Psychology of the Free Throw

Psychology of the Free Throw

The free throw is often called one of the easiest shots in basketball. It is the only completely unguarded shot in the game, with plenty of time to aim and shoot. All other action pauses as a player shoots from a mere fifteen feet away.

The standard view is an unguarded shot is a relatively easy task.

The results, however, are varied. At every level, professional included, players struggle to make this uncontested shot consistently.

A player is all alone on an island during this shot. During typical game action, your shot happens with less pressure and conscious thought. If your teammate kicks out to you and you’re open, there is less thinking or considering anything but shooting.

When a player shoots a free throw, all action stops.

Everyone is watching you.

Players often fall victim to this pressure, especially during significant moments of the game. Below are some tips to help you prepare for the psychology of making free throws.


In every moment of the game, your breath is essential. This is also true for free throws. A breath is the perfect centering moment for a player, a reset that is always there, accessible.

Routine, Routine, Routine

Experiment with a routine that’s right for you and stick with it.

Keeping this routine simple is recommended. Including a breath in this routine is highly recommended.

An example of a recommended routine would be a deep breath, a look at the rim, followed by two dribbles before a shooting.

This routine will provide a safe haven during the chaos of a game. No matter the situation, big or small, your routine remains a fixed guidepost to focus on.

To counteract distractions or pressure to enter your quiet mind, a mantra or slogan you have can also be helpful. “Up and in,” is one of my favorites.

Be Confident

You should expect every shot to go in.

If you do miss, believe the next one is going to go in. A common pitfall of free throw shooting is poor confidence. Players start to get in their own head about the shot, greatly decreasing their odds of shooting a high percentage. If you have put in the work to practice and stick to your routine, you deserve to expect success.


Visualization is a simple way to prepare yourself for making free throws.

See yourself as you step to the line. Picture a rim, fifteen feet away. Feel the leather or rubber, smell it, too, if you can. Put fans in the stands and a score on the scoreboard. As many senses as you can include, the richer and more vivid it will feel to your brain. Remember step one and keep breathing, that anchor that will be there for you in the games, too.

Visualize yourself making free throws in every situation, when you are laying in bed at night or in the locker room before the game. Rehearsing future performance will help you feel ready to stay focused when you face the real moments ahead.

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First, I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I “see” the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there’s sort of a fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality. Only at the end of this short, private, Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball.”

— Jack Nicklaus