Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shooting a free throw is a science

Excluding Marcus Paige, Carolina has shot close to 50 percent from the charity stripe this season. That is bad enough to lose to undermanned teams like Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham between unforgettable wins over the best teams in the country. If you believe the head coach, the Heels' struggle at the line is the players' fault.

"I'm tired of talking about free throws," Williams said after last night's loss to Texas. "You've got to be tough enough to step up and make the dadgum thing or go play soccer."

I love Roy Williams, but I don't agree with his statement that making free throws is all about toughness. Making a free throw is mostly physical and only partly mental.

My authority on this subject is limited since I haven't shot a competitive free throw since my senior year of high school in 2002. But in my early high school days I took lessons from a private shooting coach, and shooting a free throw was one of the most important lessons I learned. I feel like I have to explain why I think the Heels stink at the stripe because nobody else seems to share my opinion.

To consistently make free throws, a player must minimize his movement. This can mean slightly different things to different players, but the basics are always the same. The shooter should slightly bend his knees with the ball near his midsection and pause. Then he should lift the ball to his shooting pocket, which is slightly above and in front of his forehead. Finally, the player should extend his knees and shooting arm.

This is a slight simplification. For instance, a player could struggle with slow rotation because he is palming the ball instead of correctly placing it on his fingertips. He might also have off-center rotation as a result of poor follow through or hand placement. But the striking thing to me is that some of Carolina's most talented players don't seem to demonstrate my aforementioned simplification.

I know our numbers stink, but you don't have to show me the number 59.6 for me to know that most of our players will miss half of their attempts. We have guys with shooting pockets near the backs of their heads. We have guys who appear to ball fake before they raise the ball to their shooting pocket. Sometimes I think I'm watching a friend play Just Dance 3 instead of watching a Tar Heel shoot a free throw.

As a passionate alumnus with little access to the team, I am left to wonder why our players look so inept at the line before the ball clangs off the back of the rim (if we're lucky). I can only guess that the coaching staff wants each player to shoot the ball in a way that is most comfortable to him. You can go to a middle school basketball game to understand why that philosophy doesn't work: shooting a free throw is a science, not an art. Very few players, even very few talented players, instinctively know how to shoot a basketball with optimal accuracy. Shooting a free throw is a skill that has to be taught and learned.

I'm sure the Heels shoot free throws at practice. But if some of them shoot free throws at practice with the same form they use in games, I think they are wasting their time.

In Roy's defense, only one of my team coaches ever offered any advice on my shooting form. The rest of them only had us shoot free throws in practice. Understanding the nuts and bolts of an effective stroke is something completely separate from coaching five players to operate on the court like the fingers on a hand. I know Williams loves and excels at the latter, but I wonder whether his players get effective instruction on the former.

They should.


  1. Please let my 14 year old daughter show them how to shoot freethrows. She plays JV and Varisity. She is a excellent outside shooter over 60% from the 3pt line and over 85% from the charity stripe. Fundamentals are a thing of the past. It is something you have to work on daily.How do you get to D-1 without knowing how to shoot a free throw !!!!

  2. Do you really think Hubert Davis was brought in to help Roy manage games or conditioning

  3. I agree that the simpler the mechanics, the fewer things can go wrong. And McAdoo does seem to at least be shooting straighter, but the arc of those moon balls makes consistency almost impossible. Everything is long or short.

  4. Yes, free throws can be taught. I was taught by an older player before I started playing school ball. Form and technique. Bend knees, place your guide hand in front of the ball and shooting hand behind the ball, focus and swish. Practice, practice, practice, and it'll come. Take a deep breath just before shooting. I was a 87% free throw shooter.

  5. Watching the UNC players struggle with free throws is not pleasant and I am sure not for them either. While I agree with most of your statements, I do however disagree with your premise that the mental part of the equation plays such a small role. If you and I were in the gym just shooting free-throws then the technical aspect would play a huge role and you would be correct.

    Game free throws are not shot in a vacuum and I am sure that Coach Williams would tell you that all the players hit a high percentage of their practice free throws. Coach Williams is correct in attributing the mental aspect of shooting free throws to the success rate that you have almost dismissed. Coach Williams refers to it as being tough. I just think it is a matter of being able to control your breathing and relax.

    42 years ago I was involved in the conversation with Coach Enid Drake who recently retired from Louisburg College after 52 years in the profession. I was 12 years old at the time when Coach Drake made the statement “I find most free-throws are missed before a player ever steps up to the line”. My first thought was Coach Drake was talking about technical problems with the shooting stroke and I was wrong. What he was actually talking about was the mindset of the player from the moment he was fouled to the time that the referee handed the ball over for the free-throw attempt.

