A general assumption in the sports world is that athletes get better over time. Sprinters get faster, hitters hit more home runs, quarterbacks throw fewer interceptions, etc. And yet, there’s one sports statistic that has refused to budge: the percentage of free-throws made in the NBA. Here’s the NY Times, via Kottke:
The consistency of free-throw percentages stands out when contrasted with field-goal shooting over all. In men’s college basketball, field-goal percentage was below 40 percent until 1960, then climbed steadily to 48.1 in 1984, still the highest on record. The long-range 3-point shot was introduced in 1986, and the overall shooting percentage has settled in at about 44 percent.
Why can’t players learn to make their free throws? After all, it’s an uncontested shot; you can take as long as you need. Nobody is defending you or thrusting a hand into your face. It’s just you, a ball and the basket.
That, I think, is the problem. An expert athlete largely performs on auto-pilot. Manny Ramirez doesn’t think about the mechanics of his swing and Kobe Bryant isn’t contemplating his jump-shot when he pulls up behind the arc in the 4th quarter. They are performers and they’re performing. They might think about these details during batting practice, or during warm-ups, but the best athletes cultivate a kind of mindlessness during the game itself. David Foster Wallace, in his glorious review of Tracy Austin’s horrific memoir of her tennis career, said it best:
The real secret behind top athlete’s genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as the silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.
At least, their conscious mind should be empty. In my book, I discuss some work done by Sian Beilock on the cognitive neuroscience of choking:
Beilock uses putting on the golf green as her experimental paradigm. When people are first learning how to putt, the activity can seem daunting. There are just so many things to think about. Golfers need to assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. Then they have to monitor their putting motion and make sure that they hit the ball with a smooth, straight stroke. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem unbearably hard, like a life-sized trigonometry problem.
But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to sink the ball in the hole. By concentrating on their golf game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke, they can avoid beginner’s mistakes.
A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt⎯once they have memorized the necessary movements⎯analyzing the stroke is a waste of time. Their brain already knows what to do. It automatically computes the slope of the green, settles on the best putting angle, and decides how hard to hit the ball. Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has monitored the brain wave activity of expert athletes in the midst of performance. (Because the subjects have to wear a bulky plastic cap full of electrodes, Hatfield can only study golfers, archers and Olympic rifle shooters.) The brain waves of novice athletes exhibit a consistent pattern of activity, with lots of erratic spikes and haphazard rhythms. This is the neural signature of a mind that’s humming with conscious thoughts, as it pays attention to all sorts of irrelevant stimuli and bodily cues. The minds of experts, in contrast, look strangely serene. When they are performing their sport, they exhibit a rare mental tranquility, as their cortex deliberately ignores interruptions from the outside world. This is evidence, Hatfield says, of “the zone,” that trance-like mindset allowing experts to perform at peak levels. As the corporate motto says, the best athletes don’t think: they just do it.
Beilock’s data further demonstrates the benefits of relying on the automatic brain when playing a familiar sport. She found that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. “We bring expert golfers into our lab, and we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up,” Beilock says. “When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don’t need to pay attention to every step in what you’re doing.”
Now back to those free-throws. The very ease of the shot is why it’s so difficult. Because players are alone at the line with their self-conscious thoughts, they tend to think too much. The luxury of time turns out to be a curse. They remember all those pieces of advice from the shooting coach and start focusing on keeping a rigid wrist and holding the ball in the right place and making sure to follow through. And that’s when their shot falls apart. This is the perverse irony of free throws – trying to fix your shot just might destroy it. For instance, I remember watching Shaq struggle to break the 50 percent barrier. The more he tried to improve his free throws (or at least said he tried) the uglier his free throws became, until he was basically hurling the ball with one hand at the rim. Shaq is a world-class athlete, but he hasn’t improved his free throw percentage for the same reason the rest of the NBA hasn’t.
I think this also explains why the best free throw shooters tend to have the most elaborate free throw rituals. They’ll lick their hand, grab their shorts, spin the ball, dribble it three times, etc. (Tennis players go through a similar routine before serving.) The purpose of these rituals should now be obvious: they help keep those self-conscious thoughts away, and allow players to segue into a more automated state of mind.