Remarks on Shooting and Practicing Shooting

This entry is an attempt to combine some principles and some nuts and bolts regarding shooting and practicing shooting. Originally, I published this post in March 2015.

In November 2015 I put it back together piece by piece and also added some new remarks. The latest additions were made on Monday Nov 30. Drills related to this entry can be found in this blog entry.

Shooting Accuracy and Efficiency Are Not the Same Thing

For starters we must define the primary goal of shooting practice. That definition is a prerequisite for any intelligent discussion about the subject. That is because if we do not know exactly what shooting practice should accomplish, it is impossible to assess its efficiency.

My guess is that coaches often consider – explicitly or implicitly – the goal of shooting practice to be shooting accuracy. I consider that a misconception. My claim is that the goal is rather the shooting efficiency. The shooting accuracy and efficiency are often confused but there is a huge difference.

Accuracy refers simply to the rate of hitting the shots taken. So, certainly, being accurate is correlated with being effective. However, there is more to being an effective shooter than being an accurate one.

That is because in the basketball context, the only true measure of a player’s efficiency is the effect of his actions on the success of this team. In other words, a basketball player’s job is to help his team win.

Regarding field goal shooting, he can do that by not only hitting shots but also by e.g. drawing fouls and optimizing the number of his shots.

Optimizing the number of shots requires two things. On one hand, it requires that you take will take the shots that enhance chances of your team. On the other hand, it requires that you will not take shots that will harm the team’s chances of winning.

So, paradoxically, as a result of successful shooting training, a player may start scoring less than he used to.

The Power Law and the Specificity of Practice

The power law of practice and the specificity of practice hypothesis are two basic principles of sports practice. The power law claims that the more you practice, the more you improve. The specificity hypothesis claims that you improve at what you practice.

The goal of shooting practice is to enhance shooting in games. Given this and the specificity of practice principle, shooting practice should be game-like.

So, Coach will inevitably face two basic questions: A) How can he make his shooting practice game-like? and B) How can he provide the players with as many repetitions as possible?

The most obvious answer to question A is to create game-like constraints by setting up 5-5 situations and having the designated shooter react to what the other nine players are doing.

However, considering question B, too, that would be inefficient because the number of repetitions per player would be severely limited. It would take take nine players to train one.

What Game-likeness Means

That brings us to the real question, Question C, regarding shooting practice: How can Coach as effectively and efficiently as possible create game-like conditions for the shooting practice? The answers will necessarily be compromises between the requirements demonstrated in questions A and B.

A warning is now in order: There is no panacea to the question C, but rather a lot of partial practical solutions. It is up to Coach’s drills and tactics and the team’s level, staff, and social context which solutions work best in any given case.

The next question inevitably becomes: what does game-likeness mean in this context? In other words, which features should game-like shooting drills include?

Often Coach will look for answers in his offensive playbook. In other words, game-like shots are defined as the types of shots that the team offense is supposed to produce. I call these drills idealized drills.

Say you run a flex offense. Given this and the afore-mentioned approach, you may run an idealized shooting drill where the shooter sets a flex screen for an imaginary cutter, comes off an imaginary down screen, receives a pass, and shoots the ball.

Trying to improve the game-likeness, Coach may add options: instead of making the basic cut to the elbow, the shooter may fade towards the corner, or curl to the middle.

This type of approach does seem logical and sensible. However, there are two severe problems involved with idealized drills.

Lack of Variability

The first problem is the lack of variability. In actual games, your shots are probably more varied.

To check if I’m correct, please re-watch your team’s latest game. Concentrate on field goal shots. What percentage of those shots are such that they would come up in idealized drills designed as described above? My bet is that the percentage is surprisingly low.

For example, in games players very seldom come off a down screen and take a jumper from the elbow – just as planned. Rather, there are complications. The screen is late, the defender holds the shooter, the pass gets deflected.

In international basketball, this is partly due to the current FIBA rules. They are designed to lead to a  lot of difficult field goal shots.

That is because there will be a lot situations where getting the shot off in time is an issue: four quarters (and thus four end-of-a-quarter situations), 24-second shot clock, 14-second shot clock after an offensive rebound.

The length of the shot clock affects the types of field goal shots taken. The shorter the shot clock, the quicker the average pace of movement. And just as importantly, the shorter the shot clock, the more difficult shots the players must take.

