Before any Basketball game, every player gets nervous about missing that one free-throw that results in their whole team going down. In fact, losing games and missing shots are the most common thoughts racing through players’ minds.

What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” – Napoleon Hill

Hence, over the past few decades, sports psychologists and coaches have emphasized on ‘Mental Training’ along with their Physical training, which encompass techniques such as Positive self-talk, Goal-setting and Imagery etc.

Visualization, also known as imagery or mental rehearsal is the most common technique athletes’ use worldwide to achieve their goals and it simply means putting up a mental image in your head that you want to see happen in your next performance. For example, imagine yourself perfecting the act of your free-throw and imagining the ball swish through the net at every attempt.

In this blog, the power of imagery and visualization is discussed for the purpose of helping players enhance free-throw performance in Basketball.

“I can see a free throw vividly in my mind if I so choose. Countless mental reps help a lot,” Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic, NBA),

Sport psychologist & mental skills coach Graham Betchart started working with Gordon when he was 13 years and focused on his mindset training. In high school, Gordon’s free-throw percentage was only 30%, that has now significantly increased to 70%. Besides physical training, what else can we attribute his success rate to? Clearly it was – ‘Mindset training’.

During the Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto, 2017, Gordon was known to have his biggest moment in Basketball to date.

“His success was all made possible by the mental strength tools he’s worked on for years with Betchart”. John Denton,

“I was visualizing each dunk over and over so that by the time I got to the contest I had already finished those dunks in my mind multiple times,” said Gordon, who finished runner-up to defending champion Zach LaVine.

So does it come to you as a surprise that numerous sportspersons from Muhammad Ali and Michael Phelps to Wayne Rooney and Novak Djokovic, all deploy this technique to achieve success in their games?

Let us look at the importance of a free-throw in a basketball game-

The difference between winning and losing in sport to be decided by minute details is becoming more and more common.

If you are even slightly familiar with Basketball, you would agree that the game requires mastery of several distinct skills such as abilities to pass, dribble, block shots, rebound and score points through lay-ups, jump-shots and free-throw shots. Amongst all these, Free-throws are particularly important, as they not only offer a chance of scoring a basket without an opposition player intercepting the ball, but also because the free-throw action is known in advance and hence, can be rehearsed till perfected. I remember my school basketball coach once saying to me, “Collect the maximum points as you can through free-throws. They’re free.”

Need more information to be convinced about the importance of free-throw shooting?

Well, Sampaio and Janiera (2003) found while studying three different professional leagues, including the NBA that free-throws made up 19-25% of the points in a game with teams shooting 70-75% from the foul line. Pim (1986) studied 316 Division I basketball games and found that 71.53% of the time the winning team shot the most free-throws.

Of course shooting a proper free throw begins strong fundamentals. All basketball players comprehend the true fundamental of shooting a free throw by the collegiate and professional level, as they have practiced and converted thousands of shots from this free throw line. However, as players lose their mental focus, problems arise. Sport psychology in Basketball claims maintaining a positive mental outlook and focus is as vital as physical training for successful preparation.

It is an age old adage that ‘practice makes a man perfect.’ Consistency through pre-game visualization routines helps the body relax and perform better and is therefore, important to have the same pre-game routines. The first step to gaining mental toughness is understanding the power the mind plays in the success of any athlete. Top class performance seems to have a direct correlation with mental exercises.

Why do many top players’ struggle to convert free-throws when they actually provide rare opportunities where players can score points without any defensive pressure?

Even though the name suggests, free-throws only seem free. Standing on the free-throw line, can be quite a lonely place and fans usually underestimate how nerve-wrecking free throws can be for NBA players.

“Imagine standing in front of 20,000 people that either really want you to be successful, or really want you to fail”, Dave Love (Shooting coach for Orlando Magic),

Players are taught free-throw routines that may involve visualization to help block out distractions, which can then be replicated before attempting every free shot.

So what is mental imagery and visualization in Sports?

Visualization and imagery are not abstract concepts but quantifiable and well documents in Sports Psychology. Driskell, Copper, & Moran (1994) have defined mental imagery as the “cognitive rehearsal of a task in the absence of overt physical movement”. In simpler words, everything that we visualize is a form of mental imagery.

According to Kanthack, Bigliassi, Vieira, & Altimari (2014) motor imagery has been studied as a catalyst to improve free-throw performance. To put it simply, motor imagery is using your imagination to create a mental picture and does not involve moving any of your body parts. You mentally visualize the completion of the task in a manner that you would like to perform it actually.

Imagery can be:

  • Internal- Imagining the execution of a skill from your view point
  • External- Viewing yourself from the point of view of a third person

But how is it that mental imagery can be used to improve free-shooting performance?

The Psychoneuromuscular Theory (Carpenter, 1894; Jacobson, 1931) is one such popular theory for answering this question. According to this theory, when a performer practices using imagery, the brain interprets imagining the movements vividly without actually performing them. This provides similar impulses in the brain and in the muscles. Minimal firings from the brain are recorded on a mental blueprint, making it easier to perform that movement in the future.

