Featured Shooting Articles by Tom Nordland

What Can Be Done With Free Throws?

Note: This article was written by Tom Nordland in March 1998 for The Basketball Highway website www.bbhighway.com. Tom is a Shooting Coach living in northern California. You may also find this article on his website at www.swish22.com under "Articles/Reviews.")

To order Tom's video, Swish - A Guide to Great Basketball Shooting, click here.

Articles by Coach Nordland featured on this site:
The Trouble With Shooting!
What Can Be Done With Free Throws!
The ABC's of Great Shooting!
Taking the Lid Off the Basket?
Danger Signs of Poor Shooting
Simple Coaching for Improved Shooting

It's well known that shooting has been declining in the game of basketball for the past 20 years or more. In the first article of this series I wrote for the Basketball Highway called " The Trouble With Shooting" , I wrote about shooting in general and jump shots in particular and offered some suggestions. This time I want to focus on shots from the free stripe.

This article was inspired by a friend, Coach Paul Rundell, head coach for 17 years at San Francisco State and now a volunteer coach at Stanford University. He told me he was disgusted by the state of free throwing in the game today. He couldn't believe what he is seeing. Many players seem to have "no clue" as to how to put the ball in the basket consistently. It's perplexing because of these obvious reasons:

  • The distance is short and doesn't change. It's only 13' 9" to dead center (15' to the backboard)
  • No defense to worry about. There's no one in your face, no defense to overcome
  • Plenty of time. You have a relaxed 10 seconds to shoot. There's no rush.
  • Backboard makes it easier. The backboard is directly behind the shot, aiding errant shots that bounce long

"Why can't players shoot free throws better?" Paul asked.

70% is considered quite good these days
70% used to be mediocre, the lower range of acceptable. But now it seems to be the norm or even considered a little above average. You might say "the bar has been lowered" in the past couple decades. Only 1 player is shooting over 90% in the three major professional leagues in this country ? the NBA, the ABL and the WNBA (counting only those who have shot 50 or more free throws this season).

Free Throws are Critical
I agree with the legendary Purdue player, Rick Mount, when he says in his shooting video The Mount Method, that "...about 75% of close games are won or lost at the free throw line." Though this may have always been true, it's even more crucial now that fouling in the final minutes has become an effective defensive strategy. In the older times, you would foul hoping that the fouled player would clutch up and miss the easy shot. These days you "know" he or she is going to miss a good percentage, so it's an accepted strategy rather than a desperate move.

Teams Who Can Shoot Rise to the Top
As March Madness begins, you will start to see the best college teams rise to the top. Coach Rundell said he'll put his money on teams who shoot the highest from the stripe. Of course defense, team movement, quickness, size, outside shooting and outstanding coaching are critical factors, too. But the level of performance from the free throw line might be the clincher. The same goes for high school play. When the other factors are equal, the teams who shoot free throws well and have a couple good outside shooters are almost always the ones who win championships.

Statistics from the Professionals
In the professional game, there are a few great shooters at the top of their respective leagues. Following are some statistics I pulled off the Internet on March 4th & 5th (taking only players who had shot at least 50 free throws):

  • NBA: Chris Mullin from the Indiana Pacers is at 93.1%, Jeff Hornacek of the Utah Jazz is shooting 89.1%, and Derek Anderson of the Cleveland Cavaliers is at 88.4%.
  • ABL: the top 3 are Shelley Sandie of the San Jose Lasers at 89.7%, Katie Smith of the Columbus Quest at 89.3% and La Keshia Frett of the Philadelphia Rage with 87.5%.
  • WNBA: the top performers are Bridget Pettis of the Phoenix Mercury at 89.8%, Janeth Arcain of the Houston Comets shooting 89.4%, and Cynthia Cooper, also of Houston, at 86.4%.

Stories of failure from the line are shocking:
In the NBA, the poor free throw performance of Los Angeles Laker Shaq O'Neal is well documented. He's currently shooting 49.6%. Dale Davis of the Indiana Pacers is at 44.8%. Many star players are shooting in the 50's and 60's percentagewise. You see games lost frequently because great, high paid athletes, fail miserably at the line.

In the "NBA Rim Shots" feature of the Sports Page of the San Jose Mercury News for March 5th, there was this item. In a recent game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76er Derrick Coleman "went 9 for 9 from the free-throw line, and his teammates were 10 for 24." The team shot 19 for 33 for 57.6% overall. Derrick was 100%, his teammates, 41.7%.

Why the discrepancy in performance levels?
How is it that Jennifer Azzi of my local ABL team, the San Jose Lasers, can shoot a fine 85.2% this season, but great athletes like Rebecca Lobo of the WNBA's New York Liberty and Lisa Leslie of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks can manage only 60.3 and 59.8%, respectively? That's about 25 percentage points different! Rebecca and Lisa are extreme coordinated. It's not that they don't have the athletic ability. They play and practice a lot. It's not lack of practice time. I'm sure it's not because they don't care. I'm also sure their statistics are an embarrassment to them. So what's the problem?

