Established in November of 2009 by a group of free throw masters and world record holders with a mission to improve free throw shooting at all levels.
Ronn has more than 60 years of experience in basketball as a player,
coach, lecturer, author, courtside commentator, referee, and
international basketball consultant. He has coached from the
playgrounds to four national teams and specializes in coaching both
youth players and youth coaches, which is the specialty of his website
Top-Basketball-Coaching.com. He is an international advocate of youth
sports being for the youth (not the adults).
Ronn has also been a classroom teacher and athletic director, and is the author of several basketball teaching books and DVDs, including "How I Shoot Over 96% Free Throws".
He currently is one of four FT shooters to have had a perfect score in the 25-year history of the FL Senior Games and the only one to have made a perfect score twice.
After eleven months and maybe, 35,000 (or more) free throws taken, I finally got to a point where I could say I was consistent with my shot.
What I’ve learned about shooting is, it’s a process – as so much of learning is – where you start out crawling, and if you try to walk too soon, by trying to move too quickly, you abruptly fall down.
Well, learning to shoot a basketball free throw correctly is very much a similar process. I’m going along, what seems to be nicely, making series of shots and then –wham! – I miss with a shot that seemed to come from out of left field. I think, “Where did that come from”? Then, maybe I miss another one or two. Then, I am back, focused and making another series of shots. From what I have observed from many shooters, this seems to be a normal occurrence. The key, in case you missed it, is focus. More on that later.
Now, I am not a beginner. I am 67 years old and have 56 years of basketball playing, coaching and consulting experience behind me. I was a prolific scorer for 15 years, shooting from all over with either hand, averaging 22 ppg. in my playing career (pre-3 point line). Still, I didn’t really know how to shoot, as I understand it today. I thought I did. I even had good success throughout my coaching career teaching others how to shoot.
So, why do I sound like I am just learning how to shoot? Because now, in my retirement, I am studying, analyzing and practicing like I never did before. I am seeing what makes my shot ‘tick’. And before, I was too quickly bored to really get inside myself and take the time and have the patience to go through the process toward becoming a master. Now, I am focused on learning about what my mind is doing; what my shooting shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand and fingers are doing. I am focused on the stroke (force, direction, arc) my shooting arm is making on every shot and the delivery (wrist & fingers releasing the ball). I am building muscle memory for correct shooting, perfecting what I practice, while creating perfection for my shot.
Before all this time spent learning, I had swings in accuracy or inconsistency that made me only an okay shooter, sometimes shooting 80% one day and then 90% the next. But that no longer happens. My swings now may be while shooting from one set of 25 to the next, but never below 92%, and because I have learned to correct my shots after a miss, my next set could be up to 100%. My days now average 96%.
When I was first contacted by Jim “Makevery” Schatz, in October, 2009, about becoming a founding member of an organization (National Basketball Shooters Association – NBSA) to bring attention to the paltry free throw shooting percentages of players everywhere, I was immediately intrigued and hooked. I have long felt that it is incredible that professional players are being paid millions as the best basketball players in the world and yet, as a group, can’t convert free throws. I have been teaching basketball long enough to know, too, that until the pros and colleges take free throw teaching seriously and work to improve their percentages, the young players will not embrace free throws as being important – certainly not like they do shooting 3’s, slam dunks, or making shake–n-bake moves.
I immediately began to pay attention to free throw mechanics. I read. I watched videos and YouTube shots, studying techniques of successful shooters. I worked with NBSA founders, shooting masters and free throw world record holders Ed Palubinskas, Rick Rosser and Bob Fisher. I read the works and watched the videos of Palubinskas and Fisher, along with “The Paradox of The Free Throw”, by another NBSA founder, Dr. Jim Poteet, and “Free Throw”, by honorary NBSA member, Dr. Tom Amberry, who remains today as one of the greatest free throw shooters of all time, and Ted St. Martin, also an honorary NBSA member, who holds the world record for the most consecutive free throws made. There were others also, who will be mentioned later on in this book. I practiced so many varied techniques that most of the time I couldn’t remember which form I used the day before and which ones worked better for me than others.
See, that’s one of the problems – there is no one best method for shooting a free throw. While I wanted to find a best method for myself, I also wanted one I could easily teach to others. What I learned in this discovery process is that what works best for me is not necessarily what is best for someone else, nor even what I would teach to someone else.
