Wired examined free-throw shooting with Steve Nash, but several conclusions are contentious.
On paper, the free throw could not be more straightforward. It’s a direct, unguarded shot at a hoop 18 inches across, 10 feet off the ground, and 15 feet away. Like a carefully controlled experiment, the conditions are exactly the same every single time.
This makes sense. The external conditions are the same on every free throw, which differs from other sports, where wind or field conditions or court surface may affect performance. However, all the conditions are not the same on every shot because the shooter is never the same: internal conditions differ. Fatigue, confidence, pressure, and more differ from shot to shot. When a player shoots two free throws, does the result of the first shot affect the second? How many players shoot the second shot more freely after a make than a miss? Is a shot in the first quarter the same as a shot in the last minute?
Larry Silverberg, a dynamicist at North Carolina State University, has used this fact to study the free throw in remarkable detail. “It’s the same for every single player, so you can actually look at the shot very scientifically,” he says.
Again, it is not the same for every player, but beyond internal conditions differing from shot to shot, conditions differ from shot to shot between players. A 4’6 4th grader shoots differently than a 7’0 professional. Despite the similarity in location, they are not the same shots.
To dispatch the ball the same way every time requires a player to commit to memory the smooth, coordinated movement of multiple limbs and joints, from their knees, elbows, and wrists to the tiny points of articulation in their fingers and toes.
Memory? In what way? I certainly do not remember in any kind of conscious way the manner in which my shoulder, elbow and wrist link together to propel the ball. If I attempted to find this memory when shooting the ball, I would fail.
The average free throw percentage across the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA could almost certainly increase, Silverberg says, but it probably won’t. Not unless coaches make it a priority by hiring personal trainers to work with all of their team members individually,
First, free throw percentages are improving almost year by year. Second, I imagine every professional player has a personal trainer already.
The problem with free-throw shooting is largely the practice design. Because we view the shot as being the same every time, we use constant block practice. However, during games, we do not shoot 100 free throws in a row. We shoot one or two free throws. Players must step to the line and make one free throw. Making 90/100 when shooting consecutively is impressive, but it is different than shooting one free throw, playing the game, shooting another free throw, etc.
My team shot 72.6% from the free-throw line this season, which was 9th in the nation, despite being led in attempts by a player who arrived last summer and said she was not a shooter. I obviously do not attend every team’s practices, but I doubt anyone practices free-throw shooting less than we do. Throughout the season, we never had a dedicated block of time for “free-throw shooting” at a single practice. We never shot free throws with a consequence of sprints during practice (our 90% free-throw shooters run when they miss a free throw during individual workouts). We never line up and watch a player shoot a free throw or end practice with someone having to make a free throw or any of the other things that I have seen at practices over the years. We shoot a lot at practice; just not a lot of free throws. Our free-throw practice occurs almost entirely during scrimmages.
Beyond practice design, everyone could improve his or her free-throw shooting by improving one’s routine. Using a routine is a start, and everyone should use a routine at the free-throw line, but there are ways to maximize the routine for better performance.
Closing the gap between training and competition, Beilock says, is a matter of practicing under conditions that simulate high-pressure scenarios: Training under a watchful eye, or competing against the clock.
I have argued this point with Dr. Beilock since she wrote her book Choke – through emails to her, in class presentations for sports psychology courses, on blogs, etc. She is a psychologist who sees things through the lens of pressure affecting performance; I see non-representative practice. In some ways, we are talking about the same thing.
However, in her book, she suggested running sprints for a miss to simulate the pressure of a game free throw. This is such a standard practice that bad free throw shooters mentally account for the running; it is something they expect, rather than something that adds pressure. Also, running a sprint cannot approximate the same pressure as a game-wining shot. To me, this is a token gesture, which is the reason that our good free-throw shooters run when they miss in an individual workout: it is to ensure that they concentrate on their free throws. Our bad free-throw shooters shoot more because the shooting practice, not the running, seems like the best way to improve one’s shooting.