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Free Throw Ace Drill

How to block out distractions and "ace" your free throws

Purpose – To develop:

  • consistent free throw routine;
  • concentration and focus at the free throw line;
  • visualization of a successful shot

A free throw is the easiest shot to make if you have the right routine.

Most players miss because they either have bad shooting form or they aren’t focused totally on the moment. They might hear the crowd trying to mess them up, they might be thinking “If I miss this, we will lose”, or they might be thinking about a shot they missed earlier in the game.

Your routine should be one that has you totally focused on the moment. This drill will help you to block out the distractions and help you get used to visualizing a successful shot every time you shoot . This is important because if you are focusing on your routine (and your key words – see below), you can’t possibly think about the distractions (the crowd noise, worrying about missing it, etc.) at the same time.

So, let’s say that you normally take 3 dribbles, stay in your ready position for a second, and then shoot the free throw. After the ref gives you the ball, with each dribble, say the word “dribble”.

Then after your last dribble, as you get in the ready position, say “set”. (Or whatever word you like, maybe “rim” or “ready”). At this time, run your shot through your mind before you actually shoot it. What you want to do is see yourself (in your mind) going up to shoot, extending your arm, releasing the ball off your finger tips, and seeing the ball swish through the net.

Then as you actually go through your shooting motion, say to yourself “net” or “swish”. (If you miss your shot, just say or think to yourself “erase”, or something like that. Then turn your focus to your next shot. It takes a while to get good at forgetting a miss and focussing on your next shot, but it’s important that you learn how to do it.)

So while you are on the free throw line doing the actions, you are going to say to yourself, “dribble-dribble-dribble…set…net”.

You can whisper these commands to yourself, or just think them in your head. The important thing here is to get this into your free throw routine. Remember, your goal is to focus on the moment by focusing on each little step – the dribble, the setup, and the shot.

You’ll also condition yourself to “feel” the ball going in before you actually shoot it. That’s why you want to have a keyword like “swish” or “net”. What we are doing here is known as a “Conditioned Reflex”.

What is a conditioned reflex? In the early 1900’s, a behavioral scientist named Pavlov discovered certain reflex behaviors in dogs. Dogs normally drool when they are hungry and they see food. Since Pavlov worked with dogs in a lab, he was usually wearing a white lab coat when he fed the dogs.

Over time, he noticed that the dogs would drool and get excited for food whenever they saw him walk by in his lab coat, even though it wasn’t feeding time. He then tested ringing a bell whenever he fed them. After they got used to being fed after hearing the bell, he found that they acted the same way as when they saw someone walk by in a lab coat.

When he rang the bell (even though it wasn’t feeding time), the dogs would drool and get excited for food. This is a conditioned reflex – substituting a word, or picture, or sound so it means something else and it triggers a certain reaction. When the dogs saw the doctor walk by in the lab coat, or when they heard the bell ringing, they automatically linked it to “feeding time”. And humans are the same as animals when it comes to having these kinds of reflexes.

In the same way, you can learn how to condition yourself to feel good when you shoot free throws. Every time after you make a free throw, say your keyword (like “swish” or “net”). Then after a while, you’ll be able to say your keyword before you shoot so that your mental response will be visualizing the ball swishing into the basket, and your physical response will be to shoot a nice smooth shot.

This takes some time to get used to, but once you get the hang of it, free throws can become automatic. You’ll be focused on your routine instead of the crowd or any other distracting thoughts – it’s just you, the ball, the rim and your routine.

You will be letting the free throws happen instead of making them happen.


Practice this routine 2 ways:

1. In the gym – go through your whole routine as you say your words to yourself.

Part A
Go at a nice pace when you first start out. There’s no rush. Remember, you have ten seconds for each free throw in a real game. So don’t rush. Develop a routine that’s comfortable to you. Shoot 10 or 20 free throws at a time to get into a groove with your routine. Do this for a couple of weeks so you get used to your routine.

Part B
After getting your own comfortable routine, start shooting only 2 or 3 free throws in a row. Because you probably won’t ever shoot more than 3 free throws at one time on the free throw line, you should condition yourself for game-like situations. Shoot 2 or 3, then back away from the free throw line to start a new set.

Part C
One thing that you can do in the gym that can help you practice game-like conditions is to take a couple of free throws (remember to use your routine), and then run to the other free throw line (or even the baseline at the other end of the court) and then back again to take 2 more. You can do this until you’ve made 10 free throws. Or you can make it more challenging and do it until you’ve made 10 in a row.

In a real game, you aren’t going to be standing at the line taking 10 or 20 shots in a row, so you should practice how it’s going to be in a game. Most free throws in a game are taken after a few minutes of action running up and down the court. So get used to this by taking a couple of free throws, running, then stopping to shoot a couple more. But don’t do this until you are comfortable with the routine you’ve developed in Part A.

2. Mental movie – see yourself playing a game and getting fouled. See yourself stepping up to the free throw line, going through your routine, and saying your words to yourself as you do each step. Feel the ball coming smoothly out of your hand as you go through your shooting motion, and see the ball falling gently through the net. Take a step away from the free throw line until the ref hands it to you again, and then do it all over again. Visualize this for several minutes. Make time to do this whenever you can.

One final tip – Try to shoot no less than 50 free throws every time you go out to shoot (I like to shoot at least 100 each time whenever I can, in sets of 10). And keep records of makes and misses so you can track the progress of your free throw percentage.