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TAKING THE LID OFF THE BASKET?
CHALLENGING CONVENTIONAL SHOOTING WISDOM

(Coaching Ideas for Great Basketball Shooting)

(Article #4 in a Series:  “The Trouble with
Shooting!”
by Tom Nordland, Shooting Coach)
 

COACHES:  I would like to suggest you re-evaluate some shooting
instruction “rules” that are in common use today.  I feel a different
approach to this coaching could result in dramatic improvement in your
players’ shooting skills.  The purpose isn’t necessarily to throw out
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 up against
the coaching my students have been given over their basketball lives.  Some
of it has been beneficial, for example, “Use more legs,” “Be in
balance,” or “Hold the follow through.”  However, more often than not,
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 major improvement 
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 opened
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, and we
expect him to improve another 15% or more from the Line this season.

Let me make an argument for a different interpretation of these
instructions.  The arguments and results may persuade you to change the
way you coach this critical skill.  And I also believe this different
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 had
been told to “Square Up” when they shoot, at least 80% said they had.
When I asked them what was meant by that instruction, they told me they
were told to have their lower and upper bodies oriented exactly facing
the basket.

To “Square Up” literally means to have a line across your shoulders be
perpendicular to a line from your chest to the basket.  For free throws 
it means lining up both feet at the line and keeping feet, knees, hips
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, so,
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 has to
calculate an angle from where his eyes are and where the center of the
ball is (8-10” to his right).  He can’t shoot directly at the basket
from his visual perspective.  He’s become very good at this calculation
and shoots amazingly well, but he is not as accurate or consistent as
Jeff Hornacek, also of the Jazz, who turns his body approx. 45° and has
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 the
shot, then it can be an effective instruction.  I think this is what
most coaches conceive the instruction to mean.  However, from what I’ve
seen and heard, I think most students misperceive it and get the literal
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 makes the 
forearm of the shooting arm more vertical without tension, and allows
the Shooting Arm to extend more easily toward the basket.  The Guide
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
naturally.

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 is
vital.  But in today’s One-Handed Shot game, most players want to turn.
In video clips I’ve seen of Larry Bird, he, like Hornacek, turned about
45°.  I believe any athlete who hasn’t been forced to Square Up will
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 side, like
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
release.

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 stance gives
your players the feeling of being more “under and behind” the ball.
Which one creates less tension?  There’s no one right answer here.  Each
person needs to find what works for him or her.  To me, everything  seems
to be naturally aligned if you’re more Open.  And if you’re aligned,
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 stated
very clearly you should NOT use any of the jumping motion in the shot.
Rather, you should wait until the top of the jump and then shoot.  When
I asked the kids if they had been told this instruction, about the same
number said “Yes.”

I think most coaches know that leg power is effective in powering and
controlling a shot.  This instruction is probably conceived to help
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 and
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.  I’m sure
their coaches explained that the basket is larger and more forgiving for
a shot coming in at a high angle.  (60% above horizontal is considered
by many to be the most effective angle.)  We know that upward action of
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 of the
jump, then this upward power source is missed and all you’ve got left is
arm, wrist, hand and finger power.  And these latter power sources are
mostly horizontal!

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 of
his jump.  And the shooting percentages I observed of open, uncontested
mid-range jumpers were very low for most of these great players (in the
25-30% range).  I feel the instruction and the results are directly
related.

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 a high
arching shot, then the former muscles are to be favored.  Note that an
arm straightening motion by itself can be horizontal or vertical as you
choose, but without leg power, its force is limited.  And if you bring
the ball too far overhead, then the arm motion has to become a throw or
sling, and the direction of the motion becomes mostly horizontal.  Check
it out.  Bring a ball to a Set Point way overhead and notice what is
required to launch a ball without leg power and what kind of arch is
created.

Conversely, if you shoot on the way up, there is powerful, upward energy
available to shoot from, and this creates the arch everyone wants ...
naturally.  Don’t worry about making this power consistent.  It’s going
to vary all over the place, depending on fatigue, adrenalin, the
distance to the basket, the quickness of the shot, etc.  Varying arch is
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 forwards sometimes
have to do, then waiting until near the top of the jump can be
effective.  However, I suggest that even with these shots you shoot
before you reach the top of the jump so you can still use some of the
upward energy to stabilize the shot.  If you shoot at the very top or,
god forbid, on the way down, you greatly minimize your chances of
success.

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.”   Though his
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.  From a
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 his
lower body action and he wound up making 81% for the year (still an
impressive 12% increase in one season).  This summer he has more deeply
learned the distinction of shooting from the wave of energy the lower
body provides, and free throws and jump shots are becoming easier and
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 open for
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 much.  A
quick Release and a high, soft ball flight are created by shooting on
the way up.

Watch great shooters like Detlef Schrempf, now of the Portland
Trailblazers, Hornacek of the Jazz, and Steve Kerr of the San Antonio
Spurs.  They shoot early in their jumping motions.  Rik Smits of
Indiana, 7’4” and one of the better big men shooters, shoots very early
in the jump, too.  One of Stanford’s best shooters ever is Ryan Mendez,
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 seen who
has learned to shoot earlier in the jumping motion improved shooting
performance.

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.  I don’t
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.  Tall
players tend to shoot flat and short players shoot high because of this
difference in perspective.  And shorter players are usually better
shooters.  The better big men shooters shoot high, despite their 
height.

