Handicapping Sports For Beginners

playia handicapping bets

What does it mean to handicap sports? What would define someone as a handicapper?

The words are pretty easy to define, as are the general concepts. A sports bettor who is researching a game or event with the purpose of identifying the most likely winner or outcome is handicapping, and such a person is a handicapper.

You’re probably wondering why it is an important part of sports betting? How do you correctly apply it to your wagers? Is there a secret to success?

While we can’t answer every burning question you may have, we’ve assembled this guide on handicapping, some tips for implementing it and a few other pointers along the way. Read on to find out more about the ins and outs of handicapping and betting on sports in Iowa.

What Does Handicapping Mean in Sports Betting?

You can register at any legal sportsbook in Iowa and start placing bets randomly. We don’t suggest that in any way, but you could. And if you did, you’d win a few of those bets because that’s the way luck works.

If you don’t want to be placing your money on bets that are complete guesses, you’re going to need to develop a handicap betting strategy, and that is going to include research and analysis along the way. Find the information you need to make an informed decision, look at trusted sites and resources for additional data and, if you like, maybe use some sports betting analytics tools, as well.

Now you’re handicapping! Congratulations. You’ve taken the first step to a more successful sports betting experience.

The point of handicapping a game or event is to take as much of the guesswork out of the process as possible. If you’re slapping down bets on a whim, you’re not going to have sustainable luck against the sportsbooks and their oddsmakers. Put in the time and the work, and your probability of success will increase.

Should I Handicap When Betting On Sports?

Yes, if for no other reason than to avoid throwing your money at the sportsbooks. If you want to increase your chances of winning with your wagers, you need to handicap. Without it, you’re going to lose far, far more than you’re going to win.

That doesn’t mean handicapping is going to guarantee you wins or a return on investment. There are plenty of factors that create unexpected scenarios in sports, ranging from injuries to weather to suspensions to just plain bad luck. Even when you handicap and you feel you’ve nailed down the result of a contest, you could still end up being wrong. But we want to stress that any amount of handicapping as a part of your betting strategy is better than none.

Some of the benefits to handicapping include potentially increased chances of winning, more knowledge about the sport you’re betting on, a better understanding of the factors that could impact a game, the ability to make informed decisions and, of course, the reduction of luck as a factor in your potential wins and losses.

4 Keys to Successful Sports Handicapping

There’s no set way to handicap, really. You can make it as much of a process as you want, depending on your time and resources. But we do have a few steps we think are essential in all handicapping for sports betting. Here are our top four factors for handicapping sports bets: 

  1. Know the Odds: Always make sure to check the current lines against the opening lines to see if there has been any movement. If there has, you should investigate why.
  2. Be a Newshound: Don’t ever skip over news and notes on the team, game or event you’re planning to wager on. Look for injuries that might impact the game, changes in the starting lineup and any inclement weather that could affect the outcome.
  3. Know the Matchup: Look at the offense and defense for both teams. Are there any potential advantages of one over the other? The more you can familiarize yourself with the teams in a game you’re handicapping, the better.
  4. Recent History: How have the teams you are betting on been playing? Has there been a recent slide? Are they on a winning streak? Do they keep losing on the road but play well at home? Look into how the teams and players have been performing in the most recent contests, and you’ll better prepare yourself for an informed decision.

Those may be our favorites, but you can go much further with it all. If you have the time, you should implement as many steps as you are comfortable with, analyzing various aspects of teams, players and games.

How Do I Make My own Handicapping Lines?

Work on your handicapping skills enough and you’ll get to the point where you can look over the information you use in your research and be able to develop your own lines to compare to what the sportsbooks have.

