Free Throw Secret of Great Shooters

A friend looked at slow motion video of my free throw shot after I set the world’s free throw record by making 2,750 free throws in a row. He had a question.

“What’s that thing in your shooting motion?”

“What thing?”

Screen Shot 2017-01-28 at 4.43.04 PM“It’s like a little hitch, like your cocking your arm or something.”

My answer was the same I’ve used many times: “I don’t know. But it works.”

If you download my video, you’ll see that, just before I shoot, I pull my arm back just a little — but always the same amount. If you look at the motion of all the great shooters you’ll see that, when they have time — and on longer shots — they have a small extra motion as they load up and shoot. It’s like they’re trying to get the feel of the shot before they let it go. They put their arm in the slot. And find the back of the net.

In other sports athletes subconsciously develop hitches, twitches, rituals and quirks that keep them loose and increase their feel. In basketball, let’s face it, the free throw is a feel shot. You initiate the shot and decide when to let it go. That’s part of what befuddles many players. They actually shoot better under pressure, because they don’t have time to think.

I have a friend who’s a big golfer and they actually have a name for their hitch. They call it the “waggle.” It’s a small rehearsal of the real swing.

Another reason to develop a shooting hitch is because, at least from the line, it delivers the same amount of distance each time. My mantra is: do the same thing every time and the ball goes in the basket. Get the ball in the right position, bend your legs, put your arm in the slot.

Think about how you feel when the ball is in your fingers, you’re looking at the basket and you know you’re going to sink the basket. That’s the feeling you want to develop. And having a little hitch will trigger that feeling.

Process, Not Results

From jmcmann Via Wikimedia Commons

If you could read the basketball player’s mind, he or she might be saying, “I’ve got to make this basket! If I don’t we’ll lose the game. If I lose this game, we’ll blow the championship. If we lose the championship…” Instead, my friend Dr. James Jen Kin said that the player in the pressure-packed situation should be thinking, “Okay, start the process. Remember all the steps. Do them all right and the ball will go in the basket.”

When an athlete focuses on the process, Dr. Jen Kin said, the results will take care of themselves. “You could almost say to yourself, “I’m going to do everything just right and the hell with the results.””

Different Strokes…


While we’re waiting for the Final Four, I want you to look at these videos: one of Steve Nash , and the other of Stephen Curry, both shooting free throws. Both Steve Nash and Stephen Curry are the same heightCourtesy of Noah Salzman (6’3″) and have the same career average in free throws (90%). Now, Nash shoots with his feet square on the line, as I recommend.  You see that Curry has his right foot slightly forward. Both, however, have the correct mechanics when it comes to keeping their eye on the basket, shooting and following through. They have mastered another fundamental of free throw shooting: because they build it into their regular practice, their focus and concentration on the free throw line is that much stronger. The point I am making is this: different players can make different styles work. As long as the mechanics are in order, your results will be strong.




Focus and Concentrate

FocusConferenceRoom Pick up the sports page any morning and read the quotes of sports stars. Many of these winners attribute their success to concentration. Others say they won because they were focused. These words-focus and concentrate-jump off the page. I’ve gone one step further by putting the words together as a winning pair: focus and concentration.

These are familiar words to most people, but they are used in many different ways. Let me tell you how I think they apply to the world of sports in general, and free throw shooting in particular.

How to Shoot Free Throws

Photo Courtesy of Erik Drost via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Erik Drost via Wikimedia Commons

After I set the Guinness World Record for free throws, people always ask me the same question: How do I shoot a free throw?

There are some basketball fundamentals that are used to make your free throws. But there are some things that make free throws different, too. I’ll cover a couple of those things here:

  • Elbow in. In game conditions, lots of players have their elbow out to fend off aggressive players trying to strip the ball. But at the free throw line you don’t need this.
  • Square up. Lots of shooters stagger their feet. That’s fine for three-pointers. But most coaches will tell you to square up so you don’t miss right or left. Square up on the free throw line.
  • Use your legs. I’ve heard people say that free throw shooting is an upper body motion. I disagree. I think you need to make a nice smooth shot with your legs too.
  • No Aiming. I see a lot of players stare at the basket because they really, really want to make the free throw. But this doesn’t help. Just lock in on target and shoot; It’s more accurate that way.

