Should we use professional players as model when teaching players to shoot?

by on January 26, 2016
in Shooting Instruction

This morning, I saw a picture of Carmelo Anthony getting ready to shoot, and the ball touched the palm of his hand. The headline read, “Shooting myth; keep the ball out of your palm.” I immediately had two questions: (1) Should we teach young players to model their shots after professional players? and (2) Is Anthony the model that we should follow?

In the YouTube world, everyone wants clicks. The best way to get clicks is to use star players to refute popularly held beliefs. However, with a single picture or video clip, you can prove almost anything. Shooting coaches use the same players to argue for and against each other on topics such as hopping into a shot or dipping the ball because there is variability in an expert’s shot. When a player has time, he tends to dip the ball; when he lacks time, he will not dip the ball or it will be far less pronounced. There is no one way to shoot the ball, and no player shoots the exact same shot every time.

In the first 30 seconds of Steph Curry shooting three-pointers in the same season, he uses multiple methods of footwork, moves right and left, falls back and shoots more or less straight up and down, turns to varying degrees, and more. No two shots look exactly the same, although every shot has some similarity and ends with the same result. Therefore, if you picked the one shot in the bunch that fits your argument, you could argue persuasively that the best shooter in the game does X; therefore, all players should do X. Of course, the next clip could invalidate your argument. It’s all about the editing.

Coaches want black and white. Players want black and white. The more that I have learned about movement, motor learning, skill acquisition, and more, the less that I have worked, as I do not believe in a simplified system, and coaches, players, and parents want a simplified system. When a coach can use an image of an NBA superstar as evidence that his system works, the coach profits. Everyone wants to be like the superstar, and the system is the way.

When coaches, players, and parents email and ask for my advice, my answer invariably is “It depends.” I don’t know the answer for a specific team or player because every individual, team, and situation is different. My son needs to improve his vertical jump; does this coach’s system work? It depends. How advanced is the player? Where is he in his growth and maturation? Is he strong but not elastic or elastic but not strong? When I was a college strength coach, one guy started the season barely dunking and was throwing down 360s by midseason. Another player is currently one of the best athletes in the Pac12. My system worked, right? No. The first guy lifted religiously with me and did everything that I asked; the second guy barely lifted a weight all season. He spent most session sitting on a leg curl machine listening to music. He was incredibly elastic, and he hated to lift. I left him alone for the most part. When a 6’2 player is dunking over 6’10 guys, how much can you improve his vertical jump? The players needed different things. Therefore, they worked out differently.

In terms of shooting, should a young child shoot like an NBA player? No. There are big differences in strength, height, height relative to the target, power, relative strength, hand size, limb length, confidence, and more.

Imagine the development of a child. He starts by shooting a size 7 ball at a 10′ hoop. Next, he joins a league and uses a size 5 ball on an 8′ hoop. As he matures, he moves to a size 6 ball on an 8′ hoop. Then, he moves to a size 6 ball on a 10′ hoop. Finally, he shoots with a size 7 ball on a 10′ hoop. When he moves from size 5 to 6 to 7 balls, is it because his hand size grew to handle the bigger ball or is the move based on age? If the player did not grow, but aged one year and moved to a bigger ball or higher basket, his shot will change. It has to change to accommodate the bigger ball and higher basket with the same stature. During that season, maybe he grows several inches, which again changes one’s shot because of the relationship with the same sized ball and basket with a taller player with longer limbs. One’s coordination also changes as one grows rapidly, and strength to weight ratio may decrease as a result, at least temporarily.

Why do we expect a child going through these changes to shoot like a professional player? Did NBA players pick up a basketball and start shooting exactly as they do today? Curry did not roll out of bed shooting as he does now:

As a kid, Stephen was small and slight, and his “jumper” was a heave that started super-low, below the belt.

“Between his sophomore and junior year” of high school, Dell Curry says, “I told him, ‘If you want to play at the next level, college, you’re going to have to move your shot above your head, or else you’re going to get it blocked every time.’

“So we just took that summer and changed his shot. It was pretty frustrating for him, he almost quit playing that summer, but he stuck with it and got to where we all wanted it to be.”

If Curry shot from a low starting point through his sophomore year of high school, why are we obsessed with 8 year-olds mimicking Curry’s form or another NBA superstar?

There is no absolute system for shooting or anything else. Even in the NBA, looking at the top 5 three-point shooters, they shoot differently.

J.J. Redick – 49.3%

Kawhi Leonard – 48.1%

Jared Dudley – 46.6%

Curry – 45.6%

Omri Casspi – 44.7%

If the absolute best shooters at the highest levels shoot differently, why are we teaching young players a single way of shooting and calling any differentiation an error?

Despite the differences, there are some aspects of shooting that players should stabilize. From a dynamic systems perspective, these are the attractors. To me, the release of the shot is the primary attractor; everything can differ from the pick up of the ball until the release, but the release should be as consistent as possible.

The aspects of the shot that vary are the fluctuators.

Often, the variation depends on the task, such as the difference between a stationary shot and a shot on the move. Footwork and shooting stance are two fluctuators, as expert shooters use different methods of footwork and start with different stances (bend and turn).

When practicing, the goal should be to stabilize the attractors. To improve, variation in the fluctuators is also important. Therefore, changing the method of footwork from repetition to repetition adds variation to the system, but the objective should be to stabilize the release through this variation. The different footwork or different stance should not change the attractors, such as the release.

The problem, of course, is that this means that shooting is not black and white. There is not one single way to shoot. Even if you picked a model to copy, which shot would you copy? You may mimic an aspect of the shot, but what about the variability? Variability does not fit into an easy-to-market system, so most YouTube videos present one system and use models to provide evidence of their system. Their approach is not wrong, and most systems provide a lot of good information. However, any time that someone says there is only one way to do something or that a player shoots the same exact way every time, they are wrong, at least in part. There are parts of their shot that are consistent, but not the entire shot from start to finish. A player who needed to shoot the same exact way every single time would be very limited in terms of movement, speed, timing, etc. Generally speaking, this player would be a beginner, and not an expert. Consequently, beginners need different practice, different instructions, and different goals than an expert player, even if the goal is eventually to shoot like Stephen Curry because even Curry did not shoot like Curry when he was young.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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