One Shot at NCAA Tournament Glory: The Psychology of the Free Throw

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One Shot at NCAA Tournament Glory: The Psychology of the Free Throw
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Smith stands at the line Saturday as Butler faces Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament. He is 6'11", a big man who has played in a pair of National Championship games.  There are just over three minutes left on the clock, the game tied. The pressure must weigh on him as he steps to the free-throw line, but there is no sign of nervousness on his face.

Smith steps to the line and looks down, setting his toe just behind the paint. He takes the ball from the referee and looks up, focusing his gaze on the rim. Without looking down, he dribbles the ball three times. He pauses, just enough to take a breath, and exhales as he releases the shot.

Nothing but net.

The referee passes the ball to him for the second shot and once again he sets his foot, dribbles three times, breathes and ...

 

We feel the pressure in our homes, sitting on the edge of the couch, remote in hand. Few of us understand the pressure that Andrew Smith or any college basketball player feels in a situation like this, but most of us feel like we have an idea. That tightness in the pit of our stomachs and a feel of sweat on our palms, disconnected as we are, makes us feel closer to the team we root for.

On the line, it is different. "It comes down to three things," Dr. Chris Carr tells me, "Concentration, composure, and confidence."

Carr makes it sound easy, or at least simple, but that's his job. Carr is the Coordinator of Sport & Performance Psychology at St. Vincent's Sports Performance in Indianapolis. His work with teams like Indiana University and several Olympic teams have led to championships and gold medals. But for free throws, it is simple.

"Shooting a free throw is a closed-field skill. There's a defined task and the athlete can define their own approach to it," Carr explained. "There's very little external issues in a free throw, but controlling the internal issues is hard enough."

NCAA players on the whole shoot free throws at about a 69 percent clip, a range that has been constant since the mid-1960s. In fact, according to the New York Times, the overall rate has never exceeded hitting 7-of-10 from the "charity stripe."

 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Darnell Archey as a player, in 2003.

Butler's guru

Darnell Archey hit a lot more than 7-of-10. During his four-year career at Butler, Archey achieved astonishing accuracy marks, shooting 97 percent on free throws in 2003 and 95.1 percent for his career. He also hit 85 free throws in a row, an NCAA record and one of the 10 "untouchable" records as listed by Yahoo Sports. The streak lasted almost a full calendar year.

"He's a guy addicted to touching a basketball," said then assistant coach Brad Stevens, who is now Archey's boss at Butler. Archey returned to Butler after a brief stint in Europe and now works as Coordinator of Basketball Operations for the school. Stevens told David Woods of the Indianapolis Star at the time of the record that Archey had gone as far as taking home an unfamiliar brand of basketball and sleeping with it to get the feel.

Archey told Woods that he had a simple pattern for shooting. "Archey dribbles three times, takes a deep breath, bends his knees and follows through. When he shoots, he's thinking about all the free throws taken in the backyard or in an empty gym," Woods explained. Sound familiar?

Sounds like Smith's approach:

With just over a minute left in Saturday's game. Smith is back on the line. Time ticking away  only increases the pressure he must feel, but it does not show. Smith never looks at the score or the clock. He only steps to the line and begins his routine.

The fans from both sides see the score—tied—and the time left—under a minute. Smith only sees the referee, the ball coming to his hands then the small space behind the front rim, where he wants to ball to be in just seconds.

His foot sets, three dribbles and the ball is just where he looked. His second shot is exactly the same, the screams of the opposing fans going silent as it hits the net. 

 

Making It Routine

Some routines look ridiculous. They are over-complex and require multiple steps. Combinations of dribbling, hand movements, ball spins and knee bends can go on seemingly forever. There is, however, great power in a routine. 

"A routine gets a player to an optimal focus," Dr. Carr explained. "It should be a maneuver that connects him and disconnects him at the same time."

Carr uses a scene from the movie For The Love Of The Game in presentations. Kevin Costner's character stands on the mound, hearing everything from jeers to music to—is that a Vuvuzela in a movie from 1999? 

The phrase works and a routine can be much the same, Carr says. "It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it gets the player to the right place. It takes him from this situation to the one where he is in control, where he has practiced it countless times, to where he is in control."

The best players all have them. 

 

Buckeye's Bad Moments

Aaron Craft is an exceptional shooter. His 79 percent free-throw shooting is solid and teams avoid fouling him late. As his Ohio State team fights with Iowa State on Sunday in another third-round NCAA game, Craft finds himself at the line. Instead of following his normal routine, Craft seems distracted. He says something to a teammate as he takes the ball. He fumbles a bit, then puts the ball on his hip as he finishes whatever it was he was saying. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

He dribbles once and turns to the Ohio State bench. He dribbles again, once, twice, then pauses with his knees bent, as if for just a moment, he forgot what he was there for. It was as if he was frozen at the line. That hesitation shows as the ball goes up and hits the front iron, wasting the one-and-one opportunity. 

Craft normally has a much different routine, but the pressure got to even a player of his caliber. He was distracted, perhaps a bit fatigued, and while he redeemed himself with his game-winning shot, if he'd performed better on his free throws—he missed 4-of-11—he might not have needed to be such a hero.

 

 

Focused, Not "Clutch"

Butler plays in Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the famous scene from Hoosiers took place. Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale walks in and measures the goal. "10 feet," a player announces, same as in Hickory. However, Dr. Carr might counsel coach Dale that while the basket might be the same height, one gym is not necessarily another. Environment, conditioning and distraction are far more important than any perceived skill of "clutch."

There really is no such thing as "pressure" or "clutch." The truth is that it is the response to the external stimuli that makes it one or the other, or neither.

"You practice for those situations," Dr. Carr said. He gets his teams and players to simulate conditions with unpredictable sound, by taking shots in a fatigued state and by repeating things in multiple environments.

"Clutch isn't a performance or psychological attribute," Carr tells me. "It's consistency and confidence. It's being able to do what was practiced because you practiced the skill in the right ways. Choke is the opposite. But choke and distraction are two sides of the same coin."

Fans seem to think they can alter the course of a game by waving signs, screaming at the top of their lungs and any number of other novel distractions that will come and go. Carr thinks there's something to it, though the top-level players do not respond to any kind of distraction.

"Most respond to an audiovisual cue, especially if it is novel, something the player is unprepared for," Carr said. "The biggest issue that I see has nothing to do with the fans and is more about preparation. I see a lot of teams that don't structure their walkthroughs properly and that leaves the player in a situation where everything is novel, where they haven't been in this spot and can find their center easily."

Back to Saturday's Butler game: Andrew Smith doesn't have a routine for last-second threes. He ended up with the ball in his hands, tossing up a desperation shot as he fell to the ground, his Bulldogs falling to Marquette. As the buzzer sounded, he gave himself a moment of disappointment, a slight frown and then he walked over to his bench. 

Smith's Butler career is over, one of the best that any player at this storied basketball school has ever had. He may never face a situation like those on the free-throw line again in his life, but there's bound to be pressure. 

Smith will breathe, find his footing, and succeed again.

 

All quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.

Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and Basketball Prospectus.

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