Free Throw Shooting and Practice Repetitions

In our first league game of the season, we went 12/30 from the free-throw line. In our third league game of the season, we shot 15/20 from the free-throw line. In two weeks, we improved 35% from the free-throw line. I am a genius!

Honestly, I have seen shooting coaches on the internet make similar proclamations. However, they were serious; mine is in jest. In all honesty, I did absolute nothing. We did not spend extra time on free-throw shooting, I did not encourage players to spend extra time in the gym, and I did not increase the amount of instruction. The most that I did, during halftime of the second game, was to tell one player who was struggling to stop thinking at the FT line.

One game is a small sample size. One cannot draw conclusions about a player’s or team’s shooting ability after one game. Similarly, one practice session is a small sample size and cannot tell a shooting coach if a player improved or not.

Improvement is subjective. In motor learning, we do not talk about improvement, but learning. Learning is not something that we can see, as learning occurs in the brain. Therefore, we infer learning through performance. However, performance is variable and may be affected by performance variables such as the environment, fatigue, and pressure. In terms of improving a team’s FT shooting performance, if we manage to get out better FT shooters to the line more often, our team FT% is likely to improve. Does this mean that we learned how to shoot better?

Each of my players has a preferred execution of his shooting skill. Some are better than others. However, with primarily adult players, their shooting motor patterns are well-learned. They are stable and consistent – that is, from shot to shot, there is little variability between shots; this is one aspect of learning a skill – controlling the degrees of freedom and creating a highly repeatable skill. Their motor pattern is retained after a period of time with no practice (day to day), and their motor pattern transfers from practice to games or from one gym to another. Therefore, regardless of the success of their shooting, their shooting program is learned, as it is stable and consistent and shows retention and transferability.

In two weeks, there is not enough time to learn a new shooting motor pattern. Once we have acquired a preferred way to perform a skill, it is hard to change this preference, even if the preference is suboptimal. Initially, players resist any change to their motor program because change feels weird or awkward compared to their preferred skill execution. To create change, one must create instability in the motor program – instability will lead to decreased performance. Before trying to change one’s shot, the player has to understand the initial performance decrements or he is likely to lose confidence in the process. This is one reason it is best to change one’s shot during the off-season when there is less performance pressure and more time to engage in meaningful, deliberate practice.

During the season, we believe that our practice leads to learning of a skill like shooting. However, for the most part, it does not. Practicing the same thing over and over does not lead to learning: if I practice my basic multiplication tables that I learned in elementary school, I am not learning anything. I know my multiplication tables. Now, it is possible that I know something that is incorrect (I believe that 2×2=5). However, as long as I continue to practice with the incorrect answer, there is no change. There is no learning. The same is true with shooting. I may not shoot 100%, but as I practice my 75% shooting skill, if I am repeating the same motor pattern over and over, there is no learning.

Knowing this, why do we spend so much time on shooting repetitions? When we practice our shooting skill (again, based on in-season practice for adult players, not children learning their shooting skill initially), we are overlearning the skill. Overlearning reduces the mental effort necessary to perform the skill, and makes the skill more resistant to external stress. As explained by Annie Murphy Paul in Time:

Evidence of why this is so was provided by a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience. Assistant professor Alaa Ahmed and two of her colleagues in the integrative physiology department at the University of Colorado-Boulder asked study subjects to move a cursor on a screen by manipulating a robotic arm. As they did so, the researchers measured the participants’ energy expenditure by analyzing how much oxygen they inhaled and how much carbon dioxide they breathed out. When the subjects first tackled the exercise, they used up a lot of metabolic power, but this decreased as their skill improved. By the end of the learning process, the amount of effort they expended to carry out the task had declined about 20 percent from when they started.

Now, some players overlearn a poorly executed skill. Think of Dwight Howard – as much as TV analysts suggest that he needs to practice more, it is hard for me to believe that he has not shot thousands upon thousands of FTs in his lifetime. Entering this season, he has shot 6448 FTs in regular season games alone, not to mention practice attempts, and his career high FT% occurred in his rookie season. He has a suboptimal shooting skill, but it is a stable and consistent motor pattern (unfortunately for him).

For most players, the overlearning enhances their performance as it enables them to better handle performance variables such as the audience, fatigue, or pressure. From Murphy Paul’s article:

In fact, research on the “audience effect” shows that once we’ve overlearned a complex task, we actually perform it better when other people are watching. When we haven’t achieved the reduction of mental effort that comes with overlearning, however, the additional stress of an audience makes stumbles more likely.

The overlearning of the skill, and the additional practice repetitions once the motor pattern has been learned,  help with the mental aspect of skill performance. These repetitions do not necessarily mean that one has better learned the skill (the player still may use a suboptimal technique), but these repetitions may enhance one’s comfort and confidence and improve performance. This is similar to the reason why we use routines at the free-throw line. After all, a more confident shooter with a suboptimal shooting technique is likely to out-shoot an unconfident shooter with a suboptimal technique.

For our purposes, it is important to know why we are practicing and our purpose for our practice repetitions. During the season, trying to learn a new shooting motor pattern is probably not realistic due to the performance pressures involved in playing games every week, and the time, energy, and concentration required to learn a new motor pattern. Therefore, when we are shooting at practice, our goal is not learning. The purpose is overlearning; the purpose is gaining more confidence in the preferred skill execution to make that execution more resistant to performance variables (of course, with 1 or 2 of my young players who do not play very much, I am interested in them making changes to their shooting technique in order to improve in the long term).

I did not add repetitions to our practice because I knew that I was not changing anyone’s shooting motor program in one or two weeks. I also knew that one game was a small sample size, and that it was unlikely that we were that bad at shooting free throws. Therefore, to me, overreacting and making a big deal out of the missed free throws seemed like more of a negative than a positive. If the extra repetitions are aimed at overlearning – and therefore improving the mental side of shooting free throws – is it a good idea to emphasize and reinforce the negative? To build confidence, I did not mention the problem, and when one player stressed about it, I told him to stop thinking. I did not want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, I knew that we were better than 40% shooters, and I knew that our performance would improve, with or without more repetitions.

For players who need to change their shooting motor patterns, that will have to wait until the off-season (for the most part), if they have the time and energy to invest in making that change. For those without the time or energy, it is better to overlearn one’s preferred skill execution and reduce the impact of performance variables. That approach will not make a 60% shooter into a 90% shooter, but the overlearning should prevent a 60% shooter from backsliding into a 55% shooter. The only way for a 60% shooter to become a 90% shooter is to make major changes to his or her shooting motor pattern, and that is an arduous process that most players are uninterested in undertaking.

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