After watching Shaq shoot free throws, one would assume the process to be extremely difficult and perplexing. After all, if he makes 20 million dollars a year to be an expert basketball player and still can’t master the process how could anyone else even come close? Despite the fact there are players in the NBA that seem to think free throws aren’t important enough to do well, learning to shoot them is easy when you learn the proper technique and pay attention to detail. It’s a seven step process that anyone can learn. Physiologically, it’s a relatively simple process. The problems that arise usually come in the lack of discipline to do a repeated motion over and over. You hear it all the time from Shaquille O’neal, “I always make ’em when it counts”. Like many others, they lack the ability to concentrate sufficiently. Athletically they can do it, they’ve done it many times, but it takes a certain level of deep concentration and focus, blocking out all other distractions, in order to allow the body to perform a repeated motion that your body memorizes. When mind and body are in sync, a free throw is effortless- just ask Reggie Miller.
1. Focus: memorize the motion
In martial arts there is what is called the kata, a series of exercises that a student memorizes (copying the sensei exactly). This is the type of deep focus that delivers the best results. The idea is to copy the form so many times that distractions become meaningless. When you can shoot a free throw in your dreams you know you’ve got something special. And while some NBA players refuse to take the time or discipline themselves well enough to master the technique, others simply don’t take the time to let their body memorize the motion through repetition. This step is not needed to learn a basic free throw, but to develop into a great free throw shooter you’re kidding yourself to think you don’t need this. So, go watch Bagger Vance and once Will Smith’s voice won’t leave your head, come follow these simple rules and techniques.
It all starts with the feet. I can’t tell you how many times a player has missed a free throw and I look down and notice that his feet were slightly pointed to the left or to the right. They actually did shoot a straight free throw, they just lined up crooked. It’s a game of centimeters and having your shoulders trying to go a different direction than your feet just complicates things- even if it’s only an inch- that’s all the ball needs to turn a make into a miss. Or a 90% free throw shooter into an 80% shooter.
3. Knees: fluid movement
Bend your knees. Knee bend builds up the kinetic energy for the ultimate release of the basketball. Bounce on your knees before you take your shot, feel the right balance for your release point. Depending on your arm strength, the knees bend will vary, the key is consistency and focus, that you find your perfect free throw and repeat it consistently (when you are energetic and when you are tired). Bending your knees allows your body to shoot in one fluid motion. This should be the goal; no pauses, no hitches, rarely do you see a great free throw shooter with a pause or hitch in his free throw- it only makes it harder on you to practice this way.
4. Awareness: Balance is key
Shooting free throws is a balancing act that necessarily will be different for every individual, this is why it is at times difficult to learn; everyone can’t do the same thing and get it to work, but everyone can shoot free throws. Think of cogs running together like a watch, the size of one affects the sizes of all others. Strong arms means less knees, less knees means more follow through. It’s the balance and memorization that are crucial, not the degree to which you bend.
Keep the elbow in as tight as is comfortable. This helps to maintain a straight shot and often aids in effective long distance shots as well. Still though, balance with this is the key. It often feels awkward to correct bad technique because your body has “memorized” a different posture or position. This is not to say it wouldn’t help to be corrected but there comes a point where you may decide to just perfect what you do rather than try to make major changes- weekend warriors may not have the time to work in a new approach to shooting and effectively memorize the motion, but if you have the time, you are indeed better off breaking bad habits and forming and repeating new ones.
6. Alignment and Release Point
All the little things come together to form a perfect free throw; posture, body alignment, height of elbow at release point, knee bend in relation ball release. Everything has to be within a certain range. The best free throw is the one that feels good. This is because it will be the easiest for your body to duplicate and thus memorize.
7. Follow through
When all else fails a perfect follow through can make up for all sorts of tiny errors along the way with the rest of the body. This is after all what it’s all about, shooting the ball through the hoop. Spread your fingers. Use your strong hand as the main source of power and guidance, and the thumb and possibly first finger of your off hand during your follow through to add extra guidance and balance. End the shot with your open hand facing directly at the hoop. The flick of your wrist should be sufficient, but don’t overdo it- too much wrist or arm means not enough knees. Remember that your knees build the momentum of your shot.
Head, shoulders, knees and toes in reverse… feet forward aimed perfectly, knees bent, even in the fourth quarter (or the 3rd hour at the playground). Shoulders upright, posturing the same, elbow in, head focused, free throws are 99% mental.