Why everyone should shoot like Steve Nash

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 4.35. Similar articles available in Brian McCormick’s Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters, Volume 4.

I believe Steve Nash is the best shooter to play in the NBA, at least since the NBA incorporated the three-point line. While my belief is based primarily on observation, the numbers support the theory. John Hollinger, the creator of the player efficiency rankings, ranks Nash as the all-time #1 shooter based on a combined shooting range (CSR) which adds 2-point percentage, 3-pt % and FT%.

According to Hollinger’s rankings, four players are career 180 Shooters: Nash (184.9), Steve Kerr (181.2), Reggie Miller (180.7) and Mark Price (180.7). Also, Steve Nash and Larry Bird are the only players to finish multiple seasons in the even more difficult 90-50-40 club (90% FT, 50% 2-pt FG% and 40% 3-pt FG%). Bird accomplished the feat twice, while Nash has accomplished the feat four times (’06, ’08, ’09, and ’10). Based on the numbers, I do not see much room to argue for anyone else.

If we agree that Nash is the best shooter of all time, why don’t more players emulate him?

Last season during the play-offs, several NBA bloggers tweeted that players who mimic a shot before shooting a free throw shot a higher percentage than those who did not. This was anecdotal and observational, and not a real study, but science supports the claim.

Nash, of course, motions to the official to hold the ball so that he can go through his routine and take a practice shot without the ball. Few other players have copied this routine even as Nash as evolved into this generation’s best shooter. One would think that hundreds of youth players would copy Nash in the same way that many in previous generations copied Pete Maravich drills in an attempt to handle the ball like the Pistol.

Robert Singer developed a five-step Performance Model for closed skill (self-paced) performance. His five steps were:

  1. Readying
  2. Imaging
  3. Focusing
  4. Executing
  5. Evaluating

When we instruct youth players to use a pre-performance routine, we essentially use this model.

The Readying phase is used to create the proper attitude for performance and to control emotions. I instruct players to receive the ball away from the line and take in a deep breath through the nose and out through the mouth. This helps to slow the heart rate and eliminate tension.

A pre-performance routine accomplishes three main physical goals

  1. Stabilizes the motor pattern
  2. Adds consistency
  3. Establishes a rhythm

When Nash attempts his practice shot, he uses the Imaging step. Rather than pure visualization, where a player may imagine a previous made shot, Nash adds the kinesthetic element. He imagines the ball going through the basket, but he also feels  the shot.

This feeling helps to establish the rhythm and stabilize the motor pattern. Our motor programs are stored in our long-term memory which is why I can pick up a basketball after not shooting for six months and shoot with essentially the same technique as I did when I was in college (in fact, I believe most shooting changes as we age result from decreasing leg strength and/or flexibility issues, not from forgotten skills; I still shoot 85+% from the free throw line, but my three-pointers are less consistent because I do not lift weights as much as five years ago, and my legs are not nearly as strong. In The Art of a Beautiful Game, Chris Ballard argued for shooting as an innate skill because Steve Kerr was able to shoot well despite not playing or practicing. This is simply an affect of long-term memory, as learned skills do not disappear, though other factors – like strength – which affect shooting may worsen someone’s shooting).

However, to access our motor patterns, we need to move them to our working memory or short-term memory. From a skill standpoint, this is why we warm-up before a game. Unfortunately, motor patterns or physical skills are stored in working memory for only 20-30 seconds, so a warm-up is has little effect from a skill execution standpoint, though there is likely a mental benefit to a good warm-up.

When Nash takes a pre-practice shot without the ball, he is accessing the motor pattern and moving it to the working memory. He stabilizes the motor pattern, so he can retrieve the pattern more quickly and effectively than someone who shoots cold. His routine also rhythmically prepares the movement. Most motor skills have a rhythm to them, and Nash feels the rhythm of his shot during the practice shot rather than shooting the real free throw cold.

What does this mean?

From a performance standpoint, everyone should adopt a pre-performance routine like Nash’s that incorporates a practice shot. From a learning standpoint, it is easy to see why shooting free throws in bulk has a small effect on performance improvements in a game. If I shoot 100 free throws one after the other, the motor pattern stays in my working memory. I retrieve it from long-term memory only once. As a less experienced shooter, this block practice helps with the consistency of one’s shot. However, during a game, every time that I go to the free throw line I have to retrieve the motor pattern from my long-term memory. To prepare for game performance after learning the skill, players should shoot two free throws, engage in another activity for 30 seconds, and shoot free throws again to recreate the memory retrieval process from long-term memory.

Finally, the timing of the routine is important. There is a high correlation between the routine’s consistency and the skill’s success. The timing does not refer to the duration of the routine, but the relative timing of each aspect.

If you break down Nash’s routine, he takes his practice free throw. Then he receives the ball from the official and looks at the basket. Next he takes three dribbles. He bends his knees, comes set and looks at the basket. Then he shoots.

If we look at Nash’s routine as four segments – (1) practice shot; (2) receive ball and look at basket; (3) three dribbles; and (4) bends, comes set and looks at basket – the relative time for each segment should be consistent.

One study found that those who did their normal routine at twice the speed had minimal performance differences, while those who added a new element to their routine – an extra dribble – had noticeable performance drops. Therefore, if each of the segments takes one second in a normal routine, you can hurry through the routine with each segment taking a half-second, but you should not add or eliminate an element from the routine.

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