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 body
muscles.  Fewer muscles, yes, but these muscles (arm, wrist, hand and
fingers) are very intricate and complex, designed for fine motor control
and are more sensitive to slight adjustments.   In terms of shooting,
they also create mostly horizontal energy.  When you’re wanting the
fewest possible variables -- a repeatable motion -- these finer muscles
are less reliable.  Making them into a “constant” motion, just a simple
pushing action with relaxed wrist and hand, gives you that ... and the
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 missing a
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 what
happens.  For most outside jump shots, I feel that you don’t have to
wait at all to shoot.  Go for the maximum leg drive percentage available
and see what happens.  (And I don’t mean jumping stronger; I just mean
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 experience
the shot as “effortless.”  As mentioned above, the UpForce™ also
stabilizes the shot with its powerful force field.  If you’re in very
close and need to jump strongly to shoot over a defender, you can wait a
bit (call it “hangtime”) before releasing the ball.  But shoot always
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 you can
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 shooting
at the top of your jump and have missed the UpForce™ wave, all you have
left is arm, wrist and hand/finger power.  In that case, flipping the
wrist makes sense.  You could also “throw” or “sling” the ball with the
arm and even power the shot with the fingers.  A fairly well known
shooting coach taught powering the ball with the first two fingers.  But
these forces are less reliable and horizontal and results will be
streaky at best.  Wrist flipping or Throwing may give you more power and
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 what’s called
“Reaching the hand in the cookie jar.”  Another is the “Goose neck.”
These images, especially the first one, imply doing something with the
wrist and hand, like reaching into something.   The wrist flipping
instruction may come from this.  The problem I see in fulfilling this
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 observed
him shoot about 15 consecutive airballs.  When I asked him what he was
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 and finger
muscles quiet, and power the shot instead with just an upward pushing
action of the arm supported by a strong leg drive.  From my  perspective,
if you make the arm action a constant -- just a straightening of the arm
at the same speed and force every time (at about 75% of maximum, so you
don’t hurt yourself) -- it minimizes variables and gives you what I call
“Repeatability.”  I like to call this a “Full Out” Release.  If your
wrist and hand are relaxed, the hand will actually “bounce” when you
Release the ball.  The more it bounces, the more relaxed those muscles
are.  A relaxed wrist and hand look somewhat like reaching a hand into
something, but there is no “reach” and no tension ? it’s just the  way
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 hanging
there.

Dale Davis has come to understand the concept of Repeatability in
shooting, as shown in his description of my coaching this fall:  “His
[Tom’s] technique is different from most shooting coaches.  He does a
combination of form and the art/science of  repeatability.  It really
works!”

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 time,
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 your
Release, keeping it constant, but simply varying the angle of the push.
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).  Superior
performers in all sports develop motions that can go on automatic.  That
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 hard to
control.  The wrist, hand and fingers are the smallest muscles in the
chain from your feet through your body up to and through your arms.  It
doesn’t make sense to me to leave control of the flight of the ball,
distance and direction, with the smallest muscles.  The fine motor
control they provide is subject to variation, especially under 
pressure.

MY APPROACH:  Make your upper body action a “Pushing” action of the arm
(aimed upward) rather than any kind of Flipping or Throwing motion.  And
relax the wrist, hand and finger muscles.  They don’t have to do any
powering, steering or guiding.  They can just complete your connection
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.  A
little pressure from the fingers ensures control of the ball, allowing
it to roll off your fingers in a consistent way.  Shooting this way
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 you get
perfect backspin!

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 have the
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.  This “up
front” Set Point is also achieved more quickly and, with shooting from
UpForce™, gives you a very quick Release.  The bigger and stronger you
are, the higher above your head you can establish the Set Point, thus
making it more difficult to block.

As I said, don’t just believe this or disbelieve it.  Examine these
three coaching instructions in this different light and let the results
show you the most effective way to shoot and coach the skill of
shooting.

A FINAL NOTE:  CAN THIS BE INTRODUCED ONCE THE SEASON STARTS?

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.  You
feel that summer is the time for them to work on changes in their
individual skills.

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 and
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 learn
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 option
of “Opening” their stances, it becomes a “Choice,” not a rule.  Choosing
between different alternatives is how we learn.  It’s called making
“Distinctions,” in this case, the Distinction of Stance.  And once you
have a Distinction, like balance on a bicycle, you never forget it.  But
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 and
experiment with shooting earlier and later!”  What will happen is
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 stable and
consistent.  When they add the third notion ? of shooting with the whole
arm, and not flipping with the wrist ? they’ll discover a whole new way
of shooting.

As the coach, it will be important to keep this atmosphere of learning
and discovery going.  Have team talks about shooting, what works and
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 was
discovered and how?  What does it feel like?  Maybe that player’s words
will help others make similar discoveries.  Ask the group to describe
what they see.  When players can see these simple principles in others,
it will help seeing and feeling them in themselves.

In the end, remember that shooting is really very simple!  If we
complicate it, it becomes difficult for all but the few.  And that’s
what we have in the game today, only a small percent of players can
really control ball flight ... all the time!  Sure, we have streaky
shooters, and that’s the best you can do when the shot motion is full of
variables, flat and hot, a guess rather than a sure thing.  Great
shooters have a plan, a plan of controlled repeatability.  The target
has become their dominant focus, not mechanics or execution.  They’ve
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 above
can put your players on the path of becoming great shooters!

I invite your questions and would love to hear of your experiences with
learning and coaching the great skill/art of shooting a basketball.

    Tom Nordland
    Boulder Creek, California
    1-888/SWISH-22
    Email:  Tom@swish22.com
    Web site:  www.swish22.com
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


















   

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