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One day during shooting I thought about how many consecutive free throws I could make. It ended in a bet (mainly with myself) that I could do 100 in a row by the end of the season. Working on that goal on and off for a few weeks, I realized that it is hard but still possible. I made 29 consecutive on day one and since then improved to 38. That does not seem like a big improvement, but the number of longer streaks increased a lot and it definitely helped improve my form and my overall shooting.

As I expected, it's more of a "mind game". The challenge seems to be to stay concentrated doing the repetitive task of shooting a free throw for at least fifteen minutes without losing focus. Every time my mind wanders for just a brief moment, chances are I miss the next shot.

My question is, how do pro athletes (from whatever sport) deal with problems like that? I watched the World Darts Championships recently. On that level many of the throws are easy (theoretically). The challenge is more to score consistently under pressure over the duration of a match. I guess the same is true in many other sports where precision is important. Once you mastered the technique, how do you fade out everything else and repeat that same move over and over again without losing focus and precision?

  • It's definitely about both. It's a basketball challenge, but I think it must be approached more generally. Some of the most important things I learned about basketball (as a player and coach) came from other fields of sports. – martin Jan 30 '13 at 19:52
  • Surprised no one recommended "granny-style" (google Rick Barry free throws). The mechanics of it are easiest to replicate over and over and over again, and are less susceptible to muscle fatigue. – PoloHoleSet Jun 12 '17 at 15:32
  • I haven’t worked at it in a while but there’s an app I’ve been curious to try out in a while which might be useful for others too. It’s called Homecourt and uses your phone’s camera and some AI to provide feedback about your shooting angle. There’s also an interesting YouTube video about consistency in free throw shooting which just came out today (featuring Steve Nash): youtu.be/BKIOqbx3sbU. – martin Mar 30 at 5:19
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I can give some advice as to what I did to improve my free throws and how that may help in your quest for 100 consecutive. Just to give you a measure, I left high school shooting 27% from the free throw line. Yes, you read correctly, 27%. I'm 6'5" and played center while in high school.

After being recruited, my future college coach told me that if I wanted to play my freshman year I needed to get that above 65%. By the time my freshman season started I was shooting 84% (from preseason averages) and would regularly shoot over 90% when shooting 100 FT at the end of practice.

My method:

  • Main thing I needed to change was to stop treating my free throw shot as "unique" from my other shooting attempts during the game. Instead, I shot my FTs just like I shoot my jumpers in a game. For me that was simply one dribble and shoot.
  • When practicing FTs I always made sure to do them after doing some other drill, be that running, shooting, dribbling, etc. That way you get used to shooting FTs when your legs are tired, arms are tired, mind is tired, or anything of the sort.
  • While practicing, every FT must be as if its the first meaning, don't make one FT and then just keep your legs stationary while someone passes you back the ball. Re-set every single time so that you get used to having to find your optimum set up.
  • Fix your form! This will not only help you shoot FTs but will also help your jumper. Add arc to your shot; that's probably the best thing most can do for their game - simply improve the chance the ball will go through the basket. The higher the arc, the larger the area the ball must be within in order to go through the hoop...physics.
  • Spread your fingers out as much as you can. I had a bad habit of keeping my fingers really close together which didn't give me much control of the ball. Spread fingers also force your hand to "flick" your wrist better in turn leading to better ball rotation on the shot.
  • Don't forget about the basics: bend legs, hands in cookie jar, etc.

So how will this help with consecutive FT makes? Muscle memory and stamina. I'm out of college now and haven't practice free throws in god knows how long yet I continue to shoot a high percentage whenever I play any sort of league. After reading your post (yesterday) I went to the gym and shot 100 FTs to see how I would fare: 92/100. I didn't keep track of how many in a row (I missed my first 3) but I'm fairly certain I was over 40 in a row before my last miss which ironically enough was at the hundredth FT (lack of focus I guess).

