The Greatest, Most Realistic, Pressure Free Throw Shooting Drill

(Obviously, the drill can be used for males or females. The pronoun he will be used throughout for brevity.)
*Suggestion: Coaches and players will easily understand this drill after they’ve done it a few times. However, because the explanation is wordy, it would probably be best for an assistant coach to read and administer it at the beginning.

There are a multitude of ways this drill can be done. Let’s use, for this example, a team of 12 players, split into two groups, with six players at one basket and the other six at the basket at the opposite end. One player is at each FT line, the others are placed around the lane as in a game.

For the purpose of explaining the drill, let’s say the goal is 10, i.e. whichever group that gets to +10 is the winner (any number can be used, usually depending on how much time a coach has to allot for the drill). Regarding that point: no one has limitless practice time, so it may be necessary to put a time limit on the game, e.g. get to +10 in 8 minutes or, say, they run. As your players understand and compete at this drill, you’ll usually find the number can be raised. At the colleges where I implemented it, we’d usually use +15 and, occasionally, if we were on break or even at a weekend practice, we’d use +25 as our goal. Read on and you’ll see how this can tell you, the coach, which guys to have on the court at the end of a close game (when you have a small lead) and which guys to make sure are sitting next to you.

Here’s the drill: Each player must shoot two free throws (not one-and-one). The score is kept for the group, not the individual. Each made FT is +1. Each missed FT is -1.

(Note: if a team gets to -3, they automatically have to run – maybe a “down and back” or “wall touch” or whatever the coach wants. It should be short and explosive, however, like in a game where the players are running hard and someone gets fouled. That’s why push ups as a penalty in this game are foolish because when does your team ever do push ups in the middle of a game and then have to shoot FT’s?)

After the first player shoots, his group’s score will be +2 (if he makes both); 0 (if one is made, the other missed); or -2 (if both are missed). By the way, the reason the group doesn’t run until -3 is so that one bad FT shooter can’t cause his entire team to run. Plus, after the group gets to -2, it puts the pressure on the next shooter because if that first shot is a miss, their score goes to -3 and everybody in the group runs.

After the first player shoots his two free throws, the players move around the lane (clockwise or counter clockwise doesn’t matter – as long as every player shoots two). This rotation continues until the group gets to the goal, loses to the other team(s) or time runs out.

Next shooter is up. Let’s imagine the first guy made both, so the group’s score, when the second player gets to the line, is +2. Let’s say shooter #2 also makes both. Now the team score is +4.

HERE IS WHERE THE GAME CHANGES.

The third shooter is up. Each make is still +1. HOWEVER, each miss (once they get to +4) is -2. So, if the third shooter makes his first FT, the score is +5. However, if that first FT is missed, the score goes down to +2). For the second FT, a make is +1 (makes are always +1). A miss is -1 since the group score is now down to +2. An initial miss followed by a make would change the score go from +4 to +2 (on the first miss), then to +3 (when the second FT is made).

The game continues like this: every make is always +1. The price of the misses are as follows: -1 if the team score is +3 or less; -2 if the team score is +4, +5 or +6; -3 if the team score is +7 or +8 and, here’s the ultimate beauty of the game, when the team score gets to +9, each miss is . . . -9.
Why so severe? Because it’s like getting fouled with no time left and score’s tied. What’s the situation? Simple. Make the free throw and your team wins (i.e. +10), but miss it, and you go to overtime (i.e. the score goes back to 0).

Benefits of the drill:

Once a player understands the proper mechanics of shooting, his improvement comes with 1) confidence, 2) practice and 3) concentration. He gets confidence through practice. The coach provides the concentration, e.g. punishments, rewards. With this drill concentration is guaranteed. On every FT, each player is shooting for the team. Just like a game.

