The Art Of The Free Throw

NBA players, coaches, sports psychologists explain how to master the shot.

by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack

Many team offensive statistics are lower this NBA season than in past campaigns, and free throw shooting is no different. The League is shooting 74.7 percent from the charity stripe, on average, which is more than two full points lower than last season’s 76.9 percent mark.

If that 74.7 figure holds steady, then the 2011-12 regular season campaign will finish with the League’s lowest average free throw percentage since ’05-06, when it was 74.5. This is all to point out that the free throw is a more complicated shot than it appears, particularly if a player develops shoddy mechanics or doesn’t concentrate. SLAMonline spoke with numerous NBA players, sports psychologists and free throw coaches to break it down.

A variety of factors may contribute to a player making or missing a shot. William Wiener, a New York City-based sports psychologist in private practice, has said that the five NBA players he’s consulted during the past five years have brought forth a litany of reasons for their free throw line struggles.

“They’ve brought up nerves, anxiety, choking, tensing up at the line,” Wiener said. “When a game is on the line, some players report that to be a very stressful time.”

A pair of recent independent studies have affirmed that NBA players shoot worse from the free throw line late in games.

The more recent of the two, published in the June 2011 edition of the Journal of Sports Economics, found that NBA players, on average, shoot 6-9 percentage points worse than normal from the line when their team was down one or two points with 15 seconds or less left in the game.

The report, researched by two economic professors from Oregon State University and Brigham Young University and a economic graduate student from Oregon State, represented data from the ’02-03 through the ’09-10 NBA seasons. Conversely, they discovered that choking did not take place in the last 15 seconds of a game when the scored is tied. There was also no significant increase in choking during the playoffs.

A second report, filed in the April 2009 issue of The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, found that NBA players made free throws at a declining rate when their team was leading or trailing by a point in the final minute of games. Players shot better than expected when the score was tied in the final minute, as researched by three psychology professors from the University of Texas.

The professors studied every free throw shot by players in the final minute of games when the score differential between teams was within five points—regular season and Playoffs—during the ’03-04 through ’05-06 seasons.

The reasons for players experiencing anxiety, tension or other negative emotions run from the obvious (big crowds) to the subtle (break in game rhythm). The latter is overlooked since most NBA players have participated in the sport for the majority of their lives before entering the League. One would expect that they’ve adjusted to the flow of the game. Yet Wiener said players he’s consulted with have reported to him that trips to the free throw line disrupt their rhythm.

“It’s sort of like a field goal attempt or a soccer penalty shot,” Wiener said of the nature of stopping a game for a scoring opportunity.

Wiener also noted that big crowds can be disconcerting to players. The 10 active NBA players SLAMonline talked to for this story dismissed the notion of them being affected by crowds, which often range from 10,000 to 20,000 per game. Still, Wiener said one unnamed player couldn’t handle it.

“I worked with one NBA player who was very distracted by the fans,” Wiener said. “What we did is played tapes over and over again of fans wreaking havoc and shouting all kinds of things and creating visual distractions. He would have to relax with those distractions going on. It was unnerving him and the research on those free throw percentages beared that out.”

When asked about being potentially distracted by fans while attempting a free throw, Golden State Warriors guard Nate Robinson responded with barely a shrug and an acknowledgement that he notices the crowd.

“I don’t hear it,” said Robinson, who is a 80 percent career free throw shooter. “I just shoot it. That’s when I focus and just blank out everything.”

The Art of the Free Throw

NBA players, coaches, sports psychologists explain how to master the shot.

Shot mechanics are vital
The issue isn’t always mental, though. Shot mechanics are significant. Even though NBAers are technically experts at their craft, there are times when they struggle with their shooting form. (No Andris Biedrins jokes.)

The most common flaw that Gary Boren observes is a shot with a flat arc. In his 15th season as the free throw shooting coach for the Dallas Mavericks—his 18th season in the NBA—Boren knows a thing or two about shots from the stripe.

