Whenever a discussion arises about the most important thing a beginner sports bettor should know, the popular talking points are bankroll management and similarly, betting only what you can afford to lose. I agree that these are very important concepts to understand (and ones I have written about here), but there is a piece missing that must be learned before one can truly achieve these two points. This concept is managing your emotions, and it is the largest distinction between amateur and professional sports bettors.
People enjoy gambling in general because of the thrill and the potential to “win big.” If that’s how you view sports betting (i.e. as entertainment), then this article probably isn’t for you. However, if you are approaching sports betting as a serious investment as I do, then keep reading.
Sports betting can be an emotional roller coaster, both during a game and throughout an entire season. There are highs and there are lows. You will win five in a row, and you will lose five in a row. During these peaks and valleys, the emotions of a beginner sports bettor will often match the swings of their bankroll. You will feel unstoppable during a winning streak, and will panic during a losing streak. In both instances, it is common for beginner bettors to stray from their bankroll rules and bet more than they should. This may seem rational at the time and you will undoubtedly find reasons to increase your bets, but I’m here to show you how this is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to be successful.
After a big winning streak, your confidence will rise and make you feel unstoppable. Because of this, you may want to capitalize on this hot streak by betting more than you typically would. It’s normal to regularly adjust your unit size as your bankroll changes, but there’s a good chance you’ll get caught matching your bet size with your inflated confidence. But once this stretch of positive variance normalizes, losses will be magnified and will likely wipe-out your initial winnings.
More commonly is when a sports bettor (or gambler in general) is on a losing streak and he or she bets more than usual to “win back” money lost. This is known as chasing losses. Unfortunately, chasing usually results in more losses – which can then lead to more chasing – creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break. This can affect even the most experienced sports bettor, and is the doom of just about anyone that fails in this business.
Scientific studies have even been done on the subject. For example, a study titled ‘Knowing When to Stop: The Brain Mechanisms of Chasing Losses’ (Campbell-Meiklejohn, Woolrich, Passingham, & Rogers, 2008) found that chasing losses was associated with increased brain activity in areas linked to incentive-motivation and an expectation of reward. By contrast, quitting was associated with decreased activity in these areas but increased activity in areas linked to anxiety and conflict monitoring. In other words, participants that chased primarily focused on the positive outcome; and conversely the negative outcome when deciding to quit.
The study concluded that “excessive loss-chasing behavior in gambling might involve a failure to appropriately balance activity within neural systems coding conflicting motivational states.” In essence, a gambler’s inability to properly manage their emotions and evaluate both sides of the decision to gamble played a large factor. An experienced bettor knows this from experience, but it is interesting to see this confirmed in a study such as this.
When considering chasing (although you probably won’t realize it at the time), you are basically fighting two thoughts – the incentive to win back your losses versus avoiding further risk. Unfortunately, you likely are not thinking rationally at this time. The emotions created from losing can impair your judgement during this decision. This feeling grows exponentially as the losing continues and your once logical set of rules governing your bankroll management is replaced by panic and reacting to your emotions. Since you are human, there’s no way to completely remove this feeling. However, we can plan ahead to control it and reduce your chances of responding in a negative way.
First and foremost, you should already have a basic plan in place that details the following:
- Your bankroll size (money you can afford to lose)
- Your unit size (typically 1-5% of your bankroll)
- Sport(s) you will bet (keep to a minimum)
- How you will choose bets/handicap (analytics, situational, value, tailing trusted cappers, etc.)
There’s more to cover above, but those are the basics you absolutely need. With those details set, we can add our rules for the inevitable losing streak and how to handle potential chasing. You can adjust this as you see fit, but here are my recommendations:
- Never increase your unit size because of recent losses
- Do not make a bet you did not plan on making earlier
- Develop a cooling period after each bet – win or lose (take a walk, read, workout, meditate, etc.)
- Never bet while intoxicated
- Only bet under good circumstances – rested, calm, low stress, sober, time to research/handicap
- Record every bet and your emotional state when making it
- Treat each bet individually, independent of previous bets
- Before each bet, ask yourself: “If I was in an ideal state, would I make this bet?”
- Unless you have a live bet strategy, stop getting score alerts. You can’t change your bet’s outcome once the game has started
- Again, do not live bet unless you have a strategy in place
Most of the above rules are related in some way, but I wanted to show the different perspectives you can view your emotions and overall betting habits. Awareness is key, and being able to identify these situations will help avoid chasing in a big way. Any bet placed while in a state of fear, worry, resentment, or perception of bad luck is a bad bet, regardless if it wins or not. It’s okay and perfectly normal to feel this way, but the important thing is to identify it, create a strategy to handle it, and refrain from betting until you are in a better state.
This is definitely something I had to learn early on, and it will probably always be a work in progress in some way. As much as my girlfriend thinks I’m a robot calculating numbers and projections 24/7, I’m still human. However, I can analyze outcomes, learn what I can from each bet, and decide if it was the right play. Determine what you can control, adjust as needed, breathe and move on.
I’ll close with great advice I saw on Twitter the other day from Todd Fuhrman (former Caesars oddsmaker, Bet the Board Podcast Co-Founder): The best thing a struggling sports bettor can do is give himself a day off to clear his head. There's always another bet and winner out there.