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How to Improve Free Throw Shooting

- By

It is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of free throws, both to teams and to players. If you have a player who can make just 4 baskets per game and add 4 free throws to his total, you have a double-figure scorer. Adding fifteen points from the free throw line to your team's total would create a very difficult obstacle for you opponents to overcome.

In addition, free throw shooting is something that should be consistent and figured into your game plan. Players should incorporate how to get to the foul line into their game.

What is a Good Foul Shooter?

I know this seems like a silly question, but I'll bet your definition is different than ours.

Free throw shooting is a unique skill. It is the only thing that I can think of in all sports that every player should be good at. It is the only skill that the offensive player controls in its entirety. There is no movement to counteract, there is no reaction to the defense, and there is no adjustment for range. Foul shooting is the same skill over and over and over and over again.

Good free throw shooters do the same thing every time. Same shot, same routine, same reactions - make or miss. In the NBA, good free throw shooters are the ones that shoot over 80%. While those are the best of the best players, when you think of it, there really is no reason why players at lower levels can't do the same. Realistically, though, they don't. As you move down in level, the percentages change. On the college level, players who shoot above 75% are considered good shooters; while high school players should shoot over 70%. I, personally, don't think that anyone over 15 years of age (or high school age) who shoots below 70% is a good free throw shooter. I think that, if you shoot below 70%, you should look seriously at making some adjustments, whether it is in form, routine, or thought process.

I say this not as a criticism but as a point to prevent complacency. I think we all understand bad foul shooters, but I think we have to beware, as coaches and players, of players who shoot just well enough to make us believe they are good shooters, but they are not good enough to get you over the hump. It is easy to say you are good enough and massage an ego but you must determine what really is good enough to make you a good player or team.

       
Picture by Sunflowery

Shooting Foul Shots

I am not going to into the technical aspects of the foul shot, how to hold the ball, elbow toward the rim, follow through, etc. Those elements are present in all shooting. Free throw shooting is a very personal process and everyone has his own style. However, there should be some common elements, and, since shooting free throws is a repetitive process, each free throw should be the same, shot after shot.

The Court

In the event that you have not noticed, 99% of inlaid wood basketball courts have a dot right in the middle of the foul line. When installing the court, the baskets and painting the lines, you need to have a reference point upon which you can measure. The installer places a dot on the floor at 15’, directly at the center of the rim. All the lines are laid out from that dot. If you look closely, you will find it.

What is the significance of that dot in regard to free throw shooting?

It’s simple. The dot tells you where to stand. Some players like to stand with their shooting foot on the dot. Some players like to straddle the dot. Some players will stand 3 feet to the side of the dot. I am not going to tell you where to stand. I am only going to say, use the dot so you stand in the same place every time.

Routine

Fouls shooting routine is one of the places that individuality comes out in regard to foul shooting. Some players will dribble the ball once, some will dribble 3 times. Richard Hamilton likes to take 1 dribble to the side. Jason Kidd likes to wind the ball around his back (he also blows a kiss to his son). The thing that is common amongst those personal expressions is that they do it every time.

What is the purpose of a free throw shooting routine?

It is to help you adjust to the uniqueness of the free throw situation and make it the same shot every time. Think about the changes that take place during a free throw. During the body of the game, you are running, cutting, jumping, adjusting to defense, and reacting to game situations. All of a sudden, you find yourself standing all alone at the free throw line; no one to stop you; plenty of time to get the shot off. It is such a different situation from the rest of the time you are on the court, and the adjustment must be immediate. How do you make the transition from a game player to a free throw shooter? The answer is your free throw shooting routine. Your routine will give you a certain measure of comfort and a trigger mechanism that you need to meet the unique demands of a free throw.

Mental Aspects of Shooting Free Throws

The great philosopher Yogi Berra once said,"90% of this game is 50% mental." I think that when it comes to free throw shooting, Yogi was underestimating the mental aspects.

We must appreciate how difficult it is to stand at the free throw line, knowing that everyone is watching you, and make a free throw. The flood of thoughts that race through your mind at that time is more like a tsunami. What should you be thinking? The answer is NOTHING!