All in all, the old coaching slogan “Game shots, game speed” should be interpreted as a reminder to constantly add variability to shooting practice.

Unfortunately, coaches often interpret “game speed” as a demand to run full speed prior to taking the shot. This is a severe misunderstanding.

That is because in actual games, players will seldom run full speed, catch the ball, and take a jump shot. So, full speed is not “game speed” any more than some other speed is. Rather “game speed” is all kinds of speed from standing still to full speed.

Game-like Cognitive Constraints

The second problem with idealized drills is that the cognitive constraints do not mimic those present in games.

To improve the game-likeness of his shooting drills, Coach should first consider which types of cues the shooter reacts to in games.

The most obvious ones are the cues concerning the defender closest to the shooter. Also, passing to a teammate should be an option because, more than anything else, basketball is a collective effort.

In other words, a minimum requirement for the game-likeness of a shooting drill is the presence of the shooter, at least one teammate, and at least one defender.

This may well explain why some players are relatively better shooters in practices than in games, and vice versa. This apparent discrepancy may be due not to differences in mental toughness, as often assumed, but rather due to different cognitive and technical skills.

These may sound like small, theoretical details but they are anything but. They change the way players shoot in practice. When you first add a defender and a teammate to drills, you will have doubts about the new set up, because the shooters’ percentage will drop, yet at the same time they can’t seem to pass, either.

That is because most players are used to practicing shooting in a predetermined and isolated fashion. In that type of training the cognitive load faced by the shooter is different and lighter as compared to games and game-like drills,

Predetermined shots are not only cognitively less taxing than but also probably biomechanically different from shots taken while adapting to game-like constraints. (On the difference between predetermined and adaptive actions: a study on passing in futsal and a study on speed testing in rugby.)

Not Contraries But a Complementary Pair

In a nutshell and from another angle: even if the variability of practice shots matches the variability of game shots , there may be room for improvement regarding the game-likeness of practice. That is because even if the mechanics are the same, the cognitive constraints may be quite different.

Variability is a positive feature of shooting practice for two reasons. One reason has already been mentioned: variability adds to the game-likeness of shooting practice because in games field goal shots are varied.

The second reason is that variability per se enhances the effectiveness of motor skill practice. It is good for retention and transfer.

The variability of practice hypothesis and the specificity of practice hypothesis have been referred to as  “two general and contrasting hypotheses that are applicable to motor learning”.

It is questionable to juxtapose the variability hypothesis and the specificity hypothesis in the first place. From a coaching point of view, they are not contraries but rather a complementary pair. (For a detailed discussion on complementary pairs, see Kelso & Engstrom 2006: The Complementary Nature.)

Implicit vs. Explicit Coaching

Even though varied practice is useful, it will not maximize the amount of successful shots in a given practice session. As Brian McCormick put it: “With the varied practice, players will miss more shots or make more mistakes on the move than if they do the same thing 10 times in a row.”

That’s why implementing varied practice may make Coach seem incompetent. The same goes for some other scientifically justified motor skill coaching methods, such as implicit coaching.

In implicit coaching Coach directs players towards certain solutions without first explicitly telling them what those solutions are and why they are beneficial. Coach shies away from referring to the shooter’s required movements or to the body parts relevant to the movement, but rather concentrates on the desired outcome.

Implicit coaching is productive because it doesn’t interfere with the shooter’s automatic control of his movements and thus maintains movement efficiency.

Should Coach explicitly refer to the shooter’s body parts – say his fingers – the automatic control would be disturbed and the shooter should start to consciously control his movement. That would be harmful because “conscious attempts to control one’s movements are detrimental to performance“.

Enhancing Implicit Learning

Means to enhance implicit learning include analogies, external focus of attention, dual tasking, and errorless learning.

Enhancing implicit learning is easier said than than done. It’s a different way of coaching than most of us have grown used to, and thus it takes time to learn and hone necessary pedagogical skills.

Coach must e.g. come up with proper and comprehensible analogies that help players improve their shooting. In this context, analogies work as one-word holistic cues, that (hopefully) trigger proper action.

To make things more difficult, it depends on players’ age, cultural background and skills, which analogies are comprehensible and useful.

