Shooting Free Throws in the Fourth Quarter

It is the fourth quarter of a close game. You scouted the opponent, but skipped a detail. If you have a choice, who on the other team do you want to foul? Who do you want to avoid fouling? There may actually be a very simple answer. Foul someone that did not attempt any free throws up until that point in the game. Do not foul a player that has attempted at least one free throw already.

Why Could this Theory Make Sense?

Mansfield High School coach Michael Vaughan touched on numerous shooting related topics with me. Coach Vaughan made the assumption that players who step to the line for the first time late in a close game are worse off. He did not have hard data to support the claim. The assumption was based on how free throws are generally practiced. I decided to dig a little deeper.

The Physical Shortcomings of Free Throws

Players take free throws in bulk at practice or in the driveway. They might take five, ten, fifty, or even one hundred in a row. At the end, they arrive at a percentage. They proudly report back to coach that they hit 70 to 80 percent. Unfortunately, the percentage is terribly inflated. Taking free throws in bulk is not the same as buying toilet paper in bulk. Each shot does not really provide the same value. In an actual game, players only take one to three free throws at once. Muscle memory increases the probably of making the next seven or ninety-seven shots. We must reduce block practice.

The Mental Shortcomings of Free Throws

Additionally, the mental strain of taking shot thirty-seven in isolation is much lower than a one and one in front of a crowd. The fourth quarter accelerates the mental strain further. That said, if the player went to the line earlier in the game, they develop a little immunity to the pressure. The crowd is the same. The routine is the same. Psychologically, the more we do something that involves a fear of failure, the more immune to that fear we become.

The Data on Free Throw Shooting

I am currently reading The Great Influenza which tells the story of the 1918 pandemic. One line from the book already jumped out at me. “Those who ask questions constantly test existing hypothesis.” Coach Vaughan planted a seed in my mind and I was curious. I went back and looked at four seasons of free throw data I have in scorebooks and confirmed the data on HUDL. I wish I had more. Nonetheless, 90 games of free throw data for us and our opponent is an adequate sample size.

Overall Free Throw Performance

In four seasons, my team’s free throw percentage sat at 52%. My hypothesis was that our free throw percentage would be worse in the fourth quarter. A combination of fatigue and mental pressure being the main reasons. Yet, the data proved otherwise. In the fourth quarter and overtime FT% percentage actually climbed to 55%. Our opponents overall percentage in four years (1262 attempts) is 53%. And in the fourth quarter plus overtime, they only made 50%. We were better in the fourth quarter, and they were worse in the fourth quarter by the same margin. Nothing statistically significant to see.

Close Games Free Throw Performance  

To truly measure the meaning of fouling late in a game, I needed to throw out blowouts. I looked at 28 games over the past four seasons that were decided by single digits. Another surprisingly data point is that less than one-third of our games were decided by single digits. Still, this amounted to more than a full season’s worth of games.

In these twenty-eight games, our team shot 50% total. Slightly worse than the general percentage. In the fourth quarter plus overtime, we were 50% on the nose. Our opponents shot 57% from the line in these games and 55% in the fourth quarter plus overtime. Once again, the theory that pressure contributes to worse performance did not hold up. The fourth quarter and overtime essentially matched the rest of the game.

Measuring Cold Shooters in Close Games

The next step in proving this hypothesis was zooming in on cold shooters in those twenty-eight games decided by single-digits. To find the players that did not attempt a free throw yet, I looked at the scorebooks of our last four seasons. If a player was listed as having only free throw attempts in the fourth quarter, I noted it. I then went back and cross-checked to see if the scorekeeping was accurate by watching the film on HUDL.

When a player from our team attempted free throws for the first time in the fourth quarter and overtime of the 28 close games we shot 39%. Using that same metric for our opponent, their players shot 33%. And from the reverse perspective, warm shooters were much better. If a player on our team attempted a free throw in the first three quarters of a close game, they made 55% of fourth quarter free throw attempts. And using that same metric for opponents, they made 66% of their free throws. The bottom line is this. Cold shooters were 23% more likely to miss than warm shooters in close games. In our case, these players are almost twice as likely to miss.