The purpose of practice is to make your actions automatic; no thought is required. Build in the muscle memory and the psychomotor pathways, and tell your mind to get out of the way. Thinking about your shot will only cause "Analysis-Paralysis." You will study your shot so closely that you will not be able to shoot. Players, at any level, are not immune from this

       
Picture by Compujeramey
I actually had a discussion with a player who has been in the NBA for several years, has multiple championship rings, and is considered one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. However, his free throw shooting percentage hovered around the 50% mark. I asked him how it could be that he is such a good shooter yet has so much difficulty from the line. He proceeded to tell me that when he shoots from the field, he does not have time to think. But when he shoots free throws, he tries to talk himself through his shot. When he misses, he thinks of all the adjustments he has to make. I have seen him make hundreds of free throws in practice. I asked him how many free throws he has taken in his lifetime. He replied that he had probably taken hundreds of thousands over the course of his life as a basketball player. I wondered why that, after so many shots, he thought that after he missed one, he had forgotten how to shoot and had to shoot it differently. It is possible to shoot it correctly and not have it go in. In addition, as a human being, there will be small variations in actions. That does not mean that you have forgotten how to shoot. It is hard enough to master one shot. If you change your shot every time you miss, you will be trying to master several shots. Not a likely scenario for improvement.

So don't analyze your shot after a miss! You're going to miss some shots. Don't worry about it and just shoot the ball!

The other mental aspect that I feel is very important is understanding that all shots are the same and carry their own "intrinsic value," or their own reward and sense of satisfaction. A free throw in the first minute of the game with no score is the same as a free throw in the last second of the game with your team down 1 point. The effects of the shot may be different, but the basket is still in the same place, and so is the free throw line. The shot should be exactly the same in either case. The objective of taking a throw shot is NOT to win or lose a game. The objective is to MAKE THE SHOT! That is the only object. To inject outside values to a particular shot is a recipe for failure.

If you can master these two mental aspects, your effectiveness will improve dramatically!

Practice

Free throw shooting practice should be just that, practicing your shot. Coaches try to introduce aspects to help shooters shoot in “pressure” situations. I do not believe that works as well as many believe. First, you cannot simulate game situations with game concerns and thought patterns. You can only simulate “game like” situations, which carry different concerns.

Negative ramifications for missed free throw (such as running for misses) does not work either. This only teaches players to be afraid of missing. It does not make them better free throw shooters. If you want to conduct activities for not attaining a goal, make it a positive activity that will improve your players' skills (for example, instead running a sprint for missing a free throw, have your players do a full court, 2 ball dribbling drill).

Shooting when you are tired is also a myth. Repeatable fine motor skills, such as those involved in free throw shooting, depend on building muscle memory through pathways that go from you brain to your shooting motion. Fatigue alters those pathways. It is difficult to improve when making adjustments for fatigue. Rather, you should take enough repetitions when you are fresh so there is no change in your shot when you are tired.

Free throw shooting practice should concentrate on two areas, technical improvement and improving confidence. Repetitive free throw shooting should be a part of a team practice, as should shooting live free throw shots during scrimmage time. However, real improvement as a free throw shooter can only come when a player commits to take the time outside of practice and outside of the season to get his repetitions and work on the mentality of shooting.

Drills

+/-

Can be done as an individual or in a group

Determine a + score and a – score you wish to play to. If you play +5/-5, reaching +5 is a winner, reaching -5 is a loser. If you chose +7/-2, you determine winners and losers accordingly. If playing with a group, the first one to attain the score (as long as everyone has a chance to shoot) wins or loses.

Scoring
+1 point for a made free throw
+2 points for a swish
-1 point for a miss

Player steps to the foul line and shoots and counts the appropriate score. If working alone, player shoots for the entire game. If with a group, player shoots until he misses and then the next player shoots.

20/0

Usually done individually but can be done in a group if you adjust the score.

Scoring
-1 for a made shot
+2 for a missed shot

  • Player shoots fouls shots
  • Add or subtract points as appropriate
  • Player starts with 10 points. The goal is to get to 0 before you get to 20

I usually use both drills in workouts. +/- is usually during a break between drills, 20/0 is usually a finishing activity at the end of the workout.


What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


Comments

Ariel Rabe says:
10/9/2007 at 1:23:28 AM

Coach Dean Smith (not known personally) is right when he said that "the key statistics is at the foul line." When doing the free throw one should focus more on the side to side control (little pressure of both the small finger and the thumb and the index finger as the ruler) and the timing of the bending of both knees, and eyes on the target. Given of course that the shooter is aware of the angle of the elbow (as if a square box is placed on top of his arm muscle) and the follow-through.

The drills are really good.

Thank you very much.

