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When players struggle from the free-throw line during games, but not practice, the issues appear not to be physical or technique-related, and we blame the players’ mentalities. Approximating the pressure of a game during practice is difficult, and coach’s attempts vary, typically using negative consequences (running) to mimic the game pressure.
For years, I have argued that running for a missed free-throw fails to approximate game situations because running a suicide (lines, ladders) is a small consequence. Many players prepare themselves mentally for the extra physical effort (running) in advance of their or a teammate’s free-throw attempt, limiting the loss aversion. Once one accepts the extra running as part of practice, there is no pressure; miss and run as anticipated or make the shot and get the reward of not running. The result is neutral or positive. This fails to induce the same stress and anxiety as shooting late in a close game with an audience and the social pressure of teammates and fans and the result of the game.
In an interesting study published in PLOS ONE last June, inexperienced basketball players attempted free throws in a stressed and unstressed state. To create the stress, the researchers used the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), and stress was measured with a saliva cortisol test. The researchers found no effect on free throw performance in the stressed state (Mascret et al., 2016).
There are several limitations and possible explanations for the results, but I believe this is another indication that creating artificial stressors is not the same as the stress that a performer feels during a game. The physiological markers (cortisol) may be similar between the two environments, but the game has other factors that are difficult to replicate in a study or in practice. The social pressure and embarrassment of losing a game and letting down one’s teammates are greater than the stress induced by running in practice or making a speech (TSST test). Also, the game causes other internal stressors, such as oxygen debt, fatigue, and psychological responses to the pressure. Game performance cannot be reduced to a single factor to train in isolation to improve performance.
Generally, the best free-throw shooters will shoot the best during games and under pressure. Therefore, the best cure for poor game free-throw shooting is to improve one’s shooting.
Secondly, practice design affects our views of one’s shooting ability, and we may overrate one’s shooting because of block practice. During games, players shoot, at most, three consecutive free throws, but many players practice free throws in blocks of 10 to 100. Making 90/100 is different than making 2/2, 2/2, 2/2, 1/2, 2/2 with different lengths of times and activities interspersed between the sets, although both equal 90%. Maintaining one’s concentration for 100 straight shots is challenging, but the physical and psychological demands of game shots differ.
Similarly, the practice environment differs from a game. Shooting on a side basket with one teammate rebounding differs from shooting in front of the crowd with a time and score and the uniform and referees. These appear to be small differences, as the action (shooting a ball from 15’) remains the same, but most free throws are missed by small distances. The small uncertainty or conscious overcorrection caused by the crowd or the game situation is enough to cause the missed shot despite the technique differences between the shots being imperceptible to the naked eye.
Blaming a player’s mentality is easy because there is no way to falsify the claim; we cannot see what happens inside the brain when the player steps to the free throw line. Instead, we infer based on results and potentially body language (some players do not look like they want to shoot the free throws or like they expect to miss; in these instances, mental training likely is required). When a player shoots 60% from the free-throw line, a miss is expected, not a sign of mental weakness.
Because the punishment at practice and artificial stress have minimal effect on free-throw performance, (1) focus on improving one’s shooting technique; (2) improve practice design by shooting fewer consecutive free throws and changing the distance for free-throw practice; (3) prepare for end-game pressure by creating a routine that calms the player and focuses his or her thinking; and (4) replicate game free throws by shooting more free throws during practice scrimmages. Often, teams ignore free throws during an offensive or defensive scrimmage, but that environment is closer to the actual game than other free-throw practice drills. Ignoring free throws during a scrimmage, and then shooting 20 consecutive free throws at the end of practice, is not game-like practice, and may contribute to the poor performance during games. Scrimmages may last longer when free throws are incorporated, but is improved free-throw shooting worth the investment of time? Is saving 10 minutes at the end of practice to shoot blocks of free throws a better use of time?