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Professor monitoring refs' heart activity

CEDAR CITY — Dr. Matt Rhea, an assistant professor of exercise science at Southern Utah University, has spent countless hours analyzing athletes to better prepare them physically and mentally for games.

Then it occurred to him that he should be doing the same for officials.

When he approached several high school and college basketball officials last year to be part of his study in which he would analyze their health during games, he was met with mixed reviews, but that opinion soon changed.

"Some of the officials and, maybe a couple of the coaches, too, were concerned if they were going to look bad," he said. "As soon as they understand what I am looking for and what I'm trying to get at, everyone of them have opened up and said, 'Whatever I can do to get information and help other officials and coaches.' "

During two separate tournaments — one high school and one college — Rhea put monitors on officials during games to evaluate their hearts.

Naturally, heart rates of officials are high during games because of the frequent stops, starts, and sudden bursts requiring dead sprints during the course of normal action of a game.

"It's a given that they'll be working, and what we found, and was a moderate to high intensity while play is going," Rhea said. "Yes, their heart rate is going to be pretty high to begin."

Rhea monitors how fast and high it goes up and quickly it drops. He has found many officials don't spend enough time during the offseason to prepare physically for their sport. To him, becoming physically fit is just as important as studying the rules.

"If they are in better shape it (heart rate) comes down faster before a time out (during play) is over," he said. "If they're struggling and exhausted the heart rate will stay high through the time out and once play starts they haven't recovered at all."

Rhea said if the official can't fully recuperate during a break in the action, his or her heart is taxed and the heart rate could venture into dangerously high levels.

Aside from the physical aspect of officiating, Rhea looks for other instances during the game that influence the heart, such as calling a technical foul or making a key call down the stretch in a close game.

"If I see anything out of the ordinary happen or something that's aggressive or physically or mentally taxing, I'll jot it down with the time and we'll look at it afterwards."

Rhea, who also conducted the same study on officials during the Rocky Mountain Revue, the Utah Jazz's summer league for young players, two years ago, found if officials are physically and mentally prepared it extends their careers.

Rhea and Dr. Steve Lunt, a long-time official and former chair of the physical education department and professor emeritus of the university are currently working to lock down funding to expand his research on officials and coaches.

"I've told many officials and coaches they can (officiate and coach) until the day they die if they prepare for it right," Rhea said.