How to Improve Free Throw Shooting

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.


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!


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.



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.

+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.


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

-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.

Recommended Training Materials:

Baden 28.5" Shooting Basketball

Baden Heavy Training Basketball - 29.5'

Baden 35" Oversized Training Basketball

Rapid Fire - II - Basketball Rebounding/Return Device

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


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mert carlson says:
7/24/2022 at 10:48:11 AM

on shooting free throws: I have each player stand 5' straight away from the basket, but in the middle of the lane. ..each shooter will shoot with one elevated hand (not catapulted up) using one hand only, the dominant one usually (you may choose either hand however...make 5 in a row, then stay at that spot and shoot 5 w/out looking at the hoop...this is all in an attempt to build muscle memory... then take one step back, repeat the same number of shots with one, dominant hand...continue this until you reach the free throw line; using muscle memory only, shut eyes and shoot to make 5 total...i always shot free throws with either my left, or right hand,' I started with my right, but if I missed one, I would switch to the other off-hand until I missed and then switch back with each successive miss. i was deadly...

  1 reply  

Info says:
7/25/2022 at 8:16:54 AM

Thank you for sharing your drill.


Robert Boyadjian says:
3/31/2019 at 7:43:06 AM

Can a player pass the ball back to the ref on the free throw line to reset before they attempt their shot? If yes can someone please reference the rule? Thank you.


Mateusz says:
5/21/2018 at 6:30:04 AM

I'm looking for a basketball team i can join as I am one of the best upcoming players in London. I study at City and Islington College and I'm 18 years old. Search me up and you will find some vids of me playing for my team who kicked me out for apparently taking drugs which they found in my bag during practice. I wasn't taking them i was selling them so i can pay for rent in South London which is where I live.


Peggy says:
1/21/2018 at 7:10:07 PM

Is it legal for a player to act like he's making a jump shot while attempting free throw or is he required to stand still?


Quinn says:
1/8/2018 at 5:54:16 PM

Hi, I just want to point out that this article is gendered male right off the bat. "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." There are other gendered male pronouns throughout the article: "Free throw shooting is a very personal process and everyone has HIS own style." Just something I wanted to point out.


BALLI10 says:
3/8/2017 at 11:53:30 PM



wayne says:
12/8/2016 at 2:54:00 AM

hi, i'm currently a varsity assistant coach in a small university in my hometown. we tried many ways to improve our team FT% but it is never consistent. we can hit 70% in a game and the next we can hit 50%. I believe it is all about the mental toughness during game. I noticed that when we were shooting 70% we were winning in those games hence there was no pressure while 50% was when the game was close or losing. So we are at times scratching our heads to figure out how to keep it consistent. Possible way is to introduce the game as Jody Walter's but not sure it will work during game time. Any suggestions?


Louise Meridith Johnson says:
10/20/2016 at 5:03:37 PM

When would a player shoot:

A) One free throw

B) Two free throws

C) Three free throws

D) One-and-One (Shoots a second free throw only if thenfirst is made)

  1 reply  

Jeff says:
10/24/2016 at 7:47:07 AM

The answers can depend on the league and rules of that league. So you need to check the league rules.

But generally in the US for high school rules, these are the situations:

A) When player gets fouled and makes the shot. You get to shoot one free throw for a possible 3-pt play.

B) When you get fouled during the shot motion and you don't make the basket. Also when the opponent is over the foul bonus limit.

C) When you get fouled during the act of shooting a 3-pt shot and the shot is missed.

D) When you get fouled and the opponent is over foul limit (ex: 7) but has not reached bonus limit yet (ex: 10).

For all the details, check with your state and league rules.


Joe Mammoth says:
10/18/2016 at 8:22:18 PM

good sayings dude i like dis very much it well.


Tania says:
3/11/2016 at 11:17:29 PM

A question from a parent who is still trying to grasp the rules -

If it is half or full time and the clock is at zero seconds, and a player has been awarded a free throw... Are the teams meant to stay on the court or do they leave the shooter on court by themselves?


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