Prequel to ‘Improving Game Shooting Series’

Coaches constantly promote aspects other than shooting as being key to success in basketball, but the hard truth is that if you can score you are probably going to have a decent chance of at least staying on coaches radars longer than other players who can’t. In an earlier article series, shooting and the relationship between practice and game shots, was broken down into a painful level of detail. That series represents my current theory of developing shooting ability and contradicts some of the current trends in shooting training. This article gives you some insight into how I came to that opinion by presenting my earlier theory on shooting development. I still think there is some merit to the idea’s inside this theory as presented in this article, and i’ve written it to both show where i’ve come from to end up where I have, and that you might perhaps see something from your perspective that I have missed which could further illuminate the process of teaching and learning shooting as a skill.

In the ‘improving game shooting’ article series, the value of variation was discussed with reference to developing and storing a shooting mind-map. This was related to the storage and refinement of the learned skill, which accounted for the particular aspects unique to different types of shots. This accounted for not just those aspects specific to stationary shooting, which tends to make up the bulk of our time spent practicing, but pull up jump shots, fatigued jump shots, twisting and turning jump shots and jump shots from different distances. But there is an alternative way to approach skill development and expression when it comes to shooting. One which targets improvements in game shooting by the complete opposite approach. Rather than increasing training variation, it focuses on reducing game shot variation, in particular by improving balance and deceleration. This is the approach I held prior to reaching my current opinion and one that led me to make revisions and ultimately to write the practice vs game shooting article. I now believe that this earlier theory is less effective than the one presented in the practice vs game shooting article, but it does present some valuable points to consider when practicing and teaching shooting, ones that I think are still worth discussing despite the identified flaws. This article will look at this alternative idea, my original theory, so that you can learn from my mistakes and build on anything inside of it that I may have got right and which may prove to be useful.

Transferring practice to games

As presented here, my original view of shooting development was influenced by the understanding that the majority of shots we practice are stationary catch and shoot. I recognised the influence this repetitious practice has on how we learn to shoot the ball, making us very good at a certain type of shot. Shooting percentage during stationary shooting is generally much higher than any shots involving hard cuts or shots off the dribble. I deducted from this that our time spent first learning to shoot in isolated and stationary settings, then refining our stationary shooting ability created a ‘reserve’ of sorts, a type of shot we are generally very competent at making. If we are able to learn very well what this shot ‘feels’ like and then try to find and replicate that feeling in other more challenging shooting situations, you would see a positive transfer from all your time spent practicing and building your ‘reserve’ of perfect shots. I saw inconsistent deceleration as a key factor which separated stationary shots to pull up jump shots. If we didn’t decelerate properly, either involving a ‘fading’ or twisting shot, then the shot would be less similar to our ‘perfect-shot reserve’ and the less likely we were to make the shot, given our reduced benefit from earlier shooting practice. Each variation from our ‘perfect-shot’ style would require calibration (such as factoring in momentum/rotation/elbow flare etc), that this calibration would be inconsistent in it’s effectiveness and would become less accurate the more fatigued we were (as any human calculation/decision making process does).

The start and end point of any type of shot are quite similar. From the moment the shot is initiated (last step is planted, knee’s flexed, hips bent and with the ball on it’s way upwards somewhere between the waist and eye level) to the moment it leaves the shooting hand, you see an action which should look quite similar between all types of shots, whether they be stationary, off the dribble, practice or game shots. Everything that occurs prior to the player reaching that ‘shooting position’ is simply distraction or ‘noise’, both mental and physical, making it harder for that player to replicate, and thus draw upon, their reserve of practiced shots. I hypothesised that if we could learn to control our focus (mental) and balance/position (physical) as we initiated our shot, that we could essentially separate this shooting moment from any noise that was occurring prior, anything that might serve to change our shot from our ‘perfect-form’. Allowing excessive rotation, fading, changes in arm position, or mental distraction, would all require more calibration in the moment, and would rely less on the ‘perfect-shot reserve’ we had spent years building up during training and shoot-arounds.

