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The danger of thinking

David Thorpe is not a trainer who thinks every player should have the same shooting form. (As proof, I'll offer his client Kevin Martin, who -- I think you'll agree -- has a famously unique shooting style.) However, he will absolutely yell corrections at you in the middle of shooting.

I tell you this from first-hand experience.

He's strategic about how and what he says, and he will not overwhelm you with things to think about. But he certainly considers it part of his business to, shall we say, freshen up how one approaches shooting.

For some of his clients, it seems to be what they value most about him. During the 2006 NBA Finals, when Udonis Haslem wanted his release to be just perfect, for instance, he summoned Thorpe on short notice, for one reason: to oversee a late-night shooting session on the Heat's practice court.

On the other had, trainer Idan Ravin -- who has just been showing Amare Stoudemire around Israel, and has worked with a who's who of NBA clients -- once told me that he simply does not mess with clients' shooting form. He says that's something that is integral and personal to them, and you're opening a big can of worms if you start tinkering with that.

I sincerely doubt there's a right or wrong approach. Both men seem to have success with how they do things. And I think they are both aiming for a day when players have consistent form they don't have to think much about, where most of what's happening is muscle memory.

And that last point is relevant to an op-ed in today's New York Times. It's by Daniel Gilbert. Not the Dan Gilbert who owns the Cavaliers, but the one who is a Harvard professor of psychology and the author of the celebrated book "Stumbling on Happiness" (which inspired the title of the oft-discussed sports-focused book "Stumbling on Wins").

Gilbert writes about the trouble Alex Rodriguez developed hitting home runs after clubbing his 599th. One dinger from the milestone of 600, he became a guy who really wanted to hit a home run, and suddenly went from July 22 to last night without a homer. He says there's evidence that for somebody like Rodriguez, thinking about hitting could be the problem.

One of the ironies of human psychology is that desperately wanting something can make attaining that thing all the more difficult. When stakes go up, performance often goes down. In one study, subjects practiced sinking a putt and got better as they went along — better, that is, until the experimenter offered them a cash reward for their next shot, at which point their performance took a nosedive.

This is because we pay close attention to what we’re doing when what we’re doing matters, and though close attention is helpful when our task is novel or complex, it is positively destructive when our task is simple and well practiced. Golfers in another study were told either to take their time and think about their stroke or to step up and swing as quickly as possible. Although novice golfers did better when they took their time, expert golfers did worse.

The lesson from the laboratory is clear: thinking about tasks that don’t require thought isn’t just pointless, it’s debilitating. It may be wise to watch our fingers when we’re doing surgery or shaving the family dog, but not when we’re driving or typing, because once our brains learn to do something automatically they don’t appreciate interference. The moment we start thinking about when to step on the clutch or hit the alt key, our once-seamless performance becomes slow, clumsy or impossible.

Fascinating stuff. I'm not sure what of this applies to shooting in general -- it would be an interesting thing to explore further. But I'll bet you good money it has a lot to do with what happens at the free throw line. Think about those golfers whose performance took a nosedive when there was cash on the line. When they really wanted to make it, they missed. I bet a lot of NBA players can relate to that story.