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The truth about Andre Drummond's free throw woes

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ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh has penned an in-depth article on big men who struggle with free throws, and it appears that Andre Drummond's struggles have nothing to do with practice.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

"Make your free throws."

"Practice!"

For some NBA players, this advice is completely worthless. ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh has penned a very in-depth and interesting article on the Hack-A-Whoever epidemic and subsequent bricking of free throws, specifically by NBA big men.

Haberstroh examines various explanations as to why players like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and the Detroit Pistons’ own Andre Drummond struggle so mightily at the line.

Since the Pistons just handed Drummond a max contract and have their title hopes pinned to his development and performance, fixing Dre’s FT problems is of the utmost importance to the organization and fans.

And in spite of all the evidence that Andre's problem has nothing to do with lack of practice, many fans and analysts continue to insist the NBA shouldn't change the rules regarding intentional fouls, and that he should simply "make his free throws."

If the NBA continues to dance around the issue and make only incremental changes to the hacking rule, he’s going to have to improve at the line. Otherwise, the Pistons' best player will be neutralized when it matters most.

Among the possible factors examined in Haberstroh’s piece:

  • Hand size
  • Practice
  • Release angle/height/velocity
  • Peak height
  • Approach velocity
  • Horizontal release position
  • Horizontal release angle
  • Mental/psychological
  • Peer pressure
  • Haberstroh includes a ton of data and statistics throughout the article, but he essentially concludes that the mental/psychological factors are of the greatest significance.

    In short, the problem is all in the mind.

    While I encourage you to read the article in its entirety, I’m going to use this space to comment from my perspective as a mental coach/sports psychologist and clinical hypnotherapist.

    I made a case for hiring yours truly to use hypnosis with Andre during the 2014-15 season, but I'll put the comment section conspiracy theories to rest and say that Stan Van Gundy hasn't hired me yet. If they're indeed using hypnosis with Dre, they've hired someone else.

    [Coincidentally, today I conducted a session with a WNBA player. That's all I can say without breaking confidentiality.]

    For those who don’t already know, I’ve been in practice since 2003 and have performed about ten thousand hypnosis sessions.  So I know a thing or two about anxiety, mainly because a part of my job is to reduce anxiety and eliminate irrational fears for my paying clients.

    I’ve been arguing for some time here on DBB that Dre’s problems are mental, and the evidence for that is pretty clear. If Stan Van Gundy is telling the truth (and all indications are that he’s one of the most honest and frank coaches in the NBA), we have to take his word for it that Drummond shoots roughly 30 percentage points higher in practice (65%) than he does during games (35%).

    This means that Andre is somewhat of an outlier.  While many professional athletes can "choke" or underperform in high-pressure situations, not many appear to struggle with the spotlight to that degree (although the article highlights a similar 30 percentage point practice/game gap for Dwight Howard).

    Look Good First, Win Second?

    What I found most revealing from the article was a series of quotes/anecdotes from DeAndre Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Howard and even Wilt Chamberlain. All of them expressed tremendous fear or concern about what other people think (WOPT).

    During my first hypnotherapy session (as a subject), while discussing my struggles and anxieties trying to fit in or communicate with others, my hypnotherapist wrote those letters on a piece of paper and told me I was "WOPT’ing."

    "Cool," I thought. "It’s not just me."

    I was living too much in my own head (a pretty negative place at the time), and the result was unnecessary stress, tension and anxiety. Those negative emotions restricted me during social and professional situations and made it difficult to do even the things I already knew how to do.

    One example for me was on stage. I was taking improv comedy (acting) classes at a popular theatre in Atlanta, and while I’d always been a naturally funny/witty guy, I struggled on the stage primarily due to an irrational fear of judgment and a focus on "what if I screw up?"

    Well, it appears that along with those other big men who struggle with their free throws, Andre Drummond shares that unhealthy fear of judgment.

    That’s from all the way back in 2013. But since the end of this past season, there have been murmurs that Andre would consider shooting underhanded. Now it appears there’s reason to think he might have reconsidered.

    The "you’ll find out" part is interesting, since it seems to indicate more than a refined mental approach. Time will tell.

    If what works is shooting underhanded, it would represent an important change in maturity for the big man; one that could elevate him above Jordan, Howard, Shaq and others too concerned with WOPT.

    According to Haberstroh’s article, Shaq once said to Rick Berry: " 'I'd rather shoot zero [percent] than shoot underhanded."

    On Wilt: "I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded," Chamberlain wrote in his autobiography. "I know I was wrong. I just couldn't do it."