In order to do that, though, you can’t skimp on the relevant details, as we discussed in the section above. You have to do your own research and understand the teams playing. The more informed you are, the better your lines will be. Let’s take a look at a potential NFL matchup and example point spread line:

  • Los Angeles Chargers -6.5 (-110)
  • Las Vegas Raiders +6.5 (-110)

The Chargers appear to have a solid chance at winning this game as oddsmakers have given them a 6.5-point advantage. You’re interested in this game, and you want to handicap it, so what do you do now? This is where you are going to want to have built yourself a handicapping process, following several steps to figure out how accurate the matchup.

First, look at injury news and any information surrounding the teams and the players. Check the team records for their home and away games. Look for trends indicating positive or negative aspects of the offenses and defenses. Do you see any advantages for one team over the other?

Investigate what professional pundits are saying about the matchup and the two teams. Look at the power rankings and where the experts have ranked both teams. Average scores. Points for and against. Turnovers. These are all important.

Once you break down the numbers, you’ll be able to see how well these two teams have been doing, compare their road and home records, see where they are ranked, and what their average scores have been.

You can then use these numbers to determine which team has an edge on paper. Compare that number to the line from the sportsbook, and you’ll see they are probably pretty close. A lot of those resources you’re using are the same kind being employed by oddsmakers.

But if, for some reason, you find through your handicapping that your line gives a different picture of a potential outcome, you should investigate that and make your betting decisions when you’re finished.

Making your own lines through handicapping is a very involved process, usually by the most experienced and committed sports bettors. You can, of course, partake in the process if you want, but there are definitely resources available to you that can give you the same data in much less time, though for a cost. You have to decide if your time or your money is more valuable.

Is Handicapping Important for NFL Betting?

Even the most experienced handicappers will tell you there is no formula that is going to guarantee results when betting on pro football. Heck, most will probably tell you there isn’t a single formula.

That said, we believe that handicapping NFL games before placing your bets is better than not doing so at all. Even the slightest bit of research — comparing power rankings, checking injury news, etc. — is better than guessing based on nothing but a whim.

Handicapping NFL games allows you to take into account all of the aspects of the game, from team news and injuries to weather to home-field advantage to current trends and more. These are the same data points that professional oddsmakers use when setting lines for games. Sure, sometimes they get it wrong, but most of the time, they don’t. That’s why these sportsbooks push so hard to attract NFL bets.

Handicapping a game and investigating all those same pieces of information — which are commonly available at no cost on the internet — is an attempt to help you even the playing field between you and the books. You’ll have a chance to identify value in lines that are slightly off and sometimes even find larger value in a game with a key injury or is expecting inclement weather.

Tips for handicapping NFL games

Here are a few tips and steps for handicapping NFL games, but remember that there is no secret formula to success. The best avenue to winning bets is lots of research, a well-planned betting strategy and the understanding of the game you are betting.

If you plan to become a handicapper of NFL contests, you should develop a process that works well for you, fits into your schedule and is flexible enough to allow new steps when necessary. Here are some of the handicap processes we go through when handicapping professional football:

  • Look at the Odds: Check both the current odds and the opening lines to see if the sportsbooks are making any adjustments. If so, investigate why.
  • Know the News: Always keep yourself updated on the latest news and injury reports regarding the game and teams you’re betting on. That information, which is available throughout the internet, is extremely important.
  • Home and Away: Home-field advantage in the NFL is real and something you should always investigate for every game you are betting. Does the home team perform well in front of its fans? Does the visiting team have amazing success on the road? Find out how these teams match up in this specific scenario.
  • Break Down the Matchup: Look at the offense and defense for both teams and see if there are clear mismatches. Is one team great at passing, but the opposing defense is outstanding at stopping the aerial attack? Does one team give up a lot of yards up the middle?
  • Momentum: Is one team playing extremely well and on a hot streak? Or is the opposite true?
  • Power Rankings: These are important when considering point spread betting and overall team strength. You can find outstanding power rankings that are absolutely free. Use them to your benefit.
  • Public Betting: Examine how the public has been wagering on the game you’re going to bet on. Which side is favored? If it is the opposite of what you expected, investigate why. There are online resources that track this information.

