Free Throw Shooting is often the difference in winning or losing close basketball games; especially down the stretch, in the clutch, at the end of a game. If you are ahead in the closing minutes, opponents will often foul and send your team to the free throw line to see just how “clutch” your players are. Making all or most of those attempts can put an end to an otherwise questionable outcome. But how do you get your players to be “clutch” in these times of tension and pressure?
Early in my coaching career, I found the secret: Inherit good free throw shooters. Not a great answer, I know, but true. When I was a young coach of 26, I took a Head Coaching Position at Montana Tech College. The team had only won a couple of games the previous year, but the ex-coach did leave behind a couple of really good shooters. During my first season, one guard led the nation (NAIA) for us in Free Throw Pct at 91%. The other guard finished 4th in the nation at 89%. One of the JC players I had brought in shot 87% too. Our team finished that season at 81%, good enough for second in the nation. And we won 24 games, which was unheard of at Tech in those days. We won overtime games, double overtime games, many close games, and seldom won by a big margin. Good free throw shooting was certainly a key in that turnaround, along with an improved defense of course. What that group taught me was that free throw shooting can make a big difference in your season, especially when you have many close games like we did that year. After that, I always looked for ways to get that kind of clutch shooting again. Never did, but I believe my teams were pretty decent at free throw shooting in later seasons because of some things I learned and emphasized as my career advanced.
To be a good free throw shooter you need to have the four P’s:
- Proper Balance
- Proper Form
- Proper Release
- Plenty of Practice.
Hopefully you can work on most of this in the offseason or preseason, but what you do during the season can make a big difference too. It starts at the beginning of every practice. We require each player to dribble a ball twice around the court to warm up as soon as they get there. Then it’s time for Form Shooting. Each player finds a basket and starts up close, shooting off the backboard, concentrating on form and ball rotation, for several times. Then they move in front of the rim and they have to make two in a row from up close, take a step back, and make two more while watching to make sure the form and rotation are correct. They continue to move a step back after two “makes” until they get to the free throw line, where they will shoot 10 or more until they feel comfortable and confident making the shot. After this, they are free to work on spot shooting from areas where they need work. While various players are arriving and starting their form shooting, I am able to monitor their balance, form and release. If someone is struggling or out of rhythm, I will go over and correct the problem. My players often arrive early enough to get this form shooting done early so they have more time to work on spot shooting. This is fine with me, because practice always officially starts with Form Shooting; so everyone does it everyday, no matter when they get there. As I have said several times in earlier articles, I believe in doing important fundamentals every day, for short periods of time, but every day, so we form great habits. Good shooting form and good free throw shooting are two habits I hope to develop in every team.
Another drill I do every practice is called: Water Break Free Throws. We generally have two water breaks built into every practice. This is a 5 minute break to get some water and rest up after a particularly strenuous full court drill. But, you don’t get to drink the water until you join with a partner, shoot two free throws at a time, and together make 5 in a row. No one shoots more than twice in a row. If someone misses, the count starts over. So, at least one person has to shoot twice to get 5 straight makes. And both players will have to at least make two in a row. I allow three minutes for them to make 5 in a row, then I announce, “Next miss and you run.” They can finish a streak, but if they miss before making 5 in a row, they have to both run up and back on the court before getting a drink of water. Believe me, it is competitive because they don’t want to be the last group to the water and they don’t want to run up and back either. It becomes a real “pride thing” to get the 5 in a row right away and be the first to the water fountain.
This drill is as close to coming up with a live Pressure Situation as I can think of during practice. Remember, it happens twice every practice, and fits my criteria of “Doing something every day, for a little bit of time, to form good habits.” Sometimes, later in the season, I will challenge them by adding two more “makes” to the Water Break Drill. That means, they will get 4 minutes to make 7 in a row, two at a time with their partner. Another addition to the drill is to require players to seek a new partner every day until they have rotated through the whole team. This way, your two 90% shooters won’t be able to pair up everyday and always finish first. It is fun to watch the good shooters, when paired with poorer shooters, get so excited when they get their 5 in a row. Plus, I seem to see more of the poorer shooters staying after practice to work on free throws, just because they don’t like being the one holding up water breaks for their partner.
Form Shooting and Water Break Free Throws are not the only free throw shooting drills I use, but they are the two that are used every practice. A couple of others I use from time to time are Free Throw Press Drill and Streaks. The Free Throw Press Drill is a 5 on 5 Drill. One team lines up to shoot a free throw, and then presses the other team on a make or a miss. This drill is basically for our Press Work, but does give us a little “free throw pressure shooting” too. Each player gets a turn to shoot a free throw and we usually end the drill after all players have had a turn to shoot a free throw. It’s only one turn per player each practice, but sometimes that is all you get in a game, so it is very game-like. Using a routine and the proper pre practice checklist will help players learn to relax and make these shots.
Streaks is a simple game we play on Saturdays, Holidays, or any practice where we have extra time or don’t want to wear out legs. Players pair up and one of them shoots free throws until he misses. The goal is to make as many in a row as you can. When you miss, it’s your partner’s turn to see how many in a row he can make. In this drill, it is fine to have the better shooters together to challenge each other. The weaker shooters get more turns because they miss more often. Excitement grows in this drill when someone gets 20 in a row. Usually, everyone pays attention to the long streak and this adds pressure to the streak shooter. I generally allow 10 minutes for this particular shooting drill.
Another way to emphasize good free throw shooting is with a Pre Season Fundraiser called Free Throw-a-thon. We try to do this as early in the practice season as possible, usually on a Saturday evening. The players go out and get pledges for how many free throws they will make. Something like “a dime a make” or more, of course. Players will shoot 100 free throws, 10 at a time, and record how many they make. The scorecard is their official record for showing their contributors just how many they made. One year, recently, at a school I had just started out as the coach, we had scores of 98, 95, and 91, two of which were Sophomores. Pretty impressive, to say the least. We have all three teams (Frosh, Soph, Varsity) participating and parents are encouraged to come and watch. Afterwards, we have a pizza and dessert party for all. It is a great way to kick off the season and raise some money for the program too.
These are just some of the many possibilities for improving your program’s free throw shooting. You may already have your own or you might come up with some new ideas too. Making it important and following a practice routine every day will be the best motivator you can have. Remember, it is the things you do everyday that you eventually become very good at doing. Make free throw shooting important and your percentage will go up. And probably your win totals too.
Key Teaching Points:
- Teach proper form and review it daily.
- Find a competitive drill you like and use it often.
- Post the Free Throw stats for team and each player.
- Give an Award to the Best Free Throw Shooter at season’s end.