In my next blog I’ll cover the mental side of free throw shooting. But if you really want to improve your free throw shooting or learn how to coach free throw shooting for better results, get a copy of my video, Make Every Free Throw.

The Big Short: Free Throw Shooting in the NCAA

This is a giftToday is the first of March and, to me, that means March Madness is here. Since I wrote Make Every Free Throw, I’ve been following each of the Final Four favorites every year. A while back, I read a piece in the New York Times that talks about what I wrote in my book, which was that free throw statistics in the NCAA haven’t changed much since the 1960’s.

I like to say that a free throw is a gift. It is astounding to me that more players are not taking advantage of this gift that comes in the form of a foul. According to the NCAA’s current free throw percentage rankings (2015-2016 season), the difference between the number 1 ranked team and the number 4 ranked team is less than 2 percent. You may only get a few free throws each game, but add up all of the free throws in each game and the point spreads add up. That small difference in free throw percentages becomes the big difference between winning a championship and going home disappointed.

Take a look at Villanova coach Jay Wright’s free throw shooting drills. The results speak for themselves: Villanova is currently ranked number 1 in the NCAA in free throw shooting percentages. The drills that Coach Wright uses are pretty much in line with the advice I often give to coaches in clinics. For more of my free throw shooting tips — for players and coaches — download my video Make Every Free Throw.

Working Toward Goals

Working toward success, one goal at a time

Even with proper mechanics and my technique of focus and concentration, I still had to put it all together in a process that could be repeated. I began shooting 500 free throws a day, in increments of 25.

As I improved, I kept setting new goals. One day, I heard on the radio that, according to the census, there were nine million men in America my age. I remember thinking, “I’d like to be one of the ten best seventy-year-old free throw shooters in the country.” I felt that goal would challenge me, but it was still attainable.

How to Improve Your Free Throw Shooting Now

This could happen to you

When I give free throw clinics and teach my seven-step method to players, I often see an enormous improvement immediately. This is surprising because the players may only be doing five of the seven steps correctly. They may bounce the ball twice instead of three times. Their elbows might still be out too far or their feet are staggered on the line. Still, the ball is finding the hoop.

Introduction to the Inner Game

The mental game can be played in a number of ways. W. Timothy Gallwey has written extensively about the “inner” games of tennis, golf, and skiing. What he discovered is something I think all serious athletes should consider.

Gallwey concluded that as we play sports, our minds are divided as if there are two people or “selves” with different personalities. One is analytical, overly judgmental and ultimately inhibiting. He called this side “self one.” The other side of your mind is quiet, confident and filled with amazing potential. This is “self two.” When playing sports, self one is constantly judging, criticizing and attempting to control self two. This becomes obvious when you hear a player yelling at him or herself, “You fool! How’d you miss that shot? You were wide open!”

Gallwey’s solution to this was, first of all, to recognize this split nature of the mind, and, second, to learn to trust self two. To accomplish this he employed a technique that is similar to the use of a mantra. In tennis, when the ball is approaching, you watch until the ball hits the court. When you see this you say, in your head, “bounce.” Then, as you swing the racket, you say “hit at the moment you actually stroke the ball.

The purpose of this “bounce, hit” technique is to keep the conscious mind, self one, busy while self two accomplishes the task. It’s like sending the boss out on a pointless errand so the workers can stay behind and get the job done.

If I were to compare my technique to Gallwey’s “bounce, hit,” I would say that the act of looking for the inflation hole and silently repeating the mantra accomplishes the same end. The conscious mind, which interferes in situations such as the free throw line, is tied up in the meaningless visual act of looking for the inflation hole.