What I teach depends on the shooter and his or her experience and how they already have learned to deliver their shot. Then, I build or reconstruct from there. And, for a raw beginner, I will teach differently than for someone who already has a developed shot. Nearly everyone can improve their shot, given the right attitude toward correcting their flaws.
All the focus, practice, dissecting of my shot and analyzing what others teach and do, has enabled me to arrive at a place I had dreamed of being and had set my intentions for being – free throw shooting mastery (above 95%). Well, I will tell you, it’s nice, but I know I have more to learn and improve and the next 2-3% may be slow going. I have the background, muscle memory and habits formed now to go from here - 98-99% will come – perhaps just a few thousand more shots….
So, now a year after I began this free throw mastery odyssey, here’s my story of what I did to shoot consistently at 96% - my attempts, frustrations, different methods, my practice routine and my results – they are all documented for the shooter with a serious intent to help raise their shooting percentage or that of the players they work with.
Whether you are a beginning free throw shooter – youth or adult, whether you are a player needing a tune-up on your free throw mechanics, or if you just can’t shoot worth a hoot, there are concepts and training ideas you can learn from in this book. If you are a parent or a coach looking for ways to help your kids learn or become better, I’ve given you some outlines for learning. And if you are past your playing days but want to compete in free throw competition (or just get better for the fun of it), hold on to your hat and follow me. It’s worth the ride!
In The Beginning
Much of what I learned was really a re-learning or re-applying of concepts I have always taught: Ritual, balance, stance, foot placement, body alignment. But, from the shooting shoulder out to the ends of my shooting fingers is where the real work and un-learning took place, so I could re-learn and begin to have consistency in my delivery and hence improve my accuracy.
I read in Dr. Tom Amberry’s book, Free Throw, that when shooting free throws, we should make sure that we get ourselves into a routine by consistently doing the same thing every time we walk to the line and as we prepare to shoot. By doing this we feel more and more comfortable at the line and we are less likely to choke in pressure situations.
First, I needed to break my old routines and start over, dissecting what I used to do and what I taught others to do, to see how it resonated with what I was learning to do now.
So, I will digress here and see what many experts agree upon about free throw shooting: Rick Torbett, Ed Palubinksas, Bob Fisher, Tom Amberry, Gary Boren, Tom Nordland, Dr. Jim Poteet, Ted St. Martin, Scott Jaimet, John Fontanella, et al. (See links in Resources section at the end of the book.)
(Put your tongue in your cheek as you read this, as I did when I wrote it!)
The stance could be open (one foot forward of the other), closed (feet parallel), or even the odd placement with the opposite foot from the shooting hand forward. The toes should nearly touch the line, straddling the nail or shooting toes directly behind the nail.
The ritual (what is done prior to bringing the ball into the “shot pocket” from where we begin the shot) should be a couple of bounces, 3 bounces, 2, 3 or 4 bounces, and have the air hole up when you grip the ball, or just have no ritual at all, but definitely lose the tossing and spinning the ball, twirling the ball around the body, making the sign of the cross, pointing to the cameras, telling your mother you love her, etc.
The fingers should be placed so the middle three fingers are in the middle of the ball, each in the same (that’s impossible) groove. The air hole is the middle of the ball, so place the middle shooting finger pointing at the air hole, or place the index finger pointing at the air hole, or place the air hole between the index and middle fingers (“V” position), or maybe place the air hole between the middle and ring fingers.
Point the elbow directly down at the shooting foot while poised in the “shot pocket”, keeping the elbow under the ball during the shot. Don’t worry about the elbow. The elbow should be allowed to find its own place as the arm straightens. The shooting hand should be in the middle of the ball, the back of the hand toward the shooter’s face and pointing the ball toward the goal. The ball should be shot from above the head, from above the forehead, from over the shooting eye, from in front of the eyes, or between the shooting eye and the ear on that side of the head.
The aim should be for the “sweet spot” or “target” to be the front of the rim, to clear the rim, right over the front of the rim, the back of the rim, the square behind the basket, a couple of inches in front of the back of the rim, or the “cylinder” above the opening of the rim.
