Does free throw practice help improve your game?

Does free throw practice help improve your game?

There are few people in the world who would argue with the cliche practice makes perfect. But when it comes to free throw shooting, does practice actually improve your ability to shoot free throws in a game situation? I recently came across this great article on free throw practice from Brian McCormick’s blog on developing basketball IQ.  The blog is well done and worth checking out if you get a chance.

No one would question you as a coach if you said you make your players shoot 50 free throws a practice since every coach knows how important free throws are when it comes to winning basketball games.  The thing with science however is that it aims to use reasoning through research and experimentation to come up with conclusions.  I know most of you reading this don’t want a review of the scientific method, but it’s hard to question science and it’s ability to transform our society.  More and more in sports we are seeing science and mathematical analysis come into play (See Sabermetrics if you need any further proof of that).  The gist of Brian’s article is based around the picture below…

Los Angeles Lakers Free Throw Shooting

What stands out is the remarkable accuracy with which players shoot in practice and the remarkable lack of translation into game situations.  So why is this?  Why can players who shoot nearly 90 percent in practice shoot under 70 percent in games?  The simple answer might be fatigue or the crowd or the pressure of the moment in game situations or something along those lines.  And while all of that might very well be true to some extent, Brian points to something he calls block practice as a reason for this disparity.

Block practice would be as a I described earlier.  Make 50 free throws, shoot 100 free throws, or something along those lines.  While this might help build some muscle memory in your body, it also makes you a better free throw shooter… IN PRACTICE.  In game situations you never find yourself at the line for 25 free throws, with nothing in between.  You never shoot 5 free throws (or more) in a row.  It simply doesn’t happen.  And while shooting 100 free throws can help make improvements as previously mentioned with muscle memory, it simply doesn’t translate completely into games (See Dwight Howard in the image above).

Random and Variable Free Throw Practice

So what is a coach to do?  Brian’s article talks about two alternative types of practice.  One he calls random practice, the other he refers to as variable practice.  Random practice would be doing stuff in practice that works on multiple skills and mimic’s game like situations.  One way we do this in our practices is through our cut throat drill.  In cut throat we have three teams of 4 or 5 guys per team.  Two teams play half court, while one team sits out.  If the offense scores the player that made the shot has to ‘validate’ the basket by making a free throw in order to get the point.  If he misses the ball is live and no points are scored.  The defense has to get a stop and ‘clear out’ by going the other way and getting it passed the free throw line on the opposite end of the floor.  If they clear out the team who was out of play comes on to play defense and now it’s 5 on 5 again.  All offensive possessions end up on one side of the court.  By doing this we’re working on game like scenarios, you work on breaking a press, your offense, and we then incorporate the free throws in a more game like situation.  The only downside is not everyone scores so not everyone is practicing free throws, and even then you’re not shooting a large volume of free throws.

Brian describes variable practice as say making ten jump shots and then shooting two free throws.  Or another method he describes is shooting free throws from varying distance.  For example, swish three and then take a step back and shoot again.  This would still work on muscle memory but would vary the shooting which might better simulate the variability of game like scenarios with free throws.

There is a good quote as well from the article on Steve Kerr, one of the all time great shooters in the NBA.

When Steve Kerr was having a hard time shooting well coming off the bench, shooting coach Chip Engelland did something amazing. He’d sit on the bench in the empty gym and chat with Kerr, about this, that, or whatever. Then every few minutes he’d yell that it was time to shoot, and Kerr would run out on the court and take just a few shots. It got him used to sitting, sitting, sitting and then having a couple of opportunities. And it worked. (From The Art of a Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard, via True Hoop)

Lastly the article discusses Steve Nash, one of the few Lakers who’s practice percentage generally translates into games.  Watching this clip of Steve Nash you see a guy who recalls his muscle memory by practicing without the ball in his hands.  By the time he gets the ball he’s already recalled that long term muscle memory he’s built up in practice.  It’s like a golfer taking practice swings before their shot.  No matter how many times Tiger Woods has hit a golf ball he’s still going to take a practice swing or two to ‘remind himself’ before the actual shot.

None of what Brian talks about in this article surprised me.  Think about a drill you’ve done to work on one specific aspect of the game and whether it ‘translates or not’.  One good example of this is a war rebounding drill that I have moved away from using as frequently.  For this drill we had 5 guys around the perimeter and 5 guys inside the paint.  On the shot by the coach the 5 guys on the perimeter crash the boards hard and the 5 guys inside have to box out and rebound.  This drill might improve physicality in guys, but rarely if ever did it improve our ability to box out because it simply was not game like.  At no point is the game slowed down into one moment where you stand still, wait for a shot and then box out with nothing else happening in the game.  This drill is the definition of block practice and does not have the randomness or variability of game like situation.  I often found that doing that drill did not improve my teams ability to box out and rebound.

As you think of this topic I encourage you to think of ways to add more randomness and variability to your free throw practice.  Do not assume that block practice can’t help at all as I think it can build long-term muscle memory, but you must be sure to practice free throws in other ways to improve translation into games.  If you have some thoughts on doing this I’d love to hear some comments below.  Also, be sure to check out Brian’s blog as it has a lot of useful information for coaches.

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