    It would appear that the pressure to not only succeed but to look good doing it is off the charts in the NBA.

    I feel a need to address this issue because it’s such a hugely important one for nearly all of my clients, it was incredibly important for me personally, and it is equally or more important for professional athletes as well.

    Why do we care so much about what others think?

    If Andre knew that shooting underhand free throws would elevate his percentage, eliminate Hack-A-Dre and help the Pistons win more games, why on earth wouldn’t he just do it?

    Well, the answer is emotional, illogical, and quite possibly even evolutionary.

    Human Beings Are Emotional Creatures

    Ad execs no longer focus much on selling to people’s logical minds. Commercials are stupid and illogical, yet the most effective ones are either funny or memorable. Mean Joe Greene handing a kid a Coke says nothing about how Coke tastes or why it’s better than Pepsi; but it creates a positive emotion (and association) in the mind of the consumer.

    People do stupid and illogical things every day. They eat too much, drink too much, drive too fast, buy expensive clothes they don’t need, cheat on their partners, do drugs and engage in many other activities that have terrible consequences in their lives.

    Why is public speaking the #1 fear reported by Americans?

    Jerry Seinfeld: "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."

    The theory I've heard that makes some sense out of this is that rejection by your peer group, at various points throughout human history, could quite literally mean death. Imagine being banished from your city during the Middle Ages and left to the wolves.

    "To wander away from the city-state (the home) is to be exposed without the protection of government (laws), friends and family. In the ancient Greek world, this was seen as a fate worse than death." -Wikipedia

    "BUT WE'RE JUST TALKING ABOUT FREE THROWS!!"

    Yeah yeah, I know. But remember... your emotional subconscious mind doesn't give a damn about logic. It's reacting to thousands of years of evolution and programming. Some people are terrified of glass elevators, and no matter how much they tell themselves they're safe, they still feel the panic.

    The subconscious mind runs the show. Emotions influence decisions. People eat in excess because it makes them feel better for a while. They get drunk to forget about worries or problems.

    All of my clients know consciously that what they’re doing is stupid, harmful or wrong. But they keep doing it! (At least until they work with me.)

    And while you can create highly automated programs (both physical and mental) through practice and repetition, stress, pressure and anxiety can interrupt the program.

    This is how professional golfers with decades of experience can get "the yips" and miss a short putt at The Masters. No matter how much practice there's been or how programmed the muscle memory has become, these powerful negative emotions produce actual physical tension in the body that interrupts the program.

    If I had to guess, my experience tells me that when Andre Drummond steps up to the free throw line, he is so focused on the possibility on failure and the negative consequences that come along with failure, he actually physically feels as though he’s already failed.

    The mere thought of failure can render all that practice meaningless in the moment and result in an embarrassing brick or even worse, an airball.

    Yet, at least until now, the thought of being teased or ridiculed for shooting "granny style" free throws may have produced such a negative emotional response that he (possibly) refused to even attempt the strategy.

    The power of peer pressure is tremendous. DeAndre Jordan is an even better example of this phenomenon.  After agreeing to sign a max contract with the Dallas Mavericks last summer, his Clipper teammates famously held him "hostage" in his own home and hypnotized talked him into changing his mind.

    In short, Jordan was peer pressured into reversing his decision, and his mind was perceived as being so weak by his teammates that they prevented him from having any contact with the outside world out of fear that he might change his mind again before signing at midnight!

    That Jordan also struggles at the line makes perfect sense given this window into his emotional state. His emotions are heavily influenced by the opinions of others.

    From Haberstroh's article: "All eyes are on you," Jordan said. "There are other things that you can watch that go on [in live action]. But free throws are the one time in the game where everything stops. Everybody 100 percent focuses on one person."

    The difference between Jordan and well, Michael Jordan, is that the former is focused on the people watching while the latter was focused on the making the shot.

    I don’t know whether the solution to Andre Drummond’s woes at the line will be shooting underhanded, or whether the "something that works" is a new mental approach created through hypnosis or something else. But given the abundance of data in Haberstroh’s article, and given my 13 years of experience as a hypnotherapist, I can tell you that the cause of Dre’s problem isn’t a lack of practice. It isn’t a lack of effort. It’s mental.

    And while shooting underhanded free throws may indeed up his percentage, he won’t reach his potential at the line or as a player until he learns to stop focusing on what other people think and start focusing on being successful.

    And if Andre Drummond becomes mentally strong and highly focused, look out.