    Most players at this level will have a basic understanding on how to shoot a basketball. They will spend hours in the gym putting up shots to refine the stroke. Some will be better than others

    Game situations will add a multitude of obstacles that will affect the player’s ability to perform what they have practiced. Since we’re talking about free throws then let us apply what we know and how important the mental aspect becomes.

    Think about this for a moment.

    You have approximately 65 seconds or less from the time that you are fouled to the point referee gives you the basketball for your attempt. The condition of the basketball player at that point is key to understanding how to be a good free-throw shooter. Jump shots are more in the flow of a game and are more instinctual than a free throw.

    For free throws in many cases you are picking yourself up off the floor and other times it is at the end of you taking it strong to the rim. Everything stops and your breathing is elevated, heart rate is elevated in the mind is racing. In that short period of time the player must get his breathing under control so that the mind and heart will follow. If they can accomplish this the body will easily perform what they have been doing in practice.

    Good free throw shooters accomplish this instinctively and in most cases never realized it. The rest of us will need to learn a technique to get the breathing under control. It is not much different than the approach a professional golfer uses to consistently sink puts. It is all about breathing and being able to relax enough to allow the body to perform what you have trained it to do. Golfers refer to it as trusting my stroke.

    I have been to very few practices that free throw shooting was not relegated to the end or beginning of practice. Those that were part of scrimmage helped in training players to control breathing and definitely helped with free throw percentages. Another technique was during sprints to shoot free throws after a sprint and keep repeating that.

    Just another opinion

    1. Excellent points, John. I agree that game percentages should be worse than practice percentages. I suppose my primary concern is how the players look when they are shooting. I think some players' physical glitches are too much for "trusting the stroke" to solve. The mental side of shooting a free throw should be the hardest thing for the player to control. The physical parts should already be in place. Thanks for your excellent comment.

    2. Free-throws

      J is entirely right about minimizing your movement. Every unnecessary movement is a movement that can cause you to go wrong.

      However, J too has an unnecessary movement in his routine.

      What need is there to begin with the ball near the shooter's midsection?

      Lifting the ball from the midsection to what J calls the "shooting pocket" is a completely unnecessary movement where you can go wrong.

      The start should be putting the ball in your shooting hand, in J's "shooting pocket", holding it just like the player - assuming he has decent form - shoots his jump shots. From there you shoot just like you would other shots.

      Everyone in casual shoot- around or warm-up shoots the ball like this. It is a completely natural and comfortable way to shoot.

      The shooting pocket is holding the ball with your shooting hand's wrist just about at your hair line and the back of your hand just above the front of your scalp.

      The ball should be resting in your fingers and on the pad just below the fingers, the wrist slightly cocked and the thumb and little finger should be extended comfortably at each side of the ball. The middle 3 fingers, primarily the middle finger, propel the ball to the basket. This movement naturally provides some arc and it ends in the "shooter's pose" but the pose is not the end objective and thinking about that is probably a distraction. The objective is to put the ball in the basket. That should be the player's only thought.

      Aim dead center of the basket and shoot with a motion extending the fingers toward the basket with the forearm and elbow following the release of the ball. It takes no great effort and the shooter can concentrate on his aim and the minimal amount of effort required to get the ball to the basket.

      Slightly bend the knees just enough to give yourself a little 'balance" - some might not even need to do this - then shoot the ball with the knees straightening and a slight lift of the heels as the legs follow the motion of your hand and arms. No great amount of concentration should be given to the lower extremity movement, because it will naturally follow the release of the ball.

      The off-hand helps position the ball to shoot and assists in stability but is not part of the shooting motion.

      If need be, the player can become comfortable with this style by starting a few feet in front of the basket (to the extent necessary) and move back as he practices until he is comfortable at the free throw line. I think most will not have to do this and can quickly improve their accuracy from the line.

      I think it is also wrong to tell the player to "relax." "Relaxing" is probably the main cause of air balls from the free throw line.

      A little bit of tension is a natural part of shooting the ball this way, from the holding of the ball to the slight cocking of the release, the slight bend of the knees, and balancing on the balls of your feet.

      I am 68. I haven't been on a court in at least 10 years, but I did play very frequently until my early 50's. I was never close to being a premier player and I was long past school to become even a decent player, but I believe with a little warm up, I could shoot at least 60% from the free throw line.


  6. Great piece. When I was in HS I was coached by Tom Wilson. When you made the team coach Wilson made you shoot free throws, watched you, and then showed you how to do it right. I think I shot in the upper 80s in HS, and as a team we shot well. Thanks to coach W for knowing he wanted no points left on the stripe and he knew how to make sure. "Fingertips Patrick, FINGERTIPS!!!"

  7. Roy claims that they shoot about 80% in practice . Either he's lying or they just have some type of abnormal strange bad luck in games.