Free Throws

A general assumption in the sports world is that athletes get better over time. Sprinters get faster, hitters hit more home runs, quarterbacks throw fewer interceptions, etc. And yet, there's one sports statistic that has refused to budge: the percentage of free-throws made in the NBA. Here's the NY Times, via Kottke:

The consistency of free-throw percentages stands out when contrasted with field-goal shooting over all. In men's college basketball, field-goal percentage was below 40 percent until 1960, then climbed steadily to 48.1 in 1984, still the highest on record. The long-range 3-point shot was introduced in 1986, and the overall shooting percentage has settled in at about 44 percent.

Why can't players learn to make their free throws? After all, it's an uncontested shot; you can take as long as you need. Nobody is defending you or thrusting a hand into your face. It's just you, a ball and the basket.

That, I think, is the problem. An expert athlete largely performs on auto-pilot. Manny Ramirez doesn't think about the mechanics of his swing and Kobe Bryant isn't contemplating his jump-shot when he pulls up behind the arc in the 4th quarter. They are performers and they're performing. They might think about these details during batting practice, or during warm-ups, but the best athletes cultivate a kind of mindlessness during the game itself. David Foster Wallace, in his glorious review of Tracy Austin's horrific memoir of her tennis career, said it best:

The real secret behind top athlete's genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as the silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

At least, their conscious mind should be empty. In my book, I discuss some work done by Sian Beilock on the cognitive neuroscience of choking:

Beilock uses putting on the golf green as her experimental paradigm. When people are first learning how to putt, the activity can seem daunting. There are just so many things to think about. Golfers need to assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. Then they have to monitor their putting motion and make sure that they hit the ball with a smooth, straight stroke. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem unbearably hard, like a life-sized trigonometry problem.

But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to sink the ball in the hole. By concentrating on their golf game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke, they can avoid beginner's mistakes.

A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to puttâ¯once they have memorized the necessary movementsâ¯analyzing the stroke is a waste of time. Their brain already knows what to do. It automatically computes the slope of the green, settles on the best putting angle, and decides how hard to hit the ball. Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has monitored the brain wave activity of expert athletes in the midst of performance. (Because the subjects have to wear a bulky plastic cap full of electrodes, Hatfield can only study golfers, archers and Olympic rifle shooters.) The brain waves of novice athletes exhibit a consistent pattern of activity, with lots of erratic spikes and haphazard rhythms. This is the neural signature of a mind that's humming with conscious thoughts, as it pays attention to all sorts of irrelevant stimuli and bodily cues. The minds of experts, in contrast, look strangely serene. When they are performing their sport, they exhibit a rare mental tranquility, as their cortex deliberately ignores interruptions from the outside world. This is evidence, Hatfield says, of "the zone," that trance-like mindset allowing experts to perform at peak levels. As the corporate motto says, the best athletes don't think: they just do it.

Beilock's data further demonstrates the benefits of relying on the automatic brain when playing a familiar sport. She found that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. "We bring expert golfers into our lab, and we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up," Beilock says. "When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don't need to pay attention to every step in what you're doing."

Now back to those free-throws. The very ease of the shot is why it's so difficult. Because players are alone at the line with their self-conscious thoughts, they tend to think too much. The luxury of time turns out to be a curse. They remember all those pieces of advice from the shooting coach and start focusing on keeping a rigid wrist and holding the ball in the right place and making sure to follow through. And that's when their shot falls apart. This is the perverse irony of free throws - trying to fix your shot just might destroy it. For instance, I remember watching Shaq struggle to break the 50 percent barrier. The more he tried to improve his free throws (or at least said he tried) the uglier his free throws became, until he was basically hurling the ball with one hand at the rim. Shaq is a world-class athlete, but he hasn't improved his free throw percentage for the same reason the rest of the NBA hasn't.

I think this also explains why the best free throw shooters tend to have the most elaborate free throw rituals. They'll lick their hand, grab their shorts, spin the ball, dribble it three times, etc. (Tennis players go through a similar routine before serving.) The purpose of these rituals should now be obvious: they help keep those self-conscious thoughts away, and allow players to segue into a more automated state of mind.

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My facts are sketchy for this example, but a few years ago I heard a story about a high school coach who was fired for having his team practice free throws in their underwear. His defense was that he was teaching the kids to deal with pressure when taking the free throw shots.

Some folks didn't think this was the best defense, and it didn't save his job.

Supposedly, fully clothed and in a game setting, the kids had a higher-than-average FT shooting percentage.

I don't really believe all of the story (not that I distrust sports radio stories, but I don't really know how to finish that statement). However, the idea that you could train a shooter to be better at FTs by creating negative stimuli during practice that goes away during a game setting is very interesting. Plus, it would probably result in ensuring kids wear clean underwear.

"Striatal scripts" need to be left to function, so I agree. But they can be a blessing and a curse. In fact, there are some theories of psychiatric disease suggesting that those with more efficient "motor memory" and other such "autopilot" circuits actually are more susceptible to mental illness. This is because these lower level pattern generators reinforce good and bad patterns. Combine that with defects in executive prefrontal control and BANG, you have additional susceptibility to mental illness...

Interestingly, the same does not seem to be true with music. Violinists for example will practice scales and arpeggios daily (some people say Heifetz spent 4-6 hours a day on those alone), and their intonation seems improve as a result of that practice.

Does this conflict with the process of "visualisation" that some kickers (and probably other sportsmen) use? For example, if you watch Jonny Wilkinson in rugby union, or David Beckham in association football take a place kick, you can clearly see them doing the visualisation thing (and they say they do), as they imagine the whole process before executing it. You see them bring their eyes to the stationary ball then "watch" it go into the net, or through the posts.

