Featured Shooting Articles by Tom Nordland

(Note:  This article was written by Tom Nordland in October 1999 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

Taking the Lid Off the Basket - Challenging Conventional Shooting Wisdom!

(Article #4 in a Series for The Basketball Highway:  "The Trouble with Shooting!" by Tom Nordland, Shooting Coach)

COACHES:  I would like to suggest you re-evaluate some shooting instruction "rules" that are in common use today.  I feel a different approach to this coaching could result in dramatic improvement in your players' shooting skills.  The purpose isn't necessarily to throw out ideas, but to encourage you to communicate more clearly the specific techniques and understandings that lead to better shooting.

In my experience researching and coaching shooting for the past 10 years at all levels, from beginner to the NBA, I've been coming up against the coaching my students have been given over their basketball lives.  Some of it has been beneficial, for example, "Use more legs," "Be in balance," or "Hold the follow through."  However, more often than not, the student has perceived (or misperceived) coaching in ways I think sabotage good shooting.

The three instructions I wish to focus on are: 

  1. Squaring Up
  2. Shooting at the Top of the Jump
  3. Wrist Flipping.

Dale Davis of the Indiana Pacers was able to make a major improvement in his shooting last season by adopting a different approach to these instructions.  He was formerly standing almost square, shot at the top of his jump (or his down-up free throw motion), and threw the ball horizontally with upper body muscles.  With my coaching, he's opened more his stance, shoots on the way up (for both free throws and jump shots), and now releases the ball with a simple, upward pushing action. The result was a 15% increase in free throw performance (from 46.5% to 61.8%) which resulted in more aggressive play and being left in the game at the end of close games.  His confidence is beginning to soar, and we expect him to improve another 15% or more from the Line this season.

Let me make an argument for a different interpretation of these instructions.  The arguments and results may persuade you to change the way you coach this critical skill.  And I also believe this different approach to the coaching of shooting CAN be implemented during the season.  See at the end for my explanation of why that's possible.

1)  SQUARING UP

The first instruction I'd like to question is this one.  This summer when I asked over 250 kids in Clinics I gave in Minnesota if they had been told to "Square Up" when they shoot, at least 80% said they had. When I asked them what was meant by that instruction, they told me they were told to have their lower and upper bodies oriented exactly facing the basket.

To "Square Up" literally means to have a line across your shoulders be perpendicular to a line from your chest to the basket.  For free throws, it means lining up both feet at the line and keeping feet, knees, hips and shoulders in this "square to the target" position.  You can see in John Stockton, All Star guard for the Utah Jazz, a squared-up stance. With free throws and jump shots, he orients directly at the basket. However, I'll guess he was also told to have a vertical forearm, so, rather than force his elbow in and have the ball over his head, he shoots with the ball off his right shoulder, thus satisfying both needs.  However, the problem in shooting this way is that he has to calculate an angle from where his eyes are and where the center of the ball is (8-10" to his right).  He can't shoot directly at the basket from his visual perspective.  He's become very good at this calculation and shoots amazingly well, but he is not as accurate or consistent as Jeff Hornacek, also of the Jazz, who turns his body approx. 45 and has his eyes directly under the ball.

If by Square Up you mean simply to generally "Face the Basket" as you go to shoot and stop any lateral and rotational movement as you begin the shot, then it can be an effective instruction.  I think this is what most coaches conceive the instruction to mean.  However, from what I've seen and heard, I think most students misperceive it and get the literal meaning and wind up physically Squaring Up.  Perhaps this instruction needs to be changed to "Face Up," or something like that.

From my experience, it's more natural to "Open" the body and rotate to the left for right handers, right for left-handers.  This also makes the forearm of the shooting arm more vertical without tension, and allows the Shooting Arm to extend more easily toward the basket.  The Guide Hand just moves aside and hangs back.

