Better Free Throw Shooting With The "Steve Nash Hack"

Nylon Calculus recently came out with an interesting stat about free throw shooting.

Since 1997, NBA players have shot 73% on their first free throw. They shoot 78% on their second free throw.

That is a SIGNIFICANT difference for that much data. Something has to be going on.

I think that it could have something to do with working (short-term) memory and the way that you practice. And we think you can improve your free throw shooting, even overall, by better understanding this and...

  • Tweaking your practice routine.
  • Creating a routine to hack the way our body works... the "Steve Nash Hack"

To better understand how these things will help your free throw shooting, we need to understand how skills are accessed from our long term and short term (working) memory. Brian McCormick wrote this...

    "Coaches cite the importance of muscle memory and believe that shooting a number of shots in a row grooves one's technique, thereby improving the muscle memory."

This would be your typical practice where you shoot free throws consecutively in sets of 10, 20, 50, etc. However...

    From a more traditional motor learning perspective, when we shoot or perform any motor skill, we access our motor pattern for that skill in our long term memory and move it to our working memory or short term memory. This motor pattern is essentially our muscle memory. Motor patterns remain in working memory for only 20-30 seconds..... Rather than focusing solely on repeating a skill over and over, we want to improve our ability to access the motor pattern and deliver it to the working memory. To improve this recall, we must delay our repetitions or incorporate contextual interference."

In other words, shooting your first free throw and your second free throw are slightly different. You access the motor pattern of shooting the free throw in different ways.

On the first free throw, you're accessing the skill from long term memory.

On the second free throw, you're accessing the skill from short term memory.

Here's how you can better your practice routine...

How You Hardly Ever Practice The "First Free Throw" and That Could Be Why You Shoot A Lower Percentage

Now, also think about the way that you practice. When you practice free throws, most players go to the gym and shoot sets of 10, 20, 50, and even 100. This is the traditional way to practice free throws.

But think about what we just learned about accessing the skill from short term memory and long term memory. Go back and read it again if you need to because it's important!

Think about if you shoot a set of 20 free throws consecutively in practice.

Free Throw #1 - You're accessing the skill from long term memory.

Free Throws #2 through #20 - You're accessing the skill from short term memory.

So 95% (19 of 20) of the time is spent accessing the skill from short term memory and ONLY 5% (1 of 20) is spent on accessing the skill from long term memory.

But that doesn't happen in games! Approximately 50% of the time you access long term memory.

Every time that you shoot the first free throw in a set of two, you're accessing long term memory to perform the first free throw.

That could be another reason that you shoot a lower percentage on the first free throw during games. Even during practice, you hardly ever practice accessing the skill from long term memory.

That's why I highly recommend that you take 3 game shots then shoot 2 free throws during some of your workouts.

Taking three game shots between free throw sets is usually the 20 to 30 seconds needed to get the free throw skill out of short term memory. Additionally, for you motor learning peeps, it provides an additional layer of contextual interference as McCormick describes.

Even without all of the memory and motor learning jargon, common sense tells you this better replicates what happens during a game.

But There Could Be Another and Possibly Better Way To Improve Free Throw Shooting

Now, I believe making the practice adjustment above will help, but I'm not 100% certain it will entirely fix the issue of shooting worse on your first free throw. It could, but I just don't know.

But what do we know? Players shoot better on the second free throw.

So is there a way to trick or hack our body into thinking that we're shooting the second free throw for each trip to the line? When in reality, it's actually our first free throw for each set during the game.

I think so. And the best free throw shooter of all time did this.

How To Hack This Free Throw Issue During Games... Like The Best Free Throw Shooter Of All Time Steve Nash!

Steve Nash is the best free throw shooter of all time at 90.43%... just ahead of Mark Price and Steph Curry.

He shot 90% on his first free throw and 91% on his second free throw.

One, those are very high percentages.

Two, there is little difference between the first free throw and second free throw in shooting percentage. The difference was just 1%. As you will see below, all of the best free throw shooters in history had a 3% to 4% difference.

