The "Things" That Matter in Shooting (,,,And How to Test Them)


Written for by Tom Nordland
Producer of the Swish Video

In my study of shooting I've come to see there are a number of key aspects that determine whether a shot motion is going to be successful or not... in the long run! Any motion can work occasionally, but to be able to put the ball dead-center, "swish" over and over on demand takes a special kind of control. Very few players have that kind of control any more. The reasons can be found in these important distinctions.

  • Target and the flight of the ball matter!
    I start with this because ultimately this is what ensures success or failure, your connection to the target (the basket) and how the ball flies through the air towards it!
  • Where Power comes from matters!
    This matters because some power sources are strong and dependable while others are weak and variable.
  • Stance Matters!
    How you stand dictates how you move your body physically. You can overcome an misaligned or off balance stance with the release, but to do so requires a compensation which, over the long run, will be hard to sustain.
  • The Hand Position and Alignment at the Set Point matter!
    Where the shooting hand "sets" the ball and its alignment with the shooting eye and basket determine accuracy and consistency.
  • The Release action matters!
    This is probably the most critical motion as it is the finally delivery mechanism. If it's simple, consistent, predictable and repeatable, the ball gets delivered with the most effective trajectory and spin, helping ensure success.
  • Height Matters!
    It's important in shooting to have high arch where possible. A shot fired upward is slowed by gravity and approaches the basket more softly than a thrown, wristed or flipped shot. A higher angle also ensures a larger, more forgiving target.
  • Spin Matters!
    Backspin helps to stabilize aerodynamically the ball in flight. The greater the spin, the more stable the motion.
  • The Follow Through Matters!
    Though you can, once the ball leaves the fingers, do weird things with the shooting arm and hand and still make shots, it's much more effective to stay with the target for an extra period of time. A focused and connected (to the target) Follow Through help to "complete" the action.
  • Your Mental State Matters!
    Your mental state - the level of concentration, confidence and self trust - have a big part here. A calm mind allows you to perform closer and closer to your potential. Doubt and fear interfere with performance.
  • (Note: For lack of space I've not written about the grip. It's not usually a problem, but realize it needs to give you a solid connection with the ball and support the above one-handed action.)

    Now let's look at the major components of a shot and how they can be approached and tested.

1) Where the Power Comes From Matters

Your major source of power is an important factor. If it's based on small muscles, then you're eventually going to have trouble with control and consistency. It helps to come from your biggest muscles, the muscles of the lower and middle body. This power source is often called Leg Drive or Leg Lift, but it's more than the legs. It's the legs plus hips, pelvis and lower back, and they can create a powerful, stable upward surge of energy. I call this the "Up Force."

Some coaches advocate shooting at the top of the jump. It's my experience that most great shooters shoot early in the jump. They shoot immediately on the way up and thereby capture more of the Up Force. What this gives them, besides power, a quick release and an upward action, is stabilization. Shots thus powered just go more easily to the target.

(Remember, the exception is the close in and turn-around jump shots where elevation is needed. These can be shot with some "hang time" because the distance is short and the error margin is much greater. A higher Set Point for these shots is probably also merited.)


Shoot Earlier: Introduce the idea of shooting earlier in the jumping action or the "down-up" of a free throw or set shot. It's like "catching a wave" in surfing. There's a surge of power in the beginning that gradually dissipates. Catch the wave early and you get tremendous power.As you do this, watch what happens to the trajectory of the shots. You should see it start to be higher with less effort. For most shots, you want to shoot from maximum leg force!

A note about that: When I realized I shot earlier in the jump and worked on teaching it to others, I saw that they leg drive (Up Force) is not just "yes" or "no", "black" or "white", it's a "shade of gray", a percentage. If you shoot immediately on the way up, you're catching 100% of what's available. If you hesitate, you start to lose percentage, to 90, 80, 60, 40, etc. down to zero % and, if you shoot on the way down, a "minus" %. Play with this. Shoot from different percentages and see what happens. This is not how big the Up Force is but what percent is used! 100% just means you shoot as early as possible, and this requires that you set the ball and release the ball very quickly. This one instruction alone can work miracles.