Bell-curve graph

The way I viewed this reserve of practice shots was using the idea of a bell curve graph. The ‘perfect-shot’ was a perfectly balanced shot with a smooth release, which tends to be the type of shot players spend their time initially learning, then refining in stationary high volume shoot-arounds. They are teaching their body what this ‘perfect-shot’ feels like and then in games the more successfully they are able to shoot a shot that matches this ‘feeling’ the more likely that shot is to go on. The more their game shot varies from the reserve of perfect shots the greater the chance of it missing. As an example, 31 hypothetical game shots were taken and charted on the graph below. This graph reflects that the shots taken which fall within the green ‘perfect-shot reserve’ were more likely to go in than shots which deviated (perhaps due to poor deceleration) and are reflected in the orange zones. Shots falling within the orange zone were still more likely to go in than shots which deviated even further from the ‘perfect-shot reserve’ which are reflected in the red zones.

The further the shot deviates from this ‘perfect-shot reserve’ the less benefit it receives from the thousands of practice shots performed, and the less likely this shot is to go in. These deviant shots require more momentary calibration from the player and rather than replicating their ideal shooting form, they are essentially building their shot on the spot, relying on their judgements and calculations in that particular moment. Some players seem to be better able to do this than others but generally I decided it was better to focus on chasing consistency to benefit the vast majority of players.  In this model, I thought that as reflected in the diagram, there was some wiggle room which allowed for small variation of the shot without losing the benefit of the ‘perfect-shot reserve’. Rather than a plumb line, the ‘perfect-shot reserve’ is a broad band of green which represents this small degree of leniency.

While anything that contributes to distracting or deviating this shot from the ‘feeling’ of a practice shot, or ‘perfect form’  should be addressed, one of the key area’s I was focusing on reducing variation in was deceleration ability. Sometimes it is obvious when a player has decelerated poorly when shooting the ball, they land in a completely different position to where they jumped from. Other times it can be less obvious but just as disruptive to the shot. Considering it’s not just the position of the feet, but rotation through the entire body which contributes to the outcome of the shot, such as the feet facing one direction and the upper body/shoulders continuing to rotate another due to poor deceleration ability through the torso. Often in order to off-set momentum the players almost need to jump in the opposite direction, certainly not a close match to their reserve.

Deceleration

While many coaches were focusing on the upper arm actions involved in shooting, my approach was to teach the ability to decelerate properly before shooting the ball. This approach was one that not only improved their shooting ability but their general movement ability, while reducing risk of injury (through improvements in their ability to absorb impact appropriately), so it was good value for time training. I saw this as a missing link between the high percentage shooting in practice and the lower percentage shooting seen during games which involved shots and actions completed at a higher intensity; with faster movements in reduced time. Since practice shots allowed a much higher shooting percentage than game shots, if you could find a way to closely replicate a practice shot in the game you would see a flow on effect to game shooting percentage. I viewed being able to decelerate, balance and initiate your shot in a fraction of a second as integral to this. To give players an idea of what this felt like I would get them to sprint to a line on the court and see how much distance they needed to slow down and stop on the line. Then I’d tell them to try and be quicker on the next attempt. The faster they try and run, the harder it is to decelerate and stop on the line without falling over it. In basketball it is not helpful to be lightning quick at accelerating, like a 100m runner, if you also require the length of the court to slow down and turn around. The average sprint time in basketball before a stop or change of direction is 1.9 seconds. Being able to stop and go somewhere else is very important not just for shooting but for all aspects of offense and defense. The better players get at this ability, the more balanced they are on their jump shots and the less time they need to get a balanced shot off (since they can balance and initiate their shot quicker). This of course needs to be practiced from various angles and not just straight lines, but the concept of increasing the speed and reducing the time available to decelerate and get the shot off (such as replicating a defender closing out) to increase skill proficiency remains the same.

