I see this blog topic a lot, but I’m going to try to give you a little bit more thought than the generic answers of having a routine and practicing free throws when you are tired. Even at the NBA level many players have a routine that they’ve used for years, they will shoot a bunch of free throws with their heart rate up in workouts, but then still struggle from the line. So let’s dig a little deeper.
When most coaches talk about having a free throw shooting routine, they are talking about the physical things that the shooter’s body is doing. It's hugely important, but just a part of the equation.
Let’s focus on a different routine – your mental routine.
A number of poor free throw shooters have admitted to me that the first thing they think about when they are fouled is something along the lines of “I better make these two”. They are focussed on the outcome and in a negative way. When we really look at it, the shooter doesn’t have as much control over the outcome or result as we would like to think.
Need proof? How many times have you shot a shot that you knew wasn’t a good shot but it catches the side rim, hits the backboard and goes in? Or worse, it feels great leaving your hand but just hits the front rim and goes in and out.
We don’t have any control over what happens with the ball the second it leaves our hand.
Fixating on that is putting the cart before the horse (old person reference, sorry). Instead, give your attention to the thing that you have total control over – the movements your body makes. Do you know what you need to do to give the ball the best chance to go in? Do you know what you need to do to shoot your best shot? Concentrate on those things and let the result take care of itself.
Don’t go to the free throw line with different thoughts each time, varying based on the day, the situation, or your mood. Go to the line and the second you approach the line, be thinking about the same things every time. Maybe you focus on breathing. I have some players that aren’t sure what to think about, so I just encourage them to start with saying in their head what they are doing… “dribble, dribble, dribble, spin, set, shot”. It will vary from player to player, but at least you are getting out of your head, and turning your mental energy to things you can control.
Another thing to consider is changing your perception of the free throws. Too many players view the shots in pairs and don’t give their full attention to the shot they are shooting. They think about it like “I have to make these two” and are worried about the second free throw before they’ve shot the first.
Try going to the top of the jump circle and waiting on the referee. Use that time to clear your thoughts. Once the referee passes you the ball you need to turn all your attention to what you need to do on that shot. After the shot, return to the top of the circle and start the process again, whether you made or missed the first. Clear your mind of that shot. It’s over, there is nothing you can do about it anymore, make or miss. Reset and focus on the new task at hand.
If you can start to implement these ideas into your practice, you’ll see your focus on each shot improve, and the number will soon follow.