officials immediately spot a carry.

The downside is that those same mental shortcuts are also crutches that smart players kick at repeatedly, especially when there are gray areas in the rules. Think James Harden snapping his head back on a drive to make it look like he was hit, or Jamal Crawford crumbling to the ground if a defender is near him on a three-point attempt.

“To not go into that pattern recognition is actually very important [in those situations],” Goldman says.

Specialists like surgeons and airline pilots are taught to follow a checklist to avoid defaulting to their reflexes. The checklist stops the brain from becoming complacent, especially for routine tasks they can do with their eyes closed.

Running through that checklist is harder for referees than surgeons or pilot, though. An airline pilot makes a vital decision in a matter of seconds, while a referee must do so in milliseconds. That’s why developing a time-efficient mental checklist is heavily emphasized during training.

“You’re seeing patterns develop, and you narrow the possibilities down as a result of what you see developing,” McCutchen says. “Instead of there being 10,000 [scenarios], there might be eight that can happen. So you prep your mind.”

The league does its best to help narrow down the checklist. They even train officials to keep air stored in their diaphragm instead of their mouth, allowing whistling to be a conscious decision rather than a reflex.

But those tactics can only go so far. According to several NBA officials, each of the three spots in the officiating triangle has at least 20 different broad situations they must instantly recognize, from footwork and pivot feet, to body contact, to the chaos of rebounds or loose balls. How can an official know when to use their reflexes for a basic call and when to instead toggle through a mental checklist? The same tools that help referees get 92 percent of the calls right are the ones that cause the eight percent they miss.

Even defining that eight percent is difficult. Basketball, like many other sports, fails a test Goldman and other psychologists call “inter-rater reliability.” Do a group of judges all arrive at the same conclusions when observing the same sample at the same time? The more often they do, the more inter-rater reliability exists.

“Let’s say we were studying language, and wanted to code it,” Goldman says, raising a simple example. “We take the word ‘bush’. Are we going to code that as something we plant in the ground, something that’s green, or what? I, as one evaluator, say, ‘I like to think that’s a ground plant,’ but someone else says it’s just a plant. Even though we’re both right, we don’t have inter-rater reliability.”

Two elite officials often see the same thing but come to different conclusions, both in real time and on replay. That small gap in perception is the difference between a whistle and a play on.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

These cognitive challenges would be tough enough in a normal environment, but they are exacerbated in the high-pressure situation of an NBA game. Officials must address the traps of pattern recognition and the challenge of inter-rater reliability in a stressful environment with 10 tired players, intense coaching staffs, and 20,000 fans screaming in their ears.

In 1908, research by psychologists Yerkes and Dodson showed the relationship between stress and performance is best expressed in a bell curve. Some stress is needed for optimal performance — we won’t perform a task well if we don’t care about it at all — but too much stress is actually a hinderance.

The league realizes reffing an NBA game is stressful. Officials are trained from the start to focus on the job at hand rather than outside noise. Even if a mistake is made, they must hone in on the mechanical processes that led to the error.

“When you’re under stress, you can lean on your work,” McCutchen says. “Confidence is knowing you’ve put the hours in.”

For some officials, that’s enough. Others need more, and the league helps those who have those concerns. They’ve added breathing exercises and basic relaxation techniques into referee training programs, and have brought in sports psychologists and other experts to teach more specific techniques that many officials use.

The NBA also throws referees into practical experiences within its training, which culminates with several years refereeing in the G-League. This system has been around for decades in some form, first through the Continental Basketball Association and then through the former D-League.

There are a handful of “two-way” referees who work several NBA games early in the season, then return to G-League duty as the NBA season gets into spring. There’s no set number of games or seasons an official has to spend in the G-League before they assume full-time NBA duty. The league instead promotes on a case-by-case basis.

Goldman and other psychologists call this “inoculation training,” a method also used in the military. The more exposure a person gets to a specific stressful environment, the better they’ll be able to handle it in the future.

But while the G-League can approximate many of the same stressors as the actual NBA, it’s not the actual NBA.

“You can’t stress inoculate for something that rare,” Goldman says.

Interactions with players and coaches cause the most stress, so Crawford and others send a simple message to trainees, one honed from his time under former NBA chief of officials Darell Garretson:

“The higher you go, the player or the coach goes even higher,” Crawford says. “You don’t always have to have the last word.”

Even the most well-trained referee sometimes fails to be the bigger person, but officials are taught to discover their own tactics to help them stay as even-keeled as possible. An expansion of the original Yerkes and Dodson study of the early 1900s introduced “individual zones of optimal functioning (IZOF).” The study agreed that performance under stress is expressed in a bell curve, but found that this bell curve is different for each individual person.

“I would talk to myself the entire day,” Crawford says. “It didn’t matter if it was in November or a Finals game in June. That self-reflection of, ‘Joe, stay calm. Everything will be fine.’ That’s what I constantly had to tell myself.”

As the game has evolved over the years, so too have the NBA’s mechanisms for identifying and training officials. There’s constant attention paid to everything from gaps in coverage to player and coach interactions.

But referees will always be fighting an uphill perception battle. A player who makes 92 percent of his free throws is considered to be at the top of their profession, despite the eight percent they miss. For officials, that world is upside down.

“We have to be able to say to the people that are coming after the referees: ‘Listen, these guys are the best in the world,’” Crawford says. “Do we make mistakes? Well, sometimes we do make mistakes.”

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