Small Problems at the Free Throw Line

The hardest part of refereeing basketball is not coaching. I watch players make the same mistake over and over, and I just want to help, but it’s not my place. 

Yesterday, I refereed a boys’ junior varsity basketball game. Shortly before half, one assistant coach told his head coach that they had missed nine free throws already.

The head coach complained on every miss. He tried everything: He yelled at his players, he booed his players (along with the home crowd, as he coached the visiting team), he whined, he stared at players, and he complained to the bench (and me).

He did not appear to offer any positive advice or instruction. The middle of the game is not the ideal time to teach or instruct, as one does not want the player concentrating on the instructions rather than the shot. However, it was not a coincidence that the player who made both of his free throws in the second half was the one who took his time and had a positive approach at the free throw line.

During the two games that I refereed, I saw many small mistakes at the free throw line that could be corrected easily. Correcting these mistakes would not guarantee that they make every free throw, as some players had other, more serious shooting flaws, but they would give players a better opportunity to maximize their free-throw shooting percentage based on their technique.

One player, in a single motion, bent deep into a squat, coming up on his toes, and extended into his shot, not finding the basket with his eyes until an instant before the release. Naturally, he missed short. He was off-balance, rushed, and did not have his gaze fixed on the rim.

Another player bent into her starting position for her entire routine with her right foot flat on the ground and her left foot all the way on her toes. Her left foot shook as she took her dribbles and shot the ball. She basically shot off of one foot. Usually, I would guess that she had suffered a left foot/ankle injury, and had not re-learned the proper movement pattern for her shot, but it was her right ankle that had a brace.

Other players rushed their shot, with no hesitation between their pre-shot routines and their shot. Others approached the shot negatively; rather than embracing the opportunity to shoot free throws and score points, they look dejected when they are fouled because they fear the inevitable miss.

These are small changes. They will not fix the flaws if a player has major flaws in his or her technique, but it will help to raise free-throw shooting percentages, whether from 30% to 50% or 50% to 60% or 70% to 75%. Ultimately, the bad free throw shooters need to improve their entire shooting technique. During the season, this may not be possible; this may be something that the player must wait until the offseason to improve. The small changes above are things that a player should be able to change immediately to see some small improvements.

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

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