It’s one of the most painful moments in basketball. Your favorite player is fouled—they have an easy opportunity to make 2 points—but they miss the free throws.
In fact, it’s kind of astonishing that even professional players who make millions of dollars a year to perfect this craft still only make 75% of free throws. But a lot are actually much worse. Shaquille O’Neal’s was around 50%, a percentage so abysmal it resulted in the now infamous Hack-a-Shaq play.
And it’s not just Shaq. Some of the most dominant centers of this generation have the same problem. Both Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan are hovering around the 40% mark this season. Last year, Jordan made only 39 of the 84 free throws he took during the playoffs.
It’s gotten to the point where fans suggest that they shoot free throws underhand, granny-style—which no one has done for fear of getting mocked in the locker rooms post-game.
It’s clear that you can be a good basketball player and be terrible at free throws. But as it turns out, you can be a totally normal guy and be great at free throws. A lot of people are surprised to find out that the reigning champion for consecutive free throws is not an NBA player, in fact—it’s a dairy farmer. Free throw ability just all boils down to process.
3 Myths about bad free throw shooters
There are a number of excuses people make for their favorite players not being able to make free throws. Some common myths include that their hands are too big, or they’re too tall which impedes their ability to make a shot for some reason.
There are a number of reasons these aren’t true—but people still want to believe them. It has nothing to do with innate ability.
1. Their hands are too big
One of the biggest excuses for poor free throw percentage? Hand size. While it’s not totally clear where this myth began, it’s definitely not true. One devout fan studied the correlation between free throw percentage and hand size, and found that the results are pretty noisy—there’s no clear correlation.
That poor sucker below the 40% mark? That’s Drummond. Yes, he has pretty big hands–about a 9.5-inch span from thumb to pinky when fully spread out–but so do a lot of other players.
Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs has infamously large hands, at 11.25-inch span, (he’s the orange dot all the way to the right of the graph) and he’s got a great free throw percentage. From 2011-2013, it was a little over 60%, but that number has since gone up to 81%, which is well over the NBA average.
As you can see from the chart, hand size isn’t a great predictor of free throw ability. Or as the author of the study put it, “You’ll have to blame something else.”
2. Centers aren’t supposed to be good at free throws
However, this chart does reveal something interesting. Position does seem to matter, even if hand size doesn’t. Point guards and shooting guards (positions 1 and 2) tend to be much better at making their free throws than centers and forwards (positions 3, 4, and 5).
One speculation is that guards need to be better shooters, just because of the nature of the position. They tend to be smaller guys, a bit more agile and adaptable. Centers, like Shaq or DeAndre Jordan tend to be really big dudes, and their strength is in just using their size to dominate and easily dunk.
There’s also an element of pride here. Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry (a center) has a long-standing offer to teach Shaq to shoot free throws underhanded, like he did. Rick Barry isn’t on this chart, but he was a small forward (position 3, light green circles) and Shaq was a center (position 5, dark red circles).
Rick Barry’s famous “granny-style” free throw
Shaq’s response? “Rick Barry’s resume is not good enough to even come into my office to be qualified for a job. I will shoot negative-30 percent before I shoot underhanded.”
Someone might want to remind him that Barry shot about 90% from the stripe—top 10 in NBA history.
3. They’re too tall
This is a similar excuse to hand span. It’s clear that there’s a correlation between height and poor free throw ability. As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus writes, height hurts free throwing shooting. After reviewing the data, Pelton concluded, “For each inch taller, players tend to shoot 1.2 percent worse from the line.”
But that doesn’t imply causation. Kareem Abdul-Jabar is 7′ 2″ and has one of the best free throw records in the game. And it’s not like he’s an anomaly—the same is true of . There are just some tall players (like Drummond and Jordan) who bring the numbers down for everyone.
In his analysis, Pelton continues to say that a lot of it has to do with a lack of practice or attention to the craft. Because these tall players are so talented in other aspects, their teams simply “tolerate a lack of skill they would not accept at other positions.” It’s clear that height isn’t a barrier to free throws, it just gives you a free pass to some degree.
But there’s certainly no naturally occurring impediment to their inability to make a free throw.
From dairy farmer to free throw champ
In fact, it has nothing to do with innate ability. The best free throw shooter in the world wasn’t born with the talent for shooting free throws. And he’s not even a professional basketball player, he’s a dairy farmer.
In April 1996, in Jacksonville, FL, a 60 year-old dairy farmer named Ted St. Martins broke the world record for consecutive free throws. He swooshed over 5,000 free throws in a row while teaching a basketball shooting clinic to students. The spectacle took seven hours and 20 minutes to complete.
After breaking the record, Ted was briefly sponsored by Coors as the “Silver Bullet Sharpshooter.”
He attributes his success to literally thousands of hours practicing this one kind of shot—and nothing else.
Ted’s so-called “how to shoot a free throw” process
When asked about his process, he says he has six steps.
