Shoot worse in practice to shoot better in games?

This is a common mistake that I see in a lot of basketball shooting workouts. I know that it's something I did personally.

In a traditional shooting workout, you will shoot five to twenty repetitions in a row of the same shot.

The video below would be an example of this.

And a lot of people do this for almost the entire workout as they progress through drills and variations.

I believe this is the mistake. You shouldn't do this for the entire workout. And depending on your situation, you may not do it at all!

The academics would call this constant practice.

"A practice sequence in which the same tasks or movements are repeated under the same conditions from one repetition to another."

Critical Missing Piece From Your Shooting Workouts?

Constant practice is appropriate for beginners and when first learning a skill.

However, even when you're first learning a skill and definitely after you've acquired the skill, you should add variability to your practices and workouts.

Basically, you don't shoot the same shot twice in a row within a drill.

Here is an example of taking different shots on each repetition to add variability. The workout was edited to illustrate this point.

As you can see, the sequence of shots varied.

  • Catch and shoot
  • One dribble - lay up
  • One dribble - jump shot
  • Dribble move - lay up
  • Dribble move - jump shot
  • Dribble move - finish move counter

Academics would call this variable practice: "A practice sequence in which the same tasks or movements are repeated but where one aspect of the execution is changed from one repetition to another."

Some researchers argue that variable practice will lead to more permanent learning and better game performance over the long run.

However, it may appear messier and filled with more errors in the short term. So, it might not look like the player is improving at first.

Why one player shoots 20% better in practice than another player but shoots worse in games!

Let's pretend that we have two players named Mike and Olivia. Also, let's pretend that Mike and Olivia take the exact same shots during games.

In practice, Mike shoots 73% and Olivia shoots 53%. However, in games, Olivia shoots better at 45% while Mike shoots only 40%.

The situation above is not uncommon.

Variability versus constant practice could be one of the possible explanations.

Constant practice (shooting the same shot repeatedly) often results in higher shooting percentages during practice. And if you think about it, that makes sense.

It's easy to gain rhythm and make more shots when you take the same shot repeatedly and the situation never changes. You might only make one of your first three, then adapt and make the rest. While it looks good on paper, it might not translate to games.

How often do you shoot from the same spot just twice in a row during a game, yet five to twenty times in a row?

Not very often!

If you can make a high percentage after your shot changes each time, that is a skill in itself. A skill that is more like the situations that you see in a game. And it needs to be practiced.

So even after adding variable practice, you might see a dip in your shooting percentage during workouts.

At the same time, your shooting percentage during games could improve.

That's because you're training yourself to be more adaptable like in a game.

8 ways to make each shot different in a drill (add variable practice)

Here are some examples of ways to add variability. You certainly are not limited to these ideas.

#1 - Shoot from a different location or angle each time.

You can switch to the opposite side of the court after each repetition. You can also shoot from a new spot on each repetition.

Examples of shot locations are wing, corner, top, guard spots, elbows, blocks, mid-post, short corner, mid-range, etc.

#2 - Shoot from a different distance each time: 10 ft, 15 ft, 20 ft, etc.

You could technically add variability by just changing the distance of the shot on each repetition.

So, you could take every shot from the right wing while changing the distance on every shot.

#3 - Change the amount of dribbles on each shot.

If you're working on shooting off the dribble, you could change the amount of dribbles on each jump shot. You could alternate between zero, one, two, and three dribbles.

Relative to the hoop, this will change distance and location as well.

#4 - Change the dribble move on each shot.

You could alternate between different dribble moves like the crossover, behind-the-back, hesitation, jab and go, between the legs, etc. You can even incorporate double and triple combo moves.

#5 - Change the finishing move on each shot.

You could alternate between a few different finishing moves. You could practice moves like the floater, runner, extension lay up, up and under, same leg/same hand lay up, hook shot, Rondo, Rondo counter, Euro step, etc.

#6 - Make a different cut each time.

Before each shot, you can practice a different cut. You could do a V-cut, flare cut, curl cut, L-cut, ball screen options, fast break shots, etc.

#7 - Take a different type of shot each time.

You could simply tell them to do something different. It can be a combination of anything above.

#8 - Add a defender.

And probably the best way to add variability and simulate game situations is to add a defender. Each possession will be slightly different no matter what.

Another term to discuss is random practice, but that's for another day.

Should you stop shooting five to twenty shots in a row and eliminate constant practice from your workouts?

As mentioned before, constant practice is very suitable for beginners and learning a new skill.

However, I don't think you can even eliminate constant practice for advanced players. In fact, I still use both constant (same shot each rep) and variable practice (different shot each rep) with every level of player. I believe there are benefits for both.

For example, in some workouts, I use constant practice for catch and shoot warm up drills. I also like to do this to hone technique and develop confidence for advanced players. I think it's good for even the highest level of player to see the ball go in the hole a lot. NBA players struggle with confidence too!

In this video below, the first two drills (57 shooting & 7 shooting) are examples of constant practice where the shot is the same for X amount of repetitions.

I also like to end workouts with drills & games like the ones above. As mentioned, it's great for confidence and you also end on a positive note. When you do that, it's great for motivation as well. And players want to come back.

What should the split be between constant and variable practice?

Who knows! Every person and every situation is different.

I know college coaches who eliminate constant practice completely from their workouts and practices. I know professional coaches who still use constant practice. And all of them have success!

You might do 30/70, 50/50, or even 70/30 splits between constant and variable depending on your situation. I even mix it up workout to workout and group to group within a workout.

I'm not smart enough to figure out the best solution for every situation. And I don't know who is.

However, if you haven't added variable practice to your workouts, you should start now.

