Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On the shooting of free throws

With my friend John's permission, I thought I'd let the rest of you in on a little bit of correspondence that shows (a) how I used to use arguably insane over-analysis to compensate for lack of innate athletic ability back in the day, and (b) why I like John Gallop so much. (Namely, any guy capable of writing, "..the sweatshirt was branded as of the opponent/ arch rival/ enemy/ demon-spawned Hill Country Christian School..." is A-OK in my book.) If, by the way, you don't have time to read the whole correspondence, then skip to the end and just read John's last e-mail, which is the one I enjoy the most.

With no further ado, I give you the Peril and Doc Gallop on the shooting of free throws.

First, we have John committing the fatal mistake of asking me for advice:

Your freethrow training expertise‏
From: Dr. John Gallop
Sent: Tue 1/13/09 10:17 PM


Max is now playing 5th/6th grade basketball on his school team, which is a lot of fun. He’s a good ball handler, and pretty coordinated, but in his first three games this season he has missed a lot of freethrows. This sounds simple, but how did you become so good at them?

He and I shot freethrows together after his practice tonight, maybe 80 each, first ten each, then alternating, then make-it take-it. We started at bad-to-mediocre and progressed to rotten. I’m thinking he may benefit by shooting at 13 feet, say, until he’s 80-90%, then moving back from there. I don’t want him to get discouraged, and he isn’t, but the shots mentally almost became impossible for us.

Any advice, or nothing magical, take a break, and just keep shooting?

Now you have to know that if you ask me for advice, you'd better get a cup of coffee and settle in, because when I advise a man, by George I advise him. So here's my response:
RE: Your freethrow training expertise‏
From: Ken Pierce (
Sent: Wed 1/14/09 1:13 PM
To: John Gallop


It's all about designing the motion so that as many variables as possible are removed. Once the motion has as few variables as possible, then you break the motion mentally down into a set of stages that you can walk through mentally on each shot -- checkpoints, as it were. Then you drill the motion over and over until it's ingrained into your muscle memory.

For example, his motion should be designed so that at no stage during the entire execution of the shot does the center of the ball move to the left or right of the imaginary plane that runs from the center-back of one rim through to the center-back of the other rim, perpendicular to the floor. If there's never any point in the motion in which the center of the ball leaves that plane, then it is physically impossible to miss the shot to the left or right, and then you only have to worry about length and arc. Futhermore, his center of gravity should remain in that same plane throughout the shot exactly as the center of the ball does. As another example of this principle, he should come to a brief pause in his pre-shooting position to make sure that his back is perfectly straight up and down -- you come to a pause because this ensures that his body is in stable planes both horizontally and vertically -- and his body's center of gravity should then move only up and down, never forward/backward or left/right. That reduces the question of the arc to hand motion and timing: if your hands do the same thing every time, and your body's center of gravity moves only vertically, then the arc coming out of the shot is always the same.

Finally: no wasted motion. Any motion that is superflous, is the introduction of an unnecessary variable. Anything you do, you can do wrong; the more motion you incorporate into your movement the more ways you can screw up and the fewer free throws go in.

My own motion I can still do without thinking about it even though I don't play any more and haven't in years. His doesn't have to look like this as long as the basic principles are maintained (in fact it's probably easier if he has his feet at close to a 45-degree angle, as opposed to squared up the way I did it; my way only works if you have developed a great deal of flexibility in your shoulder muscles so that you can have your elbow in line even while your shoulders are square):

Center myself with respect to the goal, feet two inches behind the line. Take the ball from the official with both hands. Three bounces, square it up so that the seams are parallel to the free throw line, spin it back into my hands to make sure the seams spin true. Right hand behind the ball, fingers spread, index finger positioned properly. Bend at waist, then at knees (this gets weight onto balls of feet), straighten back to perfect vertical with knees still bent. Sight onto the back of the rim. Deep breath, let it out. Elevate ball to just above eye-level, tuck elbow so that elbow, pit of stomach, nose, and center of ball are all in the goal-to-goal plane. Visualize ball dropping through net (don't underestimate the importance of this step, which tells your subconscious that you want to make this one). Shoot, using legs and arms, finishing straight up and down with hand high and wrist snapped. Hold follow-through pose while ball is flight and internally check balance and body alignment (so that anything I did wrong I can fix on the next shot). Watch ball drop through the hole.

