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NBA Daily Games Strategy: Refocus Your Habits

Renee Miller

Renee Miller

Neuroscientist at the University of Rochester and author of Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?. I cover daily fantasy basketball for RotoWire and write for RotoViz about fantasy football.

Welcome back! We just spent four days without daily NBA. We knew it was coming, of course. Yet somehow every year, it catches me off guard. The All-Star break is great for teams to try to get healthy for the stretch run to the playoffs, it's fun for fans to watch and critique the exhibition events, and it's...frankly a big change to my routine. I allot a regular chunk of my day to research, lineup work, and interactions with like-minded people in the service of my daily NBA games. The break therefore left a palpable void -- particularly in the 4-7 PM time frame -- the past few days.

I tried to stave it off by proactively entering a couple of cheap PGA 50/50's Thursday morning. By Thursday night, it was clear that fantasy golf was not going to carry me through the weekend (lol). The empty feeling was the worst on Friday, naturally. I was going through DFS withdrawal! Anyone that plays as much or more DFS as I do jokes about it all the time, but I wondered, "Can DFS really be a habit, an addiction?" Habits form when the brain processes that underlie certain behaviors become used so often that they become automated, meaning we don't need to be consciously aware of executing them. Addiction is what happens when our brains adapt to a certain repeated stimulus in such a way that its physiology is changed to make us need the stimulus. In both cases, connections are strengthened, signals are amplified, decisions are reinforced. Our bodies and brains can be trained to habitualize just about anything. It's a beautiful feature that allows us to take advantage of whatever may cross our paths. Automated actions conserve energy that can be devoted to learning new things. When habitual behaviors are rewarded, they can become addictions.

One of the key symptoms of addiction is an unpleasant feeling when the addictive stimulus is removed. Every so often, I do a no caffeine, no alcohol, no sugar, gluten, meat, etc. detox for a week or two. The caffeine headaches get me every time, appearing the first day with no coffee and lasting at least one more day. Caffeine produces an effect on the brain that it has come to depend on. When it's abruptly removed, the affected neurons are left hanging, often producing the opposite sensation to the stimulus itself. Exactly like the empty, 'what do I do with myself now until 7:00' feelings of DFS withdrawal, there are definite similarities!

But you say, caffeine is a chemical whose mechanism of action on the brain is well known. How can you compare that to something like DFS? Here's how. I'll only speak for myself, but I suspect that anyone that plays regularly and seriously (habitually) will relate. I have developed certain habits around DFS in my preparation. I go through my research in a similar, if not exactly the same, order every day. I follow the same thought processes when picking players to use in my lineups (many of which I've discussed here before). I go through the same checks and revision processes and scan for last-minute news. Not only am I physically doing the same actions day after day, I'm using the same thought processes. When you put the same data into your brain day after day, the same neural circuits are activated day after day. Being successful means those thought patterns of neural activity are reinforced, which are prime conditions for automation to take over.

Operating in an unbiased manner is one of my goals as a fantasy player, whether daily or seasonal. Bias arises when certain decisions are reinforced or habituated to the extent where they become automated. Actual outside information is not used in the execution of the decision, even though we may be unaware of this and think we're using the information properly. As I've said in my book, falling prey to a cognitive bias isn't always detrimental to your game. Sometimes, a biased choice is the right choice. However, sometimes it isn't, and that's when it pays to be aware of what kinds of biases infiltrate fantasy decisions.

The All-Star break provides the opportunity to break free of going through the same processes and activating the same circuits day after day. Your brain and mine operate as efficiently as possible. When information comes in, it follows the path of least resistance. The circuits that have been repeatedly activated offer that path. By taking a few days off from thinking about daily NBA, we give those circuits a chance to weaken, or de-potentiate. The whole purpose of habits is to enhance efficiency. We automate as much processing as we can, so that we don't have to think about how to do things like typing or driving or playing everyone against the Sixers. You know when you go on vacation and spend days without driving, then pick up your car at the airport and you're like, um, how does this work again? Where are the lights? Why is the brake so touchy? Just a few days is all it takes to de-potentiate those automated driving circuits.

I don't want my daily fantasy play to be automated to that extent. I want to appreciate information and stats and data for exactly what they are. Of course, I have memories, I have knowledge that can't be and shouldn't be ignored for the good of my game, and, for the record, my game left off on a really high note! I just don't want to fall into the trap of thinking I know what the numbers and matchups are telling me out of habit. Rather, I want it to come from a fresh and honest evaluation. Hopefully, this short break will provide that new perspective, at least for a little while. Moreover, here's to hope that the idea of the break will last longer so we can intentionally keep the freshness and honesty in our research and decisions.

Savor the appreciation for getting back the best daily sport of all. Good luck tonight everyone!