What are the most important NFL handicapping factors?

This question is easier asked than answered because it can be extremely subjective. However, there are certain factors we believe are more important than others. Below we’ve outlined a few.

  • Follow the Process: Above, we discuss a simple NFL handicapping process that has several steps we think everyone should consider before placing their bets. Take a gander at those as your starting points.
  • Statistics: We think you should always take at least a good look at the numbers, but which ones? We like turnover differential, passing yards, yards per attempt, rushing yards, yards per carry, sacks per game, points for and points against. Don’t let this list confine you, however. Use even more stats if it helps you make informed decisions.
  • Schedule and Rest: A team coming off a bye week, or one that has an extended week thanks to a previous Thursday night game, has more rest than its opponent, and that does matter. So does a team that has a short week due to scheduling. Make sure to take that into consideration, as rested players will have a little more pep in their step than exhausted ones.

Handicapping NBA and MLB Games

What about handicapping the NBA and MLB? They both feature pretty grueling schedules that can start to wear down a team or a key player. Multiple games in a row can be exhausting, especially in the latter portion of the season. So what factors should you keep in mind when handicapping professional basketball bets and baseball wagers?

First and foremost, don’t get too lost in records, especially in baseball. A team rarely pulls off a sweep during a series, and there is a solid chance that the underdog could pull one out, especially if its pitching rotation lines up well.

Basketball is the same — even the worst teams in the league claim some victories, and sometimes against top-ranked opponents. Make sure to take teams’ recent schedules into account, and which teams they will be playing next. Sometimes key players will sit in order to be rested for a significant division or conference matchup.

Another important factor to look into for the NBA is individual matchups. There are often instances where players will have the opportunity to dominate an inferior opponent, especially if there are injuries involved in the starting lineup. Don’t miss a great opportunity because you didn’t research who was starting or sitting and what the bench rotation was looking like.

Can I Handicap Horse Racing?

You can, of course. You can handicap pretty much any sport as long as you’re willing to put in the work.

As you probably are aware, horse racing has its own set of enthusiasts, and those who focus on that particular sport are heavily invested in their handicapping systems. Everyone has their own strategy and process they use, and you, too, will develop your own as you learn more about horse race betting. We do have six suggested steps for a basic process.

What are the most important factors in handicapping horse racing?

As we have mentioned previously, that can be rather subjective. But our process outlines what we believe are the most important factors for beginning handicappers to look at. You’ll make your adjustments, of course, and you’ll add to your process as you continue to learn, but this little guide should help you get started.

  • Form: Like any athlete, horses need to be in great shape. Since you’ll have an opportunity to see workouts and check on recent racing results, you’ll have an idea of how well the horse is prepared to race. You want horses that have raced recently, but if you’re considering one that hasn’t been out of the gates in more than a month, you definitely want to check out a workout and see how it looks or have data that ensures that it is known for performing well coming off long rests.
  • Ability: Whenever possible, you should gather enough information to be aware of the ability of all the horses in the race you’re going to wager on. What are their best times over this length of track and in these conditions? Do they outpace the horse you see as the favorite? Why do you think your pick will fare better than the others? Pinpointing ability is the best way to understand the field, but it isn’t easy at times. Use all the resources at your disposal, such as websites, horse racing newsletters and expert picks.
  • Class: Did any of the horses in the race you’re handicapping recently come up from a lower class or did one drop down? Sometimes a well-touted horse is quite literally racing out of its league, spurred on by some wins at a lower level and pushed by the owners and trainer to take the next step. Keep an eye on the past classes of the horses, and note that sometimes really capable racers drop down due to a string of bad runs, but they still are more talented than the other horses in the field at the lower class. Look into their history and find out where they’ve raced and how quickly they have climbed or fallen.
  • Conditions: Some horses just prefer certain surfaces and distances, and they excel when presented with a particular combination. Others race well no matter where they are. Still others tend to have difficulty when the race conditions aren’t ideal. Be mindful of the conditions and the history of the horses in the race. Don’t pick a horse you believe is a contender only to find out it struggles with sprints on turf or a similar situation.
  • Jockey, Stable and Trainer: While horses are indeed the athletes and the stars of the sport, jockeys are the human connection and partner. Good jockeys have been known to coax more ability out of a horse than expected, and good horses have been known to falter because of a bad decision from the jockey or trainer. Keep an eye on the stables, trainers and jockeys, and you’ll have an insight into what a horse is capable of that many bettors overlook except in big events.
  • Pedigree: There’s a reason it is easy to trace the bloodline of most racehorses. While every one of the horses in the field is its own individual with its own style, ability and potential, it helps to identify the breeding of a horse when you aren’t aware of its history. If a horse you like has made it through this entire process, but you still need a bit more proof before putting your money down, then consider taking a look at the pedigree to see how well its parents fared in the same conditions. It’s far from foolproof, but if you see some potential and you need a slightly deeper dive, this is one area that might give you a little insight.