Watch what Nash does before the first free throw and between the first and second free throw. I think the reason has to do with Steve Nash's routine. It's so simple, yet it's genius.

You probably saw it. Nash practices shooting a free throw WITHOUT a ball before the actual game free throw. And he does this multiple times.

In the video, he does this three times before even taking his first actual free throw. And he even practices multiple times without a ball before his second free throw.

But think about what we talked about earlier...

1 - Players shoot an average of 5% worse on their first free throw.

2 - The first free throw and second free throw function differently with the way your motor pattern accesses your memory.

    First Free Throw - Accessing Long Term Memory

    Second Free Throw - Accessing Short Term Memory

So Nash is essentially eliminating the first free throw by practicing the skill without a ball! Nash is only accessing his short term memory. Genius!

If you want to learn more about Nash's routine, check out this article from Brian McCormick.

In addition to improving your first free throw, I believe Nash's routine will improve your percentage on your second free throw too.

Nash Did Better On His First Free Throw Than All of the NBA Great Free Throw Shooters

Additionally, Steve Nash had the highest percentage and is the best shooter of all-time on his first free throw.

Two, most of the best free throw shooters of all-time see a noticeable discrepancy of 3% to 4% between their first and second free throw, unlike Nash.

With the data provided, Nash is the only one that practically shot the same percentage on the first and second free throw. (There is a note below on why Mark Price should be excluded due to insufficient data.)

Also, don't tell Stephen Curry this tip. Nash might come after me because a slight improvement could help Curry overtake him on the free throw shooting percentage. :)

Rank & Player 1st Free Throw % 2nd Free Throw % Total Pairs of FTA
1 - Steve Nash  90% 91% 1,240
2 - Mark Price ***  89% 88% 104
3 - Stephen Curry  88% 92% 792
4 - Peja Stojakovic  88% 91% 982
5 - Chauncey Billups  88% 91% 2,045
6 - Ray Allen  88% 91% 1,909
7 - Rick Barry  No data No data No data
8 - Calvin Murphy  No data No data No data
9 - Scott Skiles  No data No data No data
10 - JJ Redick  87% 91% 545

*** Mark Price did shoot a higher percentage on his first free throw at 89% versus 88% on his second free throw when combining the 97 & 98 seasons. However, the data was incomplete. This only included 104 pairs of free throw attempted of his 2000+ career free throws, so we don't truly know how he did over his career. Additionally, he shot significantly lower on his second free throw in the 98 season which could have skewed the data.

VERY IMPORTANT Engage and Visualize With Practice Free Throws

When you practice the free throw without the ball, make sure you are replicating your shot.

Make sure you don't just go through the motions.

You want to pretend that you're shooting an actual free throw. When you watch Nash, if you didn't see his hands without a ball, you would think he's actually shooting a free throw.

In a way, you are also practicing visualization...

You need to visualize everything out of your eyes (in the 1st person). You have to feel the basketball and see the goal.

As you practice your free throw without the ball, you should FEEL the ball roll off your fingers.

You should SEE the ball traveling through the air with perfect backspin.

You should SEE your hands out in front of you with a proper follow through.

You should SEE your hands out in front of you holding the follow.

You should HEAR & SEE the ball swish through the net.

If you do all of this, you should see an increase in your shooting percentage.

A Tip If The Referee Passes You the Ball Early

Also, here is a tip if the ref passes you the ball before you can practice one free throw without the ball.

  • Place the ball on your opposite hip and do the free throw motion with your strong hand. It's like a one-handed form shot from the free throw line.

  • Pass the ball back to the ref for a brief second to practice the free throw without the ball. I'm not sure on the legality of this, so you might want to check that out first.

Also, you may want to run to the line after a foul. That way, you have a few seconds for your routine before the ref is ready to pass you the ball.

Here Is What You Need To Do

To wrap up, the fixes are super simple...

  • Practice shooting free throws more like a game - Take 3 game shots than 2 free throws.

  • During the game, practice shooting your free throws WITHOUT a ball before your first and second free throws.

