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. (Read here: Performance Under Pressure in the NBA)
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. (Read here: Choking and Excelling at the Free Throw Line)
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.”