Ariel Rabe


Rachel Naughton says:
2/6/2008 at 9:31:48 PM

I coach Middle School Grls Basketball at Caravel Academy. I'm a huge basketball junkie and Coach K fan. I've attended his clinics and read books. However, every great coach has a method that works. Just like a free throw it is a personal style of that coach. I truly believe that you can teach fundamentals all day long and a player will still miss a high percentage.
Like Yogi, it is a mental process. The idea of standing alone with any defense can be terrifying to some because basketball is a game of offense and defense. You are always doing one or the other. So at the lower levels, don't make punishments instead create skilled drills so they are moving forward not dwelling on a missed free throw, it's hard enough. Thank you. Coach


kofi says:
2/10/2008 at 10:51:45 AM

i think this might help me out


Stacie Wilson says:
2/13/2008 at 10:54:20 PM

When shotting free throws and standing aroung the paint. Can you have three on one side and four on the other. An uneven amount, just as long as they are not standing next to their own teammember? I am not sure about this need input. Thanks, Stacie


Joe (Co-founder of Breakthrough Basketball) says:
2/14/2008 at 8:33:55 AM

Hi Stacie,

That is legal. You can have an unequal amount of people on each side of the free throw line.


Erik says:
2/21/2008 at 7:02:52 AM

This is a question for Rachel Naughton. You use to play for VCU?


Bright says:
5/28/2008 at 4:45:53 PM

want some free download of and1 clips and NBA


coachj says:
7/12/2008 at 4:52:25 AM

ITS VERY NICE IDEA IVE LEARNED.I WILL DO THIS DRILL IN MY PRACTICE.


maday says:
10/25/2008 at 6:18:43 PM

this was a great help all of your stuff is really good and most of it we do during practice!


Bob says:
11/25/2008 at 10:27:18 AM

Great website, who is the shooter


Joe Haefner says:
11/25/2008 at 11:05:16 AM

Thanks, Bob.

Wally Sczerbiak in the first photo. Kobe Bryant in the second photo.


Nevski Vertus says:
6/20/2009 at 1:43:00 AM

Great article on free throw shooting. So who is the Nba player you spoke of who is a great three point shooter and not a good free throw shooter?


Chris says:
6/30/2009 at 1:31:50 AM

I think the player is Bruce Bowen.


Ludanyang says:
7/10/2009 at 2:35:52 AM

How to train free throw? Michael Jordan teach us a method: Throw ball upwards.
I tell you: Jordan's method is wrong! Wy?

When you throw ball upwards(or dribble),you can get the best feeling. Because your force line pass through the center of ball, as graph1. http://users3.jabry.com/freethrow/

But when you throw ball to hoop, your force line can't pass through the center of ball, as graph 2. There is a distance A between force line and center line.When you in game,you can never get the feeling that Jordan teach you.

The higher radian the better feeling . because the higher radian the lesser the distance A. So, to decrease the distance A is a way to get good feeling.

I can decrease the distance A to zero . I am hitting the ball !
Look the video below and Pay attention to my finger£¬my force line pass through the center of ball! http://users3.jabry.com/freethrow/see.htm

By my way you can get free throw percentage over 90%, Only 30 days.
This way is very suitable for O'Neill, Howard, Duncan and other poor ...


Ludanyang says:
7/10/2009 at 2:38:19 AM


The initial disturbance is fatal problem of general shoot
¡¡¡¡ When you shoot, the initial disturbance can't be avoided. For at beginning, the press between hand and ball is very light. It is easy to arise disturbance when you increase the press to ball. As graph 1¡¡ http://users3.jabry.com/freethrow/problem.htm
By my way, hitting the ball, you can avoid the initial disturbance. When you hitting the ball, the press curve is graph 2. There is no initial disturbance. For at beginning, the press is strong enough to avoid it.


Madison says:
9/22/2009 at 8:33:42 PM

Hey my great grandpa is Dr. Tom Amberry the greatest freethrow shooter!


adam gomez other wise 23 says:
10/22/2009 at 4:19:43 PM

i am doing an expirement and i was wondering if shooting 20 free throws a day for two weeks will it improve free throw shooting?


Jeff says:
10/23/2009 at 10:51:13 AM

If that's more free throws than you were practicing before, then yes it should improve your percentage. Chart your shots each day and see.


Chiel says:
11/18/2009 at 6:10:45 AM

No offense Ludanyang, your theorie looks like you put a lot of thought into it, but it seems to me like it would be very hard having any control over the ball when shooting like this...

