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The Psychology of Hack-A-Shaq

"Superman. The Big Aristotle. Shaq Diesel". All of these are names Shaquille O’Neil was known by in his Hall-of-Fame career. The man is a legend. No way around that… In terms of his game, marketing himself, and just being a well-rounded dominant force in our culture, it’s hard to say anyone (Other than MJ) has done it better. He’s captivating. But personal nicknames and dominant play the only thing Shaq will be remembered by.

“Hack-a-Shaq” has changed the league.

Maybe not quite in the positive way Steph Curry or Michael Jordan have.. but none the less, it has led us to moments like these:


The "Hack-A-Shaq" concept was first employed by head coach Don Nelson against Chicago Bulls legend Dennis Rodman who was also a struggling FT shooter. Nelson later again applied the concept against O’Neil because “Shaq Diesel” was notably one of the worst FT shooters of all time.

He went 5,935 – 11,252 or 52.7% in his career, and many explanations have been made for his struggles. Some of the most popular being:

· “His hands are too big”,
· “He had the yips”,
· and "he broke his hand when he was younger”.

While all of these factors potentially contributed to Shaq’s difficulties at the line, our team is going to take a perspective of psychological analysis, examining some of the mental factors that may have contributed to the one blemish on the most dominant player in NBA history’s otherwise legendary resume.

1) The Importance of Practicing Under Game-Like Conditions

When quoted in an article by USA today, O’Neal says he did practice when he was in the league. In fact, he practiced a lot.

“I tried to make 200 a day,” he said. “And then when I got really big time and was able to build gyms in my house, I shot all the time. But there’s a difference between playing craps at your house with your boys and going to Mr. Cordish’s casino and playing craps. When I’m by myself I shoot like Steve Kerr. But it’s just something about when I’m in a game, there’s pressure, I just tighten up.”

Shaq’s right. Performing in a game and performing at practice are two completely different mindsets. Think about it from related to attention or distraction. You can probably shoot FT's at a decent percentage alone at the YMCA, but if you had thousands of people watching and opposing fans making comments, moving, and yelling trying to distract you, those free throws might look (and feel) a little bit different. Your thoughts would likely start racing. Your nervous system would kick in. Your attention would not be as narrow or focused on the rim as it needed to be. That’s why deliberate practice with conditions most similar to an actual game is so important

2) Difference in Energy From The Paint to The Line

“There’s pressure, I just tighten up” - Shaquille O'Neil

This feeling of "tightening up" is normal. It happens to all of us. Especially if we don’t learn “self-regulation” Think about it... Shaq is one of the largest players in NBA history. He was also one of the players with the biggest targets on his back. When a opposing big man had to face Shaq, they were going to do everything they could to stop him. All of this in an era much different than the modern NBA where athletes were getting mugged.

One factor we think a lot about in sport psychology is "energy levels" or the amount of "activation" a player must release on the field of play in differing scenarios. In this example, Shaq had to go from battling another 7 foot tall athlete to standing completely still at the FT line and performing a acute muscle movement (similar to someone average sized throwing a pong ball in a frat house or a dart at the dart board). The level of energy required and the muscular expenditure in these two different moments (that potentially occur seconds apart from each other) are energetically night and day.

As sport psychology grows you see more and more focus on the importance of your pre-shot routine. A routine is important for centering yourself, regulating your energy and shifting your focus to the task at hand (in this case shooting free throws). One of the most important tools you can use is a performance breath. Steve Nash talks about his routine and performance breath in this video:

3) Letting the Narrative Impact Performance

Shaq is a confident and strongminded individual which has undoubtedly helped him become one of the greatest players in NBA history. But stress is contextual. Just because you are confident on the block does not mean you’re going to be confident at other locations on the floor (just ask Ben Simmons).

Which leads to the importance of having a growth mindset. In educational research, Carol Dweck is famously credited for her work discussing the importance of having a growth mindset. A growth mindset allows a person to see stressful scenarios as challenge instead of a threat and understanding that psychological traits are learnable and not fixed or static. A fixed mindset is the opposite… seeing situations as a threat and characteristics as stable or unchangeable. While Shaq displayed a growth mindset in many other areas of his life, this fixed mindset can be seen in Shaq’s words about free throw shooting after his career.

“it was the man way upstairs keeping me humble. Seriously because the way I played, the way I made everyone else around me better, all of the publicity I was doing — imagine if I was doing that and had shot 90% from the free throw line. I would have been arrogant. I’d probably be so arrogant. So it was just his way of saying ‘hey, buddy, you’re just like everybody else.'”

And also gave this explanation on Inside The NBA:

While Shaq is right. We’re not all able to be Reggie Miller, he’s wrong in thinking that he was just unnaturally gifted. This comment demonstrates his fixed mindset and frustrations at the line. He identified himself as a bad free throw shooter which contributed to his struggle to improve. When you have a fixed mindset, you let the narrative control how you think about yourself.

Comparing yourself to others or letting other people’s perspectives influence your self-belief or core beliefs can be damning. Especially damning when the statistics and previous evidence agree with him (based on his past experience and FT shooting numbers) but just because there is evidence of struggle does not mean you’re permanently stuck in that place. With a growth mindset, the right type of practice and an understanding of self-regulation Shaq’s history at the free throw line may have been dramatically different.

Has Shaq ever seen a sports psychologist?

“No,” he said. “I don’t believe in that.” (USA Today)

Well Shaq, don’t worry. We get it. A lot of athletes don’t. That’s what we’re here for.

Further Resources:


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