“On a free throw, the ball ought to be at least as high as the top of the backboard,” Boren said. “That gives it about a 45-degree angle back down to the basket.”

The authors of a 2008 study on the optimal release conditions for a free throw would probably agree. Two engineering professors—one mechanical, the other aerospace—from North Carolina State University recommended in the paper that the ball, at its highest point, should be less than two inches below the top of the backboard.

Published in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences, the report also states that players should release the ball as high above the ground as possible, and that the ball should make three complete backspin revolutions before it reaches the basket. (Backspin decreases the chance of the ball ricocheting hard off the rim.) The researchers made the recommendations with the assumption of a 6-6 player shooting a free throw.

No matter whether a player struggles with mental focus or physical mechanics, Dr. Nicole Lavoi said she can tell how a player will fare at the line based off his body language.

“You can tell a lot about a player if he is feeling confident and relaxed by watching his shoulders, eyes and facial expressions,” said Lavoi, who is a sports psychology professor at the University of Minnesota.

She said that the arm will look tight, which helps move the shoulders up toward the ears. The wrist and elbow lock up. A player’s eyes might dart around before the shot, an indication that he is taking in too much information for that moment.

“On the free throw line, your eyes should be focused only on a couple things—the ball and the rim,” Lavoi said.

Going back to the point about the tight arm and shoulder, it was noted to Lavoi that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant makes a concerted effort to loosen up his shooting arm and shoulder before every free throw. Anyone who’s watched Durant at the line has likely noticed his pre-shot shimmy.

“Watching him shoot, that’s part of his routine,” Lavoi said. “I don’t know what he’s saying to himself; it’s probably so automatic now.”

Developing a routine
Therein lies the key to a free throw: The pre-shot routine. Every NBA player has one, and many have held the same routine for a big chunk of their basketball careers.

Robinson has had his since he was 10 or 11, he said. It’s a regimented routine. He kisses an ’8′ tattoo on his left wrist that represents his friends and family. He then rubs a basketball tattoo on his left bicep that bears the initials of his brother, Deron Isiah, who passed away from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in 1997.

In a quirk he picked up from an older cousin while growing up, Robinson rotates the ball counterclockwise around his body two times, waist-high, to calm him down. Finally, he dribbles three times and shoots.

“There are so many things that go through my mind, so [I do that] to take me away from thinking about everything else and to only about my friends, family and making my free throw,” said Robinson, who added that he makes sure to sink 10 consecutive free throws during each practice.

His teammate, Stephen Curry, has fewer steps to go through before taking his free throw. Similar to Durant, Curry loosens up his shooting arm. Ball in his left hand, Curry extends his right arm, briefly shakes it out, slightly bends his knees, dribbles once, bends again and shoots. Simple as that. Curry said it’s the fourth free throw routine he’s had since high school.

“It feels comfortable to get one dribble, to get a rhythm,” Curry said. “As long as I get my rhythm down and keep my pattern and my pre-shot routine, I feel really good. I don’t notice anything else because it’s just like practice.”

Curry, a 90 percent career free throw shooter who made “only” 80 percent of them in his first 20 games this season, takes free throws between drills during off-season workouts and after practices. He holds himself to making 10 in a row with one caveat—he has to swish at least five of them.

Lots of other players take three dribbles to establish a rhythm, but Boren likes Curry’s one-dribble technique.

“I don’t want you standing there for a long time,” Boren said. “I want one or two dribbles and then shoot.”

Barry Wolfson, a New Jersey-based free throw coach who’s coached Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson and New Orleans Hornets forward Trevor Ariza, said that he incorporates breathing techniques into a pre-shot routine. There’s a moment between breaths in which a player can shoot, he noted.

“They inhale and exhale and before the next inhale, that’s when they shoot it,” Wolfson said. The goal is to achieve a meditative state of mind.

Trained in sports psychology and formerly a college women’s basketball coach at a slew of colleges, including at Quinnipiac University, Wolfson is a believer in optimizing a player’s mindset.

