The following is from David Craine, Assistant Boys’ Basketball Coach, Saint Patrick High School:
The importance of free throw shooting cannot be overstated. Not only have countless games been won or lost directly due to free throws; good free throw shooting can keep a team in a game, thus drastically altering late-game strategy.
The key to free throw shooting is consistency, not only in technique, but in game situations as well. Much attention is given to pressure free throws in late-game situations, but equal importance must be placed on all free throws. A missed free throw at the end of a one-point loss is no more a factor in the game than the free throw missed in the first quarter of the same game. In fact, one could argue that non-pressure free throws are more important for two reasons: first, they can ensure a lead that eliminates do-or-die situations; and second, consistent free throw shooting can build the confidence necessary when pressure situations do arise.
Consistency is also the key to free throw technique. The shot must be a series of deliberate, repeatable actions. This aspect of free throw shooting makes it similar to a baseball swing, a golf swing, or a place kicker’s technique in football. However, consistency is even more crucial to free throw shooting technique because of the nature of the task: the target is stationary and it is always the exact same distance. In these respects and others, free throw shooting is an altogether different shot than the jump shot, and should be approached as such.
The failure to recognize the differences between the jump shot and the free throw is the greatest obstacle most players need to overcome in order to be consistent from the line. Much of the technique involved the jump shot is in response to the variable conditions of defensive pressure, movement of the shooter, distance and angle of the shot, and the time available to the shooter to execute. None of these factors is involved in the free throw. The failure to acknowledge these differences often results in the misconception that the free throw is merely a standing version of the jump shot. This is the primary reason that many players are unable to elevate their free throw percentage much higher than their field goal percentage.
The other major misconception about free throws involves coaches’ attempts to duplicate game pressure in a practice environment. This simply cannot be done. The nervous energy and adrenaline rush associated with live-game free throws are a result of real-life situations; they are chemical reactions of the central nervous system, and any attempt to trick the body into these reactions is futile. The brain knows what is real and what isn’t, and won’t respond as it would in game conditions. A better approach for dealing with this energy is to occupy the mind as much as possible with the fundamentals and mental imagery necessary for the shot. To this end, the player should be indoctrinated with as much minutiae about free throw shooting technique (within reason) as possible, and told to concentrate on these details throughout the duration of his time on the line.
Each free throw, regardless of the situation, should be approached with the same frame of mind. It is important that the shooter occupy his mind with a series of mental images and a “checklist” of fundamentals to adhere to each time he goes to the line. Aside from the obvious benefit of a fundamentally sound technique, the checklist and mental imagery can help to minimize distractions and give the player positive thoughts on which to focus.
Many players find it helpful to visualize the ball going in the basket before the shot. This technique is common to many sports and has proven to be quite effective in free throw shooting.
Another visualization technique involves the “glass hallway.” A free throw has two variables: 1.distance; and 2. lateral accuracy. Distance is, of course, how far the ball must travel: whether the shot will be short, long, or in the hoop. Lateral accuracy then, is the other variable: left, right, or on-target down the middle. The glass hallway technique, followed properly, can eliminate lateral variance on virtually every free throw, leaving distance as the lone variable. The visualization is this: imagine two huge panes of glass extending from floor to ceiling, with one on either side of, and touching, the rim. They extend from the backboard to the free throw line, creating a glass hallway, exactly the width of the rim, from the player to the basket. From the moment of set-up, the ball must remain in this hallway, never touching the sides. The only possible way to set up for a free throw without breaking the “glass” is with the shooting foot, knee, hip, elbow, shoulder and the ball in the confines of this hallway and to remain there until the shot is completed. To better visualize the glass hallway, it can be helpful to find marks on the floor, such as the dotted line, the lettering on the baseline, and the basket standard, that are in the glass hallway. A quick scan of these marks, beginning with marks in the lane, up the basket standard, and finally to the basket (as Michael Jordan did on his free throws) can help to better visualize the glass hallway.
With the proper grip and ball alignment, lateral misses are virtually eliminated. This frees the player to concentrate solely on developing the muscle memory, or “touch” required for distance accuracy.
The following is a breakdown of body movements, from the feet to the head, necessary for repeatable free throw accuracy. These are not in chronological order-they are merely descriptions of the role each body part should play in the free throw. After the Body section, is a chronological review of the free throw process.