The PROBLEM...

Here are some of the reasons for the poor shooting:

1. Many people believe it's "mental": A lack of confidence, concentration, trust, etc.
Yes, there is a lot of doubt and fear. Confidence and concentration disappear when the ball doesn't drop. You see players trying so hard to focus. But I feel the mental negativity is the result, not the cause. All the mental gyrations in the world (even hiring your own Sports Psychologist) won't save you if your physical action is unreliable, if your shot varies all over the place, if you create a ball flight that closes down the target instead of opening it up.

2. Lack of practice
A lot of people credit lack of practice for the problem. That is true, of course. Lack of facilities and practice time causes this, but also the motivation to practice isn't there. Players don't know what to work on. Also, if you're practicing an ineffective motion that doesn't work or show progress, it doesn't do a lot of good to spend hundreds of hours doing it over and over.

3. Lack of Effective Coaching
This must be part of the problem. If there were good coaching at all levels of the game, this article would not be necessary. It's probably like I said with Jump Shots in the first article - since the coaches were often not good free throwers, they probably don't know how to coach it. Even those who could make 80-90% may not know how to coach others in the skill.

I'm sure all coaches coach the "Fundamentals" of the free throw - all the physical and mental preparation (where to stand, what to look at, etc.), the "static" information - but many have to leave it at that since they don't know how to coach control of ball flight. And since coaches have very limited time and a huge number of other things to coach, shooting gets short shrift out of necessity.

4. Ineffective Shooting Styles
All of this leads to what I feel is the major problem ... ineffective shooting styles! I believe most free throw motions use too many upper body muscles and too few lower body muscles.

In my work with players and watching games, most Releases I see consist of a throwing, slinging or flipping motion with arms, hands and fingers. And most players do not use the upward force of the legs and body to propel the shot. Some even stop all body/leg motion and shoot only with the upper body. I assume they think that by isolating the shot to just the arms, wrists and hands they can minimize muscle action and improve their chances. There's some logic to it, but from my experience, just the opposite is true. The powerful lower body muscles give stability and upward action, and the fast-twitch upper body muscles cause variability and a lower, flatter arch. Because Patrick Ewing stops his lower body and shoots only with an upper body catapult action, I do not believe he'll ever shoot better than 75%. (In December, when he went in for surgery on his right wrist, he was shooting 72%. The fact that he shoots even that high is a tribute to his coordination and his powers of concentration.)

Shaq O'Neal told Chris Meyers on the TV program Up Close recently that all he feels he needs to do is "...concentrate and take my time." But Shaq's motion is so flawed that concentration and time will not solve his problem. His shot is so flat and "hot," so understabilized, he constantly sabotages himself. A shot coming in very flat has a tiny, unforgiving target. Shaq needs remarkable precision to make a high percentage of shots. That's why he might make 7 for 10 one game and then 4 for 9 or 5 for 12 the next. He needs a major overhaul in how he uses his lower and upper bodies.

A "Guessing Game"
Because of all the little muscles involved and the lack of stability, most players don't know if their shots are going to go long or short, left or right They have to try to figure out (guess) how many muscles to use and the results are spotty. That leads to shaky Confidence. And because upper body action is mostly horizontal, such shots are "flat," making the target smaller than it is for a higher trajectory. Poor success leads to negative expectations ? Doubt, Fear. It becomes a downward spiral, and the result is what you see in the game today ? big, strong, powerful athletes who look silly at the free throw line.

What's Needed?
Very simply stated, here is what you need:

  1. A shot motion that is a "Sure Thing" instead of a "Guess."
      - A body/leg action and Release that are controlled and predictable
      - A motion that can withstand great pressure and go on automatic
  2. Commitment to practicing and developing your shot
  3. The "Mental" aspect to support your physical performance
      - Concentration, Confidence, Trust, Belief in Yourself

I can tell you what will work, and my "Swish" video can give you a specific, simple way to learn it, but you are going to have to put in the hours and attention you need to develop a great shooting style and touch. You need to want it, and make the commitment to spend as much time as possible to master the shot. The method I talk about does not take thousands of hours. In fact, results will be immediate, though the learning to do it under pressure and make it automatic take some time. As an example of how simple it is, I just got a letter from a man in Mississippi who bought "Swish" for his 14 year old son, Hunter. They went to the gym the next day and... "After he experienced the idea of letting the effort come from his jump, while keeping his release effortless and "pure," I had trouble getting him to leave the gym. Hunter plans to work on the Swish method all summer, and, it's early yet, but half the battle is having the student believe in the method."

And a final note: For Item 3 above, the mental stuff, you don't have try to psyche yourself into high performance. Concentration, confidence, etc. will develop naturally when you start to drop the shots effortlessly and consistently.

