Mastering the Art of the Free Throw
Free throws are just that: free. They are the only indefensible scoring opportunity in the game of basketball. Yet many Hall of Fame players like Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal struggled from the line. This is because shooting free throws is very different than playing in live action.
In fact, there are some players who have a higher field goal percentage from the floor than they do from the charity stripe! So how exactly can we teach free throw shooting so our youth athletes don’t end up shooting < 50% like DeAndre Jordan?
Basic Free Throw Technique for Youth Basketball Players
Let’s begin with the fundamentals of shooting free throws. The fundamentals are similar to say, a regular mid-range jump shot, minus the jumping and minus the defense. Here are some high level technique cues to teach our young basketball players:
Take a comfortable, athletic, balanced stance
Free throw shooting starts from the floor up. Shooters should be balanced with their feet pointed directly at the basket. Youth athletes should approach the free throw line with the same stance every time. As we will review, repetition is often the key to success.
Take a few dribbles and/or feel the ball in your hands
There is a reason most free throw shooters have a routine. This gets them comfortable and reminds their bodies what they are about to do. Additionally, many of these routines allow the shooter to get a feel for the ball, calm their minds, and settle into the shot.
Allow your youth athletes to develop a brief routine that they can perform before free throws. Do not discourage creativity!
Bend the knees and shoot from the floor up
Most youth athletes miss free throws short. Most short free throws are the result of not using a young player’s legs. Free throw shooters should take a slight bend at the knees and extend through the shot. This allows for some power to be generated from the floor.
Remember, youth basketball players may not have the strength to casually toss the ball from the free throw line. They will likely need some leg drive to make the shot comfortable.
Focus, visualize, and follow through
Rather than review basic shooting fundamentals, we will stick with free throw specific techniques. Since there are no defenders to worry about, shooters can really take their time with mental cues.
We like to have shooters focus on the back of the rim, visualize the ball going through the net, then take the shot. When shooting, youth athletes should always follow through and “put their hand through the net” with the follow through.
The Mental Side of Great Free Throw Shooting
Most youth basketball players will be able to make the majority of their free throws in practice. However, their percentages will likely drop during live play. This is simple: free throw shooting is mostly a mental activity.
There is the pressure to make your shot, there is the crowd, a young player’s parents might be in the stands, and of course the opponents lining up along the blocks. So how can we combat nervousness from the charity stripe?
Focus on routine. This is a primary reason to develop a pre-free throw routine. It normalizes the action and reminds players that this is just like practice, nothing more.
Visualize the ball going in. Visualization of success is a tried and true method for sports performance. This remains true at all levels.
Stay relaxed and ignore external stimuli. Again, this is a reason to have players visualize and to focus on the back of the rim. By removing variables, the success rate of free throws skyrockets.
Why do Basketball Players Have a Routine at the Free Throw Line?
Youth basketball coaches may be wondering: why exactly do players need a free throw routine? This seems like an unnecessary step in what is otherwise a very straightforward operation. Yet the pre-shot free throw routine may just be the most important aspect of successful free throw shooting.
Famous NBA free throw routines show how much the routines vary from player to player. Because free throw routines aren’t about any specific technique, they are about getting into the right physical and mental state to shoot a free throw.
At the risk of going off the deep end, consider pre-shot routines to be a type of ritual or meditation. The shooter gets into the zone through repetition and consistency. At the end of their routine, the shooter should be ready to go!
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