Generally speaking, analogies like these might be used regarding common technical that shooters have:

  1. “Ceiling!” = Instead of shooting flat (= “Towards the wall”) the shooter should use a high enough arch (“Towards the ceiling”).
  2. Pole” = Instead of leaning forward, the shooter should remain in an upright position – like a pole that can be found in the wall of any gym.
  3. Lock-on” = Instead of finding the basket at a late moment before taking the shot, the shooter should start gazing at the basket as early as possible and keep doing even after the release. “Lock-on” refers to “a feature of many radar systems that allows it to automatically follow a selected target”.

So, from the scientific point of view implicit coaching is a sound method. However, to many it probably seems odd and counterintuitive.

Besides tradition, one of the reasons why explicit coaching still rules is probably that it gives Coach a chance to – explicitly! – demonstrate how thoroughly he knows the details of shooting: “Bend your knees!” “Keep your elbow in!” “Follow through!”

Game-likeness vs. Number of Repetitions

Above I claimed that in order for a shooting drill to be game-like, at least one shooter, one teammate, and one defender are needed. On the other hand, the power law requires that players maximize the number of proper repetitions.

There’s a serious contradiction here. If the shooters take turns working as extras, it improves the game-likeness of the drills. But at the same time, it cuts down the number of repetitions.

How should this contradiction be resolved? In other words, where do these extras – i.e. additional offensive players and defenders – come from? My answer is three-fold.

Extras’ Importance

First take a careful look at the drills you are using and possibly re-organize them. If you find moments where players wait in lines, is it possible to use them as extras instead?

Secondly: once you have your players optimally utilized, take another look around you. Ask yourself: What about the coaching staff? Maybe you should more often implement coaches and whoever you have on the staff – including yourself – into drills as extras.

This should not be done whenever possible but things should be prioritized case by case. In other words, sometimes you are better off having coaches just monitoring the action. But just as well, sometimes they should be included in the action. In any case, they should be doing something.

The ability to work as an extra is something that the head coach should consider when recruiting assistant coaches. They don’t necessarily have to be players or ex-players, but the matter should be considered within the context of the given team.

A third option would be to bring in other people, implement them in drills as extras and possibly have them help otherwise, too. Their job description could be somewhat similar to that of student managers in college teams.

In junior club teams those “managers” could be parents. They often have time on their hands if they drive their kids to practice. In professional teams extras could be volunteers who for example look to start a coaching career.

At this point some of you may wonder if I am wandering the topic – shooting and practicing shooting, that is. I do not think so. I think that when it to comes to learning to shoot better, the ideas regarding the way the practice is organized are every bit as important as ideas regarding the shooting technique and motor learning.

Obviously, you can’t put just anybody on the floor with the players. The extras must be able to e.g. make decent passes, set effective screens, and move around in a safe manner. In other words, they must possess skills of a necessary level. What exactly that level is, depends on the team.

Extras’ job is not just to work as the shooter’s physical obstacles or aides but also and more importantly to put him in a situation where shooting and decision-making must be combined. As mentioned above, the shooter needs to learn to adapt to game-like constraints.

Open Skill and Closed Skill Sports

This is a common feature in all invasion team sports. Since executing a motor skill is (almost) always intervened with decision-making, motor skills should be practiced that way, too. Other kinds of training methods – often drawn other kinds of sports – should be viewed very cautiously.

Often sports are”categorized into two types: open skill and closed skill sports“. This can be misleading since sports are not either or but rather located somewhere along the continuum that connects this complementary pair.

Invasion team sports – such as basketball soccer and football – are as close to the open skill end of the continuum as a sport can be. Since the two teams occupy common ground, the environment is even less predictable than in net and wall games, such as volleyball.

Causer and Ford found out that “positive transfer of decision-making skill occurred between soccer and other invasion sports —, but not between invasion and other sports, providing some support for specificity of learning”.

Shooting in basketball is a predominantly open skill. In open skills “movements must be controlled in a strict relationship with a changing environment“.

Free throws are an exception. Hitting them is a predominantly closed skill or “a motor skill performed in a stable or predictable environment where the performer determines when to begin the action”.

Multiple Shooting Techniques

Since field goal shots are taken in different situations, certainly the shots must be different if you are going to make them. The simplest example is that when the distance changes, the shot must change, too.

Obviously if you make a jump shot from 4 meters and then take a similar shot from 6 meters, you are going to miss by 2 meters. But isn’t this too obvious to even mention? Why am I even discussing this?

