Written by Dan Becker

Do you have a free throw routine?  Routines are important to develop skill and build confidence through repetition.  The definition of routine is, “a regular, unvarying, habitual course of behavior”.  Going through a regular routine every time you shoot a free throw will give you the muscle memory and confidence to shoot a greater percentage.


Every time you complete a motor skill you are building habits.  When you ask your body to shoot a free throw (or any other skill), a circuit within your nervous system gets activated and is insulated with myelin.  Myelin is a fatty insulator that coats the nerve fibers, protecting and insulating the neurons.  Neurons are the transmitters of information that control our movement.  The more insulated the “wire” connecting the neurons controlling your specific skill circuit, the better the skill.  The more a skill is practiced, the more myelin is wrapped around that specific skill circuit insulating the circuit allowing it to fire impulses at faster speeds and developing a stronger skill.  This is where the saying, “an old habit is hard to break” comes into play.

If you practice poor form or sloppy footwork over and over again in practice, you are strengthening that particular skill circuit…wrapping it in thicker myelin sheaths and developing a habit.  It may not be the habit you want, but your body works with the information you give it.  The quicker and more consistently you correct your form, the better the skill circuit.

Enter…the routine.

I asked a high school player recently what his free throw shooting routine was.  His answer…”I don’t have one coach, I just shoot it”.  At first I was shocked, and then I thought about it and remember doing the same thing in high school.  The kid has nice form, but his game shooting and free throw shooting are very inconsistent.  We talked a little about a routine and habits…it was something new to him.  He now has a routine to start with and he can adjust it to his own comfort level as he develops.

Developing a routine that you feel comfortable with and can replicate every trip to the line is important.  That routine will carry you when you are fatigued, nervous, or distracted.  That routine will put you in auto-pilot and allow your best performance to shine through.

With my own free throw routine, I went through 3 stages before settling on a free throw routine that worked for me.


I had none.  In high school and early into university I did not have a routine before shooting a free throw.  Sometimes I took two dribbles, sometimes five.  I focused on the back of the rim, the front of the rim, and the middle of the hoop.  If I was not shooting well, fear of missing crept into my thoughts.  I felt like I had good shooting form, but lost confidence at the free throw line in pressure situations and had little control of the outcome.  This is probably the typical starting point for younger players.


I was introduced to a routine and used it.  In my first year of university basketball I was shown a routine and adopted it.  It went like this;

1) Step forward and put my shooting foot just behind the free throw line and dead center of the rim.

2) Set my other foot shoulder-width apart and slightly behind the line of my shooting foot.

3) Receive the ball from the referee and snap out two crisp dribbles as I bend my knees and line up the seems of the ball

4) Locate my target (I used to look at the back of the rim) as I bring the ball to my starting position

5) Shoot the ball, keeping my eyes on the rim and snapping my wrist into the basket.

That was it….the routine that lasted for the next 3 years.  It was a big improvement.  I started to feel some measure of control over my free throw shooting.  I was getting more confident, but not to the level I needed to be.  My percentages were mid 70’s, but the feeling of being able to hit pressure free throws without hesitation was not there.  Maybe my circuit needed more practice and thicker myelin…maybe I needed to see myself hit more free throws in big situations to build that level of confidence and have that positive image of free throw line success in my mind.  I was not sure, I knew it could get better and I was ready to improve my routine.


In my junior year of university I took a course called ‘Peak Performance’.  It was a class that explored your Ideal Performance State (IPS).  Two of the skills the course taught were breathing techniques and visualization skills.  These turned out to be the last two pieces of the puzzle for my free throw line shooting routine.

I started watching successful free throw shooters and I could see the use of breathing techniques as part of their routine.  Breathing can be used to help you calm down and release nervous energy that can affect you at the free throw line.  So I started adding a big breath as I took my two slow dribbles at the line, and then blew out the breath and the nervous energy as I started going into the mechanics of my shot.  At the point of my release, I had almost emptied my lungs.

I worked great!  I felt a nice controlled snap off the ball during my release.  No more bursts of nervous energy that added more difficulty to my shot.  My routine stayed the same as the second stage; I just added something to help me improve a weakness.

The last thing I added was visualizing a positive result to my free throw attempt while I was getting ready to shoot the ball.  I tied in a “cue word” or “cue sound” as I released the ball.  The sound was that of the net after a ball swished through it.  For me, that really took my mind to the end result…a positive image that demanded good shooting mechanics followed.

In my opinion, visualization is probably the most important piece of your free throw routine.  Your body follows what your mind sees.  If you are nervous and see yourself missing the next free throw, chances are you will.  Steve Nash, one of the NBA’s all time great free throw shooters, uses a visualization technique that everyone can easily see.  BEFORE he receives the ball, he goes to the free throw line and goes through his whole shooting motion without the ball.  He is visualizing the shot and the result while making his body follow along.  When it comes time for the actual shot, he has just performed perfect free throws seconds before and his body and mind are wired for success.

After you have settled on a routine that works for you, the never ending journey of repetition begins. The more you practice your routine and see the positive results of the ball swishing through the net, the more your confidence will grow.  It will be harder for you to miss because you have experienced so many successful trips to the line in the past.  You perform your routine autonomously; you do not think about arm and hand placement, you do not even focus on a spot on the rim anymore.  You just see the rim and flash the desired result in your mind as your routine and skill circuits take over.  You have trained your way into “THE ZONE”….your ideal performance state.

Subscribe to Email Newsletter
Share this article to...