Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 6.2. Purchase Volume 6 as a paperback or a Kindle.
Many coaches have an ideal in mind when they teach shooting. Anything deviating from this ideal is considered a flaw, and we provide feedback to correct these flaws. Is that an appropriate way to teach shooting?
I have four players who shoot above 40% from the three-point line. They have four distinct techniques, and none is similar to my own shot. Should I tweak their shots to make them closer to my ideal in order for them to improve?
In Speed Trap, Charlie Francis (Ben Johnson’s coach) wrote, “All coaches have their own theories about technique. The best know when to adapt their theories to the idiosyncrasies of their athletes.” Later, he wrote, “The human body adjusts to small idiosyncrasies, and you tamper with them at your peril.”
My three-point shooters vary in size from 5’9 to 6’8; the size difference affects their shooting technique. The 5’9 player uses a much larger vertical jump in his shot than the 6’8 player in order to create space. He shoots primarily off the dribble, whereas the others shoot primarily off the catch; the difference in pre-shot movement affects technique. I have a 6’3 17-year-old guard who has been 6’3 since he was 14. He played the post until he moved to the men’s team. Consequently, he shoots the ball from high on his head, as post players are taught. He has adapted to this technique. Should he change now?
When I work with shooters, I focus on a few basics in order to improve their shooting, but I do not tinker with their shots. I do not want them to think about what they are doing. My focus tends to be the lower body: Strengthening their legs and emphasizing balance.
I was in the weight room with a player last week, and he said something about lifting weights affecting his shot. He is the player who avoids weight training at all costs, and his physique shows it. I responded that the number one thing that he could do to improve his shot was to improve his leg strength.
Watch Ray Allen shoot. Ignore everything else and concentrate on his legs. He has a very small displacement of his knees and hips. Is that how most teach shooting? Every day, in nearly every gym, a coach or parent instructs a player to bend his or her knees. Allen barely bends his knees; are the coaches/parents incorrect?
Allen shoots without much displacement because of his leg strength. He can land from a small jump to set his feet without needing much knee or hip bend. Your average 10-year-old, of course, cannot. Whereas many people attribute this to his shooting technique or the use of a hop vs. a step-in, the true explanation is strength, and especially reactive strength. You cannot run at full speed, catch the ball in the air, land with very little displacement, and shoot accurately without tremendous reactive strength.
As part of my dissertation, I tested college students on a depth jump. They stood on a 30 cm box, stepped off, landed on two feet, and jumped as high as possible, as quickly as possible. To qualify as a measure of reactive strength, the ground contact time (GCT) had to be less than 250 ms. None of the female college students, including a few current or former athletes, and few of the males, managed. They were not strong enough. They lacked the stiffness to resist the force of the landing in their ankles, knees, or hips. Their compliance led to a longer GCT.
Allen has a quick shot partially because he has the strength to be stiff on his landings. When training young athletes, the lack of reactive strength coupled with an attempt to have a stiff landing can lead to injury. When there is a lack of strength, the knees may cave in (knee valgus) when the player does not flex her hips to absorb the force. This has been cited as a factor in non-contact ACL injuries.
This does not mean that the stiff landing is bad, per se. It means that the lack of strength is bad. NBA players do not have the time to bend into deep knee and hip flexion. They must be stiff to reduce the time on the ground and with the ball in their hands. This requires strength.
With players who are good shooters (40% three-point shooters), I do not tinker with their technique. They have adapted to their particular idiosyncrasies, and I do not believe that tweaking their shots will have a big enough positive impact to take the risk. By improving balance (part physical and part shot selection) and leg strength, they can improve their shooting percentages, and their ability to get off more shots (quicker release).
Focusing my energy here is low risk/high reward, whereas tampering with their individual idiosyncrasies would be high risk/low reward. Whereas many coaches focus on the upper-body technique and fitting a player into an ideal, many problems can be solved by some combination of better balance, improved coordination, and increased leg strength. When a player is coordinated and strong enough to shoot the ball, some technique flaws disappear because these flaws are the player’s attempt to work around the lack of strength and/or coordination. Concentrating on the specific flaws without addressing the coordination and/or strength is short-sighted.
The body attempts to find its ideal movement pattern. Oftentimes, with a young player, the ideal movement is not the same as the ideal movement for an adult because of the strength and coordination deficits. The player has adopted a strategy that is best for him or her right now. The easiest way to grow out of this strategy is not to fix the habit, but to fix the underlying cause. When elbows flare out or players shoot across their body or many of the other habits of young shooters, the cause is the lack of strength or coordination. Address the cause, not the symptoms. As players mature and develop greater strength, they can increase their leg stiffness, which will lead to a quicker shot.
With my sub-40% three-point shooters, I spend more time adjusting small things. My initial focus is the lower body followed by the coordination between the lower body and the upper body. Many players leak power and lose rhythm because their lower and upper bodies are not coordinated. There is a jerkiness to their shot. Next, I look at hand placement. When you do not start correctly, it makes the shot more difficult. Finally, I examine the follow-through. I have two players who miss when they shoot the ball off the side of their hands, rather than straight through the ball. As soon as the ball leaves their hands, I know the result with good accuracy. These basic elements comprise my basic, barebones shooting philosophy: if you start correctly and finish correctly, everything else tends to take care of itself.