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Basketball is about feelings: The mental game of free throws is harder than you think

Free throws are a lot more than uncontested shots from the line. It’s pressure, overthinking and a flow-stopper. Free throws for elite athletes are a mental game

Dallas Mavericks v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s be clear. NBA-players are finely tuned athletes. Most of them are elite shooters and can hit 90-95 percent from the line at practice. They can shoot better in their sleep than most of us can when we’re really trying.

But when a player enters the court, the pressure turns free throws into something different, something more than a simple uncontested shot. It’s becomes a mental game - and mental games are hard to win.

In mid-December 2022, the Dallas Mavericks were feeling this up close. They were struggling so much with free throws that it cost them games.

They were shooting a horrifying 58,3 percent from the line at the time.

But why is an uncontested shot so difficult, when it should be the easiest bucket of the game?

The mechanics behind it and skills aside, free throws are as much a mental game as anything else in this sport. Free throws are maybe the best illustration of how important mental toughness and confidence is in the game of basketball.

If you played, you have an idea, and if you’ve played under pressure in big games, you know. Getting that ball in that tiny hoop takes more than skill. It takes confidence and trust in your shot every single time. That’s why good shooters have shooting slumps, and it’s why great shooters on occasion miss free throws when it matters the most.

All of a sudden, the shots some people call freebies, become anything but free. I would never call a free throw a freebie, because I’ve been there. I’ve been on the line with 45 seconds left of a tight game and I know it’s one of the hardest shots to make in basketball.

The clutch aspect of having to, needing to make a supposedly easy shot is massive, of course. It’s something we all can relate to. Knowing you have to make these shots to secure a win, the pressure feels tangible. It feels like there’s bricks on your shoulders that prevent you from shooting properly, literally weighing you down. As a player, if you think about this too much, that’s when it becomes a problem. Especially in clutch moments.

It’s not just that you have to make these so-called easy buckets, but on top of that everyone stops and watches you. The flow of the game, the flow of your own game, timing and play come to a standstill.

You’re disturbed in the creative space that’s been built up during the game, the give and take, the push and pull of the defense and offense. Your brain was working in automatic mode, relying on instincts - a place that put you in “the zone”.

Now you stop - and you start thinking. The zone’s gone, the instincts are nowhere to be found. You look at the time and scoreboard and you understand that you HAVE to make these free throws.

Do you know the feeling of punching in your pin code when paying with debit or credit cards? It’s automatic, right? You don’t even know the numbers anymore. Well, now there’s a new machine and the numbers are in different places. Are you even able to punch in the right code now?

And now we’re getting to something interesting. Because when it comes to free throws, the less you think, the better.

There’s science behind this: “When the shooter attempts to “slow down to focus and concentrate” or control these automated processes, we actually shut down our “autopilot” and engage our “manual” conscious part of the brain, which is poorly equipped to make the shot while “under pressure,” Tony Fryer, Peak Performance Expert, wrote in an article on the Team USA website, where you can read more about the scientific studies made on this topic.

Mental coach Art Rondeau, who has worked with college and NBA athletes on this specifically, remembers working with Chris Dudley, who was a notoriously bad free throw shooter, when he was with the Knicks. They worked on a “mantra”, which most basketball players develop and say to themselves while shooting the free throw.

“I usually use one-syllable words related to things they want to remember as they shoot. Not detailed stuff, because that’s overthinking,” he says.

“As an example, Chris Dudley had a 4 dribble pre-shot routine, so we went with “catch, down (dip to start his shot), up (up on his toes), through (hold the follow through)”.”

But a mantra can do more than remind players how to shoot a free throw, it can also be helpful to keep negative crowd comments and negative self-talk out of the player’s head.

“If I’m mentally saying “catch, down, up, through”, I can’t also be saying “wow, I’ve choked in this situation dozens of times before” or focusing on the crowd yelling “you’re going to miss”,” Art Rondeau points out.

Streaks come and go in basketball, but the best players find a way to manage the mental game and use it to their advantage. If the Mavericks and Luka Doncic find a way to be consistent in their free throw shooting, things will get a lot easier for them.

But don’t forget - a large part of basketball is mental. And unless you understand that and work on it as a player, you’ll fail and fold under pressure most of the time.

Find last week’s Maverick Feelings here.