Try shooting both Squared Up and Open and see which feels more natural. Offer your players both options and observe which they adopt naturally. If you watch good shooters, most of them rotate at least a little naturally.

Squaring Up is probably an instruction from the old Two Handed Days. For two handed set shots and free throws, being square to the target is vital.  But in today's One-Handed Shot game, most players want to turn. In video clips I've seen of Larry Bird, he, like Hornacek, turned about 45.  I believe any athlete who hasn't been forced to Square Up will turn naturally when told to shoot the ball with one hand/arm.

THE COMMON (MIS-) UNDERSTANDING:  That Squaring Up somehow gets you in better connection and alignment with the basket or helps with the shot motion.  With this position, the elbow wants to be out to the side, like in a salute, and if you want your forearm to be sort-of-vertical and your palm facing the basket for an easy, straight-in-line-with-the-basket motion, you have to force the elbow in.  This creates tension in the setup, and, if you try to keep your body in that relationship, that tension will be maintained in the Release.

MY APPROACH:  Let the body turn naturally and see what works best. Compare Squaring Up with turning 10, 20, 30, 40 or more.  I like the idea of being "aligned" when I shoot, with target, ball, hand, forearm, eyes, body and legs generally in alignment, and if you Open the stance, this seems to happen more easily.  Test it out.  See which stance gives your players the feeling of being more "under and behind" the ball. Which one creates less tension?  There's no one right answer here.  Each person needs to find what works for him or her.  To me, everything seems to be naturally aligned if you're more Open.  And if you're aligned, Accuracy is much more assured.

2)  SHOOTING AT THE TOP OF THE JUMP

The second common instruction I'd like to question is the old "Shoot at the top (or apex) of your jump."

This idea has been around a long time.  I found a book in the San Jose library by one of the legends of the game, written in 1966, that stated very clearly you should NOT use any of the jumping motion in the shot. Rather, you should wait until the top of the jump and then shoot.  When I asked the kids if they had been told this instruction, about the same number said "Yes."

I think most coaches know that leg power is effective in powering and controlling a shot.  This instruction is probably conceived to help players elevate them to shoot over an opponent.  It may also be to try to make the leg drive consistent.  However, if it is literally perceived by the students, they wait until there is no lower body power left and then shoot, thus sabotaging the shot.

This instruction is interesting in another way, because many of these same players tell me they've also been told to shoot higher.  I'm sure their coaches explained that the basket is larger and more forgiving for a shot coming in at a high angle.  (60% above horizontal is considered by many to be the most effective angle.)  We know that upward action of the leg drive or leg lift ? what I call UpForceT ? creates a high arching shot.  So, if you're told to wait and shoot at the top of the jump, then this upward power source is missed and all you've got left is arm, wrist, hand and finger power.  And these latter power sources are mostly horizontal!

When I was at the Big Man Camp in Hawaii this summer, almost every one of the 24 NBA and ~30 College participants was shooting at the top of his jump.  And the shooting percentages I observed of open, uncontested mid-range jumpers were very low for most of these great players (in the 25-30% range).  I feel the instruction and the results are directly related.

The trajectory of a shot is important.  In shooting a basketball, lower body muscles tend to create a vertical action and upper body muscles tend to create a horizontal action.  If we agree that we want a high arching shot, then the former muscles are to be favored.  Note that an arm straightening motion by itself can be horizontal or vertical as you choose, but without leg power, its force is limited.  And if you bring the ball too far overhead, then the arm motion has to become a throw or sling, and the direction of the motion becomes mostly horizontal.  Check it out.  Bring a ball to a Set Point way overhead and notice what is required to launch a ball without leg power and what kind of arch is created.

Conversely, if you shoot on the way up, there is powerful, upward energy available to shoot from, and this creates the arch everyone wants ... naturally.  Don't worry about making this power consistent.  It's going to vary all over the place, depending on fatigue, adrenalin, the distance to the basket, the quickness of the shot, etc.  Varying arch is how you manage that.  And when shooting on the way up, the Release happens more quickly.

