How to win at fantasy football - a sport psychologist's guide


How to win at fantasy football - a sport psychologist's guide

Over 5 million people regularly play fantasy football. But what separates the best from the rest?

Clearly, football knowledge helps, but arguably even more important is the ability to make good decisions on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, humans aren’t really wired to think clearly. However, five simple tips from sport psychology can help you become better at fantasy football.

As the football season returns and millions of managers start picking just 15 players from their £100 million budget, help is at hand. Our resident Sport Psychologist, who in two of the last three seasons has finished in the top 0.2% of fantasy football teams, reveals the thinking biases to be aware of in order maximise your points:

The Halo Effect

This describes how we are unduly influenced by our first experience of a person, which then clouds our future perception of them.

For example, if a player gets a big points haul in the first week of owning, it seems to make sense to think that player is one to keep for a while. And even if he blanks for several weeks after, that early first impression will still be imprinted into our mind. This means that people are more likely to hold on to him for longer than they probably should, instead of transferring him out.

The Recency Effect

Ever noticed how musicians and bands always play their biggest hits at the end of their concert? That is because they want people leaving the gig on a high.

This is caused by the Recency Effect – while the Halo Effect states that we tend to be heavily influenced by our first experience of someone, the Recency Effect states that we tend to focus disproportionately on the last thing we experienced. So, if a fantasy football player that you don’t own does well in the last game week, your brain will place more evidence on that performance than the one they did two game weeks ago. This often results in people rushing to transfer in “the next big thing” against their better judgment and chasing last week’s points (a classic no-no for fantasy football).

The Ikea Effect

Named after the famous Swedish self-assembled flat-pack furniture store, this thinking bias states that people tend to place higher value on the things that they create. Essentially, this means that if someone has worked hard on something (i.e. picking their fantasy team) they will cling to the belief that it is good. This is why some people stick with a failing player for too long: the hope that the player will suddenly become good and prove them right outweighs the objective data that says this isn’t likely to happen.

The Bandwagon Effect

It has been long known in psychology that people are more likely to do something if they think everyone else is also doing it. The faulty thinking here is along the lines of “this many people can’t be wrong”, and “who am I to disagree with what everyone else is saying?”. By abdicating and delegating our thinking to the masses, we don’t involve in any critical thinking of our own. This is where fads, hype and bandwagons thrive. So, instead of transferring in the most popular player that week, it is better to focus on what you think your team needs, and back your gut.

The Negativity Bias

People tend to remember the negative more than the positive. This is why insults hurt us more than receiving compliments pleases us.

In fantasy football terms, people tend to remember and agonise over the players that they didn’t transfer in, rather than congratulate themselves on the good decisions they made along the way. Doing this can lead to people chasing points and doing too many transfers as a way to rectify previous mistakes rather than focus on the team they already have.

In Group Favouritism

People tend to like members of their ‘own group’ and dislike members of the ‘out group’. This happens a lot in fantasy football, where fans are more likely to pick (and stick with) players of the team they support, whilst refusing to pick any players from their club’s rivals. This limits the available talent pool you can draw from, and as such, hinders your chances of success.

Self-serving Bias

This describes the tendency we have to attribute our successes to ourselves and our failures to outside factors. Ever seen someone take the credit for doing well in an exam but blame the poor level of teaching when they do poorly? To be successful in fantasy football, take responsibility for bad selections instead of blaming it on other factors. Holding yourself accountable will help you to change your selections and be more successful the next time.

Final Thought

There is a particular school of thought that says you should always be wary of people who don’t attribute some of their success to either luck or chance. This certainly applies to fantasy football. However, with a bit of rational thinking and by swerving round some of the above thinking biases, your mini-league rivals won’t stand a chance. So, remember:

  • Don’t dwell on your first impression of a player
  • Don’t dwell on their last performance either
  • No matter how much of your time and effort you’ve invested in your team, if it’s not performing well, it’s time to make a change
  • Don’t make choices based only on fads
  • Focus on the good decisions you’ve made rather than the failures along the way
  • Don’t let the fact that you support a certain team get in the way of your success in fantasy football
  • Hold yourself accountable for both successes and failures, and base your choices on that

These thinking biases also influence the way clubs spend their money during the transfer window, so make sure to check out our guide to how clubs waste money on the transfer market. If you want tips from our sport psychologists to help you become a better footballer as well, check out our Sport Psychology for Football guide page.

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