Why Steve Nash Makes More Free Throws Than Dwight Howard

Every time Steve Nash goes to the foul line, he shoots five or six free throws. Sure, there’s the two that really count, but the NBA’s all-time free throw percentage leader always takes several imaginary shots before getting the ball.  He says it helps him not only visualize the ball going through the net but also gets his brain and body prepped for the upcoming motor skill.  After almost 3,400 regular season attempts, his 90.4% success rate seems to work, even if Dwight Howard isn’t interested.
Actually, this “dry run” motor imagery is a well-used technique across several sports.  Golfers always take the imaginary swing or putt before stepping up to the ball.  Batters take their nervous hacks before the pitch. Football placekickers, the ultimate “hero or goat” athletes, focus on their warm-up kick before their team breaks the huddle. While mental imagery and visualization are common for athletes, there is growing evidence that including the actual physical motions, also known as dynamic imagery, creates the best results. In a recent study, Aymeric Guillot, neuroscience professor at the University of Lyon, tested elite high jumpers to see if this action-oriented imagery would help them not only clear the bar but use better form.  They performed a series of 10 jumps at 90% of their personal best.  They were randomly asked to perform either a motionless mental imagery session or to use their whole body as much as they could to rehearse the jump, without actually executing it.
Guillot’s team found that basic mental imagery without motion did improve the success of the jumps and the form quality by 35%.  However, those jumpers that included active, dynamic motor imagery increased their success rate and form by 45%.
"Our study on high jumpers suggests that dynamic imagery may provide a training edge to professional and amateur athletes,” commented Guillot. “This technique may also be of use to people in other disciplines where 'dry run' rehearsals are routinely used."
The research appears in the latest issue of “Behavioral and Brain Functions”.
According to basketball coach and sport science Ph.D. candidate Brian McCormick, players need to use a pre-performance routine to prepare their brain:
A pre-performance routine accomplishes three main physical goals:
1.  Stabilizes the motor pattern2.  Adds consistency3.  Establishes a rhythmWhen Nash attempts his practice shot, he uses the Imaging step. Rather than pure visualization, where a player may imagine a previous made shot, Nash adds the kinesthetic element. He imagines the ball going through the basket, but he also feels  the shot.”
McCormick credits Nash’s pre-shot process, kept identical for every attempt:
“When Nash takes a pre-practice shot without the ball, he is accessing the motor pattern and moving it to the working memory. He stabilizes the motor pattern, so he can retrieve the pattern more quickly and effectively than someone who shoots cold. His routine also rhythmically prepares the movement. Most motor skills have a rhythm to them, and Nash feels the rhythm of his shot during the practice shot rather than shooting the real free throw cold.”
Given Nash's well-documented success, who better than the man himself to describe his mindset before each free throw? All players and coaches (wanting to be smarter than Dwight Howard) should watch this video:
Of course, Dwight could keep ignoring Nash's advice, giving us classic highlights like this:

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NBA Fans Hurt Their Home Team's Free Throws

Manu Ginobli, San Antonio Spurs
Ask any NBA player or coach where they would prefer to play a high stakes game, home or away, and the vast majority will choose being in the friendly confines of their home arena.  Overall, the win-loss records of most teams would support that, but they would do even better if they taught their home fans a lesson in performance psychology.

When it comes to sports skills, research has shown that we’re better off to just do it rather than consciously thinking about the mechanics of each sub-component of the move.  Waiting for a pitch, standing over a putt or stepping up to the free throw line gives our brains too much opportunity to start breaking down the task.  Add competitive pressure brought on by a close game watched by a loyal home fans and we can easily slip out of the well-practiced mental map, known as automaticity, that usually gets the job done.

But what about elite athletes who are the best in the game?  Surely, they’ve found ways to handle pressure and keep their brains on auto-pilot without getting an online psychology degree?  Actually no, says researchers Matt Goldman and Justin Rao.  In a study presented at the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they revealed an interesting paradox; playing in front of a home crowd can be both a benefit and a curse for NBA players.

For most of a basketball game, players are in constant motion reacting to their teammates and opponents.  They have very little time for “self-focus” or thinking too much about the dozens of small movements that make up their motor skills, except for one event – the free throw.  After being fouled while taking a shot, the play comes to a halt.  The aggrieved player stands at the free throw line, fifteen feet from the basket, with the other nine players as well as thousands of fans staring at him.

The crowd, thinking they’re doing him a favor, gets eerily quiet.  The pressure builds as he’s allowed to remember the score of the game, how much time is left and the disappointment that he and almost everyone else there will feel if he misses this shot.  To counter this, he starts running through his mental checklist; find a focus point, keep your elbow in, bend your knees, follow-through.  Bringing all of these pieces into his conscious mind will most likely cause him to miss the shot, only adding more pressure if he’s fouled again.

Goldman and Rao compared the stage fright of shooting free throws with another very common basketball skill, offensive rebounding.  Recovering the ball after a missed shot is vital to a team’s chances of winning since it provides another possession opportunity to score.  It’s also a task that is done in the constant motion of the game with the crowd cheering.  There is no time to self-reflect on the skill components of rebounding, it just happens.  If a player does not get a rebound, there is no obvious public shame as the play immediately continues.

So, could playing in front of a home crowd affect one part a player’s game but not another?
Using detailed play by play data from every NBA game from 2005-2010 (six full seasons), including 1.3 million possessions and 300,000 free throw attempts, they first found an expected result that, in general, home team players have a higher overall free throw shooting percentage than the visitors.  However, Goldman and Rao then looked at what happens in clutch situations, which they define, in a detailed mathematical formula, as being late in the game when the score is close.  In those high pressure moments, the home team does significantly worse at the charity stripe than their opponents.  They blame this mostly on the actions of the fans.  To go from constant noise and fast action to perfect quiet and stillness is enough to take even the best basketball players in the world out of their rhythm and into a damaging self-talk state.

At the other end of the court, when visiting players are taking free throws, the crowd, again thinking they’re helping, goes crazy with waving arms, signs and noise.  However, the data showed that the free throw percentages of the visitors in clutch situations remains unchanged from their normal away percentage.  The researchers argue that the distractions actually help the opponents at the line by not allowing them to think about their complicated motor skills.

To show that the pressure doesn’t affect all skills, the stats also showed that the home team’s offensive rebounds got progressively better in clutch situations supporting the theory that positive support can increase effort.  As with free throws, the visiting team’s clutch performance in rebounding was unchanged from normal game situations.

Not all players are created equal.  The study called out a few NBA players as being either clutch at the free throw line or chokers under pressure, including two of the game’s top stars.  Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, who has a career 83% free throw percentage, is the player you most want at the line when the game is close.  On the other hand, Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtcs, with an 80% career percentage, was the second worst free throw shooter in clutch situations.

Maybe a few brave Celtic fans at the Garden can begin to reverse the trend and go crazy when Pierce is at the line.  Just be sure to be near an exit.

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