If you have to jump over people, as centers and power forwards sometimes have to do, then waiting until near the top of the jump can be effective.  However, I suggest that even with these shots you shoot before you reach the top of the jump so you can still use some of the upward energy to stabilize the shot.  If you shoot at the very top or, god forbid, on the way down, you greatly minimize your chances of success.

Adam Keefe of the Utah Jazz discovered the importance of shooting on the way up, shooting from what he's come to know as "The Wave."   Though his stance was already open when he came to me, he discovered he was releasing the ball at the top of his jump and wrist flipping.  From a shaky 69% in free throws the prior 3 years, he shot in the mid-80's through most of the '97-98 season until a foot injury destabilized his lower body action and he wound up making 81% for the year (still an impressive 12% increase in one season).  This summer he has more deeply learned the distinction of shooting from the wave of energy the lower body provides, and free throws and jump shots are becoming easier and easier for him.  He's poised for a terrific shooting year.

I don't think you have to jump high for most Jump Shots.  The idea of jumping over people is left for a very few great athletes and for Centers and Power Forwards working in close.  Most players get open for a moment and need to get the shot off quickly before the defender reacts or recovers.  The height of the jump doesn't really matter that much.  A quick Release and a high, soft ball flight are created by shooting on the way up.

Watch great shooters like Detlef Schrempf, now of the Portland Trailblazers, Hornacek of the Jazz, and Steve Kerr of the San Antonio Spurs.  They shoot early in their jumping motions.  Rik Smits of Indiana, 7'4" and one of the better big men shooters, shoots very early in the jump, too.  One of Stanford's best shooters ever is Ryan Mendez, from Texas (He averaged 38 pts/game in high school a few years ago). He's 6'7" and he shoots as early in the jumping motion as possible. That, to me, is why he's such a great shooter.  Every one I've seen who has learned to shoot earlier in the jumping motion improved shooting performance.

THE COMMON (MIS-) UNDERSTANDING:  I guess the idea here is that being higher in the air helps somehow in the shot, and also, if you isolate the shot to just the upper body, you employ fewer muscles.  I don't think height above the ground makes any difference, but I think the higher you are the less you will think to aim "upward" to shoot.  Tall players tend to shoot flat and short players shoot high because of this difference in perspective.  And shorter players are usually better shooters.  The better big men shooters shoot high, despite their height.

The problem is if you shoot literally at the top of your jumping (or free throw/set shot) motion, you will have expended all the upward energy of the legs.  All you have left to shoot with are upper body muscles.  Fewer muscles, yes, but these muscles (arm, wrist, hand and fingers) are very intricate and complex, designed for fine motor control and are more sensitive to slight adjustments.   In terms of shooting, they also create mostly horizontal energy.  When you're wanting the fewest possible variables -- a repeatable motion -- these finer muscles are less reliable.  Making them into a "constant" motion, just a simple pushing action with relaxed wrist and hand, gives you that ... and the corresponding control you want. Also, you miss the powerful, stabilizing force created by lower body power (legs, hips, pelvis, back), your strongest muscles.  shooting at the top of the jump is like missing a Wave in surfing.

MY APPROACH:  Shoot on the way up.  See what shooting earlier in the jumping motion does for you.  Try earlier and earlier and see what happens.  For most outside jump shots, I feel that you don't have to wait at all to shoot.  Go for the maximum leg drive percentage available and see what happens.  (And I don't mean jumping stronger; I just mean shooting earlier and quicker in whatever body/leg force you generate.)

You'll find your shots go higher, without trying for height, and you'll have a quicker Release and plenty of power.  You'll start to experience the shot as "effortless."  As mentioned above, the UpForceT also stabilizes the shot with its powerful force field.  If you're in very close and need to jump strongly to shoot over a defender, you can wait a bit (call it "hangtime") before releasing the ball.  But shoot always from at least some of the lower body energy for the advantages it offers.  You can also raise your Set Point, if in close, so you can shoot more quickly and more "full out."