2) Stance Matters

How you stand is important because it can either help or interfere with the release action. If you stand such that there's extra tension, it makes your shot more difficult and less repeatable.

I advocate an "open" body stance (rotate to the left for right-handers [counter-clockwise], right for left-handers [clock-wise]. From this stance, I feel it's easier to be more in alignment with target, hand eye and body than if you "square-up." Also, there's less tension in the shoulder and arm, since those elements line up naturally the more you turn. All of the great shooters I can think of turned their bodies, some as much as 45 degrees.

If your set point is above the eyes, see if you can get the feeling of being "under and behind" the ball as you go to shoot. From that position, you'll feel more connected to the target and you can then push the arm directly in line with the basket and accuracy is more assured. (if your Set Point is below the eyes, you'll still get the feeling of being "behind" the ball.)


Try it both ways: Stand "square" to the basket and shoot and feel what it feels like. If you bring the hand in line with the eye and target, do you feel any tension in your shoulder or arm? Then open your stance and see if there's tension. I think you'll find the tension disappears. Open the stance a little and open a lot and compare and contrast. You'll find a stance that works for you.

3) The Hand Position and Alignment at the Set Point Matter

Where the hand points to at the Set Point and during the stroke are critical. It determines, to a large degree, the accuracy of the shot. I feel it's important to "set" the shooting hand (and ball) in line with the shooting eye and target and as high as your strength allows. Younger kids will have to set it below the eyes such that they can see the basket over the ball. As you get older, you'll reach a strength where you can set the ball above the eyes and see the target under the ball. Higher is generally better as it's less likely blocked, but it's a weaker position than below the eyes. If you raise it too high, there won't be enough power from the arm-straightening action, so guard against that.


When the hand matters and you place it in line with the shooting eye and target, you'll see the elbow is 4-6" to the right (if right-handed), depending on how long your arm is. For very tall players it might be 6-8" to the side. That's how the hand, wrist and arm are built. The elbow will not be "flying" if the hand matters.

Now bring the elbow under the ball and see what it does to the hand. Can you see it tilts the hand off the target? You can shoot that way with just the thumb and first finger behind the ball, but you'll probably feel less control or you'll feel the need to rotate the hand while shooting, which adds variables and is thus not a good idea. It'll be a lot more stable if the main fingers and meat of the hand are behind the ball.


Hand position: Bring your hand up to the Set Point and have it pointing to the left or right of the target and shoot. Then do it and rotate your hand during the shot (to get it straight) and see what it does to spin. Now set it in alignment with the eye and target and shoot. Can you see that accuracy is easier? Now bring it up in line with your ear and shoot, then in line with your shoulder and shoot. Can you see it's much easier to keep the ball on line if it's generally in line with your eye? If the ball is off to the side (either way), it requires a calculation of angle back to the target.

Set Point over head: Set the ball below the eyes with varying height and shoot. You'll see there's power but it's also more "blockable." If you're strong enough, bring it above the eyes and feel the easier connection to the target. Bring it above your eyes too high and see that you lack power. The idea is to find a balance between height and power.

Set Point over head: If you're strong enough, bring the ball overhead such that the back of the ball is half way back from the front of your head. Take some shots. Can you feel that shots from there are usually flips or throws and that it's harder to just "pus" with the arm? Take it all the way overhead and see the same thing, even more. From way back, it's possible to push. You have the throw the ball. Observe what that does to ball flight. Doesn't it flatten the shot and add variables? Now bring the back of the ball to approximately the front of the head and notice how simple it is to push it upward from there. In fact a push is all you can do. That Set Point is also achieved more quickly so you're more ready to catch the leg drive energy.

4) The Release Action Matters

The Release is the most critical motion as it's the final delivery mechanism! It first has to be supported by a strong leg action (Up Force) and it needs to be one-handed to minimize variables. What's recommended is a pushing action at a high angle with RELAXED writs and hand. This provides a more "repeatable" motion and ball flight. A throwing or flipping motion is much less reliable and flattens the shot.