Even after a player became skilled at this ability to decelerate and the improved level of self-awareness that comes with it, they might need to ‘recalibrate’ from time to time. I would teach this by either having them dribbling at speed into a shot, or catching the ball off a hard cut and rather than jumping into their jump shot, they take their final step and then freeze in their early shooting action, knee’s bent and the ball somewhere between their waist and their head. In this moment they can ‘feel’ whether they had properly decelerated or whether their body was still drifting or twisting in any direction. If they do feel or see this occur then they know that they would have had to factor that variation into the shot they would have shot, perhaps pushing it away from their ‘perfect-shot reserve’ and dropping the shots percentage chance of going in. They can repeat the action and focus on doing a better job of getting balanced. This awareness of their momentum was recalibrated consciously, but only to ensure that it was properly occurring subconsciously. By spending time on this attribute I was trying to link shooting ability during stationary shooting drills to other shots involving high speed movements and limited time.

A more robust approach

Over time, I changed my opinion on approaching shooting this way. Here’s why. The concept of antifragility was one I learned from Tallib Nassim in his book ‘Antifragile’ and it has influenced my work with athletes enormously. To be antifragile would be the opposite of being fragile (sorry for pointing out the obvious). Fragile things become weaker with stress or are vulnerable to significant changes, variation or disruption. This is obvious when you think of a glass jar, even a small bump and the entire thing can shatter. Anti-fragile things on the other hand, aren’t just robust or resilient to stress, able to withstand it, but in fact grow and get stronger from it. Muscle or bone development might be viewed in this respect. If stressed appropriately and given time to recover (perhaps from weights training) they adapt to become stronger. In fact they depend upon stress to a large degree. The first space explorers, collapsed when they returned to earth and first tried to stand up, the lack of gravity had severely deteriorated their muscle and bone strength. This concept is something which I began to reflect upon in relation to teaching shooting. My theory presented here assumes that if a player can decelerate properly to closely match their reserve of ‘perfect-shots’, that they can shoot a high percentage shot in any situation. This, I believe, is a fragile approach to teaching shooting. In the chaos of a basketball game, with the incredible forces placed on players bodies, I believe it impossible to decelerate properly on every shot you take. The more effort you invest in shooting shots or perhaps trying to only shoot when perfectly balanced, the more you hurt your ability to score the shots which fall outside of this ‘perfect-shot reserve’. Considering that often these variant shots are the shots seen inside the highest pressure situations (such as a game winner), this isn’t an ideal consequence. Upon realising this, and after further reflection and investigation into research and evidence around skill development, I took the alternative approach of increasing practice variation to develop a shooting mind-map which would be more resilient to variation and could adapt to suit the shot required by the randomness and chaotic nature of a basketball game. This training technique is antifragile in the sense that any variation in games or in training provides a learning stimulus, which as long as the player has the correct intent, they will learn from and be better equipped to make that shot next time it occurs. Rather than fighting the chaos of the game and the random nature of shooting the ball, we are embracing it. Rather than trying to make the game situation fit our ideal shot, we are practicing shots specific to game situations. This new theory actually depends on change, variation and disruption during shooting practice if you want to see a relevant transfer to game shooting. The full title of Nassims book is actually ‘Antifragile: things that gain from disorder’. My former theory on shooting development attempted to prevent disorder, the latter depends upon it. Basketball training is generally neat and structured, but too often we forget the game of basketball consistently reverts to chaos and disorder. It is not a training shot or a training improvement we ultimately desire, it is a game improvement. We are focusing on transferring practice shots to games, without realising that the error is in how we’re practicing, specifically it’s lack of relevance to game shots.

