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Free throw psychology- a deeeep dive

Missouri v Xavier
Dru Smith, excellent FT shooter
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In Josh’s preview of West Virginia game this morning, he mentioned one of the few weaknesses of the Mountaineers.

The Mountaineers have one glaring weakness on defense — their propensity to foul. Luckily, this plays into Missouri’s only strength as of late. The Tigers are currently the SEC’s best free throw shooting team, and enough trips to the line could keep them reasonably within striking distance. If the Tigers continue their offensive strategy of getting to the rim and hoping for contact, West Virginia is liable to put them on the line and give Mizzou a chance to rack up free points.

So, if Mizzou is going to have any shot at all of keeping this close or even pulling out a win, playing to their strengths by attacking and drawing contact is the answer. (besides, of course, making other shots, too)

I was glad that Josh mentioned this factoid, because if you checked out my links earlier this morning, I touched on a fascinating piece by Missourian writer, Briar Napier, about the Tigers’ recent D-I record for consecutive made free throws. As he pointed out, usually hitting free throws consistently means winning basketball. He referenced a 2007 study in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport that analyzed performance factors that decided the results of basketball games, and found 3-pointers (I see you, Alabama), made free throws, and defensive rebounds most commonly led to wins.

Examining just the free throw aspect here, how does a player become a successful free throw shooter? While I didn’t get into the whole sports psychology of it all in my links, I’d like to do a bit more of a deep (deeeep) dive here.

In a 2013 Bleacher Report piece on Butler’s successful run deep into the NCAA tournament, Dr. Chris Carr, Coordinator of Sport & Performance Psychology at St. Vincent’s Sports Performance in Indianapolis, said that successful free throw shooting ultimately comes down to three things: concentration, composure, and confidence. So how do players keep these factors in check while at the line? One way is to have a routine, a way to control the stimuli. Sometimes they look ridiculous, over-complex, and seem to go on forever, as a 2013 article by Salt City Hoops referenced.

However, Dr. Carr said, there is great power in a routine, no matter how absurd.

“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... 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.”

Just for fun, in the video below, a number of NBA players were asked about the most memorable free throw routines they’d seen, and you’ll see one Jerry Stackhouse mentioned— yes, that Jerry Stackhouse— Vanderbilt’s new head coach.

As for the other factors, a 2009 article in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology studied various members of three different D-I teams, and their results suggested that a combination of mindfulness, skill (practice free throw percentage), and competitive experience all contributed to a player’s success at the charity stripe.

The mindfulness is key, as it relates directly to the routine mentioned earlier. From the article:

The mental state of an athlete before and during competition is as a decisive outcome factor in competitive athletics, so athletes often develop routines to aid in the mental preparation for competitive performance, and research has indicated that athletes who used preperformance routines are better able to overcome adversity and distraction.

All of this is basically to say, an athlete needs to have strong mind to block out the outside factors that may be going on, and whatever they can do to keep that noise out of their heads directly impacts their success. It also doesn’t hurt if the players are a bit older— perhaps Mitch and Dru being a juniors with significant competitive experience at this level helps. Mitch’s first miss of the YEAR, after all, was in the waning minutes of that A&M game, and research tells us that the environment had nothing to do with it as long as his mind was in order.

My links (and Napier’s post) lightly referenced this, but Dru (12-12 during the streak, 90.4% overall), Mitch (9-9, 94.4%), and X (9-9, 80.4%) are the most productive free throw shooters the Tigers have while JT is on the mend. Tray, though only a freshman, has a high percentage (92.3%), but he doesn’t get to the line much (0.9 per game) or play much, and Mark, though he averages 2.5 shots per game, has a percentage (73.3%) amongst the worst on the team.

Based on this information, perhaps the remedy going forward is to make sure the big three (Dru, Mitch, & X) are given ample chances to attack and draw contact. Attacking oftentimes can also open up the defense for 3-point shooters, which Mark happens to excel at (on most nights). Oh, and just play Tray more, since we know he is capable.

As the Tigers currently sit 1-5 in the SEC and 9-9 overall, it’s clear that the charity stripe confidence needs to extend to other areas of the game. In SEC games, per KenPom, the Tigers are near the back of the pack (11th) in offensive efficiency, effective FG%, and offensive turnover%, but lead the league in free throw%. Throughout the struggles, though, Martin has remained hopeful that the (other) shots will eventually follow suit and start to drop. “You see ‘em fall in practice. We shoot tough shots in practice, deep shots in practice, all kinds of spreading off screens ... all kinds of shots,” Martin said. “I think, again, as we continue to drive the ball, the 3-point shot will fall because as you get to the rim, it loosens up most defenses.”

Let’s hope it all comes together starting tomorrow, shall we?