Free-throws are known as closed skills– which are performed in environments that are predictable and allow performers to plan their movements in advance. Therefore, pre-performance imagery may be an effective mental rehearsal activity for improving free throw accuracy.

To determine whether imagery training sessions can improve free throw performance amongst young children and high school players, several studies since the 1990’s have been undertaken.

The Landmark Basketball Study:

In 1996, University of Chicago conducted one of the pioneering tests of mental imagery.

Researcher Dr. Blaslotto segregated his sample participants into 3 groups, and tested them on how many free-throws they could convert.

After this initial measure…

  • The first group physically practiced for an hour each day.
    • The second group practiced visual imagery.
    • The third group did neither.

After 30 days, Dr. Blaslotto noted the improvement scores as:

  • 24% for the first group
  • 23% improvement- which is very close to the first group
  • No improvement

This study was an important milestone in demonstrating that a combination of physical practice and mental imagery could help achieve outperformance.

Later, Plessinger (2005) in his study stated that if teachers, coaches and athletes were looking for an additional advantage for enhancing free-throws, a combination of mental imagery and physical practice could be beneficial.

Post et al. (2010) through their study concluded that pre-game imagery exercise had a positive impact on free-throw shooting accuracy amongst a high school girls’ basketball team.

Kanthack et al. (2014) found a significant beneficial short term effect on the first two out of ten free-throws after watching a one minute video and engaging in a three-minute motor imagery session among young players with a mean age of 17.6 years.



Why do NBA stars like Aaron Gordon, Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry, use visualization before competition? And could it help you too?


“Visualization is an important tool for me”

Phil Jackson, 

One of the Most Successful Coaches in NBA History,

The sports psychology techniques deployed by Phil Jackson while he was a coach is a landmark of sorts in terms of developing the mindset of his players along with practicing physical play. He considered visualization and relaxation an important exercise in pregame routine

Interestingly, during the 2001 NBA Finals, Phil Jackson made Lakers guard Tyronn Lue wear a sleeve while he practiced because he wanted Tyronn to get used to guarding against Philadelphia’s guard Allen Iverson, who always wore a sleeve during games. Any guesses for who won the championship?

It turned out to be the Lakers…

Stephen Curry,                                                                                                                                                      Ranks third on the NBA’s all-time free-throw percentage list

Curry’s high school coach was Shonn Brown, who introduced him to the technique of visualization before the game. Curry would routinely sit on a bench and make a mental imagery of the game to watch what the game would look like.

Curry continued this practice and further enhanced his visualization skills during his career at Davidson College. He was convinced about its significance as he heard about it again in the pros. Shortly after being drafted by the Warriors, then-assistant coach Keith Smart told Curry to take a minute before every game and watch it pan out in his mind.

Sasha Vujacic,                                                                                                                                                Shooting guard, New York Knicks

The show Sport’s Science demonstrated what goes on in a Superstar’s head by bringing in Sasha Vujacic and tested him in free-throw performance while he was blind-folded.

Considering Sasha’s exceptional free-throw shooting skills, he shot a perfect 10-for-10 on his first three sets, after which he was blind-folded. Sasha’s mind had structured itself to be able to visualize the basket with photographic memory according to the experts at Sport’s Science. With the use of muscle memory and visualization, he shot an amazing 8-for-10 blindfolded.


How Can You Use Visualization For Successful Free-Throw Performance?

  1. Visualize the outcome you desire:  Make sure you see the shot as you want it to occur while you mentally rehearse your performance in your head. In case of negative mental images, stop the mental tape, rewind, and restart.
  2. Use all your senses from a first-person perspective: Visualize your free-throws in detail. What would you see, hear, feel, smell and taste? Combine some physical movements that coincide with the visualized images. Feel what sensations your body would experience as you go through the motions of your free-throw.
  3. Practice frequently: With repetition and practice, mental rehearsal is a skill that develops over time as athletes become better with it.
  4. You could also consult with a Sports Psychologist or a Mental Games Coach about incorporating this vital skill into your training.

Some Tips For Getting Started:

  1. Practice makes permanent: Just like any other skill, visualization is a skill that needs rehearsal. Even though visualization can never replace physical practice, it can be effectively used to supplement. Give yourself 10 minutes at least once per week throughout the season to work on visualization exercises.
  2. Vivid is better: It is important to make your visualization as realistic and vivid as possible. Try re-creating important details of your free-throw setting (for example, practice and tournament atmospheres) in your mind’s image.
  3. Focus on quality… not quantity: Visualization being a mental skill, needs concentration on creating and controlling images. This may be tiring and difficult when you initially get started. Therefore, to begin your imagery training, it is best to visualize high quality images for shorts periods of time. Gradually, increase the time you spend imagining these images.
  4. Plan your visualization: Images of your free-throws can often keep jumping in your head. But in order to really take advantage of visualization, planning the content of your visualization is highly crucial. Two of the most common examples are:
    1. If you feel that you let distractions get in the way too often, try imagining yourself staying relaxed and focused when you feel the presence of those distractions.
    2. If you feel you have a trouble with handling pressure in competition, try to imagine yourself perform exactly the way you want to under those pressure situations that would normally make you extremely nervous.

Try these visualization techniques and watch your free-throw performance improve!