One of the key things is that the Release needs to be "predictable"! In looking at games in person and TV I can see why most players are not reliable shooters. It's largely the Release! It's how they're powering and controlling the shots with their upper bodies, the arm, wrist, hand and fingers. The smaller the muscle group, the less predictable it is.

Great shooters have figured out a way to minimize the variables of these smaller muscles and power their shots mostly with the bigger lower and middle body muscles. The hand and fingers deliver the ball toward the basket, but they do not participate in the generation of power.


Use mostly wrist and hand: Go to a court and check out how the release muscles work in a shot. Stand 12-15 feet from the basket and shoot with all or mostly wrist and hand muscles and watch the ball flight. See how flat the shots are? If you're strong enough or in close enough, you can shoot with some height this way, but most shots driven by those muscles are flat. You'll also see that the shots that go in almost always hit the back rim. The window for a swish shot from a flat angle is very very small.

You'll find you can get in a rhythm and make a few or a bunch of these shots in a row. But you can very easily miss a bunch, too, especially when they count. When you add movement, it gets even more difficult. Under pressure it's very easy to flip the ball a little to hard or too short. You can also send the ball off-line left or right very easily. And once you miss a couple, your self-doubt makes it even harder.

Now use a Pushing Action: From a reasonably short distance at first, make your release action into an upward PUSH with a passive wrist and hand. Do it with little or no leg action at first, and then add leg power as you move further back. The hand holds the ball with a little pressure in the finger pads to give you a solid grip but then, as you push and straighten the arm, the hand and fingers relax totally. Do this and observe what happens to the ball flight and spin.

You'll see that the ball flies more vertically, that spin is consistent (medium fast, approx. - the speed depends on how fast the arm is straightened), and ball flight becomes more measured, consistent and predictable. You'll see you can do the same stroke over and over. When you "connect" to the target mentally and with your vision and you push your arm exactly in that line (but aimed high above), the ball will fly true to the target much more consistently.

There is less power with a push, but you make up for it by depending more on the bigger lower/middle body muscles, which gives benefits far outweighing the one disadvantage. Again try it and let your own experience be the judge.

Let the hand bounce: If you totally relax the wrist and hand when you straighten the arm, the hand will hang directly forward and actually bounce or flop in the follow through. This in one of the signs of a great shooter. For the majority of shooters, wrists and hands are tight because they're doing something with them. You'll see it in how the hand finishes, maybe straight or angled down, or a little left or right or up.

When the wrist and hand are out of the picture (except to hold and cradle the ball and complete the action by delivering the ball in the direction dictated by the arm), then you have greater predictability. You have fewer muscles that can send the ball off line. Bigger muscles are also less likely to "choke" than smaller muscles.

5) Height Matters

Higher shots create a larger and more forgiving target than flat shots, and they also come in softer. By going more upward, gravity has a chance to slow down the speed of the ball. A larger target and a softer landing give shots a better chance of going in.

To get height, all you have to do is shoot earlier in your jumping motion. It's not about jumping higher for most shots. The down-up flexing and extending of knees can create a powerful surge of energy without even leaving the ground. The key in in "when" you shoot. If you catch a high percentage of the surge of energy, there's a lot of power. If you wait or hesitate, you lose the powerful upward force. For all but the close-in, turnaround type jumpers where you need to elevate over someone, go for an early, quick release.


Vary height: Shoot shots of varying height and observe how they approach the basket. Shoot high, shoot low, medium high, super high. Notice how height affects the size of the target and the speed of the approach of the ball. Shoot early in your jumping action and see the results. Hesitate in your jump before you shoot and see how that feels and how it affects the ball's flight and stability. Shoot at the top of the jump and even on the way down and feel what that's like.

I think you'll discover that a quicker release results in higher arch and a more effortless motion. For the close-in shots where there's someone in your face, you can elevate to shoot if you can but it's a trickier shot. If in doubt, pass off to someone who's open.