The knees should be bent when shooting. A shooter should start with knees bent and as they straighten, going into the shot, and with the release of the ball, become straight. Start upright, then bend the knees, and as the ball is moving up to the release point, straighten the knees to give up force to the shot. Finish up on your toes.
The breath should be held throughout the shot and released as the ball is released. The breath should be held as you are shooting. The breath should be held just before you shoot. Holding your breath has no bearing on the shot.
Don’t stare at the basket, just locate the target and shoot. Get your ritual done, glance at the basket and go into your shot.
Angle of release arc – 45 degrees is the best – but if you are 7 ft. tall, your arc will be less and if you’re 5 ft. tall, your arc will need to be more. The best arc will be between 45-48 degrees, but the average may be 45-50 degrees.
The release should have the wrist “wrinkled”, or cocked, as the shooting hand pushes the ball up and out toward the target. There should be a wrist flip upon release. If there is already enough “up force”, no flip is necessary. The ball should be released with a wrist movement like a dart throw or like the shooter is waving good-bye with a wrist flick at the end. The last finger off the ball would be the index finger, if using the index finger in the center of the ball grip. The ball should come off between the third and fourth fingers.
The follow-through should find the hand acting as if it was “dipping into the cookie jar”, the fingers should dip into the basket, the follow-through should last until the ball is through the basket, or need only be held until the ball is approaching the target, and the last finger off the ball should point at the target.
Whew! For a beginner, a lot of time could be wasted exploring all this so-called expert advice on how best to execute the free throw. Many of the differences between experts are just semantic, however a person trying to make sense of what is being said or taught may have a perception entirely different than that intended by the teacher.
Since I was not a beginner, I was able to eliminate much of what I read that didn’t apply and only took a couple of months wading through the rest. It wasn’t time wasted, though. Like Thomas Edison, I persevered through 10,000 ways this information didn’t work for me, until I began to see the light. Pun intended!
One thing I noticed in doing my research – there is a lot of good teaching going on and most of the instructors teach similar mechanics - like hand placement on the ball and proper upper arm angle. I noticed too, there are lots of shooting doctors that aren’t MD’s: Surgeon General of Shooting, Dr. Sure Shot, Shot Doctor, etc. But, they have their successes, while differing slightly in their teaching approach - the finger placement on the ball, the role of the elbow, what the wrist and fingers do, and follow through. I could probably have success with most of these, given the time it would take to master each technique. The important thing here is that a player can get help, rather than relying on their own practice habits. A skilled teacher can correct many mechanical flaws that the shooter may never see on their own. I started this free throw odyssey in my barn with a portable basket in October, 2009
I began shooting the way I always had before, only shooting more shots that I ever had taken at any time before. In the past, shooting 20-25 free throws was probably all I would shoot in any practice session. I was always more concerned with my jumper, moves and finishing. So, to just stand and shoot 100-200 shots at a time was very tiring and boring. However, since I wasn’t consistent in my delivery, release and follow-through, I persevered. I had good sessions and not so good sessions. I might shoot 80% one day and in the 90’s another day. I began by doing what I have done my whole career and using either hand to shoot with. I have always been ambidextrous, though I am right handed. Depending on the day, I could hit 80-90% with either hand. During my playing career, if one hand was hot, I used that one. If I missed a first shot, for the second I would change hands. But, now, with worsening left hip problems (with connective tissue in that hip), it hurt me too much to shoot with the left. Every shot seemed to pull down in to that hip. Shooting with my right didn’t cause me to suffer nearly so much, though I could still feel it, so it didn’t seem to affect my shot as much. After a couple of months, I was shooting almost exclusively with my right hand, because of this problem with my hip and because I wanted to concentrate exclusively with developing a consistent technique right handed, which later, I could teach to my left hand (if it would allow me to do this).
I worked with the varied foot placements. I tried varied finger placements, using index, middle, air hole, all three middle fingers in the middle of the ball, the thumb and pinkie in the same groove while the middle fingers were in the groove above. I tried differing body angles, varying the angle of my shooting shoulder to the basket. I tried shooting in front of each eye or over each eye. I tried shooting between my right eye and my right ear. I tried shooting over my head, as in my jump shot. I tried shooting over my forehead or from in front of my forehead. I experimented with different elbow starting positions. I found that in order to have my elbow start pointed at the floor, I had to have the ball either along my right side or held in front of my body, like an old time set shot. I tried staring at the basket while I was getting set and throughout my shot. I tried only glancing at the basket just before I shot (that was a disaster with my bifocals – couldn’t focus fast enough). Guess what? Each of these variations, either alone or mixed with others, seemed to work. And then they didn’t. Still, there was an inconsistency factor.
