When practice doesn’t lead to free-throw shooting perfection


College and high school coaches around the country are proving that practice does not make perfect, at least when it comes to making free throws.

Even the best free-throw-shooting teams in the country sink only about 77 percent of their attempts. Counting games through Jan. 24, Wichita State was eighth nationally in free- throw percentage, making 75.5 percent of its attempts. KU was 94th, making 71.2 percent of its free throws and Kansas State was a dismal 255th, making just 65.6 percent of its tries.

The worst free-throw-shooting team in late January was DePaul, making a mere 56.1 percent of its attempts.

In late January, individually, Wichita State’s Clevin Hannah had the best free-throw percentage, making 54 of 56 attempts for 96.4 percent. Of course, a couple of misses could drop him from the top in a hurry.

In an effort to better understand how coaches teach their teams the art of shooting free throws, I contacted Don Brubacher, director of athletics at Hillsdale College and longtime men’s basketball coach at Tabor College; Rusty Allen, vice president for athletics at Tabor College and former TC women’s basketball coach and former Hesston High School boys coach; and Darrel Knoll, longtime head boys coach at Hillsboro High School.

All three have something in common: Their teams won a lot of games, including some championships.

Brubacher said most of his teams shot 70 percent or better at the charity stripe. He said Grant Ringler and Karl Kliewer were among his best free-throw shooters, but his teams were usually just average or slightly better than average when it came to free-throw shooting.

Allen said most of his teams shot free throws in the low-to-mid-60 percent range. And he acknowledges that it’s a mind game.

“While technique and touch are important, confidence and poise are at least as important,” Allen said. “Psychology isn’t what one would call an exact science.”

Knoll says his best free-throw-shooting team shot 71.4 percent in 2005. That was an excellent team (21-2) that was upset in the sub-state final. His second-best free-throw-shooting team in 1998 made 70.8 percent of its tries and won a state championship with a 24-2 record.

Commenting on teaching players the art of shooting free throws, Knoll points to two things: “proper form and then shooting them with the same tiredness that one might have in a game. I don’t have players run for missing too many free throws. Sometimes, at the end of practice, someone has to make a pair of free throws before we quit running, but that is different.”

Brubacher said: “I would say it is impossible to create game pressure in the practice environment. Coaches try, and I did the same, by attaching punishments to missed free throws in some drills. Those efforts do not bring the same level of pressure, though.

“My approach to free-throw shooting was to focus on two factors: the mechanics of the shot and consistency in the system each player used to prepare for free throws. The greater of those two factors was the first, by far. Pressured-free throws were the exception in practice—the vast majority of the free throws were designed to work on the two factors above,” Brubacher said.

Allen agrees that it is impossible to simulate the pressure of a game situation. On the topic of emphasizing free throws, Allen said, “We tried it all—pressure free throws where the team runs for each miss, crowd noise over the loudspeaker, me describing the scenario prior to handing the ball to a player to shoot, etc.

“In the end, a player needs good technique, repetition to the point of creating muscle memory and the mental toughness and poise to handle incredible pressure.”

Knoll said, “Free throws are extremely important, especially when the game is on the line and down the stretch of the season.”

There’s more to share from these three coaches that space won’t allow, so I’ll save those observations until next time.


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