- Always stand at the exact same place on the free throw line.
- Hold the ball like you would an egg.
- Bend the knees only slightly.
- Take a deep breath.
- Focus on the back of the rim.
- Exhale and let the ball go.
Wait…what was that last one again? “Let the ball go?” What does he mean, “let the ball go!?”
From an outsider’s perspective, it feels like the real meat of the process is skimmed over. The idea of “letting the ball go” is incredibly vague, especially after all the immense precision of the previous steps.
Here’s what he means: he lets the process take over.
Ted focuses on the process and then lets everything else fall into place. “My goal is to simply carry out these steps and then watch the beauty of the ball swishing through the net.” It’s kind of a beautiful, if mystifying sentiment. On the one hand, it doesn’t tell you anything because it’s so nondescript. On the other hand, it reveals how engrained the process was to Ted.
What’s Ted’s B.E.E.F.?
A lot of coaches will tell you a different process to get to the perfect free throw: a process called B.E.E.F. It’s an acronym that stands for Balance, Elbows, Eyes, Follow Through. It’s a widely used process for anyone from high school basketball coaches to Warriors MVP Steph Curry.
So what’s Ted’s? If you watch any video of Ted, it can be maddening to figure out exactly what’s going on. He bends his knees. He shoots granny-style—both hands in the air. Here’s his B.E.E.F.
Balance: Ted’s knees are bent, giving him a lower center of gravity. He checks in with his feet every once in a while to make sure they’re in the right place, and that he’s totally balanced.
Elbows: Ted bends both elbows, as he shoots two-handed.
Eyes: Ted looks at the backboard, though it’s hard to tell exactly where his gaze goes.
Follow Through: Because Ted does a two-handed shot, he follows through “gooseneck” style, but with two hands.
The problem with B.E.E.F. is that knowing what Ted does might not work for you. It’s a checklist of what you’re supposed to look for when you’re about to shoot the ball. But it’s incredibly nuanced. Everyone’s B.E.E.F. is different—it depends on your height, your weight, your strength.
B.E.E.F. is a process that depends on each person. So in order to figure out exactly what Ted’s shot is doing, we’ll have to go even deeper.
The physics of free throws
So what happens after Ted “lets the ball go?” What are the exact mechanics of the process? To understand what was really going on, we’ll have to turn to other kinds of free-throw experts: physicists.
Unsurprisingly, physicists have a lot to say about free throws. Unlike other kinds of throws, it’s pretty easy to isolate the variables, since you don’t have other players chasing you down, or elbows in your face.
Larry Silverberg, a mechanical engineering professor at North Carolina State University conducted a study to determine once and for all, the physics behind the optimal free throw. Silverberg was experiencing the same frustration that we were with Ted.
“If you take top athletes in any sport, most have a really hard time explaining what they’re doing,” Silverberg said. “By simulating millions of shots we could see patterns that tend to confirm best practices.”
Silverberg co-wrote a software program that simulated free-throw trajectories in 3D and simulated millions of potential shots, varying five elements: release height, release speed, launch angle, side angle, and back spin.
Here’s what he found:
Silverberg’s research allowed them to establish a few guidelines for the foul line: aim toward the back of the rim with 3 Hz of backspin and at 52 degrees to the horizontal. Oh, and do all this at a perfectly smooth and consistent speed. Not so hard, right?
But finding a universal process isn’t that helpful for individual players. Some of the biggest talents in the game have unique processes—that’s because they need them.
The mechanics of Steph Curry’s shot
Turns out, every pro player has their own arc that works for them, based on the variables Silverberg identified. Last year’s MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden Gate Warriors has an enviable shooting record—one of the best in the world. When Steph is fouled, you can almost guarantee an additional 2 points for the Warriors.
As Steph said in an interview “If you repeat the same form over and over again, you’re going to be a better shooter. So whatever you do, try to repeat it.” Even if that means shooting granny style.
Here’s James Harden’s graph for comparison—you can see that his arc is a little different. In the 2014-2015 season, he became the 11th player in NBA history to make 700 free throws in a season. That’s a lot of fouls—and a lot of points.
How does he do it? It’s not the beard—whatever Sports Nation may say. Rather, Harden subscribes to what Steph says—repeating the same form over and over again. It boils down to process, to nailing down a single formula for what works for you.
Flex your muscle memory
But what is that process? As Silverberg notes, it can be hard to put words to what players are doing when they’re shooting free throws.
From a neurological standpoint, it actually makes sense that Ted St. Martin would think of “letting the ball go” as one movement, even though Silverberg’s test reveals that it’s a lot more complicated than that. That’s because of a neurological principle called procedural memory. What really happens here is even deeper than physics. It’s muscle memory.
“Muscle memory” is a misnomer, but the theory behind it is real. It’s not the muscles that remember—it’s your brain. You have a certain set of movements that lock together to form a single motion. Once a process is strung together, your brain will chunk it as a single thing, and you’ll be able to remember it as one motion.
