In basketball the free throw is a technical fundamental showing the leading role of the players’ mind.
At first glance, the free throw seems easy to do: its execution is always at the same distance from the basket, the players are not moving and have the time to prepare the shot following their personal rhythm without any direct physical contact from the opponents. At the contrary, the statistics published by EuroLeague Basketball show a different scenario.
In the current season, in all games only 8.5% of the players made the 90% of free throws, 35% made the 80%, 32% the 70% and 24% have scores below the 70%.
Furthermore, the statistics of the last three games show the 54% of the players made at least the 80% of free throws, while the 40% scored from 69% to 36%.
The points scored are higher than those of all matches for the reason that in this second comparison there are only 22 and not 105 players as in the first: increasing the number of the players, increase also the mistake percentages.
These data clearly tell us that this easy shot, from the technical side, can become very difficult. The reason is in the players’ problems to manage their competitive stress. In other words, the free throw could represent one key index to know how much the players are able to be efficiently focused on a specific task when they are under pressure.
In the last years, the sport psychologists have proposed the free throw could be coached using a more effective routine pre-shot. This approach is useful to learn the management of the extra-time they have before the shot. This time, indeed, can be an advantage or a disadvantage. This free throw momentum will be positive only if it has been build a personal routine to forget the distractions (momentum of the match, score, pressure of the opponents, individual worries and fear, personal confidence in that situation, fans’ screams). Otherwise the risk is that the emotions become too strong and difficult to get out from the mind and the players will increase the probability to choke under this psychological overload.
The EuroLeague Basketball statistics confirm the free throws very often represent a problem to cope with also for the best teams, like are who compete in this European tournament, they are the top teams in their countries but less than 44% of the players made the 80% of the shots and 24% made less than 70%. This is not only a European problem. In NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers have had a very bad statistic with the 68% of shots scored and the club sent the players to follow a psychological program to improve the free throws.
The training to improve the free throws can be centered in two different phases. The first regards how to reduce the tension and be focused on a task for few seconds. In this phase, the players practice deep abdominal breathings in a correct way.
This is a fundamental exercise because usually the players are not able to breath deeply and consequently cannot help themselves before the execution of the free shot. After that moment they should notice their breath, don’t change the breath but stay focused on the sensation of air in and out for two minutes, repeating 4/5 times this last exercise.
The final goal of this work is to have an efficient body control – loosing up the muscle tension – and center the attention on the present.
The second phase, is to practice a specific routine when shooting a free throw, following five steps:
- Reduce immediately the body tension (through one deep breathing)
- Put the body on the line in a comfortable position (feel the body centered in the ground)
- Visualize two free shots (mentally rehearsal the shots as you are doing in that moment)
- Look on the ring (the gaze must be always oriented in the same point)
- Do the shot
The players have to train several times this routine in order to reach an optimal confidence level in this preparation. To reach this kind of proficiency, once the players have planned and established their personal routine, they have to simulate game pressure in practice.