TAKING THE LID OFF THE BASKET?
CHALLENGING CONVENTIONAL SHOOTING WISDOM
(Coaching Ideas for Great Basketball Shooting)
(Article #4 in a Series: “The Trouble with
by Tom Nordland, Shooting Coach)
COACHES: I would like to suggest you re-evaluate
instruction “rules” that are in common use today. I feel a
approach to this coaching could result in dramatic improvement in
players’ shooting skills. The purpose isn’t necessarily to
ideas, but to encourage you to communicate more clearly the specific
techniques and understandings that lead to better shooting.
In my experience researching and coaching shooting
for the past 10
years at all levels, from beginner to the NBA, I’ve been coming
the coaching my students have been given over their basketball
of it has been beneficial, for example, “Use more legs,” “Be in
balance,” or “Hold the follow through.” However, more often
the student has perceived (or misperceived) coaching in ways I think
sabotage good shooting.
The three instructions I wish to focus on are:
(1) Squaring Up, (2)
Shooting at the Top of the Jump, and (3) Wrist Flipping.
Dale Davis of the Indiana Pacers was able to make a
in his shooting last season by adopting a different approach to these
instructions. He was formerly standing almost square, shot
at the top
of his jump (or his down-up free throw motion), and threw the ball
horizontally with upper body muscles. With my coaching, he’s
more his stance, shoots on the way up (for both free throws and jump
shots), and now releases the ball with a simple, upward pushing action.
The result was a 15% increase in free throw performance (from 46.5%
to 61.8%) which resulted in more aggressive play and being left
in the game
at the end of close games. His confidence is beginning to soar,
expect him to improve another 15% or more from the Line this season.
Let me make an argument for a different interpretation
instructions. The arguments and results may persuade you to
way you coach this critical skill. And I also believe this
approach to the coaching of shooting CAN be implemented during the
season. See at the end for my explanation of why that’s possible.
1) SQUARING UP
The first instruction I’d like to question is this
one. This summer
when I asked over 250 kids in Clinics I gave in Minnesota if they
been told to “Square Up” when they shoot, at least 80% said they
When I asked them what was meant by that instruction, they told me
were told to have their lower and upper bodies oriented exactly facing
To “Square Up” literally means to have a line across
your shoulders be
perpendicular to a line from your chest to the basket. For
it means lining up both feet at the line and keeping feet, knees,
and shoulders in this “square to the target” position. You
can see in
John Stockton, All Star guard for the Utah Jazz, a squared-up stance.
With free throws and jump shots, he orients directly at the basket.
However, I’ll guess he was also told to have a vertical forearm,
rather than force his elbow in and have the ball over his head, he
shoots with the ball off his right shoulder, thus satisfying both
needs. However, the problem in shooting this way is that he
calculate an angle from where his eyes are and where the center of
ball is (8-10” to his right). He can’t shoot directly at the
from his visual perspective. He’s become very good at this
and shoots amazingly well, but he is not as accurate or consistent
Jeff Hornacek, also of the Jazz, who turns his body approx. 45°
his eyes directly under the ball.
If by Square Up you mean simply to generally “Face
the Basket” as you
go to shoot and stop any lateral and rotational movement as you begin
shot, then it can be an effective instruction. I think this
most coaches conceive the instruction to mean. However, from
seen and heard, I think most students misperceive it and get the
meaning and wind up physically Squaring Up. Perhaps this instruction
needs to be changed to “Face Up,” or something like that.
From my experience, it’s more natural to “Open” the
body and rotate to
the left for right handers, right for left-handers. This also
forearm of the shooting arm more vertical without tension, and allows
the Shooting Arm to extend more easily toward the basket. The
Hand just moves aside and hangs back.
Try shooting both Squared Up and Open and see which
feels more natural.
Offer your players both options and observe which they adopt naturally.
If you watch good shooters, most of them rotate at least a little
Squaring Up is probably an instruction from the old
Two Handed Days.
For two handed set shots and free throws, being square to the target
vital. But in today’s One-Handed Shot game, most players want
In video clips I’ve seen of Larry Bird, he, like Hornacek, turned
45°. I believe any athlete who hasn’t been forced to Square
turn naturally when told to shoot the ball with one hand/arm.
THE COMMON (MIS-) UNDERSTANDING: That Squaring
Up somehow gets you in better connection and alignment with the
basket or helps with the shot
motion. With this position, the elbow wants to be out to the
in a salute, and if you want your forearm to be sort-of-vertical
and your palm facing the basket for an easy, straight-in-line-with-the-basket
motion, you have to force the elbow in. This creates tension
in the setup, and, if you try to keep your body in that relationship,
that tension will be maintained in the
MY APPROACH: Let the body turn naturally and
see what works best.
