Lost Art of Free Throws

by Willis Wilson (Texas A&M Corpus Christi)
Lost Art of Free Throws

It’s a lost art, a thing of the past. Many college basketball analysts use such phrases when describing the current state of free throw shooting. On any given night you can peruse the box scores to find the evidence. Percentages from the charity stripe have declined in recent years, but the question is why?

I once asked, current Lamar coach, Billy Tubbs, “Why have your teams always shot a good percentage from the free throw line?”
He told me, “Every time there is a shooting foul committed in practice, we shoot free throws.”

Now that sounds like such a simple approach, but then again so is the act of shooting free throws, if properly approached.

Young players often think that stepping to the line, during practice, and making ten straight automatically makes them a good free throw shooter. Well that is not the case. You will often hear coaches talk about trying to create a ‘game-type environment’ in practice. That same approach needs to be applied to shooting from the charity stripe.

All too often, young players are not approaching free throw shooting in the proper fashion. It’s important to practice the drill when you are fatigued and mentally and emotionally spent, which the final few minutes of a basketball game normally produces.

Here is another way of looking at the approach. In the Olympics, the Biathlon is a sport that combines rifle accuracy and cross country skiing. I think it is safe to say that biathletes do not practice their shooting accuracy when they are well rested. They exert a lot of energy and then pick up the rifle to practice their aim. In competition, it’s all about taking a deep breath, getting composed and concentrating on the target.

One miss results in a penalty lap, which could be the difference between a gold medal and no medal. On the basketball court, that miss could be the difference between winning and losing.

We often hear analyst say, “It’s a mental thing.” That’s true, but that mental process doesn’t start in the game. It begins on the practice court.

A player must commit him or herself to the task. Free throw shooting transitions from physical to mental when a player does not prepare him or herself properly. For young players, shooting from the line can get boring and monotonous. It’s often difficult to focus and zone in on each and every practice shot, which ultimately carries over to the game.

Three things are important when approaching this.

1. Knowing how to work on shooting.
2. Giving the time commitment.
3. And Sacrifice.

These can be difficult challenges to ask young players to comply with.

Much like ball handling and other eroding aspects of the game, poor free throw shooting can be attributed -- to a great degree -- to the climate of the times.

Today’s athletes are still making the same time commitment to the game as they did 15 or 20 years ago, but that time is not being maximized. Once upon a time, an athlete would wake up and hit the practice court to run stations, which was followed by one-on-one, three-on-three and five-on-five drills. And the day would conclude with game action in the evening. It was 7 to 8-hour commitment.

In today’s environment, the actual ‘time’ commitment has not changed. However, now players are spending 30 to 40 minutes playing in actual games and the other 7-plus hours is spent around the event.

Today the summer is spent traveling and playing in tournaments, as opposed to the camp setting, which was the norm years back. Such an environment is not conducive to success at the free throw line, not to mention many other aspects of the game.

There seems to be an erosion of the perception of the game should be played.