Hopefully, your free throw shooting percentage will soar as a result.

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


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Kamil says:
6/17/2017 at 11:15:16 AM

Great read and I'm one of those shooters who hits 70% in practice but 50% in games so I'll be curious how this works out.


Jill Yarberry-Laybourn says:
6/15/2017 at 9:18:51 AM

I love the research and thought you put into this theory. It is a simple strategy to help your team improve on free throw percentages, so why not!


Harald says:
6/13/2017 at 3:11:22 AM

Surely the reason second free throws are more accurate than first throws is much more simple that this explanation. After throwing the first, the player observes what might have gone wrong (too long, too short, too low, too high, too far to the left etc) and makes adjustment to the throw in order to improve chances of the second going in. Or if the first dropped, repeat action on the second.

  1 reply  

scott says:
6/15/2017 at 1:50:09 PM

His explanation is simple: On the first free throw, your body has to reach into the depths of its memory to remember the form and force needed. The second has that "data" (or, probably more correctly, the path to the data) loaded and can therefore correct whatever is needed on the second attempt much more quickly. Whenever I shoot, I'm not consciously moving my body differently - the brain handles that on it's own. You can say "shoot further" or "repeat" but if the movement instructions aren't right, you still won't make the shot. Example would be Shaq or even LeBron James (not a great free thrower)

There's a lot of current research into this right now and devices are available that stimulate the brain during practice that have been proven to facilitate long term muscle memory and performance.

There's also a lot of research that shows visualization on it's own can improve performance. No ball or court needed. Just your brain, going through the process and "seeing" the ball go in.


burk says:
6/8/2017 at 10:58:04 AM

Maybe you should consider teaching form as opposed to routine.

Routine is great and helps but unless your form is good.

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
6/8/2017 at 1:03:45 PM

Absolutely. Shooting form that is repeatable, is consistent, produces proper arc, and reduces misses left and right (shooting the ball is straight) is very important.

Your routine doesn't matter too much if you can't do those things.

However, addressing shooting form wasn't the objective of the article. We have plenty of resources about shooting technique across the website.

The objective was to show you other methods, including the routine, to improve your free throw shooting in games.

Some players have good technique, but shoot a MUCH lower percentage in games than they do in practice. Hopefully, this helps them.

Also, the players that are working on their technique. They can also incorporate these tips to improve even more.


burk says:
6/8/2017 at 10:56:00 AM

Steve Nash does not practice the actual shot he takes. He does not move his left hand as he does in his actual shot.


kevin Sanders says:
6/8/2017 at 9:01:24 AM

Good article. I enjoyed it. Learn from the best.


Steve says:
6/8/2017 at 6:54:17 AM

Nice article!! Coincidentally I just had this conversation with my wife last night while watching the NBA finals. After reading the article, I'm a little embarrassed it wasn't more obvious as to what not only the problem is but also how to make the correction. As always, great information from you guys and much appreciated!!


Tim Farrar says:
6/6/2017 at 5:18:40 PM

I think more telling would be the discrepancy between 1st and 2nd attempts for the bad shooters, not just the best. Do you have that?

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
6/7/2017 at 9:18:47 AM

Tim, I did not evaluate the worst shooters.

Since 1997, there were over 525,000 pairs of free throws attempted in the NBA. For all players, on average, the first free throw was 5% worse.

1st Free Throw - 73%
2nd Free Throw - 78%

Here is the webpage:

Personally, I wanted to look at the best shooters because they have the most consistency. They would be less likely to have other technical or mental issues with their shots. Thus, they'd be the best candidates to see if this theory was legit.

Poor shooters are highly inconsistent, so you're more likely to see variances in their data for any number of reasons.

At least, that was my line of thinking. I'm not saying I'm right.


Rick Penny says:
6/3/2017 at 11:58:15 AM


Outstanding article!

Sometimes we have to "unlearn" what we "think" we know about teaching shooting.

Thanks for sharing this simple yet effective concept.

Rick Penny
Shooting Coach


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