@ adam gomez other wise 23:
If you really want to improve your free throw shooting, try visualizing your shots. The important thing here is that concentrate on visualizing not only correct mechanics, but also making EVERY shot, since your using the correct mechanics the shot will go in.

This may sound somewhat silly, but in an experiment on mental influences in shooting (and specifically free throw shooting) 3 groups of players were made: 1 group did nothing aside from normal practice, the second group took a whole lot of extra free throws, and the third group visualized the same amount of free throws the second group actually performed.

The outcome of the experiment was that the first group made (of course) no improvement in their free throws, the second group improved by 35% and the third group actually improved their free throw shooting by 34%!!!

Now I'm not saying you should stop physically practicing shooting, but consider adding visualization to your work out. What you'd be doing is not only making a mental blueprint of the correct mechanics, but also building confidence, this is why you have to visualize every shot going in. A wise man once said: "confidence comes from successful repetition".

Great article by the way :)


Lemo says:
2/26/2010 at 1:09:25 PM

"How do you make the transition from a game player to a free throw shooter?"

That's a good question, and something that can be implemented in basketball practices. Maybe by adding some sort of change of situation component to your practices...


johnny says:
3/4/2010 at 11:14:30 PM

JR Smith is a great three point shooter buthe only shoots 69% from the line.


Pat says:
5/30/2010 at 11:39:38 PM

I'll be coaching two, possibly three levels, of homeschool boys teams this coming season. 18U, 16U and 14U (with a lot of young players playing up). We only practice Tuesdays and Thursdays. What would you recommend for the number of on-their-own free throw shooting I should recommend for my team to be doing on the off days?


Joe Haefner says:
6/1/2010 at 9:05:34 AM

Pat, I would say as many as you can get them to shoot. 100 seems like a nice number.


Dalton Floyd says:
6/29/2010 at 3:44:01 PM

How far is the foul line to the center of the basket? And you probably answered this question before, but I didnt set it to send me an email notification. When your shooting, do you have to have your hands where his site tells you to or can you just put your hand where you feel comfortable?


Joe Haefner says:
6/30/2010 at 8:59:34 AM

Dalton,

The center of the free throw line to the plane of the backboard is 15 feet. The center of the free throw line to the front of the rim is 13'6". With the diameter of the rim being 18" and the radius being 9". That means the center of the basket would be 14'3".

I would follow the tips on the website as closely as possible. However, I would need to see you shoot in practice, during a game, and calculate your percentages to determine whether I would want to adjust your shot.

You do need to feel comfortable with your shot, but sometimes, there is a level of discomfort before you get accustomed to the proper shooting form.


Dalton Floyd says:
6/30/2010 at 4:04:04 PM

So you're saying follow the tips but not put your hands the way you feel comfortable? Because I'm following every other shooting tip you have on here to improve my shot. I was just wondering. Anyway, I have one more question, if someone is guarding you how do you shoot over top of them. My guess would be to get a good jump


Joe Haefner says:
6/30/2010 at 4:15:38 PM

Dalton,

I don't like players to shoot the ball when they are closely guarded, unless the circumstance calls for a shot close to the basket. I believe within the team offense that you can find a better shot.

So here is my advice:

1. If you are in your shooting range and you are not closely guarded - shoot the ball. I would define shooting range as a spot where you can make 60% of your shots during practice at game speed without a defense.

2. If you are closely guarded, pass the ball or attack the basket with the dribble drive.

There are rare situations when you have the ball outside of 10 ft, that I want a player to put a shot up with a player's hand in their face.

NBA players shoot a much lower percentage when their shots are contested. And if the best players in the world shoot a lower percentage, I guarantee that high school and college kids will shoot even a lower percentage on a contested shot. To understand this and see the studies, you can view this link: http://www.breakthroughbasketball.com/defense/contestingshots.html


frank hot shot rodgers says:
7/29/2010 at 4:47:08 PM

i will shoot freethrows to raise money for the need i will shoot 300 freethrows every basket i make people can put a donate in i have a video of foul shooting i can seen you my address is 11 west carrington ct. portsmouth, va. 23701. thank you hope to hear from you soon.


ehric young says:
1/7/2011 at 10:23:34 PM

hey we really need some scouts over at seiling we have a guy tht is 13 and in one game he got 28 pts and my last game i got 11 and 5 rbs seiling oklahoma...i still need to get better but in the mean time we need some people looking at my friends,we have 3 people in the 8th grade that are over 6 ft they need some work on footwork


Miranda says:
5/10/2011 at 2:25:06 PM

I know you Ehric!!!!!!!!!!!!


