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The Science Behind Your Free Throws

  • Author:
    Tony Fryer
  • Date:
    Jan 28, 2010

As a both basketball coach and student of behavioral science for the last 30 years, I can attest that there is plenty of scientific and philosophical research as well real world testing that can show any player how to perform better "under pressure."

From kids playing AAU summer league games to the NCAA Tournament and the NBA playoffs, someone will take a free throw that will be a factor in their team winning or losing the basketball game. This player may have practiced hundreds of free throws and be considered a good shooter, but none of that matters now. Muscles tighten up, the player tries to breathe and follow a three-bounce ritual. The player tries to focus and concentrate on making the shot. The shot goes up... it's short and to the right. The player missed.

Some will say the player choked. But why does this happen? This player makes lots of free throws in practice all the time! Fortunately this scenario is both predictable and correctable.

Most importantly, our brain is already pre-wired to do this if we allow it to happen. Mastering a physical activity like shooting free throws occurs when the automated subconscious processes of the brain take over. When the shooter attempts to "slow down to focus and concentrate" or control these automated processes, we actually shut down our "autopilot" and engage our "manual" conscious part of the brain, which is poorly equipped to make the shot while "under pressure."

Scientific research shows us not only that we can't consciously access or control the part of our brain that put us "in the zone" and allows for peak performance, but in fact, it is our effort to get there that causes poor performance. If you currently shoot two out 10 (20 percent) from the free-throw line, this article isn't for you. Go practice the fundamentals until you truly own the shot and become at least a 70 percent shooter. However, if you are a good free throw shooter, making a free throw under pressure is as simple as just letting it happen.

Science and Conventional Coaching

A player is fouled and gets ready to go to the free throw line. Coach yells, "slow down and take your time" or "remember to use your legs and follow through." The player steps to the line and the coach says "concentrate" or "focus." However, to have the best chance of making the shot, the player should have a brief "mantra moment" and just shoot.

According to a recent article in Scientific American Mind magazine by Elizabeth Svoboda, the idea that too much self-monitoring hinders performance aligns with the well-established theory of how the brain learns to perform complex motor skills--anything from speaking to typing to shooting a basketball. The part of our brain that is most involved in learning how to shoot a free throw is the cerebral cortex--which controls higher-order, conscious thought and is adaptable to novel situations.

But as we shoot free throws over and over again, we gradually transfer the control of that activity from the cerebral cortex to another area of the brain, the cerebellum, which orchestrates the lightning-fast motor activation needed to perform complex actions. "The cerebral cortex is very good at general-purpose stuff but not at intricately timed things," says Boston University neurologist Frank Guenther. "You want to get the better-equipped part of the brain doing the job for these tasks."

Thus, when people are learning something new (like shooting free throws) they show high levels of activity in the cerebral cortex, whereas when they are, let's say, 80 percent free-throw shooters, they show more activity in the cerebellum.

The wrinkle in this system is that the cerebellum, unlike the cerebral cortex, is not consciously accessible.

As a result, Guenther says, it is when chokers try to check their progress as they are performing that they run into trouble. "Let's say you're trying to play the piano. If you were relying on your motor memory, your motor command would automatically read out the next note in about 50 milliseconds." But consciously monitoring your performance brings this super fast sequence of motor commands to a screeching halt, resulting in a choking incident of epic proportions.

"The feedback from the first note takes 100 milliseconds just to move from your cochlea up to your brain. So if you're saying to yourself, 'Okay, I just finished the C, now I have to go on to the D,' you're going to have problems."

Coaches usually call this "analysis paralysis." The point here is that when you are on the line to shoot the big free throw, stop thinking about the shot, focus on only one simple thing: to quiet your mind and let the cerebellum do it's job and take over.


Science and Simplicity

Think this is too complicated? It's about doing less, not more. Step up and shoot. That's it. While this is a combination of both neuroscience and biomechanics, it's really quite simple.

Step one is learning to shoot and mastering the muscle memory of good shooting form while under pressure. Step two is creating a simple "mantra moment" that eliminates conscious thought about the shot and becomes a trigger that allows your subconscious to access the automated muscle memory control that makes the shot.

The famous martial artist Bruce Lee said that when he started learning martial arts, "a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick." As he began to learn and train to get better, he said that a punch became a series of complicated things like judging attack range and proper thrust point. A kick became balance, leverage and more. However, when he truly began to master martial arts, "a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick," it became simple again. He described the next and highest stage of mastery by saying the "the fight is fluid movement like a dance, and when it's time -- 'it' hits -- all by itself!" (The "it" he is referring to is his fist.)

Now at this level of mastery, it was even more simple. He learned that if you allow it, your brain will cause your body to do what it needs to do both instinctively and instantly. From pianists to martial artist to NBA players, those that truly have mastered a skill have also mastered the ability to let go of conscience thought and trust their feelings. To have the best chance to make the big free throw, you must be willing to not try and just let it happen.