Compare Squaring Up with turning 10°, 20°, 30°, 40°
or more. I like the
idea of being “aligned” when I shoot, with target, ball, hand, forearm,
eyes, body and legs generally in alignment, and if you Open the stance,
this seems to happen more easily. Test it out. See which
your players the feeling of being more “under and behind” the ball.
Which one creates less tension? There’s no one right answer
person needs to find what works for him or her. To me, everything
to be naturally aligned if you’re more Open. And if you’re
accuracy is much more assured.
2) SHOOTING AT THE TOP OF THE JUMP
The second common instruction I’d like to question
is the old “Shoot at
the top (or apex) of your jump.”
This idea has been around a long time. I found
a book in the San Jose
library by one of the legends of the game, written in 1966, that
very clearly you should NOT use any of the jumping motion in the
Rather, you should wait until the top of the jump and then shoot.
I asked the kids if they had been told this instruction, about the
number said “Yes.”
I think most coaches know that leg power is effective
in powering and
controlling a shot. This instruction is probably conceived
players elevate them to shoot over an opponent. It may also
be to try
to make the leg drive consistent. However, if it is literally perceived
by the students, they wait until there is no lower body power left
then shoot, thus sabotaging the shot.
This instruction is interesting in another way, because
many of these
same players tell me they’ve also been told to shoot higher.
their coaches explained that the basket is larger and more forgiving for
a shot coming in at a high angle. (60% above horizontal is
by many to be the most effective angle.) We know that upward
the leg drive or leg lift ? what I call UpForce™ ? creates a high
arching shot. So, if you’re told to wait and shoot at the top
jump, then this upward power source is missed and all you’ve got
arm, wrist, hand and finger power. And these latter power sources
When I was at the Big Man Camp in Hawaii this summer,
almost every one
of the 24 NBA and ~30 College participants was shooting at the top
his jump. And the shooting percentages I observed of open,
mid-range jumpers were very low for most of these great players (in
25-30% range). I feel the instruction and the results are directly
The trajectory of a shot is important. In shooting
a basketball, lower
body muscles tend to create a vertical action and upper body muscles
tend to create a horizontal action. If we agree that we want
arching shot, then the former muscles are to be favored. Note
arm straightening motion by itself can be horizontal or vertical
choose, but without leg power, its force is limited. And if
the ball too far overhead, then the arm motion has to become a throw
sling, and the direction of the motion becomes mostly horizontal.
it out. Bring a ball to a Set Point way overhead and notice
required to launch a ball without leg power and what kind of arch
Conversely, if you shoot on the way up, there is powerful,
available to shoot from, and this creates the arch everyone wants
naturally. Don’t worry about making this power consistent.
to vary all over the place, depending on fatigue, adrenalin, the
distance to the basket, the quickness of the shot, etc. Varying
how you manage that. And when shooting on the way up, the Release
happens more quickly.
If you have to jump over people, as centers and power
have to do, then waiting until near the top of the jump can be
effective. However, I suggest that even with these shots you
before you reach the top of the jump so you can still use some of
upward energy to stabilize the shot. If you shoot at the very
god forbid, on the way down, you greatly minimize your chances of
Adam Keefe of the Utah Jazz discovered the importance
of shooting on the
way up, shooting from what he’s come to know as “The Wave.”
stance was already open when he came to me, he discovered he was
releasing the ball at the top of his jump and wrist flipping.
shaky 69% in free throws the prior 3 years, he shot in the mid-80’s
through most of the ‘97-98 season until a foot injury destabilized
lower body action and he wound up making 81% for the year (still
impressive 12% increase in one season). This summer he has
learned the distinction of shooting from the wave of energy the lower
body provides, and free throws and jump shots are becoming easier
easier for him. He’s poised for a terrific shooting year.
I don’t think you have to jump high for most Jump Shots.
The idea of
jumping over people is left for a very few great athletes and for
Centers and Power Forwards working in close. Most players get
a moment and need to get the shot off quickly before the defender reacts
or recovers. The height of the jump doesn’t really matter that
quick Release and a high, soft ball flight are created by shooting
the way up.
Watch great shooters like Detlef Schrempf, now of the
Trailblazers, Hornacek of the Jazz, and Steve Kerr of the San Antonio
Spurs. They shoot early in their jumping motions. Rik
Indiana, 7’4” and one of the better big men shooters, shoots very
in the jump, too. One of Stanford’s best shooters ever is Ryan
from Texas (He averaged 38 pts/game in high school a few years ago).
He’s 6’7” and he shoots as early in the jumping motion as possible.
