The Psychology of Reaching

The Psychology of ‘Reaching’: Why it’s Difficult and Why it Can Be the Secret to Success. There is psychology at play at almost every level of fantasy football. Setting line-ups, trade negotiation, when an owner decides to tank, and when they decide to contend. One of the less covered aspects that is wrought with well studied psychological phenomena is the concept of ‘reaching’. Arguably, understanding when, and when not, to ‘reach’ for a player can win your team the championship. But why is it so hard to do?

Reaching- Definition and Example

A great example of ‘reaching’ being the main factor behind a team’s success is Todd Gurley’s 2017 season. His average draft position (ADP) was 20th overall (2.07). He finished first overall in fantasy production, outscoring Russell Wilson in 2nd by over 36 points. The highest he was picked was 8th overall. Todd Gurley absolutely won teams the championship in 2017.

‘Reaching’ is defined as drafting a player above their average draft position (ADP) – that’s enough of that, you don’t need ‘reaching’ defined if you are already here. However, does ‘reaching’ actually exist? 

One perspective is that ‘reaching’ can’t possibly exist when describing it in the present. We only know whether a player is a ‘reach’ or not when the outcome of the season is determined. Before we have that data, our models and instincts tell us a player is a ‘reach’ but – and I know this is going to draw me a great deal of opprobrium – we don’t know. We can’t know. 

However, as a concept ‘reaching’ exists, but in the ethereal, fragile future that is yet unknown to any of us. That doesn’t stop all of us from labeling certain picks as a ‘reach’ every single year. We look at fantasy finishes, factor in whatever model or analysis that is our chief source of information, and decide ‘Player X’ is, or isn’t good value. So, despite our inability to predict the future, why do we do this?

‘Reaching’ is Hard and Scary

The real diehard fantasy players don’t just enjoy winning. They enjoy trying to predict outcomes, learning from mistakes, and altering their process. The year-on-year grind of trying to find a competitive advantage through research and analysis is where the fanatics reside. However, even with the most serious fantasy players coming up with their own rankings using their own processes, there is still considerable homogeneity in predicted outcomes. 

This is where the theories of social identity and in-group psychology come into play. 

In most instances of social psychology, there is an in-group and an out-group. We see this everywhere. In gender, politics, and history just to name a few of the obvious ones. Fantasy football is slightly different. Due to the homogeneity of the industry, it is mostly in-group mechanics that are at play, especially when it comes to the concept of ‘reaching’. 

In ambiguous situations where the outcomes are unclear – a perfect description of fantasy football if there ever was one – humans tend to conform to group norms. Famous social psychologist Muzafar Sheriff demonstrated this in his 1935 ‘AutoKinetic Effect Experiment’. His results showed that when in a group situation a person will look to others who they perceive to know more.(i) Sound familiar?

Established Norms of the Group

We’ve all done this. Especially when we first start to play fantasy. This concept is why selling draft guides and analysis packages is a lucrative sub-sector of the industry. We internalize what we perceive to be the consensus view of the group and adopt it as our own. These become the established norms of the group.(ii) When we ‘reach’ for players we are breaking those established norms. 

From our in-groups, we derive our social identity and believe that our group’s methods, scope, and validity of norms are more accurate than the out-group. This is essentially the theory of ideological epistemology. That despite what might actually be true we revert to the consensus of the group because of our tribal nature as humans.(iii) However, due to the level of homogeneity of ranking sites – and the difficulty in identifying who is a member of which group due to the subtle differences in opinions – the pervading out-group that our group norms contend with is more than often ourselves, and our own analysis. 

This is why ‘reaching’ is hard and scary, and also why there is much chastisation when it’s perceived an owner ‘reaches’ for a player. Humans feel a sense of security, belonging and meaning from abiding to norms and being part of the in-group.(iv) Seeing someone ‘reach’ for a player is like a psychological middle finger. We don’t want to believe that our process is fallible, so we label it ‘reaching’.

The Secret Sauce?

There are a lot of obvious benefits to ranking in a homogenous way that follows the consensus. Your projections will always be closer to the mean and therefore, have a higher average accuracy. Then there’s also the warm feeling inside we get knowing that we are similar, if not the same, as the so called ‘experts’. We also get to avoid being poked fun at – as I’m sure owners did in 2017 when people picked Todd Gurley 8th overall.

There are fewer benefits to following your own process if it differs from the consensus. They are the inverse of those listed above. You are likely to be further from the mean of outcomes, you’ll get poked fun at and there’s that anxious feeling inside that says – ‘what if I’m the idiot and they are all correct’. There is one benefit though – as those who did pick Todd Gurley 8th overall in 2017 found out – that breaking from what is the established norm gives a player a chance to create a huge competitive advantage. 

Every year there are players that perform far above their pre-season projections. The key is doing your own research and believing in your analysis. This is why I never make comments when it’s perceived a player is being ‘reached’ for in drafts. What I do is go back to my research and ask myself, what do they know that I don’t?

I picked DeMarco Murray 8th overall in 2016 after coming off a poor year with the Eagles. It was a ‘reach’, or so my fellow league mates told me. I believed in my own analysis. Guess who won the championship that year? 


This is not to say that every ‘reach’ is a success. They aren’t. There are more picks that turn out to be ‘reaches’ than there are picks considered a ‘reach; that turn out to be accurately projected. It is also not to say that consensus rankings and draft guides aren’t accurate or useful.

What is being posited here is that you should always have your own process if you want to be successful, no matter how long you’ve played fantasy football. 

Relying completely on other people for information that contributes to decisions will always leave you frustrated. Having the psychological fortitude to believe in, and act on, your own knowledge you have accumulated through independent research, will always leave you more satisfied. Not only that, but you might get yourself a Todd Gurley.

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Image Credit: Kirby Lee – USA TODAY Sports


i) – Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27(187) .

ii) – Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 51–60.

iii) & iv) – Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C., Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. Organizational identity: A reader, 56-65.