I tried different concentration tricks, like mantras, and taking a “dummy” practice shot (this worked really well for me, but in shooting hundreds of shots, it is a lot of extra arm work) before actually shooting with the ball.
I varied my practice routines, how I warmed up, the number of shots I took in each practice session and the number of sets and shots in each set.
This processing went on for probably 10 months, before I finally quit trying so many different techniques. This is what I meant earlier when I said learning to shoot is a process.
In the meanwhile, winter had set in – with a vengeance. In this part of Oregon it only snowed once – in late November. The rest of the time it was nasty cold, gray and dismal. For weeks, the temps were below freezing, for a time even in single digits, and even with space heaters two feet behind the free throw line in my barn, the temperature hovered around 29 degrees F.
Now, this severe cold added a different dimension to my practice regimen. Dressing like a version of the Michelin Tire Guy, and with gloves on, made it difficult to get my stroke and to have a feel for the ball. (Maybe I could have shaved a few months off my learning curve, if not for the cold.) I actually got pretty good at shooting with gloves on. (See photo page 7)
October into November, I averaged 93% with my right hand and 87% with the left. November into December, I averaged 91% right and 85% left. December into January, I had dropped to 87% with either hand. My best was 93/100 during these four months.
In January, I went down to Los Angeles to meet with some other founding members of the National Basketball Shooters Association (of which I had also become a founder), who came from Southern California, Louisiana, Alabama and Indiana, to practice our tournament protocol. We wanted to see how we would conduct a tournament, so eight of us had our own little friendly competition amongst ourselves.
Now, January in Southern California is like late spring or summer here in Oregon, so no snow apparel was needed. Beautiful mid-70’s weather meant I would be in a T-shirt shooting in a gym where it actually was a little warm. The gyms had brighter lights than I was used to in my barn and had rims that were much tighter than I was used to on my portable basket. If I hit the rim on my home basket, it would often just shake and jiggle enough the ball would fall in. (I did take my gloves with me, but I didn’t need them. Still, it was comforting to have them, just in case!)
I shot 94% on 50 shots on the first day in LA, without my gloves, and I was excited. On the second day I could hardly move, had trouble standing up, and was stiff and sore in places I had forgotten that I had places. Not only was my left hip causing a problem, from so much time being on my feet, but I wasn’t used to the shooting we did for 5-6 hours at a time. My stamina had left me somewhere mid-first day and along with the trouble I had with the tightness of the rims and the lighting in the LA gyms we were using, I was physically miserable.
Having a couple of the best free throw shooters in the world there, Ed Palubinskas and Rick Rosser, I was able to observe first hand what I had seen in their videos. While they were shooting 99% that weekend, they gave me lots of tips that I took back home and spent another couple of months tinkering with. More processing!
Back home, I began practicing a different release that Ed had shown me and also getting more arc so the ball would drop down into the basket, helping eliminate the rim problems I had in LA.
I had six months until July when I would face my first real test in competition. I had a lot to accomplish in getting over gym tight rims and lighting, while getting my stroke, release and follow-through to become consistent.
I began by increasing my shooting to about 2000 shots a week. I had already been practicing every day and usually 2-3 times daily, but now I was intent on getting serious about my shooting. Having stopped using my left hand completely, in January-February I averaged 89% with my right hand, though my best in that time was 94/100, which was my new personal best. By FebruaryMarch, I was averaging 93% and from April into summer, I was obsessed (crazed?) about reaching new heights in my shooting.
One day in April, there it was. My personal best had been 49/50 and 94/100. On different days, I made 50/50, 73/75 (I still hadn’t made 75 in-a-row, at this point), 94/100 again and finally 95/100. I was hot on a personal record setting pace!
In May I cooled slightly, however I was increasing my shooting stretches and made 141/150, 189/200 and equaled my 95/100 best.
