Free State High boys basketball coach Chuck Law will be the first to admit that free-throw shooting has become a lost art.
"When kids walk into the gym," Law said, "the first thing they definitely do not do is step to the foul line and start shooting 15-foot jumpers. The three-point line has become the shot that everyone wants to make."
That's all well and good, Law says, but the outcome of a close game usually isn't decided from 19 feet, 9 inches away. Invariably, four or five games a season come down to hitting foul shots, so getting players to buy into that shot's importance is made even more critical, according to Law.
How, then, do coaches prepare their teams for those pressure-packed situations at the end of a game, when all that stands between victory and defeat is a 15-foot set shot with nobody near the shooter?
Focus too little on free throws in practice and players won't be adequately prepared. Over-concentrate on them, and players might start thinking too much.
"It's all mental," Lawrence High girls basketball coach Kristin Mallory said. "You've got to find that happy medium."
Tricks of the trade
According to Free State girls basketball coach Bryan Duncan, it all begins with teaching the fundamentals, which includes proper shooting technique, how to set a player's feet and when to release the ball.
"You can shoot 100 (free throws) a day," Duncan said, "and if you have poor fundamentals, that doesn't mean you're going to get any better at it."
Duncan said the other aspect of improving percentages was building confidence so athletes would execute at crunch time.
The Firebird girls do that by drilling with a series of competitive situations in which failure to meet certain goals requires extra running. As a team, the Firebirds must make at least 74 percent of their free throws in practice to avoid penalty.
Other tricks include having to make both ends of a one-and-one foul shot or shooting with a few seconds left on a simulated game clock.
For Duncan, though, he makes a point not to emphasize free-throw shooting any more than he does other portions of his practices.
"Sometimes, if you do that it can become a head game," he said. "We don't discuss percentages (in games) because I don't know that it does a whole lot of good."
Law shares those beliefs.
"We actually try as little as possible to make it any bigger deal than it is," Law said.
Among the gimmicks he uses is free-throw golf, a game in which players shoot three foul shots and rotate. Like Free State's girls, the boys have to make about 75 percent to avoid running. Sometimes, Law has players rotate every two free throws until the team makes 10 in a row before the drill ends.
Law said he has tried ingraining in his players that there is more to successful free-throw shooting than simply stepping to the line with the game hanging in the balance on a Friday night.
But, Law added: "Quite frankly, we don't do anything special."
At Lawrence High, Mallory's girls team works on free-throw shooting for a six-minute block of practice each day. As a team, LHS must shoot 70 percent in practice, but unlike other coaches, Mallory starts the drill by subtracting for misses that occurred in the previous games. Her players also run before they ever step to the foul line in order to get comfortable shooting while fatigued.
"More than anything, we just try to get the kids to do them either under pressure or have to run if they miss so that they take them seriously," she said.
The boys team, on the other hand, hardly focuses on the actual free-throw attempt at all.
"We don't spend a whole bunch of time on it," LHS boys coach Chris Davis said. "We do some drills where we shoot rapid-fire 15-footers, and that to me is the best. It's just repetition of that particular shot. We try and make the kids comfortable with the 15-foot shot in general, and usually that pays off at the free-throw line."
Perhaps Davis is on to something. His Lions currently are shooting nearly 71 percent from the line, tops among area teams.
The college game
Some teams may limit free throws to a small portion of practice, but that's not the case at Idaho State University, where the Bengals' women's team perennially is among the top 10 in the nation in free-throw shooting percentage.
Sixth-year head coach John Newlee takes full advantage of the extra time his players get in the gym as college athletes. This season, ISU leads all of Division I with a free-throw percentage of 82.5. In season or out, Newlee's players are required to come into the gym to make a certain number of free throws during the week, and he spends 15 minutes on the lost art during practices.
Like most coaches, Newlee uses additional running as a means for motivation.
"There's nothing like peer pressure to make you concentrate," he said. "If you miss and everyone's running for it, it makes people focus a little better."
He said the difference between free-throw shooting in high school and college was vast.
"I think in high school, they're just glad when they go in," Newlee said. "A lot of high school games, I see people just kind of toss them up there. It's amazing some of the stuff I see at the high school level. In college, everyone understands the importance of shooting."
For the Kansas University women's team, coach Bonnie Henrickson emphasizes the importance free throws. She said high school coaches had even called her in the past seeking the cure for poor free-throw shooting percentages.
Like Law, Henrickson said getting players to toe the foul line more often outside of games must become a force of habit.
"Unless somebody's making them go in the gym in their off hours and shoot free throws, they're out shooting threes, or crossover dribbling," she said.
Henrickson employs a series of drills to hone in on improving foul shooting.
Among the exercises she uses: Players come in and make 100 free throws when not in practice, and they must make a one-and-one before getting a drink in practice. Sometimes, Henrickson uses a running clock to add an element of pressure. Players must make four free throws in a row while competing with a partner until 90 seconds run out.
"My responsibility is to get us reps, to make us shoot under pressure and with fatigue," Henrickson said.
The responsibility to make those same shots in games falls solely on the players.
A common thread
Every coach's thought process on free throws is different. Duncan said the theory that the decline in foul shooting is a result of the three-point shot was overrated, while Law and Newlee said otherwise. But when it comes to preparing players to succeed at the charity stripe, coaches can agree on one thing: The best way to breed success at the free-throw line is to be certain that players shoot enough pressure free throws in practice while learning proper mechanics that it becomes second-nature during games.
"Of course," Newlee added, "it helps to have good shooters."