Because even though no one will explicitly deny this fact, a lot of coaches choose to simply ignore it. When we teach shooting, we often refer to “one correct shooting technique” without discussing how to vary that technique to hit shots from e.g. different distances.

This leaves players in a strange situation: if they follow Coach’s instructions literally, they are going miss most of their shots. Obviously players will find solutions. In other words, they will make deviations from Coach’s teachings to make shots from different distances.

It’s better than missing shots by 2 meters but still this contradiction hinders learning. It would more efficient if Coach taught players how to adjust their shots in the first place. Or if Coach at the very least would not explicitly tell player not to adjust their shots.

I prefer to discuss shooting techniques in plural rather than about a player’s single shooting technique. That is because I like to emphasize the essentiality of differences between countless adaptations to forthcoming situations.

When practicing shooting, what you should actually be practicing is adapting to different situations. Practicing shooting can’t be separated from practicing other motor skills, tactical skills, and perception.

At the very least, Coach need to make sure to make sure that players continuously face novel, varied, and game-like challenges while practicing shooting. Even without any other kind of support from Coach, this helps or makes them to learn to efficiently adapt their shooting techniques.

A more advanced and requiring task for Coach is to provide support mentioned above – that is, to actively help players meet the game-like challenges provided in practices. This includes helping players develop and learn appropriate shooting techniques. These techniques are varied, contextual, and personal.

Not Everything Is Relative

The remarks above help to explain why general-level discussions about the shooting technique often go nowhere. They tend to be about either or: either to dip or not to dip, either to sway or not to sway, et cetera. However, given the importance of contextual and personal factors, the proper answer is usually neither yes nor no but rather “it depends”.

Take dipping the ball. It has both advantages and disadvantages. It depends on the context which ones matter more. It is inefficient coaching to claim that you should always dip or that you should never dip.

In a nutshell, there is no correct one shooting technique – not even for one person, let alone for all players. Rather, all technical details should depend on the situation and on the shooter’s characteristics.

Does this make everything relative? In other words, does this mean that any shooting technique is just as good as another?

The short answer is no. That is because some techniques tend to offer more functional solutions to contextual problems than some other techniques.

In other words, when it comes to shooting or any other motor skill, there are both contextual and universal considerations. Those two types of considerations are not contraries but they rather complement each other.

To illustrate the point, think of free throws by good free throws shooters. They all have unique shooting techniques. Yet those techniques share some common characteristics.

These common characteristics tend to be the same ones that are described over and over again in lists of basketball shooting mechanics. Though those lists will differ somewhat and you can argue about the details, they are usually more or less the same.

Intrinsic Dynamics

Then why do different players use different techniques even for the same types of shots – say free throws?

The obvious partial answer is that players have different anthropometrics and different physical characteristics. For example, a small and strong player is going to shoot free throws differently than a big and weak one.

However, no two players will shoot alike even if their anthropometrics and physical characteristics match as closely as they may. That is because players’ intrinsic dynamics also affect the technique, and they are going to be different. Intrinsic dynamics has been defined as “coordination tendencies that exist as a kind of network at a given point in time”.

Then “the interaction between the intrinsic dynamics and the external constraints of the system will produce the emergence of individual solutions and coordinated motor patterns”. There are so many variables in play that the aforementioned solutions and patterns are bound to be unique.

What does the existence of intrinsic dynamics then imply regarding shooting basketball? The most immediate conclusion is that it is counterproductive to try to get all players to shoot alike.

The opposite is true, too: intrinsic dynamics alone will not help a player to shoot effectively. Rather, through sport-specific practice he needs to develop an efficient fusion of intrinsic dynamics and general technical principles.  Coach is there to provide help in the process.

Merging General and Particular

This in fact is the essence of the coaching profession: merging general and particular. This is also why coaching is not and cannot be a science. How to merge general and particular is always a judgement call – even though being familiar with scientific results will help to make more effective judgements.

The existence of intrinsic dynamics also implies that when it comes to learning to shoot, even someone who has never touched a basketball before, will not start from zero. That is because the intrinsic dynamics will have him shoot his first shot in a certain way.

This in turn implies that a coach should you use basically the same method no matter who he’s coaching – whether it’s absolute beginners or advanced players. He should have them simply shoot the ball and then see where to go from there.

In other words, no one is a tabula rasa. Everyone has shooting techniques when they enter a practice, no matter whether they have previously used those techniques or not. Coach should see what those techniques are like and then manipulate them in an appropriate way.

