Two common flaws in free throw shooting instruction

I watched several games this morning, and I saw and heard things that are common to coaches, but also incorrect.

One player missed a free throw short. On the way back on defense, her coach yelled at her to bend her knees on her next free throw. This was a misattribution of the error. This is very common. A coach or parent sees a shot that misses short and assumes that a lack of knee bend is the issue. To sound smart, the coach or parent yells at the player to bend her knees because everyone knows that is the answer, and that’s coaching.

This player did not miss because of knee bend. She missed because she was off-balance. As she bent, she rolled forward onto her toes and she lost her balance. Rather than extend upward powerfully, she lacked the base to generate sufficient force and the ball hit the front of the rim. If she attempted to bend her knees more with this same technique, the deeper knee bend would have made her more off balance, with her knees moving out in front of her toes, likely leading to a less accurate shot. The solution was not a deeper knee bend, but learning to bend correctly.

Throughout the day, I saw a number of players with free-throw flaws that had nothing to do with shooting technique, and everything to do with general movement technique. One girl bent almost entirely onto one leg. Several girls had extreme knee valgus of one leg or the other. Many of these girls exhibited the opposite of a well-organized body, and force leaked somewhere due to the poor basic movement patterns. These players can practice and practice, and worry about their elbow and knee bend as much as they want, but real improvement will not come until they improve their basic movement patterns and apply improved movement patterns to their shooting technique. These players are poor movers, not poor shooters. Unfortunately, coaches tend only to notice the poor shooting, not the poor moving, so they will never address the issue fully and improvements will be short-changed.

The second issue that I saw was coaches talking to a shooter about her technique as the officials tossed the ball to the free throw shooter. When a coach yells, “Bend your knees” or “keep your elbow in” to a shooter as she receives the ball, her attention diverts from the rim to her body part. She attempts to control her shooting technique consciously as opposed to allowing her subconscious to perform her well-trained motor pattern. Diverting one’s attention internally as opposed to maintaining an external attention on the target almost always leads to sub-optimal performance.

I watched as one player lined up her shot, looked at her elbow, moved her elbow into a more aligned position, and then airballed the shot. Her attention was diverted away from the goal (making the shot).

If a coach feels the need to instruct before a player shoots, the instruction should focus externally. Rather than saying “bend your knees” or “follow through”, a coach could say “lift” or something related to the height of the ball.

As a shooting coach, these are two of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, few people recognize these as poor coaching. It is accepted that a coach should instruct before a shot or that knee bend is the solution to all problems. It’s this type of accepted wisdom that leads to sub-optimal performance and a lack of improvement despite a perception of effort to improve.

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