One strength of this original approach to developing shooting was that I believe it reduced the tendency for reinvestment, or perhaps as much reinvestment, to occur. In summary, there is solid sports based evidence that the more details you give someone to focus on when they are learning or practicing a skill, the better they perform in that drill, but the worse they perform if you slightly change things such as distance from target, or introduce distractions, or if you increase the pressure. Basically they fail to transfer the skill improvements to anything other than the specific practice environment. An example of reinvestment in action, which most people can relate to, is attempting to carry a very full cup of tea or any other beverage across the lounge at a guests house while they watch. We are all very capable of carrying the cup quite steadily without spills, but if under pressure we begin to overthink the process, we are almost certain to spill the cup. In fact the more we try to not spill the cup, often the more likely we are to do so. This is a similar process to the famous experiment which involves attempting to not think about a pink elephant for a minute. The harder you consciously try to not do something, the harder it is to avoid doing it. There is good evidence for this in the brains tendency to self scan itself. At some point, it does a ‘system scan’ which intends to determine whether or not you are in fact being successful at not thinking about a pink elephant, which has the undesired effect of you thinking about yourself not thinking about a pink elephant and you end up failing the test. If you compare my approach to teaching shooting, which was for players to focus on ‘finding’ the feeling of their perfect shot in any moment, I had successfully reduced the amount of reinvestment compared to a coach who was teaching a shot emphasising the elbow, or wrist, or follow-through, or feet etc. Essentially by learning the ‘feeling’ of their perfect shot, the player is factoring all those smaller components in, without overloading their focus. It’s conceptualising details. But they are still focusing on finding a feeling rather than just ‘making the shot’. While I believe there is some merit in teaching feelings like this, I wasn’t completely happy with this intent. I rationalised this with an idea which I think still does make some sense. Even for an elite player a shot that feels ‘perfect’ will not go in every time. Let’s say if they shot 10 shots that felt ‘perfect’, that in practice 9/10 go in. In games, this might become 8/10 – for shots that felt perfect at release. So I would teach the player to avoid being a perfectionist. If you shoot a good shot and it misses, being a perfectionist you might try to change something on the next one, when really you don’t need to. It was just 1 of the 2/10 misses which will occur on average. You’re better off to play the percentages and shoot the same shot next time than go rogue and start making shots up on the spot, trusting in your ability to calibrate in the heat of the moment. My philosophy was, if you shoot your ‘perfect-shot’ 10 times, you’ll make 8/10, and this will be true on average in 8/10 games. This would mean that if you have a bad shooting game, it isn’t necessarily cause for concern. Stay consistent and the next should be better, you don’t lost your skills overnight after all! By having a consistent and balanced approach to your shot, you avoid shooting slumps, which I speculated might occur through to players losing trust in their shot and consciously, or subconsciously making changes to their shooting form. I still think there is some merit to this approach.

Where this approach falls down is with regards to learning and how it seems to occur. As discussed in other articles, the underlying intent is very important to how the body learns from an action. Human actions are learnt through action-consequence, and based on our intent to achieve something, the body learns and refines an action to best achieve the desired consequence. Being able to walk rather than crawl is an example of this learning process. A young child who learns to walk efficiently has a clear advantage racing towards a toy over a child who might also be able to move on two feet but not yet as easily. The intent is to be able to move faster and transitioning from crawling to walking and running achieves this. The technique develops and becomes consistent to best achieve the desired intent. This allows individual characteristics to be compensated for, such as different joint range of motion or leg length, without influencing a successful result of the action. The fundamental aspects of walking look similar (perhaps alternating arm/leg swing) despite small variations from person to person (such as hip rotation) but the result is assured in both cases despite the small differences. If the intent is to shoot your ‘perfect-shot’ it is focusing primarily on the action, exclusive of the result. We are going all in, so to speak, on the ability of our ‘perfect’ stationary shot technique, the shot we learnt and and transferring to every other type of shot, to be the best shot for all circumstances a game might present. We are blocking out our natural ability to learn and calibrate and aren’t really getting better at shooting game shots, we are getting better at finding our practice shots in games. I believe this is chasing a secondary aspect (technique) rather than the primary (make the shot).

