As we performed our usual shooting drill at the beginning of practice, I yelled at one player to curl into his shot, as the drill is designed. The player likes to do his own thing, and he was flaring to the three-point line rather than curling towards the elbow. After I yelled at him, I thought about it. I am not enamored with the drill because we shoot mid-range jump shots, but we have 14 players and two baskets, and it allows everyone to shoot without standing in line. I emphasize shooting threes or getting to the rim. Should our practice shots reflect our game shots?
Within exercise science, the principle of specificity is prominent. The principle of specificity states that the body or system being stressed will adapt to the stimulus imposed in a very specific manner (Schmidtbleicher, 1992; Zatsiorsky, 1995). In essence, you get what you practice; your training or practice should reflect your goals. If you want to increase your vertical jump, the principle of specificity suggests that you should train with maximal jumps, rather than jumping rope. Jumping rope is not wrong, per se, and there is likely some positive transfer to one’s vertical jump, but the biggest improvement will come from the most specific practice: Jumping as high as possible.
As I thought about my player, and our practice shots, I recalled a sentence from an article about the Rio Grande Valley Vipers: “When Smith’s players warm up, they don’t bother shooting inside the 3-point line, except for maybe a few bunnies in the paint” (Schwartz, 2014). The Vipers shoot 45 three-pointers per game; why practice inside the three-point line when you shoot only from beyond the three-point line? That fits with the principle of specificity: Practice the shots that you will shoot in the games.
Motor learning theory suggests that the use of random and variable practice compared to constant block practice leads to better retention and transfer of a skill (Schmidt & Bjork, 1992). With regards to shooting, block practice involves shooting a series of the same shots, whereas variable practice involves shooting different shots so that no consecutive shots are the same. We use both types. An example of block practice is a 5×5 shooting drill. Players make five shots from five different spots, making five from spot one before moving to spot two and three and so on. An example of random practice is our partner shooting. Players are paired together. One player shoots, gets his or her rebound, and passes to his or her partner. Players move until they receive the pass, and use the entire court, shooting from different spots on each shot. They interleave different skills — passing, rebounding, and shooting — rather than taking turns shooting. The Vipers may have varied their practice by interleaving different skills into their shooting practice, but the shots were from a standard distance.
Constant practice is similar to block practice. The Vipers shooting only three-pointers is constant practice, even when moving around the three-point arc, as constant practice is practice at the same speed, distance, and with the same object. Hitting at a baseball cage where every pitch comes from the same distance at the same speed is constant practice. In variable practice, the speed, distance, or object changes; in the case of shooting, one shoots from different distances. We use variable block practice too. Our form shooting drill is three makes: Start close to the basket and make three shots. After making three, take a step back. We shoot blocks of shots, but vary the distances.
In a study of free-throw shooting, over a 3-week period, those who engaged in constant practice — shooting only from the free-throw line — improved post-practice performance by 1%, whereas those who varied their practice — shooting closer, further, and to the sides — improved 11% on their subsequent free-throw shooting performance (Shoenfelt et al., 2002). In a study using only three days of practice, there was no statistical difference in improvements between constant and variable practice on free throws, although the constant practice group practiced 80% more shots from the free-throw line (Breslin et al., 2012). Breslin et al. (2012) speculated that the lack of a difference on the retention test may have been due to the blocked nature of the variable practice, and random and variable practice (partner shooting) may have shown greater retention.
Whereas I want to shoot primarily three-pointers during games, random and variable practice (including mid-range shots) is better three-point shooting practice than shooting solely three-pointers. The higher percentage of made shots on two-point shots compared to three-point shots, especially as the game nears, may have a positive psychological effect: Seeing the ball go in the basket more often, regardless of the shot’s distance, improves confidence.
The principle of specificity, if applied in a narrow sense, suggests that to improve three-point shooting, one should practice only three-point shooting; a broader application suggests that to improve shooting, one should shoot. With a broader application of the principle of specificity coupled with motor learning theories of practice conditions, shooting only from one distance, whether free throws or three-pointers, would limit the practice’s effectiveness.