3)  WRIST FLIPPING THE BALL

And finally a large majority of the kids in my Clinics said they were told to "flip their wrists" to power the shot.  Now, if you're shooting at the top of your jump and have missed the UpForceT wave, all you have left is arm, wrist and hand/finger power.  In that case, flipping the wrist makes sense.  You could also "throw" or "sling" the ball with the arm and even power the shot with the fingers.  A fairly well known shooting coach taught powering the ball with the first two fingers.  But these forces are less reliable and horizontal and results will be streaky at best.  Wrist flipping or Throwing may give you more power and distance, but the negatives of the flatness of the shot, the variability, and the susceptibility to pressure negate any advantage.

A common image of the Follow Through in shooting is what's called "Reaching the hand in the cookie jar."  Another is the "Goose neck." These images, especially the first one, imply doing something with the wrist and hand, like reaching into something.   The wrist flipping instruction may come from this.  The problem I see in fulfilling this image is that you're introducing unnecessary tension.

I coached a young assistant coach at a major basketball power on the West Coast a few years ago.  I asked him to warm up first and observed him shoot about 15 consecutive airballs.  When I asked him what he was doing, he said, "I'm trying to reach my hand in the cookie jar." Obviously he didn't know what he was doing; he misperceived the instruction and it interfered badly with his performance.

An alternative way to shoot is to keep the wrist, hand and finger muscles quiet, and power the shot instead with just an upward pushing action of the arm supported by a strong leg drive.  From my perspective, if you make the arm action a constant -- just a straightening of the arm at the same speed and force every time (at about 75% of maximum, so you don't hurt yourself) -- it minimizes variables and gives you what I call "Repeatability."  I like to call this a "Full Out" Release.  If your wrist and hand are relaxed, the hand will actually "bounce" when you Release the ball.  The more it bounces, the more relaxed those muscles are.  A relaxed wrist and hand look somewhat like reaching a hand into something, but there is no "reach" and no tension ? it's just the  way the hand looks when the wrist is relaxed.  I have a photo of me in 1957 on my Website, home page.  Notice how my hand is relaxed, just hanging there.

Dale Davis has come to understand the concept of Repeatability in shooting, as shown in his description of my coaching this fall:  "His [Tom's] technique is different from most shooting coaches.  He does a combination of form and the art/science of  repeatability.  It really works!"

The last variable, a pressure valve of sorts, becomes the arch or height of your shot.  As you shoot, be ready to adjust the height every time, based on what you feel, how strong the jump is, how quickly you're shooting, etc.  That way, you can always go "Full Out" with your Release, keeping it constant, but simply varying the angle of the push. Varying arch is one of the characteristics of most great shooting.

Great shooters have minimized the variables in their shot motions and developed a way to shoot over and over with basically the same motion. The fewer muscles involved, the more this becomes possible.  This is the idea of "Repeatability" (or automated or programmed skills).  Superior performers in all sports develop motions that can go on automatic.  That permits them to move all their attention from mechanics to the target. And that makes a huge difference.

THE COMMON (MIS-) UNDERSTANDING:  The misconception or misperception is that using the wrist is an effective power source.  It will give you extra power, that's true.  But it's horizontal power and it's hard to control.  The wrist, hand and fingers are the smallest muscles in the chain from your feet through your body up to and through your arms.  It doesn't make sense to me to leave control of the flight of the ball, distance and direction, with the smallest muscles.  The fine motor control they provide is subject to variation, especially under pressure.