This implies that we should disregard the approach that I imagine is common especially when coaching beginners: starting by demonstrating the One Correct Technique and having the players imitate it the best that they can. It is not efficient teaching because it does not make use of what the subjects already do and know.

How to Modify Intrinsic Dynamics

Though the intrinsic dynamics is important, it does not determine how a player will eventually shoot. Intrinsic dynamics simply provides a starting point and constraints along the way.

Intrinsic dynamics is not immutable but constantly changing, affected by everything you do, learn and confront. So, not only does intrinsic dynamics affect your shooting techniques, but also the ways you shoot the ball modify your intrinsic dynamics.

This brings about the question of how the intrinsic dynamics could be modified to make learning basketball as easy and quick as possible. This is the case when the intrinsic dynamics and the task dynamics of a sport – basketball in this case – match.

First, the athlete should sample, or participate in various sports as a kid. Sampling has been shown to develop “fitness and gross motor coordination“.

This type of development should allow for the intrinsic dynamics to become both stable and adaptable. Then “rich patters of behaviour” may emerge. In other words, an athlete learns to learn.

Which additional sports a basketball player does, will greatly affect his learning curve in basketball. On the other hand, it should be noted that “expertise may develop in quite unique ways“. This makes it a difficult and contextual task to conclude which other sports an athlete should do in order to optimize his long-term improvement in basketball.

Secondly, it has been suggested that early engagement in a sport enhances the development at a later age. “Early” here refers to “practice and play in the primary sport between six and 12 years of age”.

Given the current point of view, it could be hypothesized that the more early a person engages in a sport, the more strongly his intrinsic dynamics are affected by the engagement, and the more closely his intrinsic dynamics become matched with the task dynamics of that particular sport.

To optimize this effect, the task dynamics of youth basketball should be as similar as possible to the task dynamics of adults’ basketball. To make this happen, the youth basketball rules should be carefully modified. The size of the ball and the height of the basket should be scaled down, and it might be a good idea to play games 3-on-3.

How a Particular Player Should Shoot

Given this, we are now ready to deal with an inevitable and critical bunch of related questions regarding enhancing shooting efficiency:  How should a particular player shoot given his intrinsic dynamics, the general-level principles of proper shooting mechanics, and the situation he’s in? Which technical details are acceptable individual deviations from the standard, and which are harmful aberrations that should be ironed out? What technical changes should be made to his shooting techniques?

To answer these questions, you need to consider the five elementary and necessary characteristics of any proper shooting technique. These are the characteristics and examples of questions you may use to assess them.

  1. Release height.
  2. Quickness.
  3. Power-output.
  4. Accuracy.
  5. Compatibility.
  6. Release height refers to how high the ball is when it last touches the shooting hand.
  7. Quickness refers to for how long the ball is in your hands between the catch and the release.
  8. Power-output refers to the efficiency of power production for the shot.
  9. Accuracy refers to the probability of an unblocked shot going in.
  10. Compatibility refers to how easy and quick it is to combine the shot with things that tend to precede shots or shot fakes or follow shot fakes: pass, catch, cut, dribble, drive, fakes etc.

Compatibility is an often-overlooked characteristic, because shooting tends to be practiced in an isolated fashion – e.g. taken out of the game context. That isolation makes compatibility a non-issue, because fitting the game context is precisely what compatibility is all about.

Improving Shooting Techniques

In principle, the process of improving a player’s shooting techniques is simple enough.

  1. Spot the one of these five characteristics that seems to limit the shooting efficiency the most.
  2. Identify the technical detail that seems to negatively affect the characteristic in question.
  3. Implement a change regarding that detail.

For example, the most limiting characteristic may quickness, i.e. slowness. Watching the player shoot, you may conclude that when catching the ball, his stance is too low and that it takes him too long to get up. Then – using methods of implicit learning – you help the player adjust the height of the stance.

Complications and Solutions

This sounds simple enough but unfortunately there are several complications.

Perhaps the most obvious one is the involvement of subjective judgment. Determining  the main problem is a judgment call, and so is deciding what to do about it.

For example, there may be problems not only with the quickness of a shooter’s techniques but also with the power-output. Then it first takes a judgement call to determine which problem more severely affects the shooting efficiency. And if enhancing quickness is chosen as the primary goal, it takes another judgement call to decide what to do about – whether to e.g. change the stance or to limit the amount of dipping the ball.

