We see and hear mention on TV during college and NBA/WNBA games about the often mediocre performance from the Free Throw line. Nightly we see high-paid NBA players who often can't make more than 50-60% of their "free" shots. Teams sometimes shoot only 50% from the Line for a whole game, 15 for 30 recently for Cleveland, for example. Solutions are rarely stated, usually just the announcers' surprise at the poor level of shooting.
So what's the problem? What can be done about it?
IS IT MENTAL?
An NBA coach was recently bemoaning his team's poor performance from the Line and said that he had tried everything to increase pressure on his guys in practice. He'd make the player suffer with some penalty. He'd make the team suffer if a player missed. He tried to put more pressure on in his practice situations than would be in real life in a game. (How do you do that, I wondered, with players making millions? Can you bet them money and make it stressful? I doubt that. Diss them, belittle them? Threaten to reduce their minutes?) Nothing was working. He noted also that he didn't think the answer was technical. (If it's not technical, then it has to be mental, right?)
I FEEL IT'S ALMOST ALWAYS TECHNIQUE!
From my experience, a simple action like shooting Free Throws is PHYSICAL, NOT MENTAL! We need a calm mind, of course, but shooting these humble shots can be a simple physical act. Alignment, power, setting the ball, accurate Release, distance control ... Swish! It's physical stuff!
WE MAKE IT MENTAL!
However, once failure shows up, we make it mental! If we start to miss a lot of shots, our little minds get into the act and start thinking and trying to figure it out. Then, because of all that mental activity, we think the problem is mental. But the original problem was physical. Like the challenge of making a four foot putt in golf is a simple physical act. If you align the putter head correctly and swing the putter through the proper line at the right speed, the ball will usually go in the hole. The problem is that fear and doubt come in (thoughts of past failures, worry about future failures) and interfere and we jerk it off line and then say it's mental!
As I watch our college and professional players shoot Free Throws on TV, I see all kinds of differences. Different stances, different Set Points, different ways to initiate the shot, to power the shot, to release the ball.
What's going on is the culmination of years of ineffective coaching, either by and of themselves or from coaches. If you've been reading my writings, you know I coach shooting differently from how most shooting coaches teach it. I'm not into squaring up, crouching, wrist flipping, elbow under the ball, reaching your hand into the cookie jar, shooting at the top of the jump, etc. The proof of my approach is that most of the few great shooters in the game shoot (or shot) the way I coach it. It's my assertion that this is how Chris Mullin learned to shoot, and Jeff Hornacek, and Steve Kerr, among other great shooters. Diana Taurasi, in my opinion the best female shooter in the history of the game, shoots this way. The international players, who are invading the NBA and replacing Americans, almost entirely shoot the way I coach it. Watch Sarunas Jasikevicius of the Pacers or Zydrunas Ilgauskas for Cleveland. Watch Andres Nocioni for the Bulls or Manu Ginobli of the Spurs. They're not trying to square up or align hand, elbow, knee and foot. They stand open and step in to shoot. Their elbows are out to the side a little. They shoot on the way up.
LIKE A BOXER WOULD THROW JABS
Once when I was coaching a clinic and mentioned the advantage (and naturalness) of the open stance, a coach said, "Oh, yeah, like a boxer would stand to throw jabs." For right-handed shooters, imagine you're a left handed boxer jabbing with the right arm. Note how you would stand. Your right foot would be forward and turned slightly left, and the other foot would be back and turned more. I don't think you'd ever see a boxer squaring up to throw jabs and punches. He'd be knocked flat in a very short time. No, it's more powerful and stable to stand open, the body rotated. Such a stance also allows you to "step in" to the shot, which is more powerful than jump stopping square. Try it both ways and see which offers you the most stability. And then a bonus, note how easy it is to align the ball with the eye and basket from an open stance!
WHAT'S AN ANSWER?
Let me just give you some clues as to where to look for the answer to the Free Throw shooting woes:
STANCE: See if the players are square or open. Most will be squared up these days because of years of such coaching. Then check out an open stance, turned from a little up to as much as 45 degrees (rotated left for right-handers). See how it becomes more "one-handed," more "natural." Sue Bird, the great point guard for the WNBA Seattle Storm (and the 2006 Olympic team), opens her stance at the Free Throw line more than 45 degrees (she says it helps her align the ball with her shooting eye).
POWER: Notice where the power comes from -- is it mostly upper body, or driven by some or a lot of lower body power? See how many players stop their lower body action and then use only the upper body muscles, powering the shot from arm, wrist, hand and fingers. Some just flip their wrists. Strong players need less of the legs, but consider that big muscle power from the legs and middle body can "stabilize" the action, even if not needed for power.
SET POINT: Check alignment at the Set Point. Is the ball in line with the eye, ear or shoulder? Better shooters are in line with the eye; shaky shooters often align with the ear or shoulder. Ask yourself which alignment will help you the most for accuracy. Then adjust. Squaring up came from the two-handed days, we can probably agree. But where the idea of shooting off your shoulder or in line with the ear came from, probably no one knows. If you go to throw a dart or shoot an arrow or aim a gun, surely everyone of a right mind can see that being in line with the eye is the most accurate way to aim. Yet some players and coaches think it's okay to have the ball off line from the eye-basket line. Right there is a problem of Technique!
FORGET THE ELBOW! See if the shooter makes a point of trying to have the elbow directly under the ball. This is a common instruction, but note that it thus rotates the hand off of the target. I suggest you focus on the hand position, having that in line with eye and basket and the hand turned facing the basket as much as possible. In that position, the elbow will be out a little to side. If the hand "matters," the elbow will find its own position, not directly under the ball. Please forget the elbow. It will be just fine where it is when you focus on the hand position. It won't be "flying" because then the hand position would be screwed up, not in line with the eye and rotated to face the basket.