He practices visualization techniques, such as helping players repeatedly envision the ball going through the hoop. He also insists that players think of it as free throws, not foul shots.

“Foul connotes a bad odor,” he said. “I like the idea of a free throw. You’re uncontested; it’s free. I want them to feel free at the line.”

Wiener, the New York City-based sports psychologist, has had his NBA clients take mental free throws. They’ll relax in an arm chair to think of a hoop or to look at a basket on a video screen. From there, they’ll attempt five-to-10 mental free throws as they practice breathing and other relaxation techniques.

“For players with really frayed nerves, I’ll hook them up to some bio-feedback machinery to make sure their muscles aren’t all that intense,” Wiener said.

It seems like every NBA player has a trick to calm himself at the line. New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony licks the fingers on his right hand before dribbling once and spinning the ball once prior to his shot.

“One day in college, the ball slipped out of my hand—I forgot what game it was—and then I just started licking my fingers and wiping them on my shorts,” Anthony said.

Anthony’s teammate, Jared Jeffries, and Warriors forward Dorrell Wright, said they find the nail that exists at the middle of every free throw line. The right-handers line up their right foot at the nail, which helps them center their shots. It’s worked to varying levels of success for them; Jeffries holds a 58 percent mark from the line during his career while Wright maintains an 80 percent mark.

Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, a 73 percent career shooter from the charity stripe, recites the mantra of Billy Keller, the team’s director of player development: “Lift, bend, lift, push.” In other words, lift up the ball, bend the arms and legs, lift the ball over the head and push it by shooting the ball.

Hibbert should listen given that Keller was an 87 percent free throw shooter during his seven seasons for the Pacers in their ABA days.

Before he attempts a free throw, Corey Maggette forms a fist with his right hand, blows once into that fist, taps his chest with the fist, then repeats that process a second time. Touching his chest with his right hand is a testament to God, said the Charlotte Bobcats forward. As for why he blows in his hand?

“My hands get cold,” said Maggette, who’s knocked down 82 percent of his career free throw tries. “I’m trying to get them warmed up [laughs].”

Hit the reset button
Many of the players explained that they tire themselves out in workouts or practice before shooting, as Curry referenced earlier. Boren said that in 15 years of charting practice free throws for the Mavericks, he’s found that players typically shoot 10 percent better during practice than in games.

Boren said practice makes it tough to get into a game-like repetition at the line. Players often rebound for each other, and each player shooting will often back away from the line only every two or three shots. Boren and Wolfson advise that players reset themselves at the line for every free throw.

Ex-NBA player Mark Price, now a shooting coach for the Orlando Magic, is famous for backing away from the line after every shot to reset himself. His 90.4 career free throw percentage is the highest in NBA history, so he knew what he was doing. So did Reggie Miller, the ex-Pacers guard, whose 88.8 career free throw percentage is good for ninth all-time.

“It’s mental,” Miller said. “You have to mentally see yourself making free throws.”

In what will surprise no one who watched him during an 18-year career filled with devastating opponents in the playoffs, Miller said he relished knocking down free throws in front of big crowds.

“To me, there’s nothing better than sinking free throws on the road with 18,000 [people] screaming your name and [yelling] obscenities,” said Miller, who’s now an NBA analyst for TNT. “And you go to the free throw line calm, cool and you’ve done this a million times, literally, in your sleep. There’s nothing like that.”

Miller never wanted the ball to stick to his fingers, so he would go to the scorer’s table to put rosin on his right hand. Once at the line, he would eye the rim, dribble six times, take a deep breath and shoot.

Talk to virtually any player, any coach, any sports psychologist, and that person will say that the key to free throws is to develop a routine. That sparks confidence, it calms the nerves and it creates an expectation of what the player should do before every shot, no matter the game situation.

“The mental state of repetition is key,” Miller said. “You have to do something the same way every time.”

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