This article was written by University of South Alabama assistant coach Darnell Archey.
Free throw shooting is and will always be a separating factor from an average team to a good team or going from a good scorer to a great scorer. We can all recall numerous games where the outcome is decided by an uncontested 15-foot shot, called a free throw.
So improving this shot is an imperative skill that all teams should master, and that will ultimately lead to winning.
As a former college player at Butler University, I was able to connect on 85 straight free throws over three seasons, which set the NCAA Division 1 record for most consecutive free throws made.
To achieve this record, I had a lot of good fortune, blessed with God given ability and hours of efficient and productive work in the gym. Along with these factors though there is a proven formula that can help any player improve on free throw shooting and help them become a great free throw shooter.
This is a no brainer, you must establish a routine that is comfortable and right for you. Many poor free throw shooters are not consistent in their routine and change their routine when they miss one or two free throws. I am firm believer that this is #1 key in developing muscle memory and shooting the same way every time.
My routine was to straddle the nail hole with ten toes facing the rim. I know this is unconventional because most of us were taught, if you are right handed then you line your right foot on the nail hole.
I was taught this way because I shot the ball straight up through my body and face so my father wanted the shot to be directly square with the middle of the rim.
Some other nuances about my free throw:
- Right hand on top of Wilson or Nike logo, with fingertips on the seam.
- Knees already slightly bent before I would start dribble – less movement is a good thing.
- 3 dribbles and no spin.
- After 3rd dribble set the ball and eye the rim.
I watched film on the 2015-16 top 10 college FT shooters and they all had varying routines, half of them spun the ball and some took 1, 2 or 3 dribbles but the one thing that was consistent was they all spotted the rim before they shot and did the same routine every time.
It is important that you find what works for you, and then master that routine.
Practice is obviously a must, but how you practice is key. There is nothing wrong with coming in to the gym and shooting 100 free throws a day without breaking a sweat, but to me that is not realistic and defeats the purpose of preparing your mind and body for game like free throws.
At South Alabama we shoot 40-50 free throws a day during individual workouts, but we shoot them after a good 5-7 minutes of work then head to the line to shoot anywhere from 2-5 at a time. This helps the player simulate what it will be like during the game and helps coaches get a more accurate FT percentage and gauge of how well their players are shooting from the foul stripe.
Relaxation and Confidence
I used to have these two words separate but I now believe they go hand in hand and compliment each other. I believe you cannot have one without the other. Besides having a routine and repetition, if you are not confident in your abilities and relaxed at the foul line, you will not become a great free throw shooter.
Too many times players step up to the line with negative thoughts or very tense when they shoot. A demonstration I like to use with our players when teaching free throw shooting is having them clinch their fist tightly and holding their breath for 10 seconds before trying to shoot a free throw. Most will miss because their body is not relaxed and its hard for muscle memory to takeover when you are tense.
It is important that you step up to the free throw line every time with confidence and shoot a relaxed free throw. Trust the work you have put in and knock down your free throws.
When you think of shooting free throws, having a killer mentality probably does not come to mind, but I believe this is one of the most important ingredients to becoming a great free shooter; and also what separates the elite shooters from the rest of the pack.
To become a cold blooded assassin from the FT line, you must have the mental makeup that no matter the situation or environment you are ready to step to the line and know it’s an automatic two points every time.
This does not happen overnight or even in a few months of training. I believe this is something that takes place over the course of many seasons and is developed with the maturation process of a basketball player failing many times over. It is willing to set lofty goals knowing you might fail but continuing to have a relentless pursuit of excellence to achieve your goals.
During my High School playing days I set the lofty goal of breaking Steve Alford’s consecutive free throw streak of 64 at my High School. I never achieved that goal, but I did get into the mid 40’s. If it was not for that experience and falling short of my goal, I never would have set the record of 85 consecutive free throws.
My Favorite Free Throw Shooting Drills
Pressure Shooting – Must make a set amount of free throws in a row or you run. This is old school, but it works and puts pressure on the player when shooting. Too many times coaches just have their players make 1 or 2 in a row, this doesn't add enough pressure to the player shooting. Put some pressure on them!
My HS coach started out with 5 in a row and got up to 20 one day. I loved it! I made all 20 and winked at him as I was congratulated by teammates.
Distraction Game – Whatever you could possibly think of to distract the shooter you do it. My father did this so much to me that I would rather shoot in a loud gym than a quiet gym because it helped me focus in more on my shot.
10 in a Row – I would not leave the gym until I made 10 free throws in a row. This was a non-negotiable.
Close Your Eyes – Shoot 10 or so in a workout with your eyes closed. It will help with your muscle memory and trust in your shot.
Positive Thinking Game – Make players think to themselves, or count out loud how many in a row the next shot will be. Found this to help players relax and become more confident.
May come as a surprise, but I did not mention shot mechanics as a key to becoming a great free throw shooter. Mechanics do play a role and you need to have some resemblance of good form, but it does not need to be textbook.
As long you shoot the ball the same way every time, practice shooting free throws when you are fatigued, stay confident, relaxed and most importantly are able to handle adverse situations and environments, you are well on your way to becoming a great free throw shooter.