You, as a coach, never know who is going to be on the line for the big FT. It teaches coaches who can be counted on to make the pressure FT. When I was at Toledo, we had a 6’7″ forward who was academic all-conference and one of the smartest, nicest, most competitive kids I’ve ever been around – and a 75% FT shooter. Yet, during this free throw shooting game (we used to play it to +15) this kid NEVER made a free throw when he was on the line at +14. At first, we kidded about it. Finally, we realized we just couldn’t have this kid in at the end of a close game.

“The FT missed in the first two minutes cost us just as much as the miss at the end” might be true, but the pressure is different, causing that miss to seem like it costs more. As a game goes on, FT’s seem more and more valuable – just like in this game. As your team gets closer to the goal, the misses tend to carry more weight (and tend to devastate a team more). This game doesn’t let that happen. You must get to the goal or else the game goes on forever. Since each make is only +1, the only way to reach the goal is one make at a time.

Yet, there’s no need to hurry. If time is running out, tell them that each group will be allowed to “run it out,” just like sudden death – next miss loses. No matter where the team is, i.e. between -2 and +9, they can win only if they get to the goal without missing. Same rule if one group wins. The other group (or groups, depending on how the coach wants to split up the team) gets to “run it out.” This means that if one group gets to +10, the other(s) continue to shoot, two shots per player. If they reach to the goal without missing, they’re considered to have “won” as well.

The reason there is no need to hurry is that the only way you can be stopped (after time is out or one of the other groups beat you there), is to miss! Also, if one group is a lot closer to the goal than the other, a couple misses by the team that’s ahead and/or a couple makes by the one that’s behind, and the whole complexion of the game changes.

Dealing with adversity: When you’re on the line and your group is at +8, if you miss, the score goes to +5. How many times has the first miss affected the second one, so that one is missed as well? In this game, if you get to the line and your team’s score is +8, you’re shooting two. If you miss the first, the score goes to +5. If you make the second, it goes to +6. So, you got there with the team at +8 and when you left, it was at +6 – not good, but not devastating. If you miss the second, though, it goes to +3. So when you got there, the team was at +8 and when you left, it was +3. That is really hurting your team. Moral of the story: Don’t let the first miss affect the second. Each FT is separate unto itself, i.e. whether the first one goes in or not, it has ZERO effect on what the next one will do. Similarly, how many times does bad FT shooting become contagious? One kid misses and the others say, “Wow, he’s our best shooter. How can anybody expect lil’ ol’ me to make one if the star can’t?” If you get to the line after your stud just bricked two (with the team score at, say, +6), it means when he got there it was +6, but when he left it was +2 (-2 at +6 bringing the score to +4, then -2 at +4 bringing it to +2). What are you going to do? Miss both and send your team to zero? After you’ve been so close (if he and you had made both, the game would be over!) OR make yours and put your team at +4 and back in the game.

Groups must yell out their score after each shot and, only when a group gets to +9 (or whatever is “game point”), is trash talking allowed (just like when the player’s taking that big FT on the road – with the game on the line and the home fans not wanting their team to lose).

If you have more time, e.g. a weekend practice, try the game with a goal of +25. The rules are +1 for a make, -1 for a miss if the score’s +5 or under, -2 for a miss when the score’s between +6 and +10, -3 when it’s between +11 and +15, -4 when it’s between +16 and +20, -5 when it’s +21, +22 or +23 and . . . -24 when it’s +24! If you have a kid with the courage to knock down a FT at +24, knowing it’s “make it and end practice or miss and put you team back at 0”, that’s a kid you want in the end of a close game and a kid you want to make sure gets the ball.

Which brings up the main coaching point: There’s no quick fix, no “five point FT.” The only way to win is to … make one free throw at a time.”

Try it and let me know how it works for you (fertigjack@aol.com).

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Jack Fertig

Jack Fertig

30 year assistant in nine Division I programs | Grad asst: Vermont, Washington State, Oregon (4 yrs), Full-time asst: Robert Morris, Western Carolina, Tennessee (11 yrs) | Associate Head Coach: Toledo, USC (8 yrs), Director of Basketball Ops: Fresno State (7 yrs)