How to Prevent Cold Shooters from Missing

Physical Improvements to Free Throw Shooting

Form shooting is old and a little boring for coaches. Players do not seem to mind it. And professionals endorse form shooting.

Chris Oliver advocates for practices that simulate games. Many coaches are flocking to his method of teaching the game. If we endorse his games approach to teaching, we must curtail block shooting. A player will never take ten consecutive free throws in a game, so we should discourage them from taking ten in a row in practice. In the driveway, they can intersperse two or three free throws with catch and shoot three’s and lay-ups. As players take two free throws at a time, they will develop a truer sense of their foul shooting proficiency. Assuming the number is low, they will recognize the need for more spontaneous reps of two shots at a time.

Mental Improvements to Free Throw Shooting

Cold shooters are probably less effective because of the mental part of shooting. I think every coach in any sport that requires a high degree of mental effort needs to read Jason Selk’s book 10-Minute Toughness.

One of Selk’s trademark methods for attacking pressure is his breathing technique. “The formula is 6-2-7: breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for seven seconds.” Selk also endorses process phrases before athletes make attempts. If you ask athletes what they tell themselves right before they shoot, many will say “I’m going to make it” or “nothing.” Encourage players to use a phrase such as “follow through” or “eyes on the rim.”

Before they let go of the free throw, they also need to visualize the free throw going in. Visualization is a topic that often falls on deaf ears. Coaches and players alike do not want to buy in. The hard data of a study that Gary Mack referenced in the book Mind Gym transformed my thinking.

“One interesting study involved college basketball players. For three months, one group shot free throws for one hour each day. Another group spent an hour each day thinking about shooting free throws. The third group shot baskets thirty minutes a day and spent thirty minutes visualizing the ball going through the hoop from the foul line. Which group, at the end of the study, do you think improved its free-throw shooting the most? The third group did. The imagery had as much impact on accuracy as shooting baskets.”


Part of the pressure that players feel also is attributed to coaching and culture. I am not crazy about John Calipari, but after Darius Washington Jr. missed free throws late in a game, I thought Coach Cal’s reaction was perfect. Coaches need to help players need to see the opportunities of shooting free throws and eliminate the threats. They are never going to miss them on purpose. Help players make them with process.

On the flip side, if my team is in the place where we need to foul, I am now going to seek out a cold shooter. I am going to ask the scorekeeper what players on the other team did not take a foul shot all game. There may be flaws in the analytics of only 28 games, but I am willing to try my luck.

2 thoughts on “Shooting Free Throws in the Fourth Quarter

  1. great topic…ft shooting is about confidence. at the end of the game i want to foul the kid that has been “hiding” when the game got close. the kid who is going out of their way NOT to receive a pass, staying away from the play, not looking to aggressively cut to get the ball, passing up open shots that they took earlier in the game. that’s usually the kid that doesn’t want the responsibility of winning and losing falling on them. if i need a kid to make a ft, i’ll take a confident kid over one that isn’t regardless of how they shot ft’s earlier in the game. Dennis Johnson {Celtics} comes to mind as a guy you did NOT want to foul at the end of the game regardless of how he shot ft’s earlier.

    as for shooting ft’s: we teach kids to have a routine, the simpler the better, and practice that routine EVERY time they go to the line. one simple routine is “dribble, set, shoot” and try to get in the same rhythm every time you use it. if you had to set the rhythm to a favorite song that would work. then before you step to the line take a second to visually go over your routine in your mind and see the ball going in. step to the line, use your routine, then step away from the line and repeat the visualization before your next shot {even in practice}. focus on the routine, not the results. one other thing we tell kids is every time you step to the line think that you’re shooting in the driveway {or wherever you practice at home}. Chris Mullin had a routine that every time he shot ft’s he thought back to the church gym he grew up playing in and imagined he was shooting the ft there, even when he was in the NBA.

    great article & keep up the good work!

    1. I can remember when I was coaching freshman basketball over ten years ago we had a player that would go around her back as part of the free throw routine. Looking back, it cracks me up, but your point is well-taken. Keep the routine of getting ready to shoot a free throw simple.

      I also really like the idea of a song. I think it can also play a role in calming some players nerves and getting them back to just having fun rather than worrying about the result of the shot.

      Great advice. Thanks Mike.

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