My success finally arrived when my shooting stance, finger placement on the ball, correct shot pocket, eye focus, trigger point, stroke (up force & release), arc, and follow-through all came together. (See photos below) I was able to know why I missed and able to adjust on the ensuing shot. Muscle memory (routine) had become embedded.
In June I was averaging 96% and then, when I went to shoot at the State Games of Oregon, in mid-July, I crashed.
As the Basketball Commissioner for the State Games of Oregon, I had a lot to do on the day before and the day of the competition. In addition to the tournament, I had organized an onslaught of Guinness World Book free throw shooting records and had assembled a group of fantastic shooters, most of whom were already record holders wanting to break their own and other records. (Which they did – 5 new world records in one day – a record in itself!)
By the time we all practiced the day before, and I got through running the events, I could only drag my left leg, it was very hard to stand and shoot and I was exhausted. I had waited until everything was done before I made my own tries. I missed eight shots – more than I had ever missed - 42/50 and 84%. While I was excited about all that had transpired during the day’s events, I was nevertheless disappointed in myself for waiting until the end of the day to shoot and in my performance. Though I won the gold medal in the 65-69 age division, I wasn’t happy with my shooting.
After my shooting debacle at the State Games of Oregon, I had a resurgence, once again with Eddie P’s. help.
Eddie helped me with my arc and delivery again and sent me home to practice. Through the rest of July and through two more tournaments in August I redeemed myself, winning two more gold medals in Tumwater, WA for the Washington State Senior Games (24/25 and 96%) and the Olympic Peninsula Senior Games in Port Angeles, WA (24/25 again). My July practice average had edged up to 97% and I established more new bests for myself. I had 68 in-a-row, but smashed that with 93 in-a-row in August, making 98/100, my best again. It continued with 108 in-a-row, while enroute to 194/200 and three days later I made 98/100 again.
Almost a year in the making, I have my consistency. Now, even being less than serious, I have no problem shooting well and 96% comes easier and more frequently.
What I Do When I Shoot
A Typical Practice Session
I always have to start off stretching my hamstrings, my lower back and my upper back and shoulders. These are the areas that are always tight, so they always need to be loosened before I can shoot without strain.
I start off at about 10 feet from the basket and may take 5-10 shots to get loose and remind my body of the up-out-in motion I want. Usually, I will do 5 of these (and make them or else I don’t back up until I make 5 in-a-row), then back up one step and repeat the process, until I have reached the free throw line.
Now I may take a number of jump shots from all over behind the free throw line, just to get my back muscles loose, to work on my sighting to the basket, my stroke and follow-through. Then I step to the line.
I shoot series of 25 shots. Usually, depending on how I am feeling, I may continue to the next 25 without stopping. I don’t like to continue any series, if I miss one in the first five shots. I will stop the count and start over. If I should miss 2 shots in the first 10, I will stop and start over. I want consecutive made shots to flow, so I can establish a rhythm. If I am missing early, I am not sufficiently loose to get into the shooting rhythm I want. (Try this in sub-freezing weather and it often takes a lot of stops and starts to get into the right rhythm.)
If I miss 2 or 3 shots in a 25-shot set, I usually start over again, counting from 1. If I make at least 23, but usually 24 out of 25, I will continue without stopping to 50, then to 75, then to 100. If I commit myself to going on to 100, I don’t stop, regardless of the number of misses after 75.
All this is to build muscle memory and consistency. When I miss, I immediately evaluate why I missed, and adjust for the next shot. After many thousands of shots, I now can adjust well after a missed shot. The feel of a successful shot can’t be ingrained into muscle memory without taking thousands of shots and going through the process of evaluation of the misses. I am looking for long runs of made shots here, so I can remember what it feels like to be in the rhythm for successful shooting.
My misses usually come from loss of concentration during the shot, where I forget to not think (over-thinking can be disastrous to the shot), or to not get the proper stroke and finishing with a slight flick of the wrist. Up – Out (flick) – In: This is the rhythm I want to establish and I may use this as a mantra to keep me focused. Most times, now, I will remind myself “UP and Flick”, if I find my arc becoming too shallow or my delivery too weak. The other reason I miss is often just a lack of stamina, if I have been shooting for too long a period. At least now, I rarely hit the outside of the rim. Most misses come from hitting inside the rim and shaking out. This comes from not having the proper arc and/or strength on the shot.