That, to me, is why he’s such a great shooter. Every one I’ve
has learned to shoot earlier in the jumping motion improved shooting
THE COMMON (MIS-) UNDERSTANDING: I guess the
idea here is that being higher in the air helps somehow in the
shot, and also, if you isolate
the shot to just the upper body, you employ fewer muscles.
think height above the ground makes any difference, but I think the
higher you are the less you will think to aim “upward” to shoot.
players tend to shoot flat and short players shoot high because of
difference in perspective. And shorter players are usually
shooters. The better big men shooters shoot high, despite their
The problem is if you shoot literally at the top of
your jumping (or
free throw/set shot) motion, you will have expended all the upward
energy of the legs. All you have left to shoot with are upper
muscles. Fewer muscles, yes, but these muscles (arm, wrist,
fingers) are very intricate and complex, designed for fine motor control
and are more sensitive to slight adjustments. In terms
they also create mostly horizontal energy. When you’re wanting
fewest possible variables -- a repeatable motion -- these finer muscles
are less reliable. Making them into a “constant” motion, just
pushing action with relaxed wrist and hand, gives you that ... and
corresponding control you want. Also, you miss the powerful, stabilizing
force created by lower body power (legs, hips, pelvis, back), your
strongest muscles. Shooting at the top of the jump is like
Wave in surfing.
MY APPROACH: Shoot on the way up. See what
shooting earlier in the
jumping motion does for you. Try earlier and earlier and see
happens. For most outside jump shots, I feel that you don’t
wait at all to shoot. Go for the maximum leg drive percentage
and see what happens. (And I don’t mean jumping stronger; I
shooting earlier and quicker in whatever body/leg force you generate.)
You’ll find your shots go higher, without trying for
height, and you’ll
have a quicker Release and plenty of power. You’ll start to
the shot as “effortless.” As mentioned above, the UpForce™
stabilizes the shot with its powerful force field. If you’re
close and need to jump strongly to shoot over a defender, you can
bit (call it “hangtime”) before releasing the ball. But shoot
from at least some of the lower body energy for the advantages it
offers. You can also raise your Set Point, if in close, so
shoot more quickly and more “full out.”
3) WRIST FLIPPING THE BALL
And finally a large majority of the kids in my Clinics
said they were
told to “flip their wrists” to power the shot. Now, if you’re
at the top of your jump and have missed the UpForce™ wave, all you
left is arm, wrist and hand/finger power. In that case, flipping
wrist makes sense. You could also “throw” or “sling” the ball
arm and even power the shot with the fingers. A fairly well
shooting coach taught powering the ball with the first two fingers.
these forces are less reliable and horizontal and results will be
streaky at best. Wrist flipping or Throwing may give you more
distance, but the negatives of the flatness of the shot, the
variability, and the susceptibility to pressure negate any advantage.
A common image of the Follow Through in shooting is
“Reaching the hand in the cookie jar.” Another is the “Goose
These images, especially the first one, imply doing something with
wrist and hand, like reaching into something. The wrist
instruction may come from this. The problem I see in fulfilling
image is that you’re introducing unnecessary tension.
I coached a young assistant coach at a major basketball
power on the
West Coast a few years ago. I asked him to warm up first and
him shoot about 15 consecutive airballs. When I asked him what
doing, he said, “I’m trying to reach my hand in the cookie jar.”
Obviously he didn’t know what he was doing; he misperceived the
instruction and it interfered badly with his performance.
An alternative way to shoot is to keep the wrist, hand
muscles quiet, and power the shot instead with just an upward pushing
action of the arm supported by a strong leg drive. From my
if you make the arm action a constant -- just a straightening of
at the same speed and force every time (at about 75% of maximum,
don’t hurt yourself) -- it minimizes variables and gives you what
“Repeatability.” I like to call this a “Full Out” Release.
wrist and hand are relaxed, the hand will actually “bounce” when
Release the ball. The more it bounces, the more relaxed those
are. A relaxed wrist and hand look somewhat like reaching a
something, but there is no “reach” and no tension ? it’s just the
the hand looks when the wrist is relaxed. I have a photo of
me in 1957
on my Website, home page. Notice how my hand is relaxed, just
Dale Davis has come to understand the concept of Repeatability
shooting, as shown in his description of my coaching this fall:
[Tom’s] technique is different from most shooting coaches.
He does a
combination of form and the art/science of repeatability.
The last variable, a pressure valve of sorts, becomes
the arch or height
of your shot. As you shoot, be ready to adjust the height every
based on what you feel, how strong the jump is, how quickly you’re
shooting, etc. That way, you can always go “Full Out” with
Release, keeping it constant, but simply varying the angle of the
Varying arch is one of the characteristics of most great shooting.
Great shooters have minimized the variables in their
shot motions and
developed a way to shoot over and over with basically the same motion.
The fewer muscles involved, the more this becomes possible.