One way to work around this problem is to ask other coaches’ opinions and see if you come to an agreement. Your colleagues do not need to be present at the practice because it is quite easy to share videos through Internet. Also, obviously, you need to talk with the player.

A logical approach is to consider how to fix as many problems as possible making as few changes as possible and keeping those changes as slight and implicit as possible.

If there are problems with several ones of the five characteristics, a useful heuristic is  to try to find a common technical detail that affects them all. Often the best candidates are rhythm and stance, because they affect all five characteristics mentioned above.

Another complication related to improving a player’s shooting techniques is that sometimes improving some of the five characteristics will negatively affect some other characteristics.

Speed-Accuracy Trade-off

The most consistent one of such negative correlations is the one between a shot’s accuracy and its quickness. This common phenomenon in all sports is known as speed-accuracy trade-off.

Practice will diminish this effect. However, it does persist. In other words, even experienced players shoot more accurately when they have more time to get the shot off. This is why more or less every player will use a little more time to get the shot off when they are open as to opposed when the defender is just about to close out on them.

This phenomenon partly explains why a player needs so many different techniques to optimize his efficiency as a shooter. Even shooting from the same the distance, he is better off using different techniques depending on the time constraints (e.g. the distance to the closest defender). The more time he has, the less accuracy he needs to trade off for speed.

To Change Or Not to Change

A lot of coaches are reluctant to have their players work on shooting techniques, especially in the middle of the season. This wide-spread reluctancy is due to the belief that such practice will negatively affect the accuracy, at least in the short term.

This belief is not wholly unfounded. Certainly changes to the shooting techniques may diminish the shooting efficiency, either temporarily or even permanently. However, this fact should not make one conclude that players are to avoid working on their shooting techniques. Quite contrarily, players should continuously have that kind of practice.

  1. No matter what a player works on, the risk always exists: the net impact may be negative. If you want to absolutely avoid that risk, you can’t practice at all.
  2. Working on shooting techniques is not the same thing as changing them. All kinds of athletes are constantly honing their basic skills down without a second thought. Why should basket players’ shooting techniques be turned into a special case?
  3. An important part of improving as a basketball player is enhancing your shooting efficiency. Up to a point, it is possible to accomplish that by simply accumulating more repetitions, but eventually at least fine-tuning shooting techniques is needed, too,
  4. When a technical change causes a negative net impact, it is often due to the usage of explicit teaching methods. Explicit methods make the player consciously control what he has been previously been controlling unconsciously, and this change often diminishes the efficiency.

Extended Range Is a Necessity

My belief is that coaches and players tend to underestimate the importance of some technical standpoints to improving into a good shooter.

In order for you to be an effective 3-point shooter, you should extend your effective shooting range in practice situations to about 1.5 meters of 5 feet beyond the line. The extended range makes it possible for you to adapt to different game situations and still shoot effortlessly.

This is not a metaphor. You should literally be able to hit al least half of your shots from 1.5 meters beyond the 3-point in practice situations where there is no hurry, no fatigue, no defensive pressure.

You can only extend your shooting range far enough if your shooting techniques allow you to generate enough power and to transfer that power efficiently to the shot. Such power-output is a necessary characteristic of any proper shooting techniques.

If your catch-an-shoot 3-point shooting technique is not up to the task, you should do something about. Otherwise it will limit your accuracy in the long run.

The efficiency of coaching tends to be limited by traditions. This considers the shooting distance, too. Some coaches simply do not believe that hitting shots from 8.5 meters is natural, given that the player uses proper techniques. Hence those coaches do not even try to teach proper techniques, and the player’s shooting range remains limited.

Basic Skills as Limitations

Generally speaking, coaches tend to use so called “basic skills” as not only requirements but also as limitations – as warning signs that “normal” players shouldn’t even try to reach beyond. One possible explanation is that we as coaches do not know how to help players advance beyond those very safe “basics”.

These self-created limitations are part of the reason why Stephen Curry is seen as a freak of the nature rather than as a good basketball player.

If a coach talks about Curry and other current top NBA shooters as e.g. miracle workers, unnatural phenomenons, or unique talents, forget about it, forget about it. He’s a fan rather than a coach.

But if he talks about them as logical products of personal characteristics, practice, and the ever-changing context of the sport, there is hope. It’s  possible that someday he will be a decent shooting coach.

