They know how. They’ve done it, maybe even hundreds of times just this past week. So this person can do it. But doesn’t. Why is that? Leading sports science researchers say even the best paid, most disciplined basketball players will choke under pressure at the foul line. And while it’s a good way to keep the last two or three minutes of a pro or college basketball game interesting, in general choking is seen as a bad thing. Is there a way to overcome this tendency? Don’t worry, the cognitive neuroscientists and sport science have an explanation for that, too.
Is There A Scientific Term For Choking?
In their ultimate wisdom, scientists typically stick to quantifiable and precise terms. So it’s fairly amusing to hear cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, who is also president of Barnard College, describe herself as a “choking under pressure” expert. But choking is part of brain science, and experts are working diligently to discover both how it happens and how to prevent it. Beilock’s research also applies to test taking, speaking in public and even the club player’s golf swing. But she really shines on explaining free throw percentages. More on her later. Before you can comprehend how even the mighty (and the lavishly paid) can fail on the free throw line, you have to understand the simplicity of this undertaking.
In basketball, the free throw line is always 15 feet from the basket that is 10 feet from the ground. The player is not moving. He or she does not have any opponents. The distances never change. In a pro or college game, they have 10 seconds to position and shoot. Even a school child can make shot after shot. So how is it that the combined average for NBA, WNBA, and NCAA hovers around 70 percent? And (gasp), even the very best retired NBA’s player, Steve Nash, has just a 90.43 percent career free throw record during his 3,384-lifetime career foul shot attempts.
The Science Of Great Foul Shots
When speaking to Wired journalist Robbie Gonzalez, NC State professor and dynamicist Larry Silverberg summed up the general public’s utter disbelief that more pro players aren’t making every shot. “You just walk up to the line and it’s the same for every player,” he said. And Silverberg has studied the mechanics of shooting fouls exhaustively. When you take out the psychology of “choking,” you’re left with four key aspects of consistently sinking free throws: initial velocity of the ball; “side angle,” which is lining up the ball so it goes directly to the center of the hoop; backspin so the ball meets the rim a little more softly; and shooting the ball on an arc that’s somewhere between 45 and 56 degrees, depending on your height.
Steve Nash finished Silverberg’s thought with his views from personal experience as the NBA’s best retired lifetime free throw shooter (and recent co-creator of the HomeCourt AI app that assists even weekend warriors with foul shot consistency. He’s observed these three factors for the pros and other players who just can’t get above 50 percent at the free throw line (hello, Shaquille O’Neal). “They probably don’t have the best technique, they probably don’t take the most pride in it or practice as diligently as they should,” Nash said in Wired. “And lastly some people emotionally, especially if you haven’t done the work, it’s gonna affect your technique more.”
And now we get to the key issue, the one that impacts findings from Beilock and other cognitive sports science researchers: Players are emotional humans first and free throw shooting machines second. And so they suffer from what Beilock calls “paralysis by analysis.” This catchy phrase means only that people tend to pay so much attention to the detail of what they’re doing that they undermine their own ability to get the job done (the free throw made, the sand trap avoided, the speech made without stuttering.)
Heimlich Maneuvers For Choking Under Pressure
Beilock recommends closing the gap between physical conditioning and poor performance in the moment by practicing in the same conditions you’ll experience when it matters most. “The idea is to get used to how you’ll feel and how your body will react in the moment of pressure,” she said. For example, if an important stressor might be a guest watching the big event, Beilock recommends having them there at the practice too. (Looking for Jack Nicholson to be at all the Laker shootarounds starting now, though Beilock really meant people like your parents.)
Boston University clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen had more tips in Scientific American, all geared towards keeping emotional distress from derailing a performance you’ve worked hard to prepare for. “Choking happens in one of two way,” she said. “In conscious tasks where you rely on your brain, worry takes up your bandwidth and makes you choke. In unconscious tasks where you rely on your muscles, thinking overrides the process and, once again, delivers you to Chokesville.”
Her advice on avoiding either fate when you’re under pressure is based on a sports psychology study from the University of Chicago. It works whether the performance is a driving test or a foul shot to clinch a Final Four appearance. “If you’re new to something and really do need to think your way through it, take all the time you need,” she explained. “If you’re well-practiced, taking your time can lead to overthinking.”
Elena Delle Donne Doesn’t Miss
Will this advice ever make it possible for pro basketball players to start maintaining 95 percent free throw records? Maybe not the guys, but for women, the question isn’t “if,” but “when?” The WNBA’s Elena Delle Donnecareer free throw percentage is already 93.36. She told ESPN she uses the same routine she’s used since the eighth grade. “Simplicity is what gives me confidence,” she said.