SETTING THE BALL: As the players go to shoot, see when and how long the ball is in line with the shooting eye and basket before the shot, if at all. See if being in line longer improves accuracy. I know it does. The alignment can even start down around the stomach for the simple Free Throw with no defense pressuring you.
MOVEMENT OF BALL BEFORE RELEASE: See how many shooters bring the ball to the Set Point and then hold it there a moment before shooting Free Throws. In my opinion, better Free Throw shooters have the "setting of the ball" and the "release of the ball" flow one into the other. The ball does NOT stop. In my video Swish 2, I talk about how Newton's "First Law of Motion" applies here. It says, "An object in motion (and in line) tends to stay in motion (and in line) unless affected by an outside (or unbalanced) force!" It's also called the "Law of Inertia."
NEWTON'S FIRST LAW OF MOTION! The point of this Law relative to shooting is that, "It's easier to keep an object in motion than to GET it in motion!" If you bring the ball to the Set Point and then stop and restart, you're interrupting the inertia and having to restart everything, including direction. An alternative way is to have a "non-stop" action, bringing the ball to the Set Point and then keeping it moving. There's a change of direction, but there does not have to be a stop and restart! To accomplish this you'll have to change your body energy and timing to shoot quickly and early to "catch" the momentum or inertia, but shots then become more reliable, predictable and "repeatable." If you have to elevate to shoot over some one, that's a different shot, with mostly upper body, and much more difficult to execute. It's a great weapon if you can do it well consistently, but few players can from any distance.
RELEASE: How are the players releasing the ball? Is it a throw, a flip, a push, a throw and flip or a push and flip? I see a lot of players flipping it up there with the fast-twitch muscles of the wrist, hand and fingers. Ask yourself which motion is the least complicated, employs the fewest muscles, is more reliable, predictable, repeatable? My answer is the simple PUSH.
WRIST AND HAND: Are wrist and hands relaxed or tight? Most players have tight wrists and hands caused by flipping the wrist, as is so often coached. Consider doing less with the wrist and hand for the sake of simplicity and repeatability. It will require you to use the bigger muscles to add power. Play with it both ways and see which shot motion is more predictable.
ARM ACTION: As the ball is released, does the elbow lock? An elbow-locking motion, if done at the same speed every time, helps the shot be more consistent and predictable. Perhaps the players are short arming, or pulling the arm back quickly. Maybe their arms move left or right after the shot. Consider that a motion on line and held on line in the Follow Through might be more accurate. When you watch shooting on TV or in person, learn to stay focused on the shooter after the shot rather than the flight of the ball. You'll learn a lot more that way about how to shoot (or how NOT to shoot). It's interesting that doing this, fairly soon you'll be able to call pretty accurately if the shot is going in or not just by watching the Release and Follow Through.
HEIGHT OF SHOTS: How high are the shots? Would you say they're flat, medium high, or high? Which trajectory do you think offers the biggest landing area, the softest landing? Play with how and when in the jump you're shooting and you'll learn how to shoot higher.
PRE-SHOT ROUTINE: And one last thing: In my opinion, the "Pre-Shot Routine" is not that big a deal. I hear more and more coaches say you MUST have a Pre-Shot Routine!!! Well, most of the players failing from the Line right now have a routine. Is it helping them? Obviously not! If you have to go through some kind of complicated routine to quiet your mind, it's probably because you mind is filled with fear and doubt. You're doubting your technique. Reduce or eliminate the cause of the fear and doubt (by getting a great technique), and the shot becomes more and more purely physical. Have a simple routine, mainly for the purpose of getting centered on the line, plus perhaps one breath and one dribble to center you physically, and then GO! When you KNOW how to shoot, it becomes a simple motion and you don't have to waste our time with your "routine."
KEEP IT SIMPLE AND BE PRESENT TO WHAT YOU DO
Keep the little Free Throw a simple motion and you'll be able to make at least 75% of your shots, and pretty soon a higher percentage than that. Three out of four isn't that great. Strive for a higher percentage, 80%, 85%, even 90% or more!
To do that, become an "Observer" of yourself as you perform these simple shots, discovering how you do things. Learn to trust yourself, too. If you can make a high percentage of shots in practice, it shows your amazing body knows what to do. Then, in pressure practice situations or games, all you need to do is get your body in position, focus and quiet your mind, trust yourself, and Let It Fly! If you miss, note what mis-fired and then correct it the next time. If you make it, you'll know what caused that and the success will be reinforced.
If you go through the exercises above, you will know what you're doing and what works. Then, if you're a player, you'll be able to self-coach, and if you're a coach, you'll know what to say to your players to get them back on track. Free Throws can be automatic points for your team, not an occasion to humiliate yourself!
Tom Nordland is a shooting expert and coach from California via Minnesota. His videos, coaching and writings are inspiring a Renaissance (a rebirth, a revival) in shooting around the world as players and coaches are taught the things that really matter in shooting. A great shooter as a youth, Tom was given a gift of seeing shooting like few have ever seen it. He sees the essence of great shooting and how to get there. The good news is that its very simple. The few great shooters of today and yesterday mastered simple things, not complicated motions. Improved shooting is now possible for everybody in the game, and mastery is available to those who sincerely dedicate themselves to it. Visit Toms website (http://www.swish22.com/) to read of his background and his articles and newsletters, and to view the remarkable endorsements and amazing testimonials for this approach to shooting.