When I missed, I knew within a split-second that I had missed, because I didn't end up where I was supposed to. In that case, I never held the follow-through pose; instead I instantly broke back down into ready-to-move position and moved laterally to the side of the lane that I expected the rebound to come to. (Part of the reason I started two inches behind the line was margin of error in case I accidentally edged slightly forward in that first lateral move.) That way I not only made most of my free throws -- but I also got a ridiculously high percentage (relatively speaking) of the rebounds on my own misses, since I knew before anybody else did where the ball was headed, and since very few high-school players who are responsible for blocking out the shooter on a free throw, actually bother to block out. (On the rare occasions when I knew that the other team's defender took his block-out responsibilities seriously, I generally moved slightly in the WRONG direction for just a moment, to pull him into over-reaction, and then as he made contact I did an instant spin-move back to the side I expected the rebound to come to. I don't remember ever having to deal with a high-school defender who was prepared for that move.)

Hope that helps...

RE: Your freethrow training expertise‏
From: Dr. John Gallop
Sent: Wed 1/14/09 6:29 PM
To: 'Ken Pierce' (

Thank you, Kenny. I have taken the liberty of forwarding your e-mail to Max’s coach, to the parents of each of his teammates, and to two of my brothers. Even a slight improvement in this aspect will greatly improve Max’s team’s chance of success. I’m glad I asked you. Thank you again!

Now we get to the fruits of John's labor, as passed on to me a few days later:
(No Subject)‏
From: Dr. John Gallop
Sent: Wed 1/28/09 8:02 PM
To: 'Ken Pierce' (


Max’s and my freethrow shooting has much improved! After his last practice I was making about 80%, and it started to seem easy, like I shouldn’t have missed the other 20%.

Last night at an away high school game of the kids’ school, there was a half-time freethrow shooting contest- Make 5 in a minute, get a sweatshirt. I was thinking,”Cool! I’m primed for this; I’ll probably make 5 in my first 6 or 7 shots. I’ll be wearing that sweatshirt in less than 15 seconds!”

When they call out to the crowd, this lady and I both volunteer, so I sit down and let her go. The lady makes the 5 in a minute and sits down. The guy asks, “Anybody else?,” so I jump up again, and I go to the line.

My early optimism was based upon my experience at Max’s practice, but I underestimated the effect of using the elementary boys/high school girls-sized ball, which is slightly smaller and lighter. It took me a good ten shots to range-in, as I threw up 10 beautiful, high-arced, perfectly back-spun bricks off the front rim. With 30 seconds to go, I had only made one shot, and the thought of the humiliation to me and my two daughters watching in the stands in front of many of their classmates and parent friends of mine, especially after the lady had just succeeded, flashed briefly in and out of my mind. I gathered, found the range, and sank the final four, with a few seconds to spare.

It was an away game, so of course, the sweatshirt was branded as of the opponent/ arch rival/ enemy/ demon-spawned Hill Country Christian School. When he handed it to me, the representative of the vile institution asked me if I would put it on, over my divinely-inspired royal blue Summit Christian Academy Boosters Club sport shirt, to which I replied, “Sure. If you’ll give it to me, I’ll put it on.” When I did, all our fans booed quite loudly and the opposing all cheered. I faced them all, spread my arms up to them in the stands and yelled in mock exultation of victory. I took the sweatshirt off on returning to my seat, and gave it to a cheerleader of the opponent when she asked me for it after one of her schoolmates sitting behind me seemed too cool to express interest in a gifted already-worn sweatshirt.

Our team let the game get closer than it should’ve, but we won. Overall, a very fun time. Thank you again for your instruction; it continues to pay off!



At 8:53 PM, Blogger Kris with a K said...

Great exchange!

Your remark of "because when I advise a man, by George I advise him." reminds me of a comment my russian grandmother once made about my uncle (her son in law's brother...ya folla?)......"when you ask George a question, you should really have a chair handy."

(when you read 'ya folla', you need to hear it with Robert Shaw's irish accent from The Sting.)

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

[chuckling delightedly] That's a great line. Was his name really George?

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Kris with a K said...

Yes, it is. Another: in my dad's family, the word 'actually' is used. A LOT. And it is pronounced slowly. As in: "you are so very wrong; you couldn't be wronger, and I am now going to point out to you and everyone else here the numerous ways I am righter than you, the ways you have erred, and will support my position will nonsensical logic based on half-information and transient theories."

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

[holding stomach with both hands] Kris, you're killing me here...

[composing self] I'd never thought of it, but "actually" said slowly and scornfully enough really does mean exactly that. Subtext is everything, I suppose. [sliding off into helpless laughter again]

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