Ken says:
2/13/2012 at 3:32:07 PM

Don, Jeff & Joe -

Have you ever given any thought to shooting some free throws with your eyes close... relying soley on trusting yourself and muscle memory?

What are the Pros and Cons of doing this.

I had some kids do this and it gave them more confidence... but maybe they were good shooters to begin with?

Some kids are gamers... they want the ball in their hands in the 4th quarter and love going to the line then. I know I had some that were almost automatic from the line in the 4th.

Just some random thoughts.


Joe Haefner says:
2/14/2012 at 11:07:09 AM

Definitely, Ken. I believe it has helped some of the players I have worked with.


Dustin says:
3/9/2012 at 7:53:25 PM

My son just now made 19 out of 21 shots in a row.


TheRealDERRICK ROSE says:
10/18/2012 at 9:44:00 AM

my coach uses this and it works but as i heal i need people to support me


Mike says:
10/30/2012 at 2:46:59 PM

Technique and repetition are great, but I have a couple of 10/11 year old girls that just can't get it to the hoop from the free throw line. I have no ideas on how to help with this and they a bit dejected by it. Any suggestions are appreciated.


bruce says:
10/27/2013 at 7:54:56 PM

When I have my players shoot free throws we always shoot after running suicide sprints. They are tired and its the 4th quarter that is when free throws are important . As a team we shoot 1and 1's, if they miss first one its 2 sprints, at the start of the season they do numerous sprints and they go down as they get better. I also have them shoot 20 free throws at the end of practice, keeping track of how many made or missed. I tell them if they can make 15 in a row I will but them a malt. They have to let me know when they have made 10 in a row and then the team surrounds the shooter and tries to distract them to miss. more often then not they do but over time I have to pay out malts. This is a good incentive drill. When I played by the end of the year I had to make 35 in a row to get a malt. I won numerous malts and set the High School record of 89% for free throws made. A record I am very proud of. That was back in 1973 and the record still stands.


Barry Kaplan says:
1/3/2014 at 12:02:49 AM

In my opinion, the most important factor to go from an average foul shot shooter to an exceptional foul shot shooter, in most cases, is to get the "proper" arc on the ball. Somehow this seems to often be overlooked as a key factor as can be seen by watching the poorer foul shot shooters in the NBA, whose arcs, in general, are too flat. From a pure physics/mathematics point of view, the higher the arc the easier it is for the ball to enter the rim as this gives the most room for the ball to enter, but if too high it gets too difficult to control, and of course shooting it horizontal will never go in. A good "foul shooting" coach can coach his player on this. It also turns out that by watching excellent foul shot shooters you can get an outstanding sense of the "right" height for your friend's shot and he can do the same for you. Then you need to practice, practice and practice.

PS - I am in my 70's now, but I did play competitive basketball for many years from about age 12 on and I was nearly always the best foul shot shooter on the team (85% +), which usually allowed me to be a first string player in spite of my 5 feet 8 inches height.


Lonnie says:
3/17/2014 at 12:30:40 AM

I like the +/- game, even better than just playing a game to, say, 10. But the 20/0 seems to be almost the same and really doesn't make sense. Doesn't make sense to SUBTRACT points when you make foul shots and ADD points when you miss them. Not intuitive.


mike harr says:
9/18/2014 at 7:07:45 PM

If you break up your bb practice into different elements -don't practice free throws too much. The 90% shooters of free throws probably do it by instinct mostly. Remember you can't do it all.
Some tips...trust your OWN free throw style -just polish it. If nervous in a game at the free throw throw line -LET IT BE -shoot anyway! [better to look good than 'feel' good...]
Take a half-deep breath before EACH free throw SHOT. You will either HAND/ FLICK the shot or BODY/ARM PUSH IT -unless you are a free throw wiz-fliick it. (use wrist more - whole arm less).
If -No matter how hard you try you never get over making 60% free throws! Ans. Pass On it (no pun). Instead Pick one key defense skill and get better at THAT! Like Anticipatory SHOT BLOCKING or LONG LEAD PASSING.
Oh -keep it --Free throw shooting- simple: over and over...and over.
(some b-ball folks will say my stuff here is fair but NOT great)
--fool em.


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