Why is handicapping horse racing so difficult?

There are so many factors that play a part in how well a horse races — ranging from race conditions to the jockey to the horse itself — that handicapping races is often one of the most difficult things to do in sports betting.

But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean you should avoid it. In fact, it should always be a part of your strategy every time you decide you’re going to bet on horse racing.

One of the factors that make a difference in handicapping horse racing when compared to other sports is that the athlete in question may not be in the right frame of mind or has some unknown lingering issue.

Another factor is where the horse’s starting position is. Some get jumpy running along the rail and others can’t seem to run well from the outside. Like any athlete, they all have their quirks.

What is a Sports Handicapping Service?

As you may have guessed even before getting to this section, there are services out there that offer handicapping as a product. They do all the research, break down all the information and give it to you in a nice little bundle.

You can find premium services for a price, and you can find free sports handicapping services, as well. Either way, we cannot stress enough the importance of researching the service provider you are considering. Make sure you can find information on how well it does with its handicapping. You should be able to find win percentages, return-on-investment numbers, profit and more.

If you can’t find that information, then there’s probably a reason it is being withheld and that is a warning sign.

What are the Best Sports Handicapping Tools?

There are multitudes of free resources for your research and handicapping. Some are just simple injury reports and news and notes roundups. Others are more in-depth looks at statistics, even more for things like weather, public betting trends and line movements.

Some of the most in-depth tools we’ve come across are the dynamic sports betting analytics tools. While the ins and outs of sports analytics can be quite daunting, the short of it is there are computer programs capable of taking an immense amount of information and breaking it down into predictive models.

Keep in mind that there is no perfect formula for winning. Even the smartest neural networks creating sports betting analytics cannot accurately predict every possible outcome of a game. But, hey, that’s why we love sports, right? Any team can win on any given day.


If it is a sport where people keep score, there is a winner and loser, or sportsbooks take wagers on it, then there is handicapping involved. The easiest way to think of handicapping is that it is in-depth research into what you’re about to wager. Anyone who isn’t handicapping is simply guessing, and that’s the quickest way to fail.

Yes, you can do your research and create your own handicapping routines without worrying about the legality of it. You’re not doing anything wrong at all. In fact, you’re just doing your due diligence before placing money down on a wager.

A bankroll is the amount of money you have to fund your sports betting. You don’t want to blow it all on a few bets, so it is best to create a bankroll strategy for yourself. Spend only a percentage of your bankroll on any particular sport or event. If you spend too much, you’ll likely find yourself with no funds for play.

Create your own handicapping strategies, build up plenty of proof that they work and then create a website (or have one created for you) that touts your abilities. You’ll have to choose what kind of service you’ll offer (free or paid) and what sports you’ll be focusing on before you start, and you’ll have to put in plenty of legwork to build up the receipts on your capabilities. If you’re good enough to charge for your services, bettors will take note and turn to your handicapping services as a part of their overall strategy.