Humble Free Throw – Why So Misunderstood and Mis-Performed?

We see and hear mention on TV during college and NBA/WNBA games about the often mediocre performance from the Free Throw line. Nightly we see high-paid NBA free twitch viewer bot  players who often can’t make more than 50-60% of their “free” shots. Teams sometimes shoot only 50% from the Line for a whole game, 15 for 30 recently for Cleveland, for example. Solutions are rarely stated, usually just the announcers’ surprise at the poor level of shooting.

So what’s the problem? What can be done about it?


An NBA coach was recently bemoaning his team’s poor performance from the Line and said that he had tried everything to increase pressure on his guys in practice. He’d make the player suffer with some penalty. He’d make the team suffer if a player missed. He tried to put more pressure on in his practice situations than would be in real life in a game. (How do you do that, I wondered, with players making millions? Can you bet them money and make it stressful? I doubt that. Diss them, belittle them? Threaten to reduce their minutes?) Nothing was working. He noted also that he didn’t think the answer was technical. (If it’s not technical, then it has to be mental, right?)


From my experience, a simple action like shooting Free Throws is PHYSICAL, NOT MENTAL! We need a calm mind, of course, but shooting these humble shots can be a simple physical act. Alignment, power, setting the ball, accurate Release, distance control … Swish! It’s physical stuff!


However, once failure shows up, we make it mental! If we start to miss a lot of shots, our little minds get into the act and start thinking and trying to figure it out. Then, because of all that mental activity, we think the problem is mental. But the original problem was physical. Like the challenge of making a four foot putt in golf is a simple physical act. If you align the putter head correctly and swing the putter through the proper line at the right speed, the ball will usually go in the hole. The problem is that fear and doubt come in (thoughts of past failures, worry about future failures) and interfere and we jerk it off line and then say it’s mental!


As I watch our college and professional players shoot Free Throws on TV, I see all kinds of differences. Different stances, different Set Points, different ways to initiate the shot, to power the shot, to release the ball.

What’s going on is the culmination of years of ineffective coaching, either by and of themselves or from coaches. If you’ve been reading my writings, you know I coach shooting differently from how most shooting coaches teach it. I’m not into squaring up, crouching, wrist flipping, elbow under the ball, reaching your hand into the cookie jar, shooting at the top of the jump, etc. The proof of my approach is that most of the few great shooters in the game shoot (or shot) the way I coach it. It’s my assertion that this is how Chris Mullin learned to shoot, and Jeff Hornacek, and Steve Kerr, among other great shooters. Diana Taurasi, in my opinion the best female shooter in the history of the game, shoots this way. The international players, who are invading the NBA and replacing Americans, almost entirely shoot the way I coach it. Watch Sarunas Jasikevicius of the Pacers or Zydrunas Ilgauskas for Cleveland. Watch Andres Nocioni for the Bulls or Manu Ginobli of the Spurs. They’re not trying to square up or align hand, elbow, knee and foot. They stand open and step in to shoot. Their elbows are out to the side a little. They shoot on the way up.


Once when I was coaching a clinic and mentioned the advantage (and naturalness) of the open stance, a coach said, “Oh, yeah, like a boxer would stand to throw jabs.” For right-handed shooters, imagine you’re a left handed boxer jabbing with the right arm. Note how you would stand. Your right foot would be forward and turned slightly left, and the other foot would be back and turned more. I don’t think you’d ever see a boxer squaring up to throw jabs and punches. He’d be knocked flat in a very short time. No, it’s more powerful and stable to stand open, the body rotated. Such a stance also allows you to “step in” to the shot, which is more powerful than jump stopping square. Try it both ways and see which offers you the most stability. And then a bonus, note how easy it is to align the ball with the eye and basket from an open stance!


Let me just give you some clues as to where to look for the answer to the Free Throw shooting woes:

STANCE: See if the players are square or open. Most will be squared up these days because of years of such coaching. Then check out an open stance, turned from a little up to as much as 45 degrees (rotated left for right-handers). See how it becomes more “one-handed,” more “natural.” Sue Bird, the great point guard for the WNBA Seattle Storm (and the 2006 Olympic team), opens her stance at the Free Throw line more than 45 degrees (she says it helps her align the ball with her shooting eye).

POWER: Notice where the power comes from — is it mostly upper body, or driven by some or a lot of lower body power? See how many players stop their lower body action and then use only the upper body muscles, powering the shot from arm, wrist, hand and fingers. Some just flip their wrists. Strong players need less of the legs, but consider that big muscle power from the legs and middle body can “stabilize” the action, even if not needed for power.

SET POINT: Check alignment at the Set Point. Is the ball in line with the eye, ear or shoulder? Better shooters are in line with the eye; shaky shooters often align with the ear or shoulder. Ask yourself which alignment will help you the most for accuracy. Then adjust. Squaring up came from the two-handed days, we can probably agree. But where the idea of shooting off your shoulder or in line with the ear came from, probably no one knows. If you go to throw a dart or shoot an arrow or aim a gun, surely everyone of a right mind can see that being in line with the eye is the most accurate way to aim. Yet some players and coaches think it’s okay to have the ball off line from the eye-basket line. Right there is a problem of Technique!

FORGET THE ELBOW! See if the shooter makes a point of trying to have the elbow directly under the ball. This is a common instruction, but note that it thus rotates the hand off of the target. I suggest you focus on the hand position, having that in line with eye and basket and the hand turned facing the basket as much as possible. In that position, the elbow will be out a little to side. If the hand “matters,” the elbow will find its own position, not directly under the ball. Please forget the elbow. It will be just fine where it is when you focus on the hand position. It won’t be “flying” because then the hand position would be screwed up, not in line with the eye and rotated to face the basket.

SETTING THE BALL: As the players go to shoot, see when and how long the ball is in line with the shooting eye and basket before the shot, if at all. See if being in line longer improves accuracy. I know it does. The alignment can even start down around the stomach for the simple Free Throw with no defense pressuring you.

Leave a Comment