Rebecca glances at the game clock, wiping the sweat off her brow. There are 23 seconds left, and Rebecca’s Vipers are down 98-95 to the rival Cougars. Neither team has any timeouts left. The game plan slowly unfolds in Rebecca’s head. Make the two free throws: 98-97. Full court press. Try to create a steal off the Cougars’ inbound. If that doesn’t work, foul immediately. Assuming the Cougars player makes both free throws, the score will be 100-97 –giving the Vipers approximately 20 seconds to set up a three-point shot to tie the game, or to continue the vicarious back-and-forth chess match.
Rebecca goes into her free throw shooting routine, adjusting her headband, dribbling once on the left, once on the right, another time on the right but with backspin. She raises her arms and strokes the ball toward the hoop in one fluid motion. Swish.
The Cougars’ crowd boos, clapping their noisemakers in an attempt to distract Rebecca from making her second shot. But she’s in the zone. As soon as the ball is back in her hands, she goes through her routine and sinks the shot without hesitation.
If you have ever watched a basketball game, you likely understand how important free throw shooting is. Free throw shots are often the deciding factor at the end of close games, and the statistics back this up: nearly 70% of winning teams’ points in the final minute comes from free throws. Luckily, there is literature on how to improve in this area.
Evidence-based free throw shooting
- Similar to Rebecca, consider implementing a routine before each free throw. Research shows that the absolute time you spend on your routine doesn’t matter as much as the relative timing of your movements. For example, if you dribble once on the left and once on the right, ensure that the timing of these dribbles before each shot is consistent.
- When shooting, aim towards the back of the rim; add a little bit of backspin; and remember to shoot at an angle of approximately 50 degrees to the horizontal. A common mistake is to not put enough arc on the ball, which reduces the surface area of the basket that is available for the ball to land in.
- Additionally, use a release point as high above the ground as possible; align your feet with the basket; and, like Rebecca, aim to have a smooth body motion from your shot release all the way to your follow-through. Here, Chuck Hayes demonstrates the OPPOSITE of what you should do: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCHvEVmR8ew
- Now that you’ve perfected your routine and shooting form, consider the psychological element. Multiphase self-regulation training involves goal setting, self-recording, and making strategic adaptations. This translates to establishing measurable goals for your free throw shooting; tracking your shooting performance in a written log; and making mental notes of the reason behind every missed shot. For example, by making a mental note that your last shot was misaligned to the left of the basket, it is much less likely that your next shot will be to the left.
- As you can imagine, research shows that your free throw shooting percentage is about 10% higher in practice compared to in-game situations. How do you get around this? Try to replicate the environment of a game as much as possible when practicing. Introduce and vary task-irrelevant stimuli, such as noise, fatigue level, and shot situations. For example, shoot in sequences of one or two shots, as you would in a game, instead of five or ten shots.
Try the above strategies and watch your game elevate! Use the science of free throw shooting to your advantage. You’ll be swishing those free throws and helping your team win close games before you know it.
Written by Maxwell Tran
- Branch, John. Pro Basketball [Internet]. New York: The New York Times; c2015. For Free Throws, 50 Years of Practice Is No Help; 2009 Mar 03. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/sports/basketball/04freethrow.html
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- Cleary TJ, Zimmerman BJ, Keating T. Training physical education students to self-regulate during basketball free throw practice. Res Quart Exerc Sport 2013;77(2):251-62.
- Kozar B, Lord RH, Vaughan RE, Whitfield KE. Basketball free-throw performance: practice implications. J Sport Behav 1995;18(2):123.
Photograph credit to Gary A. Vasquez from USA TODAY Sports