15 feet doesn’t seem like a lot. It’s little further than an average sized car, a distance that isn’t too hard for many NBA players to shoot from. In fact, anyone who’s ever picked up a basketball has probably shot from further.
The free throw line is a curious thing. It’s just another mark on the court, letting a player know just where they can take the best part of ten seconds to grab a ball and shoot from. There’s no defence, no rushing, there’s no movement that could force you to push your shot long or short.
It should be the easiest shot in basketball - but it’s not. In fact, for many it can prove the hardest.
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How hard is it to shoot a free throw?
Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace, even the late, great Wilt Chamberlain have all struggled from the charity stripe over their respective careers. But should a professional NBA player really have that kind of problem shooting a shot which is completely unguarded?
The main issue that most NBA fans will point to is technique. None of the players we’ve listed above have the smoothest free throw techniques. Shaq, for example, never looked comfortable, and used more of a pushing motion rather than a smoother technique.
This is obviously the core issue which relates to many bigger players who have never been coached a correct technique before. However, teams are apprehensive about spending time coaching it when they can instead focus on offensive or defensive sets.
This meant that players like Shaq, Dwight and Wilt were left waiting until the off-season to actually put work into their charity stripe shooting.
Unfortunately, none of these players have that Kobe-esque work ethic to do so.
It’s widely considered that Shaq and Kobe didn’t get along too well during their time together in L.A. because the now NBA analyst wasn’t putting in too much work during training. Whilst the likes of Kobe et al were putting in the hours in the gym, reports suggested that Shaq could’ve been doing more to improve himself.
Other players we’ve mentioned are likely to be included with this kind of mindset as well – especially the likes of Chamberlain, who was a self-confessed party goer throughout his NBA career.
Given time working on their free throw techniques, things could’ve been very different for all of the aforementioned players.
FREE THROW PSYCHOLOGY
It’s not only the actual physical motion of shooting that makes a solid free throw shooter so consistent. In fact, the psychology behind shooting from the foul stripe is arguably just as important as the movement itself.
This is proven when looking at a very interesting picture leaked from the Lakers dressing room during Dwight Howard’s ill-fated tenure in the City of Angels. During practice, Howard shot a very respectable 82% from the foul line. When translated into in-game shooting, this dropped to just 49.5% - a 32.5% drop.
Gregory Chertok is a player development consultant, working with Telos Sports Psychology Coaching – and was quoted on a similar subject via Boston.com. He believes that the mental aspect of free throw shooting is an incredibly important one, which could explain the drop in percentage for Howard.
“If a basketball player walks to the free throw line and thinks to himself, ‘I’ve banked the last few off the right edge of the rim, I’m probably going to do it again,’ that probably leads to an increase in muscular tension, a rapid heart rate, heightened body temperature, increased breathing patterns, and a shifting of focus, which then leads to kind of proving himself right.
“An athlete might view that as a physical thing, thinking, ‘my heart was beating, my arms were stiff, I have to work on my mechanics.’ But what preceded the muscular tension was his own cognitive appraisal and expectation of failure, which led to the bodily reactions, which led to the performance diminishment.”
This simply means that if you think you’re going to miss a free throw, like Howard probably does when stepping up to the line, you probably will.
THE CLUTCH FACTOR
Of course, many players also show an inability to deal with ‘clutch’ situations at the free throw line.
This normally counts most when a game is in the balance in the final few moments. This is when the pressure of simply shooting a free throw with everyone’s eyes on you suddenly gets ramped up as it can dictate the result of a game.
It’s not only centres and power forwards who have been well documented for struggling in these circumstances.
A number of players across all positions have experiences moments of weakness at the charity stripe with the game on the line. Even Lebron James has been guilty, most notably in an overtime loss to the Houston Rockets in the 2014-15 season – a game in which he shot 3-11 from the stripe, and missed two potential tying and winning foul shots with less than five seconds to go.
Lebron was obviously downbeat after the game, speaking with Jason Llyod from the Akron Beacon Journal: “I didn't come through for my teammates. I tripped the game up at the free throw line... I didn't come through. It won't happen again.”
Of course, the overall significance of clutch free throws is no different to those shot in the opening minutes of the game. They each amount to just a single point and they involve the same action – albeit with maybe some more fatigue to deal with.
However, sports and performance psychologist Dr. Chris Carr agrees that a clutch setting shouldn’t be a factor, via Bleacher Report: “It comes down to three things, concentration, composure, and confidence.
“Clutch isn't a performance or psychological attribute, it's consistency and confidence. It's being able to do what was practiced because you practiced the skill in the right ways. Choke is the opposite.
"You practice for those situations.”
Of course, if you ask any basketball player, be it on an NBA court shooting in game seven of the finals, or a local league player in a beat up gym – they might disagree with you…