  • Thanks a lot. I like your point, that "EVERY FT must be as if its the first". Especially when I do jump shots and I have a rebounder, I tend to get into a "flow". I stop thinking and the movements become very automatic. This definitely helps raising my percentage, but eventually not thinking too much leads to not concentrating enough. For my free throw shooting this is not such a big problem, because I usually do it on my own, which means I get my own rebounds and reset for each shot. – martin Feb 12 '13 at 21:25
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    Rhythm still seems to be very important for me. Most of my misses happen after something broke my routine. – martin Feb 12 '13 at 21:30
  • There is one point I'm not so sure: I've always been an advocate for a high shooting arc. I've been shooting a high arc and I still teach it this way. However reading (and thinking) about the physics, it's not that clear: A higher arc means a larger target area, but it also means less control and a faster ball speed (and thus less margin for error, in case you hit the rim). It seems to be a bit of a trade-off. – martin Feb 12 '13 at 21:54
  • @martin there is definitely an optimum there, the higher is not always better. On the other hand relatively flat-trajectory shots have a much higher chance of deflecting. You want the angle to be about 45°; see point #8 breakthroughbasketball.com/blog/index.php/… – posdef Feb 13 '13 at 7:22
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There's a reason that Sports Psychology has grown into a pretty large niche of psychology overall. :)

Mastering one's mind will (in my opinion) always be a constant pursuit of mankind in general, and absolutely in sports. Whether it's hitting 100 free throws in a row in basketball, driving the ball down the fairway every time in golf, or kicking the last-second field goal in American football, athletes will always have areas to improve because (presumably) once you get to the highest level of your sport your muscle memory is already set... all that's left is conquering your mind to make it not get in the way during the moments you need only your muscle memory.

Dr. John F. Murray is probably one of the more famous sports psychologists, and I'm betting he's always going to have work to do because of the complexity, training, and motivation that's involved.

Overall, I don't think there's a perfect answer to your question. Different people react in different ways to pressure and ability to focus. On top of that, psychologists apply different training methods to help people. Ultimately, the people that will succeed are the people that come closest to mind mastery.

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I'm afraid the answer is that it depends. If there were a specific answer, don't you think everyone would try to emulate it? ;)

I suggest looking at examples of what current athletes do to maintain focus. Here's one example about Dirk Nowitzki, currently a career 87.7 percent free throw shooter.

Also, it's worth pointing out that in basketball, no one has to shoot 100 free throws in a row since a player tends to get only one, two, or three shots in a "session" (of course there are exceptions but those are extremely rare). In that case, the challenge is probably remembering the routine from scratch.

  • I'm aware, that it's not really a game like situation. Of course it's a different challenge to maintain focus in for "just" one to three free throws (though under the pressure of a game situation). What I like about the whole idea, is to challenge the limits of my concentration span. I probably only chose freethrow shooting because that's something I'm already good (and persistent) at. – martin Jan 30 '13 at 19:45
  • I'm not looking for THE answer. I'm looking for some ideas, which might help me find my own approach. The Nowitzki example is a pretty nice one. I haven't heard that before. – martin Jan 30 '13 at 19:54
  • The most upvoted answer provides a way to achieve making 100 free throws in a row. – user16112 Feb 13 at 17:03
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A moderately high arc is best. Too high an arc means the ball travels too far. It looks great when it swishes, but the extra distance turns a 15-foot shot into an 18-footer and can result in some real clunkers.

A routine helps to focus. I count silently to six. One, two during two dribbles. Three, four when gripping the ball. Five for knee bend down and six for knee bend up and release.

When gripping the ball, I like to position it so that the long black lines are horizontal and so that the tip of my middle finger is in the center of one of those lines, preferably on the side with no logo stuff.

I'm right-handed, so I position my right foot just left of the center spot on the free-throw line. This puts my shooting arm in a straight line to the center of the rim. A straight line means if you hit the rim short or long, the ball still has a good chance of going in.

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