Free throws should be easy

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

Free throws should be easy, right?

For decades, elite players in the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA have averaged between 70 and 75 percent from the foul line. Most of basketball’s sharpest shooters top out in the high eighties, with Nash being one of only two NBA players to retire with a career average above 90 percent. His consistency at the line raises some questions: For starters, why isn’t everyone else better? But also: If Nash can show up unpracticed, four years after retirement, and drain 98 percent of his free throws in an impromptu shootout against a ham-handed journalist, what kept him from shooting that reliably during his career?

On paper, the free throw could not be more straightforward. It’s a direct, unguarded shot at a hoop 18 inches across, 10 feet off the ground, and 15 feet away. Like a carefully controlled experiment, the conditions are exactly the same every single time. Larry Silverberg, a dynamicist at North Carolina State University, has used this fact to study the free throw in remarkable detail. “It’s the same for every single player, so you can actually look at the shot very scientifically,” he says.

An expert in the modeling of physical phenomenon, Silverberg has examined the physics of the free throw for 20 years, using computers to simulate the trajectories of millions of shots. His findings show that a successful free throw boils down to four parameters: the speed at which you release the ball, how straight you shoot it, the angle at which it leaves your hand, and the amount of backspin that you place on it.


The ideal rate of spin is three backward rotations per second, which, incidentally, is about how long it should take the ball to make the trip from a player’s hand to the hoop. (That spin buys you some wiggle room, in the event you over- or under-shoot.) The best angle of trajectory is between 46 and 54 degrees from the horizon, depending on your height. The most advantageous release angle for a given shooter also corresponds to their lowest launch speed—a relationship that helps explain why shots that go in often feel like they require less effort than shots that don’t. As Nash describes it: “There’s no strain, there’s no forcing, there’s no flicking at the rim, there’s just a really smooth stroke.”

The best free throw shooter on earth isn’t a pro basketball player, but Bob Fisher, a 62-year-old soil-conservation technician from Centralia, Kansas:

“I played high school basketball, and I played recreationally till I was 44.” A few years later, in his early 50s, he started practicing free throws every day at his local gym. That was September 2009. Within a couple of months he was consistently sinking more than 100 shots in a row. In January 2010 he set his first world record. Since then, his speed and accuracy from the foul line have garnered him an additional 24 Guinness titles.

Fisher happily shares the secrets to his success. He attributes his accuracy and precision to something he calls the centerline technique (it involves aligning the lower palm and middle finger with the rim of the basket), the details of which he has recounted in a book and instructional video. His consistency he attributes to preparation. For years, Fisher has spent hours a day refining his shot. “All it takes to become good is three things: knowledge, practice, and time,” he says.

There’s a reason we shoot better in practice than in a game:

“I think we’ve all had the experience where we can hit that shot when no one’s watching, but when all eyes are on us we fumble,” says cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Beilock attributes those mistakes to something she calls paralysis by analysis: When a player overthinks a task, it interrupts the working memory they’ve establish through hours of practice. Remember the hyper-coordinated movements required for releasing a free throw shot at a precise speed? They’re exactly the kind of thing that overanalysis tends to screw up. Closing the gap between training and competition, Beilock says, is a matter of practicing under conditions that simulate high-pressure scenarios: Training under a watchful eye, or competing against the clock.


  1. R says:

    It seems what Beilock calls ‘paralysis by analysis’ is what I know as perceived expectation of performance. An example of lowered performance would be the condition where one is exposed to a practical test in a highly regimented environment.

    For me that would be flight training. Ordinarily I was fully competent, in fact having received recognition for my skill development. But put into test mode I would flail and performance would drop significantly. The problem is my knowing the examiner is watching my every move therefore I would tend towards doubting if my movements were correct.

    To resolve the problem I acquired a thought process where I just didn’t care what anyone thought, the result would not matter one iota. This took the self-induced pressure off and my performance would be back to my typical.

  2. Graham says:

    Probably also related to the academic phenomenon of “test anxiety”.

    I reached a point where I had anxiety about whether I would be able to overcome test anxiety. Fortunately for me, that’s when the conceptual bubble overinflated and burst and I mostly had a healthier level of preparatory stress after that.

    Still, put me in a formal test taking situation today, after many years of not being constantly exposed to it, and I might have lowered performance even on familiar material.

  3. Neovictorian says:

    I played a lot of basketball–not mentioned in the article, perhaps it’s in the book, but shooting free throws during a game, with the body activated and breathing harder, slightly impairs the “consistent speed” that comes from “smooth, coordinated movement of multiple limbs and joints, from their knees, elbows, and wrists to the tiny points of articulation in their fingers and toes.”

    Some of the free throw practice should come from running the court a few times, shooting two free throws, running the court again, etc.

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