Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Improvement in any sport depends on physiology, technology, coaching, and equipment

Today's NY Times asks how it's possible that, when it comes to free throw shooting, basketball players today have about as much success as the players of 40 years ago.

We run faster, jump higher, have better shoes and uniforms, train harder (and smarter), eat better, yet in four decades, we've still not improved as FT shooters.

The general expectation in sports is that performance improves over time. Future athletes will surely be faster, throw farther, jump higher. But free-throw shooting represents a stubbornly peculiar athletic endeavor. As a group, players have not gotten better. Nor have they become worse.

According to Southern Utah coach Roger Reid (pictured above), "A lot of coaches give it lip service, but when you say that games are won and lost at the free-throw line, you better back it up." Coach Reid contends that "individual players and teams can improve free-throw shooting through better technique and repetition."

One reason why more teams/players don't work on FT shooting is that "there is little correlation between free-throw percentages and winning percentages. Only one of the 25 best shooting teams, No. 2 North Carolina, is also in the latest Associated Press top 25 rankings."

That is why, despite accounting for more than 20 percent of scoring in men’s college basketball and just below 20 percent in the N.B.A., free throws receive a fraction of the attention from coaches, players and fans. That is, until something considered free proves costly. [Like when Memphis missed "4 of 5 free throws in the final 72 seconds against Kansas, which had made a late 3-point shot to tie the game and won in overtime."]

One professor who's studied sports statistics extensively has found that "widespread improvement over time in any sport... depends on a combination of four factors: physiology, technology or innovation, coaching, and equipment."

Those factors can help explain why swimming records seemingly fall at every international event, runners broke through the four-minute-mile barrier, field-goal kickers are more accurate than ever, bowling a 300 game is not as unlikely as it once was, and home run numbers surged in major league baseball.

As the professor puts it, "There are not a lot of those four things that would help in free-throw shooting," except for coaching.

Coaches admit to baselines of acceptability for their players and teams. The average, apparently, is about 75 percent in the N.B.A. and 69 percent in college basketball. When numbers slip, time is devoted to improvement. When they rebound, the game’s other facets take precedence.

D-League guard Blake Ahearn, the best FT shooter in NCAA history (95%) says that rather than devoting time to free-throw shooting in practice, coaches "want to work on defenses and offenses and schemes."
But as the NY Times article concludes, "even practice has never made perfect."

The general rule is that players, in games, shoot 10 percentage points below their practice average. The difference is pressure and fatigue, hard to replicate in an empty arena.