Unconscious Control Rather Than Automatic

So, it is not practicing shooting techniques that should be avoided but rather explicit teaching methods.

In this context, “automated” and “automatic” are often used as antonyms of “conscious”. However, “unconscious” is a more precise choice. That is because the brain will always remain in control when motor skills are executed. It is the amount of consciousness required that changes.

Adding to the amount of conscious control is a risk because it may lead to “decreased accuracy, reduced power output, slower movements, and overall depressed motor performance”. So, the disruptive effect has to do with the timing and rhythm of neurons firing.

Consciously controlling a motor performance may also harm the tactical performance of an athlete. That is because conscious control “uses the resources of working memory because it requires that task-relevant declarative knowledge be recalled from storage in memory and manipulated consciously to control the movements of the task”.

When this happens, less working memory capacity is left for e.g. making tactical decisions. Hence their quality may suffer.

Once again, it must be noted that it is not either conscious control or unconscious control. Rather than contraries, they are a complementary pair – just many pairs discussed  here: closed skill & open skill; variability of practice & specificity of practice; contextual & universal.

In fact, a widely accepted theoretical framework describes motor learning as a process where an athlete, while moving from the novice stage towards the expert stage, gradually relies less and less on conscious control, and more and more on unconscious control.

Conscious Control Is Needed, Too

The problem with this framework is that elite athletes do not act the way that the framework predicts. On the contrary, they are very able to consciously control their movement and to modify it in order to enhance their performance. In fact, this ability seems to be a requisite for improving into an elite athlete in the first place.

This holds true for efficient shooters in basketball, too. Most of them can e.g. explain intelligently what it is that they do. This shouldn’t be true given the theoretical framework mentioned above.

To resolve this paradox, we must look into different definitions of conscious control. Recently, there have been interesting articles on the subject by e.g. Toner and Moran and Winter et al. My conclusions on the matter are largely based on those two articles.

It has been well shown that if conscious control is defined as consciously paying detailed attention to movements of body parts, then conscious control does harm the performance.

However, there is another kind of conscious control that may used to enhance performance: athletes may (consciously) monitor their performance on-line and use the results to consciously control and optimize their performance. The process is conscious but only up to a point: the adjustments of actual  body-part movements are left up to unconscious control.

The theory helps to explain why one-word holistic cues may be used consciously to improve performance: they lead unconscious control into a proper direction without disturbing its functioning.

This also helps to explain the rationale for using implicit learning methods discussed above, especially analogies. If anything, they are one-word holistic cues.

When to Use Explicit Learning Methods

In a nutshell, this much is clear now: When aiming to improve a player’s shooting efficiency, Coach should use teaching methods that encourage using unconscious control rather than conscious control. And when conscious control is used, it is to be used in the form of analogies, or one-word holistic cues, whenever possible.

However, a complication remains: what if a player’s intrinsic dynamics or existing motor skills do not allow for him to connect the dots? In other words, what if the cue does lead the unconscious control into the right direction, yet the unconscious control can’t make the required action happen?

For example, Coach may use the analogy “Ceiling!” The player may very well realize that his shots are too flat. Yet he may be unable to make the arch higher through unconscious control.

Then it may be necessary that Coach should make corrections using explicit instructions that get the player to pay detailed attention to movements of his body parts.  Even though the aforementioned risk does exist, it is not inevitable that it should be realized.

You are to use your coaching skills to keep that from happening, while at the same time making sure that necessary changes do take place.


If Performance Suffers, Try Something Else

However, if you use explicit instructions, be extra careful. And whenever you are coaching shooting, keep a keen eye on the player’s performance. I have come to believe that if his efficiency suffers for more than a minute because of your instructions, you need to try something else.

You may be overloading the player’s working memory. A useful rule of thumb is to have the player concentrate on only one thing at a time. Or maybe it’s your explicit instructions. Or there may be another reason why the player does not immediately grasp what you are trying to achieve. Whatever it is, try something else.

If your instructions harm the player’s performance, you are wasting everyone’s time. Given the changes you are trying to force, it will take time to reach the previously achieved level, or the player may never reach it again. But if you know what you are doing, you may help a player improve his shooting techniques without disrupting the performance. The performance will not necessarily improve immediately, but it must not suffer.