Intention and learning

The primary intent of any shooter, one would say if asked to reflect, is to ‘make the shot’, but we assume this is a given for anyone and instead focus our attention on the ‘correct’ technique. I think the degree with which we focus our intent, say 100% rather than 80%, on making the shot will dictate how much we learn from each attempt at a subconscious level. I certainly know, often after making a few shots in a row during games on a ‘hot streak’, that very often when the miss inevitably comes that you jog down the court thinking that you didn’t really focus as much as you could have on that one and that it’s a shame because much of that momentum of earlier makes has now cooled off. In many cases I think it can become a case of almost expecting the ball to go in, influenced by our high repetition technique focused practiced, rather than being as engaged on making it go in, as you would be perhaps after an earlier missed shot. I argue that when we so strongly correlated the success of the shot to the technique directly, then when we miss we primarily learn and refine the skill based on the flaws to the technique, measured against what our coaches or text-books present as perfect technique, rather than the flaws that actually prevented the ball going in the basket.

This isn’t entirely a one or the other sort of focus like I might be presenting it. I think our bodies will to some degree learn from the result even if we have a strong technique focus and make some subconscious adjustments. And I’m not saying that a reasonably consistent technique isn’t important, but that in most cases that the body will do a better job of making the adjustments on an unconscious level than we could and that based on a desire to make the shot a consistent technique will develop organically. But, I think we often delay or mitigate these beneficial adjustments occurring through ‘natural learning’ (action-consequence based) by consciously adjusting, or encouraging subconscious adjustments towards ‘text-book’ form rather than simply towards a made basket. In this way we are essentially saying from our conscious brain to our subconscious brain “thanks for getting me this far with my movement ability, but me and my coaches will take it from here – we know the solution”.

So when we miss, we don’t learn as much why the shot missed, but we instead learn how the technique was incorrect and how it can be refined for next time. It might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but I believe this is the key difference between how we learn every other motor skill, such as walking or reaching and grasping objects, and how we teach shooting in basketball. Our brains are incredibly powerful and do a remarkable job of refining skills to become more successful at them. We should be presenting opportunities for our brains and bodies to ‘figure out’ the most efficient way to complete the task and focus our attention on the intent, in this case – make the basket. A motivational video of a man being held under water by his mentor before being let up for a desperate gasp of air moments before being plunged back under, was audio dubbed with a quote by Eric Thomas, “when you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you will be successful”. If we wanted to make each shot as badly as we want to breathe, I am confident that we could all become expert shooters without relying on the expertise of a technical shooting coach. How does this compare to our high volume, no consequence shooting practice sessions? What about make 10 from a spot then move on? Players love shooting and the latter drill actually means they spend less time shooting the faster they make their shots! Now that’s perhaps an exaggeration to some degree but hopefully you can see my point. If players turned up to training and were told they could only shoot 15 shots in the entire training session before going home, you would be more likely to see an increase in focus and intent on these limited shots. These extremely high volume drills certainly do not encourage an increase in focus on intent to make the shot. I actually think they might have the opposite effect.

