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Free throws are all about the battle of the mind

NATCHEZ — Everyone has their eyes on her, and opposing fans are screaming and making all kinds of noise.

As she dribbles in preparation for the shot, opposing cheerleaders are offering their two cents. “Miss it… Miss it!” A million thoughts flood her head. What if the game comes down to this? How can I drown out the commotion surrounding me?

When Natchez High School guard Keyana Miller steps up to the free throw line, there’s more going on than just shooting the ball. It’s a game of wits with herself and a contest of concentration as she attempts to focus solely on sinking the ball into the basket.

“I like to shoot free throws when the game is a blowout, because it’s easier to concentrate,” Miller admitted. “You don’t have to worry about it if the game’s a blowout.”

Why are they so tough?

It seems like the easiest task basketball can offer — make a free basket, with no one physically obstructing your shot. But it’s often easier said than done, thanks to the multitude of distractions that come with free throws.

“You can’t cover your ears,” Miller said. “The only thing you can do is concentrate and get used to it. I’ve been playing basketball since I was 6, so I’ve gotten used to it.”

Instead of fighting off a defender on the court, a free throw shooter is forced to fight off a defender that’s guarding him or her in their mind. Mentally, it’s tough to concentrate when you’re left to wonder whether the game will come down to those shots.

“Make these last two and we win the game,” Miller described the thoughts that go through her head. “Concentrate. If you miss, you blew the game.”

That may seem like too much is being made about one or two missed free throws, but NHS girls head coach Alphaka Moore said they can begin to add up after a while.

“You’re nervous, and all the focus is on you,” Moore said. “Free throws make a difference in the game. Every free throw counts — that’s why you’re so nervous.”

Miller also said she realizes just how much can potentially ride on that shot, which she’s reminded of every time she steps up to the line.

“When you miss back-to-back and you lose by one or two, you realize that if you made those two, we’d have won the game,” Miller said.

Vidalia High School’s Terrell Virgis said the crowd noise plays a big factor in a player’s concentration. Even the opposing players will try to disrupt a player’s rhythm on the line.

“The crowd is trying to keep you from being focused and playing your game,” Virgis said. “Sometimes the players will say little things or make little noises to get you off your game.”

Teammate Julius Wilson IV said a lot goes through his mind at once as he gets ready to take a foul shot.

“When I’m at the free throw line, I have a lot on my mind when I shouldn’t, like my mom, dad, the cheerleaders and everyone in the stands,” Wilson said. “But if I block it out, I’m actually pretty good at making them.”

How coaches approach free throw shooting

Fire lights up her eyes whenever Adams County Christian School girls head coach Melanie Hall talks about free throws, and Hall said there’s no excuse for not being a consistent free throw shooter.

“You’d better be able to sink it in the fourth quarter when the game’s tight,” Hall said. “If you can’t make free throws, you’re in a whole lot of trouble.

“I feel like there’s no excuse for someone to not be able to step up to the line and put the ball in the hole. It’s fundamental. If you can play defense, make layups, get free throws and boards, you’ll compete every night.”

But with so many players having trouble consistently sinking the free bucket, Hall said she’s not sure what the answer is to overcome those troubles, even though she realizes it’s all a mental battle.

“When I figure that out, I’ll be a gazillionaire,” Hall said.

That’s not to say coaches don’t try to improve their players’ free throw shooting. Trinity boys head coach Edwin White said after a recent game in which his team shot less than 30 percent from the line, he made sure his players practiced foul shots.

“We’ve been shooting 100 to 300 a day ever since,” White said. “The extra time and effort has paid dividends. I know I’ll continue doing that for the rest of the season. (Free throws) can make or break you. It’s a situation you can’t take lightly.”

Like many coaches, Hall said she uses free throw drills that involve teammates having to run every time a player misses a free throw during practice. Running drills also serve to better prepare her players for late-game foul shots, she said.

“You try to simulate a game-time atmosphere,” Hall said. “It comes back to being in condition and having your legs so you can make your free throws.”

Wilkinson County Christian Academy head coach David Wright said he prefers to have his players practice free throws at the end of practice so they can get used to shooting them after they’re tired.

“Everyone says free throw shooting is mental, and that’s what you’re going to see at the end of the game when kids are worn out,” Wright said.

White also said he tries to create a game-like atmosphere whenever his team practices free throw shooting.

“You may yell at them or put them in pressure situations,” White said. “If you work on it in practice, nine times out of 10, you’ll do better. Every school will have a different environment. You just have to go with the flow.”

How to shoot free throws

Hall said proper mechanics are very important, and having your feet and shoulders square and your arms extended with the wrist popping during the shot are the way she teaches them.

“Follow through, nothing but net,” Hall said.

Others, like White, prefer instead to let players develop their own free throw mechanics.

“To me, there’s no one form or way to shoot them,” White said. “My thing is, find a comfortable stance, and then perfect that shot.”

There’s more to free throw shooting than just having the right mechanics. Players will also go through certain pre-shot rituals, such as dribbling the ball a certain number of times before the shot.

“I square my feet and dribble three times at the most,” Wilson said. “It really does help a lot (with concentration).”

The repetitiveness goes a long way in maintaining consistent form, Virgis said.

“I try to keep good rotation on the ball and do the same thing exactly every time I’m on the line,” Virgis said. “I try to keep my eyes above the rim and stay focused on what I’m trying to do on the line.”

Miller said every free throw shooter has a ritual, and hers involves rolling the ball once, dribbling three times, rolling it again and dribbling it twice before shooting.

“It helps mentally,” Miller said. “Your concentration will get thrown off if you don’t do it, so you have to find a ritual.”

During her playing days in high school, Moore said she would sing a song or recite a poem to herself in order help her drown out the distractions. Before long, that became a ritual itself.

“It was just something that calmed my nerves,” Moore said. “If you do something different every time, it’s not consistent, and you have to get your consistency up.”

Miller said she and her teammates often sing songs from the TV show “Barney” when they practice free throw shooting. Although they’ve been doing it in practice since middle school, Miller said they don’t take that ritual into games.

“I’m not sure why (we haven’t). Maybe we need to start and we’ll start making more,” Miller joked.