In the NBA, shooting percentages are much lower on the first free-throw attempt in the second or third (depending on the foul). Why do you think this is? It’s because, on the second free throw, the body has a blueprint to follow for the upcoming shots. It has felt the feeling of shooting a shot already; therefore, the body can make the adjustments necessary to perform the movement. But what if shooting a shot before the first free-throw attempt was possible?
Let us explain: We see the world visually in images, and that’s a large part of how we organize our thinking in our movements. Our brain is a sensory-motor; organ imagery allows us to get reps in before the pressure or stakes of the actual performance. That is why you’ll see many NBA players shoot imaginary free throws in their minds, some even practicing the follow-through as they do it to cue their body on the movement they want to perform. Steve Nash, the greatest free-throw shooter of all time (by percentage), is a perfect example of imagery in action. This is just one instance of imagery that can be utilized for performance: pregame, post-game, or practice.
Since high school, Nash has kept the same free throw routine: dribble the ball three times, take a deep breath, and shoot. He later incorporated “air” free throws into his routine before he got the ball, saying that this helps “not only to see the ball go into the basket but to feel my mechanics and, most importantly as a shooter, to feel your rhythm.” An established routine like Nash’s allows you to quickly get into a groove and focus on the task ahead, in this case, for a free throw. The use of imagery also strengthens the effectiveness of this routine as the “air” free throws help to serve as mental reps for the brain. Remember, the human brain uses a similar pathway when organizing what is real and what is imagined in the mind. As a result, the sensorimotor aspect of our brain believes we are taking actual reps, which can help alleviate some of the nerves when it’s time to shoot the actual free throws.
Imagery as a concept might make sense, but trying it out for yourself to understand the full range of its benefits can be helpful. Suppose I tell you to think of a mountain. In that case, your mind directly goes to an image of a mountain, possibly incorporating other senses like the sights, sounds, and smells you would experience in this situation. Ultimately, this is because our mind processes visually through images, not words. Also, this is why, in addition to routines, watching film has been such an effective learning technique for coaches and athletes over the past few decades. Learning tendencies by watching a team play rather than reading a report on them is easier and more efficient.
Training the mind can undergo a similar approach. If we train our minds using images similar to those we will experience on the court or the field, we mentally rehearse the situation before it takes place. The key to this technique, though, is visualizing the particular as precisely as possible (remember to incorporate all of your senses and as vivid details as possible, such as the fans in the crowd). Also, mimicking the exact body movements and mechanics will give the sensorimotor part of our brain all the information needed to believe it is performing in a game situation. That said, practicing the skill of imagery can be done almost anywhere and isn’t limited to where the game is taking place. Any place that provides a quiet and distraction-free environment is suitable to practice “mental rehearsal” sessions. Combining mental imagery with physical practice can produce optimal results as the mind and body work harmoniously to achieve peak performance.
The power of the mind cannot be understated. If utilized effectively, the mind can significantly improve the quality of your performance and help regulate emotions. Mental imagery is one of several skills that can dramatically enhance performance. By harnessing the power of the mind, you can improve the quality of your reps and feel more relaxed on (and off) the court.