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This will lead to more confidence and better shooting in games!

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


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Ty Prall says:
7/25/2020 at 2:26:17 PM

I work with young ladies 7-12 year olds. We really work on form as you mentioned as they are beginners. When do you move a kiddo to the variable shots? I have a few that have great shots on the 10 foot basket obviously within a close range but curious when beginners are ready to transition. Thanks for Breakthrough Basketball!!

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
7/26/2020 at 9:25:44 AM

For me it has always been a gut feel... when you feel the players are ready for that next step (they are consistently shooting with good form and accuracy during traditional block shooting drills). It's both an art and a science that comes with coaching experience.

If you try some more challenging variable drills and their form completely changes... that's when you start trouble shooting... maybe adjust the drill so there's some variation yet they can still shoot with good technique. We're always troubleshooting and adapting to what the players need at that particular time. Hopefully our drills serve as tools to help you with that process.


Steve Watkins says:
7/27/2017 at 5:02:32 PM

This is an excellent question - why you can be a good shooter in practice but not in games. I agree that variability is important in practice.

I have some very strong ideas on this subject. In order to be a great shooter in a game, you must first be a great shooter in practice. That means rarely missing a practice shot while never taking the same shot from the same distance twice in a row. I am talking about hitting over 90 per cent from close range and mid range and over 70 per cent from three.

To do that requires fundamentals. That means first of all, good balance with rear end centered between feet, always, even when stopping and popping. It means good grip on the ball with shooting elbow tucked in and fingers spread wide. Slight bend at the waist. Go straight up. Elbow up in L position, ball balanced in hand and full follow through without using off hand for power. High arching shot.

I find it is best to practice on hoops with double rims when it is hot. Those hoops are very very tough and your shot must be perfect or it will rattle in and out. You MUST have good arch on the shot to make it consistently on double rims.

That is practice. You can be a great shooter in practice but not in a game if you do all of that. So what does it take to be a good GAME shooter?

I am 100% convinced that if you are a great shooter in practice, the only thing stopping you from being a great shooter in a game is a failure to be STRONG WITH THE BALL on every shot. I don't care how much you try to simulate game conditions in practice, it is very difficult to do. You just FEEL DIFFERENTLY in a game then you do in practice. More tired from chaing loose balls, rebounding, and playing tough D. More mentally intense from facing real competition.

To be a great game shooter you have to DIG DEEPER than you do in practice. You have to get the ball high above the rim, which takes POWER and you have to do more to generate that power under game conditions.

To be strong with the ball, you first have to RELAX. No one can generate power when their muscles are all tensed up. So when you catch the ball, or pick up your dribble your body must relax.

Secondly there are two things you have to lift to generate power: your rear end and the ball. That means you have to quickly get into a strong shooting stance. Feel POWER in your hips before you jump. That means stepping into your shot and getting your butt down centered between your feet. You should also feel POWER in your shooting arm to lift the ball up STRONG. That means you should have a FIRM GRIP on the ball. Your shooting shoulder should be DOWN just like your butt is down so you can swing your elbow up HARD. Your elbow needs to be tucked in and back so when you swing it up HARD, the ball quickly balances in your hand and you can release it earlier while utilizing energy from your jump to get good arc.

But just because you get yourself into a STRONG stance doesn't mean you will go up strong. You have to be determined to GO UP STRONG from that position with no hesitation and no mental insecurities that may creep in because you think you may not be doing it right. You must realize that you are a GREAT shooter and the only thing stopping you is failing to be STRONG.

And lastly, that means FINISHING STRONG. With a full fallow through and a high wrist snap.

Determination to be STRONG with the ball on every shot is the difference between being great in practice and being great in a game.


Jackson Pajobo says:
1/29/2017 at 2:50:29 PM

Hi Joe,

I really want to thank you. Basketball breakthrough articles have opened up our eyes in basketball down here in East Africa. You have transformed the way we practice and the our players have started researching about the game in search for more understanding of the game and in return it has improved the level of the game here. We thank you for you have been a great resource to us.. Thanks again..

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
1/30/2017 at 7:55:31 AM

Thank you for the kind words, Jackson. We're glad we've been able to make an impact in East Africa! And hopefully, for the better. :)


Roger Jenkins says:
1/29/2017 at 11:44:31 AM


Have you considered Brian McCormack's direct comparison of Behavioral Training v. Decision Training. In his book the 21st Century Basketball Practice, he compares the two and immediately points out the need to teach the skill in competition situations to reinforce decision making. Yes the technique needs to be taught without duress. How do your know what aspect of the technique needs to be improved if their is not competition first. In many cases it is the decision making that needs to be improved by evaluating the keys from the defender rather than the technique.

To sum up, yes technique needs to be taught and repeated but the skill used under pressure is a technique in context and that is different from practicing a technique on its own.

Thank you for taking a risk and sharing so much great content!



  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
1/29/2017 at 12:11:21 PM

Good stuff, Roger! Yes. I have read that. I haven't written about Decision Training yet, because I haven't had much experience teaching that way. However, I'm excited to do more personal testing. Have you tried it out yet?

In the past, I've always taught technical drills prior to the constraint-based drills. I also call these "competitive" drills. And other times, if technical work isn't needed, I'll just place them directly in a constraint-based drill. Of course, that's situational and depends on the skill I'm trying to improve.

Later in this series, we will talk more about variable, random practice and decision-making.


Julie Dawson says:
1/29/2017 at 9:24:27 AM

Very good videos!
Allows for personalization with each change!


Roy Ebersole says:
1/29/2017 at 8:29:23 AM

Very good drills that I will start adding to my practice plan.


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