This is the
idea of “Repeatability” (or automated or programmed skills).
performers in all sports develop motions that can go on automatic.
permits them to move all their attention from mechanics to the target.
And that makes a huge difference.
THE COMMON (MIS-) UNDERSTANDING: The misconception
or misperception is that using the wrist is an effective power
source. It will give you
extra power, that’s true. But it’s horizontal power and it’s
control. The wrist, hand and fingers are the smallest muscles
chain from your feet through your body up to and through your arms.
doesn’t make sense to me to leave control of the flight of the ball,
distance and direction, with the smallest muscles. The fine
control they provide is subject to variation, especially under
MY APPROACH: Make your upper body action a “Pushing”
action of the arm
(aimed upward) rather than any kind of Flipping or Throwing motion.
relax the wrist, hand and finger muscles. They don’t have to
powering, steering or guiding. They can just complete your
with the ball and, by doing nothing more than that, ensure greater
accuracy and consistency that comes from strong, stable lower body power
and an arm motion aimed exactly where you want. The finger
pads and the
forward part of the palm are how you connect to the ball itself.
little pressure from the fingers ensures control of the ball, allowing
it to roll off your fingers in a consistent way. Shooting this
you’ll get the feeling of doing “nothing” with these smaller muscles,
and the feeling of shooting becomes effortlessness when there’s strong
power from the lower body. And, surprise!!! ... you’ll find
One last thing about the Set Point: To do an
upward pushing action with
the arm to take advantage of the powerful leg drive, you cannot have
taken the ball way over your head. Rather, it works best to
back of the ball at approximately the front of the head or only very
slightly behind the front of the head so you can push upward.
front” Set Point is also achieved more quickly and, with shooting
UpForce™, gives you a very quick Release. The bigger and stronger
are, the higher above your head you can establish the Set Point,
making it more difficult to block.
As I said, don’t just believe this or disbelieve it.
three coaching instructions in this different light and let the results
show you the most effective way to shoot and coach the skill of
A FINAL NOTE: CAN THIS BE INTRODUCED ONCE THE
I say “Yes, definitely,” and I’ll tell you why.
I know many of you
don’t want to “mess” with your players’ shots during the season.
feel that summer is the time for them to work on changes in their
However, I feel when a change is not complicated and
done in a spirit of
“awareness,” rather than “Do this,” or “Don’t do that,” change or
learning can happen any time during a season! Humans are Learning
Machines, we’re born to learn, and we can learn new things quickly
easily, especially if they’re simple and natural. Of
course, you don’t
want to suggest a change the day before a crucial game, or in the
timeout before a critical free throw. But in the many hours
of a week
and over a period of a few weeks, players can learn new things and
to trust them.
I feel what I’m suggesting here can be just that:
Simple and Natural.
If your players become aware of how they stand and are given the
of “Opening” their stances, it becomes a “Choice,” not a rule.
between different alternatives is how we learn. It’s called
“Distinctions,” in this case, the Distinction of Stance. And
have a Distinction, like balance on a bicycle, you never forget it.
if there’s a lot of worry and doubt, “trying” hard to do something
“right,” then learning becomes difficult.
If, for example, you just ask your players to note
if they’re shooting
at the top of the jump or on the way up, you’ll see instant learning.
The rule “Shoot at the top!” can be replaced by “See when you shoot
experiment with shooting earlier and later!” What will happen
experimentation and discovery! They’ll start to see that shooting
earlier is more effective than later, and it creates a higher, more
effortless shot. They’ll start to see that shots become more
consistent. When they add the third notion ? of shooting with
arm, and not flipping with the wrist ? they’ll discover a whole new
As the coach, it will be important to keep this atmosphere
and discovery going. Have team talks about shooting, what works
what doesn’t work. When a player has a breakthrough, ask her
or him to
share it with the team with a demonstration and words. What
discovered and how? What does it feel like? Maybe that
will help others make similar discoveries. Ask the group to
what they see. When players can see these simple principles
it will help seeing and feeling them in themselves.
In the end, remember that shooting is really very simple!
complicate it, it becomes difficult for all but the few. And
what we have in the game today, only a small percent of players can
really control ball flight ... all the time! Sure, we have
shooters, and that’s the best you can do when the shot motion is
variables, flat and hot, a guess rather than a sure thing.
shooters have a plan, a plan of controlled repeatability. The
has become their dominant focus, not mechanics or execution.
learned to Let Go and Trust themselves in that “golden moment of
shooting,” and in so doing they put the ball in or near dead center
every time. And I believe the instructional ideas I’ve presented
can put your players on the path of becoming great shooters!
I invite your questions and would love to hear of your
learning and coaching the great skill/art of shooting a basketball.
Boulder Creek, California
Web site: www.swish22.com