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Understanding the science behind a successful free throw

2021 NBA basketball players.
Justin Casterline
Getty Images
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks takes a free throw during the second half in Game Three of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns at Fiserv Forum on July 11, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The free throw is the only time in a basketball game where players can make a basket without any defensive pressure. Yet, many players struggle to make the uncontested fifteen-foot shot consistently.

Despite the rituals that may come before it, the fate of a free throw is set the second the basketball leaves the player's fingertips. What may seem like a relatively simple game element is actually one of the most complex moments a player takes part in, scientifically at least.

To learn more about the science behind a successful free throw, William Cullinan, Marquette's dean of the College of Health and Sciences, shares more.

Cullinan says there's a good reason some players have a pre-free throw ritual, like bouncing the ball a few times. "The idea is that you're kind of like accessing that type of procedural memory, that's going to allow you to be more consistent as a shooter. In a sense, it's a type of priming," says Cullinan.

A surprisingly large part of the brain is involved in that priming. While most might think that motor skills would be the most important part of shooting a ball, Cullinan says it's more complicated than that.

"In fact, the parts of the brain that are thought to control motor function on the cortical surface are insufficient to be able to do that by themselves. That is such a wide array of muscles acting to move joints in a very specific sequence is really complicated," says Cullinan.

Some other key factors of shooting a free throw include the velocity of the stroke, the alignment of the ball and creating a backspin so the ball can roll in.

"All of these things are true, but my thesis is a little bit different, and it's this: the stroke or the shot needs to be of an optimal length in terms of the motor program involved in order to be most effective, that is either too short or too long. It predicts inaccuracy," says Cullinan.

Stress and anxiety can also impact shooting success. Cullinan notes there's a big difference between practicing in a driveway versus standing in front of a crowd of fans at Fiserv Forum.

"There's a whole psychology behind that aspect of the free throw, that is to put oneself in a zone, or perhaps use mental imaging to conjure up a less stressful situation or something more comfortable. And those can always be important factors in accuracy," says Cullinan.

He advises players should be practicing under different physical and mental conditions. Players should practice when they're exhausted, fresh, and somewhere in between.

"If you were only to practice under ideal conditions, say at the start of your workout...you're not going to be ready for that situation late in the game where you’re tripping over your time as it is. Now you have the added stress of winning or losing the game," says Cullinan.

Milwaukee Bucks star, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been improving his free throws over the last couple of seasons. Cullinan notes that, collectively, when we see an improvement like this, the activity in the brain is called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity can be viewed as a general umbrella term that refers to the brain's ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life.

"We didn't think that the brain changed physically in the ways we know that it does today. And so when we put these phenomena together, it likely explains the improvement that we see with practice and repetition," says Cullinan.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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