Free Throws and Psychology: I’m good at one of these things

The world record for Most Consecutive Free Throws in basketball is currently held by a man named Ted St. Martin. He shot 5221 consecutive throws over a span of 7 hours and twenty minutes, more than doubling the previous record of 2750. Ted was never in the NBA. He didn’t play on a college team. He didn’t even play in high school.

So what was Ted’s background that allowed him to accomplish this amazing feat? He was a dairy farmer. He attributes his success at free throws to the discipline learned through spending hours on end milking cows and having to constantly wake up in the middle of the night to birth them.

But is this really so amazing? If you stop and think about it, a free throw is a shot with no interference and as much prep time as you need, taken from a mere 15′ away from the backboard. Professional players who spend all of their lives focused around this one game shouldn’t have any problem with that. Right?


The 2015-2016 NBA average for free throws was only 75.6%. That means that professional players miss 1 in 4 uncontested shots from 15′ away.

Ed Palubinskas, the “Free Throw Doctor” of the NBA, is famous for saying that free throws are 90% psychological. In fact, when training Shaq he had Shaq sometimes train blindfolded so as to try and shake his ingrained psychological aversion to free throws (blinding him shifted the focus from it being a free throw to just the biomechanics). This seems to be in keeping with Ted’s claim of mental discipline being key.

Shaq blind free throw
Shaq blind free throw


Dirk Nowitzki, one of the NBA’s all time top shooters, had a career free throw accuracy of 87.9%. He talks about how one of his early coaches had him sing a song while going up there to “get himself out of his head”.

I would posit that it is best to view the psychological and physiological as two parts of a larger, interconnected system. You need both the carefully trained muscle patterns and a way to consistently access those particular sequences.

Dirk’s coach’s tip taps into something that psychologists call “reinstatement theory,” a way of looking at memory and performance in terms of their greater environmental context. I’m sure most people have heard some college student claiming how “I learned this while drunk so I need to be drunk to remember it.” Well, they actually could be correct.

Psychologists have shown how the biggest factors in memory storage and recall are our physical senses. And they are all active all the time- there is no disentangling the particular visual or kinesthetic memory from their accompanying auditory or olfactory cues (although some cues may be stronger than others). Remember one and you remember the rest.

One interesting study on reinstatement theory was carried out by Steven M. Smith. He had students in three groups all studying the same material. One group did it while listening to Milt Jackons’s “People Make the World Go Round,” another to Mozart, and the third to nothing. He then tested portions of each of these groups in all three types of backgrounds. The results across the board were that those who listened to the same music during both studying and testing performed almost twice as well as those who studied in silence, and even if they listened to the different music there was some boost in performance.

When Dirk Nowitzki stepped up to the free throw line and sang the same song to himself that he sang many a previous time (Mr. Jones by Counting Crows), he was aiding himself in pulling up those particular kinesthetic patterns.

Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones
Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones

There are many other lenses through which to interpret this phenomena- my favorite of which is that of the science of habit formation, which I will go into at some later date, but also just the purely psychological.

My takeaway from all of this is just to use it as another reminder that physical performance and mental performance are intrinsically linked, and that there are often ways to take easy shortcuts with one through proper use of the other.

A final note to those who are actually interested in basketball and want to improve upon their own free throws: don’t just practice free throws.

Kerr & Booth ran a study where they had two groups tossing bean bags into holes while blindfolded, with feedback after each throw. One group tossed into a hole 3′ away, the other alternated between 2′ and 4′. Afterwards they were all tested on a 3′ hole. Amazingly enough, the group that had never before practiced on a 3′ hole performed significantly better.

I could go on at length about the benefits of varied practice and ways to make use of it, but I think I have waxed long enough already. My first “Daily Learning” post seems to have mutated into a combo DL + Musing.

Oh well.



Credits: the Surprisingly Awesome podcast from Gimlet media + the various studies that I have already linked to.