I constantly observe a curious phenomenon; professional basketball players have a much higher percentage free throw accuracy in their practice than in the games. It is also common that they have good days when every shot goes in like a dream and bad days when everything grinds and it seems like nothing goes in. So we can see that a player reaches a level in which what determines their free throw percentage is not skill; it is instead their mental and emotional state.
In fact, by working on these factors, two thirds of my clients have improved their free throw accuracy to over 90%. In this article I would like to explain how, by highlighting:
- What “interferes” with your free throw accuracy
- How to train your body and brain coordination
- The importance of training your mental and emotional state
What “interferes” with your free throw accuracy
There are two interconnected factors that interfere with your shooting accuracy.
- Invasive thoughts for example “will it go in, this has to/must go in…”
- Unhelpful psycho-emotional states such as anxiety, stress…
The trouble with these factors is that they are out of your conscious control and often the more you try to make them go away, the stronger they become. However, the biggest trouble is that they create micro-muscle tensions which mean that your body doesn´t throw the ball with its usual fluidity and accuracy.
The secret of the work that I do with my clients to improve their free throw accuracy is to train their body and their brain ahead of time. This means that their body instinctively knows how to make a perfect free throw. It also means that in high tension and critical moments their brain will be silent and automatically produce ideal psycho-emotional states of being deeply calm, clear, centred, confident and in peace. I even show them how to “make time go slower” and “bring the ring closer and bigger”.
How to train your body and brain coordination
In order to understand how to do this, it is important to understand the physiology of your brain. Your brain has 100 thousand million brain cells (about the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way). They are connected by more than 160 thousand kilometers of axons and between 100 billion and a trillion synaptic connections. In simple language, each brain cell is like a star and connects to several other brain cells in a big electric pulsation system.
Every time your brain receives a stimulus, it automatically sends a pulse through this network. It simply goes along the route where the connections are strongest. As much as you consciously tell your brain to take a different route, it´s physiology will simply determine what will actually happen.
This means that part of my job with my clients is to restructure the physiology of their brain so that the pulse automatically goes exactly where we want it to go.
We do exercises so that the stimulus of a moment of high tension or pressure is connected in their brain to feeling deeply calm, clear, centred, confident and in peace. We also use techniques that reset their nervous system and silence their invasive thoughts.
How you can restructure the physiology of your brain
At this point you may be asking “how can I restructure the physiology of my brain? The answer is quite straight forward. You do so one step at a time or one micro skill at a time. Once you have identified the first small step you repeat it over and over with a positive emotional stimulus. Your brain is amazingly plastic and strengthens its connections based on the emotional response you feel. The stronger and deeper the positive emotion, the faster this strengthening process will take place (in the same way, negative emotions block your brain body coordination).
The same process applies for learning on the court skills as for learning the ideal psycho-emotional states.
This means that to improve the technical part of your free throw accuracy doesn´t depend on the amount of free throws that you practice every day. It depends on the amount of quality free throws that you practice.
- Close your eyes and remember your most sublime free throw, imagine you are back in that moment again, seeing what you saw, hearing what you heard and feeling how you felt in that moment. Feel yourself make the free throw. Then do so again, this time in slow motion, feeling every detail of it, every tiny muscle movement and feeling how great it feels. Repeat this memory and any other great memories in slow motion and in full speed over and over again, every day. You need to keep doing so until you instinctively know and can feel every detail and movement of the shot.
Did you know that in fine skills development it has been proven that your brain does not know the difference between imagining yourself practicing shots and actually making them? So when you are remembering all the great shots you have made your brain is reinforcing all the neuronal connections that you used to make them.
- Once these memories are deeply and strongly anchored within yourself, you are ready to take them onto the court. Before each free shot you practice on court, close your eyes and take yourself back to this memory. Now open your eyes and let your body repeat it. After each shot, allow your body to adjust itself until it is able to repeat in reality the muscle memories of your perfect free throw and do so over and over again, each time feeling that wonderful sublime feeling that it gives you.
Imagine how your free throw accuracy will improve if you develop the discipline to only practice these perfect shots from your own muscle memories.
The importance of training your mental and emotional state
Whilst Pep Guardiola was Coach at FC Bayern Munich, his right hand man, Manel Estiarte said
“What is good for the mind is good for the legs”
He and Pep recognised that the right mental state was one of the key factors in their winning strategy. In his 3 years with the club, he led them to win the German premier league (Bundesliga) consecutively for each of these years.
In my experience with professional basketball players the mental aspect creates a difference of between 20 to 40% in their performance and results. That´s a huge difference! We are talking about improving your free throws up to an accuracy of 80 to 90% just by learning how to manage and direct your mental and emotional state! Imagine seeing shot after shot slip perfectly through the ring. Now that feels amazing!
However, for me, one of the other key benefits that players receive from training their mental and emotional state is their return to joy in the game.
All the professional players that I have worked with, without exception, play basketball because it is their passion and joy. However, too often it is also a great source of frustration, anxiety and suffering. For me it is deeply satisfying not only to see their improved performance but to see them free like a child once again to enjoy their passion.