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.

Coach’s Corner: From Make Every Free Throw

I talk to a lot of coaches, and I know how frustrated they are with their players’ free throw shooting performances. I can’t say I’ve ever met a coach who didn’t feel there was room for improvement on the free throw line. Every coach seems to have an immediate example at hand where free throw shooting cost them a game or a championship. As a coach, you know that free throw shooting can make all the difference between a win and a loss.

I recommend that coaches become familiar with my method of free throw shooting before they present it to their team. This means using the steps to shoot until you believe it works. You have to believe in what you are preaching. Your excitement and conviction will come through in many small ways, and you belief will come from first-hand experience. Much of coaching is trying to communicate a feeling. How can you describe the feeling unless you’ve experienced it?

When working one-on-one with your players, your trained eye can provide valuable feedback to someone trying to master the technique. Maybe a player thinks his or her elbow is tucked in. But you, standing behind, can see that it is still waving in the breeze. In addition to working on mechanics, work on self-image. Motivate players in positive ways. Let them know you believe in them and their skill. Reassure them that you don’t expect instant perfection, but at the same time require them to commit to change and growth. Your commitment to, and enthusiasm about, the program will help motivate your players to develop their skills with your guidance.

Remember that players can only learn a certain amount at one time before they begin to feel lost. Each basketball player has a sense of personal style that he or she is proud of. Let it be known that you will not change that style anywhere except at the free throw line. Then, as you teach my method, begin by enforcing the main points first. I would say you should focus on squaring up, bending the knees, and bringing the elbow in. Don’t immediately require them to do all the other steps perfectly.