Does this seem too outrageous and against everything that you have been taught or currently believe? Many coaches and some players feel the need to be in control of everything and leave nothing to chance. But all of us go on autopilot and leave plenty of things to chance all the time! Here is an almost literal example of being on autopilot:

Have you ever been driving and when you reach your destination, you don't quite remember braking, steering around turns, stopping at intersections or passing certain things along the way? Your conscious cerebral cortex was "focused" on your thoughts or conversation and your subconscious cerebellum did the driving for you. Before you started driving, did you have to visualize driving to your destination? Did you tell yourself to concentrate on maintaining the proper position of your hands on the steering wheel? Probably not, because you have truly mastered this activity and left much of the driving to the autopilot in your cerebellum.

Perfect Practice

Most coaches know the adage, "practice makes perfect" and that the correct version is really "perfect practice makes perfect." Taking that a step further, the best way to learn a competitive activity is to compete while learning and practicing the activity.

Like most forms of teaching, coaching basketball is often done in progressive steps. When teaching free-throw shooting, coaches often break down various parts of the shooting motion. Form-shooting drills are very helpful, especially to warm up properly. Players also practice by taking lots of shots. The problem in making the big shot "under pressure" actually starts when you learn and practice without pressure.

The best way to prepare to make the big shot in crunch time is to learn to shoot and practice shooting under both pressure and adversity all the time. From now on, when practicing free throws, jack up the pressure and create high-tension scenarios. Do form shooting drills as well as actual free throws with some type of consequence and adversity. You must create difficult conditions in which you are shooting and have an effective and immediate consequence for not doing the drill properly or missing the shot.


You must also practice shutting down your conscience to activate your cerebellum. Physical mastery won't work in crunch time unless you practice mastering the shutting down of your thoughts as you shoot. There are several ways to practice both the physical and the mental aspects of shooting free throws:

Physical Practice

•Practice with Adversity -- Crowd noise, trash talk, cheerleaders, people walking behind the basket, sudden noises behind you during the shot. Use anything that could cause the player to be distracted, including laughter or even anger.

•Practice with Consequence -- Sprints, pushups, wall squats, crunches, negative points, plus/minus games, extra form drills before the next shot, loss of turn, start over, anything that causes making that particular shot to be important. (But you should be ready to shoot again in a few seconds.)

•Practice with Realistic Repetition - Shoot 10 at a time up to a total of 100 at a time to learn. Make one at a time and stop, get off the line for at least 30 seconds, and do this 25 times to become a good free throw shooter. Make two in a row and stop, get off the line for at least 30 seconds, and do this 50 times to truly master making the big shot.

•Want more? Only count swishes. If the ball hits the backboard or rim it doesn't count (even if it goes in). It must be "all-net" to count. Also, practice making free throws with your eyes closed. This is not to impress your friends but serves to groove in your stroke both physically and mentally.

•Make two shots in a row. The first must be all-net. The second must be made with your eyes closed. Repeat and do 10 sets of making both shots. Do this with adversity and consequences and you will find yourself shooting in the 90-percent range.

Mental Practice

•Create your personal mantra moment cerebellum trigger. This gives you the best chance of shutting down your consciousness, allowing your cerebellum to kick in and allow auto pilot muscle memory to take over and make the free throw. Have just one feeling or visual queue. Try not to use words, but if you must, use only one holistic word, for example -- "swish." It's better to choose something like the feel of the ball as you bounce it at the line be your trigger. The absolute best trigger could be the rim itself. Train yourself to use the feel of the ball, or the sight of the rim, or whatever you choose to hyperfocus your cerebellum into action.

•Practice losing yourself in the feeling of the ball or whatever you choose for your trigger. The only thing in the world that exists is your trigger. Practice the feeling that when you look up and see the rim you are ready to shoot. The most important part of your free throw is your hand releasing the ball up and toward the basket. The most important part of that action is getting the ball to roll off your index finger and middle finger last. This must become a comfortable and very familiar feeling through practice. Get that feeling each time you bounce the ball before a free throw. "Shoot the ball to the floor," letting it roll (with backspin) off your fingers as if it is the free throw shot. The only thing you feel is the ball rolling off your fingers. The only thing you see is the ball spinning as it goes towards the floor. Try to hear the sound of the ball moving in your hand. Then just shoot.

•Stay off the line until the official/practice partner is ready to give you the ball. When you are practicing on your own, stay off the line until you are ready to shoot. When you step up to the line, immediately start your cerebellum trigger and shoot. There is no shot to make. There is no score, no clock, no teammates. There are no fans, opponents, victory to gain or loss to fear. There is no past or future. The only thing that exists is your trigger.

Gametime and Crunchtime

Practice with adversity and consequence, make all net shots and shots with your eyes closed, and use a mantra moment cerebellum trigger to make more free throws. But understand that no matter how much you prepare or practice, shooting a free throw is still a random act.

According to Svoboda's article in Scientific American Mind, that does not mean a regimen of practice that includes developing mantra moment cerebellum triggers is not worth undertaking. The most effective strategies for handling pressure and avoiding choking, notes Trinity University psychologist Harry Wallace, are also the ones that imbue performers with the assurance that they can deal with any eventuality. Wallace also says. "You want to address any concerns far in advance of performance." To make free throws in crucial situations of a basketball game, you can only be as prepared as possible to succeed, which includes allowing your cerebellum to take over without conscience interference.

Practice to get to point where it just happens, it just is. You already function this way and you always will. It's how your brain works, and if you accept it, you can unlock the power of you brain, utilize the benefits, and make more free throws.

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