I hate missing free throws. This is a personal statement. But equally, I hate watching a free throw being missed. And what bothers me most, is the endless questions from fans “don’t you guys ever practice free throws?” Of course we do. Everybody does. But, there is no magic number of practice free throws that equals 100% success 100% of the time in games. What the fans, and coaches as well as players fail to see so often is that while it looks like a physical act, shooting free throws is very much a psychological act as well. In sport psychology, what we want to do is to improve physical performance through how we approach the game from a mental standpoint. And shooting free throws is a classic example.

In order to understand sport psychology, it is important to see the big picture. Too often, I think we concentrate too much on one thing such as imagery. That is, imagining ourselves physically shooting the ball and watching the ball go through the net. So we make the mistake of employing only one strategy to help us succeed (often, not realizing there are multiple strategies) and when it doesn’t work, abandon all future attempts at utilizing sport psychology at all. In this article then, I would like to throw out just a few basic terms in sport psychology to get us thinking about the fact that there are multiple psychological strategies to help us.

Focus: We are all told to focus better in sports but what does that really mean. In non-technical terms, I think it means to simply get rid of distractions. We have a tendency to think that focusing means to concentrate really hard on what we are doing. This concentrating really hard however, typically leads to a process of self-evaluation that pulls our focus away from the activity we are doing and thus becomes a distraction. So to focus, really means, to empty our minds of all distractions. This includes external distractions like the crowd yelling, our coach yelling, and internal distractions such as anxiety and fear. It is actually the same thing we are to do in prayer- get rid of distractions.

The Zone: We all know that we are supposed to get into the “zone” when we play but how is this any different than focus? If you look up the definition, it really means, like focus, to get rid of distractions like fear, and anxiety but it also means to be in a state of utmost confidence in your abilities. It means to know and feel that you are in control and can impose your will on the situation and your opponent effortlessly. Being in “the zone” however also means that you are not involved in self-evaluation. You don’t think about what your look like or how you feel or if you made a mistake or not, you just simply act.

Motivation: There are two main types of motivation. Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Extrinsic (external) motivation is rooted in reward and punishment. We are motivated by the consequence of playing well or of playing poorly. In general, reward and punishment don’t go very far towards motivating us to perform better. A coach or AD who yells or praises us for our action is less likely to keep us motivated for very long compared to having intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic (internal) motivation on the other hand is far superior in getting results. There are really two types of intrinsic motivation. There is Motivation to Achieve Success (MAS) and Motivation to Avoid Failure (MAF).

MAS: Motivation to Achieve Success is really the ultimate type of motivation. It means that we are motivated, internally for our own reasons to be successful. It is not the reward or punishment that satisfies us but the feeling of satisfaction that we achieve by winning or performing well in any situation. Players who are motivated in this way get great pleasure with performing well in difficult situations. MAS players like winning on the road in a difficult environment against the best team and best players. It is the challenge that motivates them, not the bragging rights, not the trophy, not the pride. It is ultimately the ability to beat the challenge.

MAF: Motivation to Avoid Failure is probably the worst type of motivation an athlete can have. This type of motivation does not rise to a challenge. It thrives on performing well when you have the advantage. Motivation to avoid failure type athletes want to play the worst team in the league at home when the opponent’s best players are hurt or sick and can’t play. These players can’t tolerate a loss and the negative feelings they get from it.

Anxiety: This is not the clinical anxiety that people get when they have phobias or panic attacks. It is more of the non-pathological anxiety one has in general. There are two types of anxiety. StateAnxiety, where you become somewhat fearful in a situation and apprehensive leading to trying not to make a mistake. This is like playing to not lose a game vs playing to win a game. The anxiety in this situation can actually lead to muscle tension and elevated heart rates that can lead to poor performance. Thus when we “choke” at the free throw line, it may be that in a tight game situation that our muscles tense up and so our form is altered. It has nothing to do with how much one practices in a relaxed situation. The other is called Trait Anxiety and has more to do with the personality trait of the athlete. That is, how an athlete perceives a situation to be stressful. We all may have a stress level that we can handle, and one that we can’t. That level is defined more by our personality trait and our past experiences with stress. Some athletes have a low threshold for anxiety while others have a very high threshold. The good news is that even though you may not like the threshold you have, I believe you can develop a tolerance for a certain anxiety level and raise your threshold.

Activation: This is sometimes referred to as arousal and is the degree of intensity that an athlete approaches athletic competitions with. Mostly, this is how much “energy” one brings to a practice or a game. In general, the more energy you bring the better but this is not always true. There are times when someone can have too high of levels of activation such as shooting free throws in a tight situation. During those times, one generally needs less activation and more focus. So activation levels should change in a game depending on the situation. Playing defense is an example of when someone needs a high level of activation. In general, simple skills require more activation and complex skills require less activation. As with anxiety, activation levels can be changed. Knowing when to bring energy to a situation and knowing when to bring focus and relaxation are big issues.

In Summary, successful basketball players learn how to: manage their State Anxiety, change their Trait Anxiety, become intrinsically motivated to achieve success (MAS) and, learn how and when to change their levels of focus and activation (energy levels). In changing our mental approach, we can have a lot more success in playing, managing, coaching and administrating!


  1. Let me be honest, am I motivated to achieve success or motivated to avoid failure?
  2. What truly does motivate me?