What “let it go” really means
Shooting a free throw involves a bunch of small movements. You’re primarily engaging your arm muscles, which help propel the ball and give it direction. In a free throw, you’re engaging your triceps, which help extend your elbow, as well as your biceps, which flex your elbow.
Your forearm muscles are also incredibly important, especially your wrist extensors. In addition, there are seventeen muscles in your hand. Whenever you grip a basketball, these muscles are at play.
So when Ted “lets the ball go,” what he’s really doing is engaging these muscles in an order that he’s honed to a science. He doesn’t think about it as a “procedure” because he’s memorized the path and internalized it as one motion. It’s not called muscle memory, though.
It’s something much more attainable: procedural memory. By following a process, it becomes engrained in your brain.
It’s all about procedural memory
Procedural memory is what allows you to perform fine motor movements with little cognitive effort. When you first learned to walk, or brush your teeth, you had to think about it. Now you don’t. It’s the same for fine motor movements, like punching in your pin number.
Procedural memory requires—obviously—a procedure, like Ted St. Martin’s steps. Procedural memory is created through “procedural learning”—which just means repeating the same activity over and over again until all your relevant neural systems work together to make it happen almost automatically, and unconsciously.
That’s why we’re almost never able to say exactly what we’re doing when we’re executing our procedural knowledge. Imagine describing the process of brushing your teeth to someone.
It’s a procedure, of course. You pick up your toothbrush. You put toothpaste on. You start with your molars (or whatever your technique may be). But you probably think of it as one task, not a bunch of little ones.
It’s the same with Ted St. Martin’s free throw procedure. Even though he does do a number of little things—things people track like which finger leaves the ball last, and where exactly he’s looking at the backboard, and how much force he applies—it’s almost ingrained in him because he’s practiced it so much.
We talkin’ about practice
So how do you acquire procedural memory? How do you learn how to throw the perfect free throw every time? Practice, practice, practice. Practicing a process puts it in your long-term memory. It consolidates the procedure until you don’t even conceptualize it as a procedure anymore.
This is exactly what happened when Buzzfeed ran a very unofficial experiment where they tried to have a normal guy—a reporter of theirs named Steven—who expressed frustration over the fact that some of his favorite players couldn’t reliably make a free throw.
So Steven practiced. He made 400 shots a day for 30 days, and increased his free throw success rate from 37% to about 70% (almost the NBA average!)
Practicing exclusively free throws, and not doing anything else—really helped him hone his process into a shot that could get him results at a much higher rate. He figured out the physics of his own shot—and nailed down the process.
So when Ted St. Martin does his free throws, what he’s really doing is nailing down the process, the physics, of what works for him. The exact arc, the release velocity, and the peak height. When he says he “just lets go of the ball” there’s a lot going on—he’s just practiced it so much (literally hundreds of thousands of times!) that he thinks of it as one movement.
One final variable: fear
There’s one more element: performance anxiety. As Chris Ballard states in The Art of a Beautiful Game, Shaq was able to sink free throws at a rate of about 70-80%. Of course, these claims aren’t validated, it’s just what Ballard said (and Shaq, too). But it’s clear that performance anxiety plays a huge role.
Sports therapists tell athletes to overcome performance anxiety by paying attention to an entirely different process—tuning everything out. Tuning everything out is a skill in and of itself, but one that a lot of people—Shaq included—need to master in order to nail their free throws.
As the man himself said in one interview, his inability to make free throws was “probably a lack of concentration. I always hit them during practice. I just need to concentrate.”
How Steph Curry overcomes anxiety
One way to overcome stress is to work in inopportune conditions. It’s why Steph Curry practices in all different kinds of scenarios. He does a lot of weird warmups, like shooting the ball from the tunnel on the opposite side of the court (a shot he actually almost made, to everyone’s amazement!)
He also runs through lots of bizarre drills, like this one, where he dribbles a basketball while tapping randomly flashing lights.
Obviously, there’s no scenario in which Steph would have to do something like this in a game. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to get him to think and work under pressure so that when the crowd is cheering and the clock is ticking, he’s still able to make shots without fear.
Process makes perfect
So what’s the real reason some of the dominant centers are terrible at free throws? They’re not focusing on process.
“Practice makes perfect” is talked about a lot, but doesn’t always have results. That’s because it’s a myth. Practice doesn’t make perfect—unless you’re practicing right. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Process makes perfect.
The inattention to process means that these players don’t have the procedural memory for free throws. Or if they do, they’re not able to perform under pressure.
As Pro Shot Shooting System predicts, “Deandre Jordan’s problem at the line is that he’s focused on result (I have to make my shot) instead of process.” The way to overcome fear is to focus on process. To get it to a point where nothing matters except for making the shot—which is something your body will know how to do thanks to procedural memory.
You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. But if you nail the process, there’s no excuse for missing—or at least, there’s no excuse for missing 50%.