But they seem to do that to "prime" their neural circuits, they are not explicitly calculating what to do. They imagine watching the action and the result, then let the body execute it more-or-less automatically. So they have excluded the analytic mind from the execution.

So should free throwers in basketball simply pause for a moment and visualise the ball in flight then dropping into the net, but leave their hands out of their thinking?

When it comes to complex motions of body in space, many animals are just as proficient (relative to body design) or more so than humans. The mammalian brain (imagine a squirrel as it leaps from branch to branch) has superbly efficient space and motion management machinery, even if the intelligence of the species is quite limited.

Humans have an added 'intelligent' layer over their primate (and older) brain machinery and the sophistication of this arrangement is that the intelligent component can, at great computational expense, train the animal brain (for lack of an easier term). But in actual performance, the 'intelligent' brain is simply too generalized and too slow. Once the 'animal brain' learns the routine, it is far more proficient and works best without interference from above.

We sometimes see this with a driving emergency. A sudden event on the roadway happens, and we don't think, we don't have time to think, the trained 'animal brain' makes the decisions (hopefully well) and only after it's all over and we're catching our breath does our intelligent brain piece together what happened and how we avoided disaster.

Shooting underhand like the legendary Rick Barry helps. =)

my own limited experience with learning new skills, (juggling, unicycling, various sports,etc.) is that you have to practice until you get it right once, and immediately take a break. the next time you try, you can remember that you already know how to do it, and can do it, so you just do it. it's just important not to end your practice on a bad note.

I was a semi-professional golfer, and I actually had to stop playing because I began to think about it too much. The more I thought about my swing or my putting stroke, the worse my game got. I guess Nike got it right when they came up with "Just do it"!

This is a concept I've been thinking about for a long time. I've been noticing the small movement towards "memorization" in ballet classes that I attend three times weekly. It's the "three times" that leads to the auto-pilot capabilities.

When it comes to movement (ie. athletics), frequency with focus seem to be the right recipe.

I wonder if professional basketball players could benefit from training another sports discipline requiring concentration followed by "letting go". Or could it also be that those people that are good at sports like basketball are have brains that are wired for it and would never be great at golf?

This blog goes along extremely well with your book, which I just finished and liked very much. I am wondering how far this trained instinct theory, which certainly seems to be the case for athletes, extends to other disciplines. I am a scientist and also play free jazz. When people ask me what the connection is between the two, the only response is that they are both improvisational. This is obvious with jazz. We learn scales, and progressions, practice them for hours and years, and then when we play we act on instinct. For science it seems to many people counterintuitive, as science is billed as 100% rational, even by us scientists. Still the excitement of a discovery and the discovery itself usually comes at rates and times that are more like the quarterback in a big moment than the free throw shooter. I was wondering if neuroscientists have studied themselves in that regard.

Jonah, I also just finished your book. I've enjoyed both of them very much, and I think that it's important stuff - if only for helping one in understanding why it is that they do what they do. I keep wondering if you have thought about Maxwell Maltz and his book - Psycho-Cybernetics? Written in 1960 it basically said the same stuff that many neuro-scientists are proving now. He even talks about the classic problem of shooting free throws. I remember using the "visualization" techniques that he recommends to great success. But the part that was critical for it to work was that after visualizing what you were going to do, then you just need to forget it, and do it.

For an interesting spin on this topic, check out the story (legend,even) that is Dave Hopla ( Now a shooting coach for the NBA's Washington Wizards, he has an incredible personal record of shot-making (how's 1124 striaght free throws sound?) and he has successfully trained others to be far-above average shooters (e.g., Ray Allen).

Perhaps this is a motivation question. Shaq's millions do not depend on free throws but on other skills. Would he really gain any benefit from improving his skills at the charity stripe? Other players' value to a team come from defensive ability and clutch free-throws. They benefit from a high % of FT made. Perhaps the league free throw percentage reflects this division of labor. We should only expect free throw percentage to rise if the NBA became more about scrappy defensive players than offense-minded superstars.

I believe that you are partially right in your initial explanation. However, Shaq is a poor example. Shaq misses because he has several flaws in his shooting technique.

The problem is that to change a skill that one has mastered you HAVE to think about it in practice. Otherwise, you continue on autopilot and you practice making shots at the same rate.

Once you master your shot, with good technique, then you need to allow your body to work and quiet your mind.

However, there is a difference between players in different stages of the learning process as well as differences based on players' technique.

Howdy Jonah,

Just discovered your stuff, starting with the review on "Out of Our Heads". Seems like we think along the same lines, sometimes.

I agree with your take on free throws. I posted a similar one back in December after watching Shaq and Tim Duncan in a duel of professional ineptitude. I'm blogging about consciousness from a info systems point of view where Captain Self is the user who thinks they are in charge of the ship and crew(body and subconscious).

"Whatâs the deal? Itâs the relationship between the captain and the crew. When playing at speed, the captain doesnât issue specific commands to the crew. The captain is busy watching the game and pointing out possible strategies to the crew chief. âThat guy is open, that defender is out of position, etcâ. The captain and crew have practiced this together and everyone does their job, as a team.

At the free throw line, the captain takes over and tells the crew what to do. âThis is important⦠watch your feet⦠not too hard⦠this is a big game⦠donât let the fans distract you,â and on and on. The crew isnât left to do their job as they have practiced, and another shot clanks off the rim. Now this is a long way from the expectations shared by the whole gang, and those cells get agitated, further eroding confidence."

I think Alva Noe nailed it with...
"Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world. ... It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context."

Makes sense to me.