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Using Imagery to Improve Free Throw Shooting

by Brian McCormick, CSCS
Director, High Five Hoop School, Sacramento, CA

Coaches say basketball is at least 50% mental; yet, no coach spends 50% of his practice time on mental skills or mental training. But, if basketball is a mental game, how much mental practice is necessary?

One area psychological skills training benefits a basketball player is free throw shooting. Free throw shooting is the one moment during a game where the action stops for the player and the player has time to think and concentrate. Golf is considered a mental game because the ball waits for the golfer; the golfer has all he time he needs to set-up and prepare for his shot. Likewise, a basketball player has an eternity (10 seconds) to prepare for a free throw attempt.

Psychological skills training-like other aspects of one's game-must be practiced in order to be effective. Players can spend time visualizing their shooting technique or playing good defense before practice each day, and as they get more comfortable using the technique, they will improve and it will be more effective.

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Some general principles accepted by most sports psychologist include:

  1. Make imagery as realistic and detailed as possible; use all the senses.
  2. Practice imagery regularly.
  3. Use mental imagery while in a relaxed setting or frame of mind; the use of a relaxation technique-such as deep and calm breathing-prior to the imagery is beneficial.
  4. Conduct the imagery in real time.
  5. Imagine the execution of the skill and the result.
  6. Practice Perfection.

The final point is most important; only in one's mind can one practice perfectly. He can create an image of himself shooting the free throw perfectly, and this image has the same effect on the brain as shooting in reality.

One drill I have used successfully to incorporate mental imagery into practice is Mental Shooting, a drill Paul Westhead described in Jerry Krause and Ralph Pim's Coaching Basketball.

  1. Shoot five-Physical Practice
  2. Picture five-Mental Practice
  3. Close eyes and picture five-Mental Practice
  4. Close eyes and shoot five-Mental/Physical Practice
  5. Open eyes and shoot five-Physical Practice

It took a while to get my players to buy into the shooting program, but once they did, this drill helped one player fix the major flaw in her shot. When shooting with one's eyes open, one places internal pressure on the shot and expects to make every free throw. Once a player misses, she naturally starts to think about the reason she missed. Often, she feels more pressure on her next shot and the pressure produces muscle tension.

With my player, she tried to place the ball into the basket. When she closed her eyes and shot without any expectation of making the shot, she relaxed and finished her shot. She shot with more arch and made more free throws with her eyes closed than open. She learned to feel the difference between her shot with her eyes closed and her eyes open, and then tried to mimic her shot with her eyes closed all the time. In this way, correcting a flaw was not as difficult because she knew she had the shot in her; it was simply a matter of finding the shot and making it into a habit.

During games, this use of imagery can be useful. In Basketball Fundamentals, Jay Mikes says, "The mind cannot center on two things at once. As one set of sensations or images moves into the center stage of your mind, the others fade into the background," (46). When shooting a free throw, the shooter must fine center on the center of the rim; if the player worries about a past miss or focuses on using more legs, he is failing to shoot optimally with the correct focus of his attention. Proper visual centering is essential for a great free throw shooter; any shooter who shoots with his attention distracted will shoot less than optimally.

One way to quiet the mind and shoot optimally is the use of mental imagery. Before toeing the line for the free throw, the player visualizes himself shooting the perfect free throw; with the image fresh in his mind, he then centers his attention on the basket and makes the free throw. Mikes believes this is of particular importance when shooting after a miss; "the reason for doing this is that you have a short-term visual memory, and if you shoot with the image of a missed shot in your mind, then your eyes will naturally tend to focus on where your last shot hit the rim instead of correctly on the center point of the basket," (62).

The Mental Shooting Drill and the use of mental imagery prior to shooting free throws during a game are effective means to improve a player and a team's free throw shooting. Psychological Skills Training is an important-and underrated-facet of skill and team development, and one area where a team or player can gain a competitive advantage over his opponents.

In close games, coaches always bemoan the mental errors; could've, should've, would've. With shooting percentages hovering around 70%, and teams regularly shooting 20+ free throws a game, teams typically lose at least 6 possible points per game, which means the difference between a win and a loss in many games. With everyone looking for the edge in these close games, Psychological Skills Training may be the answer and the difference in the outcome of the game.

Contact Information:

Brian McCormick, CSCS, Director
High Five Hoop School, Sacramento, CA
Phone 503.975.2980
Contact Coach McCormick by email.
General Information.

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