MY APPROACH:  Make your upper body action a "Pushing" action of the arm (aimed upward) rather than any kind of Flipping or Throwing motion.  And relax the wrist, hand and finger muscles.  They don't have to do any powering, steering or guiding.  They can just complete your connection with the ball and, by doing nothing more than that, ensure greater accuracy and consistency that comes from strong, stable lower body power and an arm motion aimed exactly where you want.  The finger pads and the forward part of the palm are how you connect to the ball itself.  A little pressure from the fingers ensures control of the ball, allowing it to roll off your fingers in a consistent way.  Shooting this way you'll get the feeling of doing "nothing" with these smaller muscles, and the feeling of shooting becomes effortlessness when there's strong power from the lower body.  And, surprise!!! ... you'll find you get perfect backspin!

One last thing about the Set Point:  To do an upward pushing action with the arm to take advantage of the powerful leg drive, you cannot have taken the ball way over your head.  Rather, it works best to have the back of the ball at approximately the front of the head or only very slightly behind the front of the head so you can push upward.  This "up front" Set Point is also achieved more quickly and, with shooting from UpForceT, gives you a very quick Release.  The bigger and stronger you are, the higher above your head you can establish the Set Point, thus making it more difficult to block.

As I said, don't just believe this or disbelieve it.  Examine these three coaching instructions in this different light and let the results show you the most effective way to shoot and coach the skill of shooting.

A FINAL NOTE:  CAN THIS BE INTRODUCED ONCE THE SEASON STARTS?

I say "Yes, definitely," and I'll tell you why.  I know many of you don't want to "mess" with your players' shots during the season.  You feel that summer is the time for them to work on changes in their individual skills.

However, I feel when a change is not complicated and done in a spirit of "awareness," rather than "Do this," or "Don't do that," change or learning can happen any time during a season!  Humans are Learning Machines, we're born to learn, and we can learn new things quickly and easily, especially if they're simple and natural.   Of course, you don't want to suggest a change the day before a crucial game, or in the timeout before a critical free throw.  But in the many hours of a week and over a period of a few weeks, players can learn new things and learn to trust them.

I feel what I'm suggesting here can be just that:  Simple and Natural. If your players become aware of how they stand and are given the option of "Opening" their stances, it becomes a "Choice," not a rule.  Choosing between different alternatives is how we learn.  It's called making "Distinctions," in this case, the Distinction of Stance.  And once you have a Distinction, like balance on a bicycle, you never forget it.  But if there's a lot of worry and doubt, "trying" hard to do something "right," then learning becomes difficult.

If, for example, you just ask your players to note if they're shooting at the top of the jump or on the way up, you'll see instant learning. The rule "Shoot at the top!" can be replaced by "See when you shoot and experiment with shooting earlier and later!"  What will happen is experimentation and discovery!  They'll start to see that shooting earlier is more effective than later, and it creates a higher, more effortless shot.  They'll start to see that shots become more stable and consistent.  When they add the third notion ? of shooting with the whole arm, and not flipping with the wrist ? they'll discover a whole new way of shooting.

As the coach, it will be important to keep this atmosphere of learning and discovery going.  Have team talks about shooting, what works and what doesn't work.  When a player has a breakthrough, ask her or him to share it with the team with a demonstration and words.  What was discovered and how?  What does it feel like?  Maybe that player's words will help others make similar discoveries.  Ask the group to describe what they see.  When players can see these simple principles in others, it will help seeing and feeling them in themselves.

In the end, remember that shooting is really very simple!  If we complicate it, it becomes difficult for all but the few.  And that's what we have in the game today, only a small percent of players can really control ball flight ... all the time!  Sure, we have streaky shooters, and that's the best you can do when the shot motion is full of variables, flat and hot, a guess rather than a sure thing.  Great shooters have a plan, a plan of controlled repeatability.  The target has become their dominant focus, not mechanics or execution.  They've learned to Let Go and Trust themselves in that "golden moment of shooting," and in so doing they put the ball in or near dead center every time.  And I believe the instructional ideas I've presented above can put your players on the path of becoming great shooters!

I invite your questions and would love to hear of your experiences with learning and coaching the great skill/art of shooting a basketball.

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