6) Spin Matters

Backspin helps the ball by aerodynamically stabilizing it's flight to the target. I you have sidespin or a dead ball, it means you're "doing" something with your wrist, hand and fingers that interferes with natural spin.

You don't have to "create" spin with your hand or fingers. It will JUST HAPPEN if you straighten your arm at a good rate and let the wrist and hand just relax. The ball rolls off the fingers naturally. The speed of spin is determined by the speed of the arm-straightening motion.


Create different spins: Observe your spin and how you create it. Is it backspin or something else> If backspin, is it slow, medium or fast? See what it is you do that creates it. If it's not backspin, relax the wrist and hand and just push the ball upward with the arm and see if you get backspin. It's the extra effort of wrist and hand that cause unstable spin patterns.

Exaggerate: Once you see how to get backspin, then experiment with more and less of it. Create sidespin on purpose and see how that's done. See if you can create a dead ball. Note that it's extra, unnecessary effort that creates the funny spin. Perfect medium backspin is the easiest, the most natural.

7) The follow through matters

When you release the shot, you're not done. You can pull your arm back or move it to the side or up or down, but it's more effective to hold the arm out there, to complete your action with a determined, connected Follow Through. It's called "Completion" or a great "Finish" to the shot. This extra bit of attention to the end of the shot brings dividends in improved accuracy and a little more power. Hold it an extra half second or more and the shot will fly truer.


Experiment: Do different things in your follow through and see how they affect he shot. Shoot and then pull the hand back or move it left or right and see what happens to accuracy. Short-arm a shot and see how unpredictable distance becomes. Do a weak or "tentative" release (slower than usual or just not solidly connected to the target) and see what happens. Then hold the Finish solidly on line and see what happens. I call this "Sticking the Release"!" It means making a strong, focused, connected action toward the target.

8) Your Mental State matters

Finally, confidence, concentration and trust are critical allies that will help you perform at your best. If you "know" how to shoot and trust yourself to do it, the mental states will be transparent. Confidence replaces doubt. You don't have to "psych" yourself to improved shooting. You know you can do it and you just do it. The problems start when you don't know what works, you don't know why you just missed that last shot, or you don't know how to self correct when you miss. I feel most players exist in this world.

It's normal to doubt yourself in you don't know what you're doing and you consistently fail to perform. The key is to find a method of shooting that works, that's simple and natural, and which you know you can do. Then, as you practice that method and get better and better control of it, the mental problems will disappear and confidence will rise and rise. The beauty of it is this: the rising confidence actually helps you do better what you already do well. It's an "upward spiral" of success.


What's going on? Observe what does on in your head as you shoot. Are confident in your skill or is your head filled with doubts and uncertainties? Do you feel you're going to make the next shot or miss it? When you miss, are you less certain of the next shot? If you make it, does your confidence rise a little bit?

Put a number on Confidence: Take some shots and notice how "confident" you were that you were going to make them. Pick a number on a scale of 0 to 10, where "0" means zero confidence and "10" means total confidence. Shoot and report to a friend or to yourself what the number was. Remember that these are just numbers. S 10 is not "good" and a 0 or 1 not "bad". They just reflect truly what just happened. Then shoot again and see if the confidence changes. You will probably see it rise as you focus on it. It may rise all the way to top as you see it's just a number and you have some control over it.

Fake it: If you confidence stalls somewhere, maybe at 4 or 5 or 6, then play a game. Shoot with the intention of being "totally confident" a 10! You can just fake it. Be a 10! You'll find the raised confidence actually helps you perform better. This forced way of being can't work very long, but it will show you that confidence is just a mental state that can be independent of performance. Ultimately performance has to develop and be there or the confidence will deflate back to reality.

A measure of who you are: The point is that confidence can be a state of "being", a measure of who you are, and not totally dependent on recent success. Great shooters know their shots are going to drop, even if they miss a few. With practice you can improve the level of your base confidence and this will help you do your best. When you know what to practice and how best to shoot, then this quality of mind will help you sustain it.

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