When I coached in Denmark, we had an 18-year-old player who never shot the same shot twice. During shooting drills, he practiced drawing a foul on three-pointers, or he shot the ball as high as possible or as straight as possible. He appeared never to take his shooting practice seriously. Of course, Stephen Curry does the same thing:
“He practices any type of shot you can possibly practice,” Warriors forward Draymond Green told Sporting News. “Whether it’s full court or whatever, he does it. It used to be like, ‘This dude needs to stop joking around.’ Then you realize it’s no longer a joke.”
My player did not shoot as well as Curry. Maybe Curry has earned the right to shoot whatever he likes whenever he likes. My player was considered by his teammates to be among the best shooters on the team despite four other players shooting over 40% from the three-point line in games on far more attempts. Maybe he would have been a better shooter if he was more disciplined or concentrated more during his practice.
The concept of differential learning argues that these players excel at shooting because they take these different shots, not in spite of their practice habits.
“The idea is that there is no repetition of drills, no correction and players are encouraged not to think about what has gone wrong if they have made a mistake,” explained Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University, an expert in kinesiology and a pioneer of Differential Learning.
This runs counter to everything that we believe about skills, and especially shooting. It is based on the idea that there is no such thing as perfect technique. Despite everyone believing that they shoot exactly the same on each and every shot, each shot differs in subtle ways based on the specific constraints of the particular shot. On the first shot of the game, one is not fatigued; on the last shot, one is fatigued. The fatigue is an individual constraint on the shots. The defense, distance, shot location, angle, and more are task constraints. The building, lighting, and more are environmental constraints. Therefore, each shot changes based on these constraints.
The idea with differential learning is that the player actively seeks out the limits to his shot. As an example, many people now use the Noah to measure the angle of their shots to give a sense of the consistency of their shooting. When a player shoots with the same angle on every shot, he is consistent, and we believe this is the mark of an excellent shooter. However, the idea beyond differential learning suggests that this limits the potential skill executions of the shooter. He is excellent in a very narrow range of possibilities.
By “joking around”, Curry expands his possibilities. He can shoot at a variety of angles with success. When a defender is close, he can arc the ball higher. As he moves further and further from the basket, he can shoot earlier and earlier in his jump, lowering his release point, but increasing the force imparted onto the ball. When situations arise in the game that require him to shoot quicker or higher or further from the basket or when fading away, he has these potential executions because of his practice. He is not constrained to one specific skill execution. His brilliance is his ability to adapt his technique to the constraints in the game and shoot as if he was shooting the same exact shot every time, when in reality, his shots differ in numerous, subtle ways.
Does this mean that everyone should spend their practice time joking around and throwing up whatever they want? Probably not. However, even with a skill as serious and regimented as shooting, some time for experimentation and exploration is a positive. It expands the possibilities and widens the potential skill executions of a player. The more that he can vary his technique to meet the constraints of the game, the more success he will have.