With my new approach, it places all the responsibility of building drills and practice situations on the coach, this is what stipulates the type of learning which will occur. The player requires one intent and one intent only, to win the drill. The brain can therefor refine the most appropriate way to win that drill and the player doesn’t need to ‘think too much’ on anything other than trying to win – something which comes quite easily to athletes. The coach sets up the environment and decides upon the rules to ensure that the habits the player learns to win this drill are habits which will translate to game success. If these are shooting drills, the player is subconsciously reflecting after every shot how to be more successful the next time they are presented with that same shot. In games, learning continues, all the player has to focus on is ‘make the shot’. If they do, great, if they don’t, the brain is learning subconsciously how to make the next one while the play consciously focuses on the next play or finding a defender. The shooting mind-map is constantly being refined and as the stable traits are identified, traits that are essential to all shots in all situations, they are ingrained deeper and deeper to successfully improve performance inside pressure situations. These ‘stable traits’ are discussed in my latest theory on shooting skill development. Conscious reinvestment is taken entirely out of the equation, the player simply has to trust that if their intent is 100% to ‘make the shot’ that they don’t need to analyse why it might have missed, their subconscious is already doing that for them and will do a better job at it than they ever consciously could. They just need to focus on making the next one. I think players like Michael Jordan epitomise this intent to get better. The look in their eye as they fire a dagger into the heart of the opposition isn’t one of ‘hoping’ the ball goes in, or even just blindly ‘expecting’ the shot to go in based on their practice – the look is one of making the ball go in. He doesn’t give the ball a chance, he is telling that thing to go in and if it doesn’t he desperately learns what is needed to adjust for the next one. His desire does not fuel time spent thinking about what to change (conscious reinvestment), his subconscious does that for him, with a focus on the holistic performance rather than a technical approach as encouraged by most coaches. When it came to game winners, Jordan perhaps more closely matched his desire to make that shot, to his desire to breathe, than any other player to have played the game. And by all accounts this desire to win wasn’t exclusive to shooting. Jordan would go out to dominate every drill, starting from something as simple as the passing drill used in the warm-up. In my mind this is largely why he became so successful.

Wrapping up

In this article I’ve introduced the importance of deceleration to shooting, and then shown how perhaps I was wrong to focus on it as much as I did. But this isn’t to say the the ability to decelerate isn’t important. A balanced shot is still an easier shot, but it isn’t the key to success I think I made it out to be. Even though you might not depend upon your ability to decelerate to make the shot, it is extremely important to be able to do so – if for no reason other than physical health and longevity. Poor deceleration increases loads on your entire body, knee’s in particular, and it’s no surprise that overuse injuries of the knee are a major problem in junior and senior basketball. Not to mention, if you get too lax with your attempts to balance and prevent fading as you shoot the ball, these tendencies tend to exaggerate. A little twisting or fading becomes a lot of twisting and fading which begins to influence your shooting mechanics and the overall ‘feel’ of the shot. My focus was perhaps too much on linking the feeling of shots in practice, to shots in games, rather than teaching the ability to ‘find’ a good feeling shot in a variety of situations. I still like the idea of judging the feeling of a shot, all shooters know that a shot has to ‘feel good’ so this still seems to be an important aspect. I just don’t think that we need to necessarily measure how a shot feels by how balanced we were at initiation of that shot. Mental focus, mindset and smoothness of release could arguably be the key factors, but investigating deeper into the key’s to shooting success would be beyond the intent of this article and as I hope I’ve presented – your subconscious can do a better job of figuring that out than any article that I write could.

I mentioned that my approach of reducing variation in this ‘perfect form’ approach was perhaps a more fragile approach to teaching shooting, at least compared to the my current opinion. This idea of fragility also has implications to the way we initially teach, and then focus so heavily on shooting technique. The reason I initially searched for a way to link game shots to practice shots is because the reserve of ‘perfect-form’ shots is already so high given our history of training and coaching methods. This approach to linking the shots through ‘finding the feeling’ might still be a very effective way to teach shooting considering the amount of time we spend learning technically correct shots and shooting inside stationary shooting drills. If we can change the way teaching is taught, and learnt, then we will see significantly more robust shooting performances in games and it would make the approach presented in this article less effective and my new approach more-so.

Players tend to learn shooting at a young age using isolated drills from stationary positions with a heavy technique focus. We spend the majority of our time working on our shooting with a partner inside stationary drills involving high volume, low variation shots. We are spending our time learning a type of shot which is not overly representative to the shots required inside games. We are teaching and learning shooting in such a way which makes us  technically sound, and successful inside drills, but might be hurting our ability to make shots in games, in particular those under pressure.