Every coach will sometimes give instructions that disrupt a player’s shooting performance. That comes with the territory. Nobody’s perfect. You can not give useful instructions without giving useless ones every now and then. The key is to stay alert the whole time, and to recognize and ditch useless instructions asap.

As long as you do not waste too much time doing this, no harm is done. That is because even bad instructions do not harm the shooting performance for long. As tends to happen, after a while the player will naturally go back to doing what he is used to doing. In coaching, this is often a curse, yet sometimes a blessing.

26 thoughts on “Remarks on Shooting and Practicing Shooting

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  3. Regarding this entry, @MNketsiah or Michael Nketsiah tweeted: “Are there any lower body exercises that mimic the springiness in legs? Or does that only come from continuous shooting?”
    Based on an interesting study “Biomechanical Analysis of the Jump Shot in Basketball” by Struzik et al 2014, improving countermovement jump without an arm swing might be an efficient way to improve jump shooting ability.
    Also, it says that “High impact ratios and landing forces suggest the necessity of a greater emphasis on soft landing in basketball training”. Open access:

  4. I have a middle school player that shoots on the wrong side of his body – he’s right handed but he puts the ball on the left side of his body – and he uses a lot of his left hand. He’s not a very good shooter and has plenty of other things that deviate from the traditional form of shooting. Should I leave his shot alone due to his intrinsic dynamics or should I at least have him try to move the ball over to the right side of his head? Can’t really see any advantages to his intrinsic dynamics. His shot is inaccurate, slow, and he does not have range.

  5. In short, the player you mentioned should start shooting from the right side of his body asap. Shooting from the left side is a bad idea and provides him with no advantage. Even though the intrinsic dynamics affects how one shoots and learns to shoot, it doesn’t determine how one should shoot. In this entry, I am just about start discussing how the intrinsic dynamics should be considered when learning to shoot better.

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  10. Harri:
    With regards to Ray Allen, he says that the first thing is knee bend, but he hardly bends his knees at all; he actually flex his ankles more than his knees in my estimation. Also, he says that you should shoot exactly the same on every shot, which you have suggested is not correct or possible. Therefore, does he really demonstrate the explicit knowledge of his shot? Furthermore, I would argue that most players explain their shots explicitly by reciting the instructions that they have been told over and over, thousands of times, although whether or not they abide by those instructions is debatable:

    Anyway, brilliant post!

    • Thanks for the feedback. On one hand I completely agree with Brian’s criticism. On the other hand, knowledge is a tricky word: “information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education: awareness of something : the state of being aware of something.” To me, based on what Mr. McCormick and Mr. Allen say, the interesting question becomes: How can a person become such a wonderful shooter (or any type of a performer) while basing his practice on such untrue knowledge/assumptions? Link to Merriam-Webster’s definition of knowledge:

      • Getting back to this question: How can a person become a wonderful shooter while basing his practice on such untrue assumptions? A part of it may be that even if assumptions are not true (“All shots should be similar”) they may work as useful analogies. For example, shooting techniques have enough stability and flexibility. Trying to make shots similar may make them stable enough.

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  14. Hello, thanks for the article. A couple of questions, although you state that there is no such thing as a correct technique for all players, because of intrinsic factors, as a youth coach, what absolute basics should I teach 10 or 11 year olds? What baseline technique or form can I stablish before letting each player figure things out according to their intrinsic capabilities?
    Another question, is there any sugestion to how i could teach lay ups using an implicit learning aproach?
    thanks again, Andres

  15. On teaching beginners to shoot: I suppose you are talking about jump shot? If so, there might be a risk involved because layups are shots too and their importance tends to be overlooked – see above…

    On teaching jump shooting to beginners: 1) Have them shoot different shots. 2) See how it looks. 3) Offer individual guidance on how to improve the most crucial aspect of the shots. Analogies are efficient. 4) Have them shoot different shots… And so on.

    In other words, in the very beginning their intrinsic dynamics determine how they shoot – there’s nothing you can do about this. Your job is to gradually direct the players towards more optimal movement patterns and help them adjust to different situations. So, there are no absolute basics – ever. You just start from someplace and keep working with them for as long as you coach them.

    With kids you need to consider their size and strength versus the equipment used at your league. This ratio may limit your players’ shooting abilities no matter what you do. Say if you have 10-year old kids playing at a 10-foot basket, the outside shooting is going to be ugly.

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