How can Free Throws be a "Sure Thing"?
First, realize there are 4 constants to a free throw:

  1. Distance
  2. Body/Leg Action to power the shot
  3. The Release
  4. Height (the final variable)

Obviously the distance to the basket never changes. That's a given. Secondly, you can develop a constant body/leg action I call UpforceT that sends the ball the same approximate distance every time. Third, you can develop a Release motion that is also a constant. If the wrist, hand and fingers of the shooting hand are totally relaxed during the Release and Follow Through, then you've minimized variables. Lastly you will determine a constant arch for your shot through practice. Aim to have it quite high, thus requiring a solid, deliberate UpForceT action. This completes the puzzle.

Make it a Push instead of a Throw
Make the Release a "pushing" action rather than a throw, sling or toss. If you aim high and just push or extend the arm to its normal end, at about 75% of maximum speed and force, it's much easier to be consistent. And a push can be vertical, whereas any throwing-type motion is horizontal.

A Simple Formula:
Think of it this way:

Constant UpForceT + Constant Release + Constant Arch = 13' 9" (dead center)

It's then no longer a guessing game! You just "DO" your practiced and memorized free throw motion and the ball will fly approximately the same every time. Height can be the final adjustment, like a Pressure Valve, taking into account fatigue, excitement, etc.

When you can do these things, free throws become easy. You'll be able to close your eyes and hit a fairly high percentage. Because you shoot upward instead of horizontally, the target is large and forgiving and your shots come in soft and high. Also, with a totally relaxed wrist, hand and fingers action, direction becomes more consistent ? the ball goes wherever you point and straighten your arm.

The Free Throw is a "Snap"
You've surely heard the expression, "It's a snap," meaning an action is very easy. The free throw Release Motion can actually be a physical snapping kind of motion, making this expression real. If you bend your arm to bring the ball to the set point and then just straighten it quickly, with relaxed wrist, hand and fingers, the shooting hand will just snap and bounce. With most great shooters you can see this happen. That's a way of minimizing variables.

Then the only thing to attend to is distance, and that's a function of height or arch. It, too, will be approximately the same every time, but it can vary if you're tired or if adrenalin is flowing and you've got extra power. You will "know" how to adjust height instinctively, from practice and trust. It's quickly figured out.

Remember this is not Rocket Science. It's elementary Physics! You do this action and the ball goes that distance in that direction ... every time! Anyone can do it. It takes all the Guessing out of this. And free throws become easy.

An NBA Success
In working with NBA player Adam Keefe of the Utah Jazz, we discovered he was flipping the ball with his wrist and hand and not using much body/leg power. As he learned to use the UpForceT for power and a push instead of flip (the things I describe above), his shot immediately became much more accurate and stable. From averaging 69% the last 3 years, he is currently at 84% and 22nd in the NBA! He's been as high as 88%, and for a period of 6-7 games in early February made 18 in a row. His jump shot has also improved and he's now a starter with the "green light" to shoot when open. He's amazed at how simple great shooting is when you know how to control ball flight.

Conclusion

I hope you can see that all you need do is understand and learn some simple stuff. When your actions are accurate, consistent and predictable, the free throw becomes a "Sure Thing." No big deal! 75% will be a minimum and 80% or 90% or higher is within your grasp. It is no longer a Guessing Game, and you'll rise to the top of your team as a shooter. You might even be called on to shoot those "Technical" fouls for the team since you're now the cool player under pressure.

If you'd like more details and coaching on how to do all this, order my video"Swish - A Guide to Great Basketball Shooting," It's a 50-minute full instructional video that shows you how to use this method with both jump shots and free throws. It also teaches you how to coach others in the skill. It contains a fairly long section on free throws like I've described here, including an important Check List. Bill Sharman, Boston Celtic legend and one of the greatest free throw shooters of all times said this is "...one of the best shooting videos I've ever seen," and he especially liked how I coach free throws. Visit my Web Site at http://www.swish22.com to get more details, read other testimonials, and see how to order it. At the bottom of my Home Page you will see a link to a 1,000 word Review of the video done by Alan Lambert, President of the Basketball Highway. Thanks to Alan for the opportunity to offer my approach to becoming a great free thrower.

Good luck! Drop an Email or write/call me with your successes. I'd love to hear from you.

Tom Nordland
Boulder Creek, California
1-888/SWISH-22
Email: Tom@swish22.com
Web site: www.swish22.com

P.S. An Example of an Exercise from my video:

Practicing Distance Control

The rim has an inside diameter of 18". If you stand 9" forward of the free throw line and do your usual free throw motion, your 13' 9" shot will go past dead center and hit the back of the rim and rebound back to you. This is because you're sending the ball exactly 9" too long (or close to it) every time. Do this on purpose to practice distance control.

Then move back 9" of the line and shoot and your shot will hit the front of the rim every time. This is a way to practice consistency! Don't adjust to try to make the shot. Just keep firing the same motion and you'll see you are learning very powerful control of ball flight. When this long-and-short-on-purpose exercise is consistent, then to stand on the line and send the ball to the center of that big basket (twice the diameter of a ball) will be a very "easy" motion. Your confidence will start to soar.