When free throw shooting goes bad

Most of us have been taught that, through repetition, we can achieve proficiency at something. There's a good deal of reassurance to the idea that if you work long enough and hard enough at an activity you'll become good at it. Seems only fair.

There are entire fields of study dedicated to understanding muscle memory and motor learning. There's some difference of opinion about the extent to which motor skills are a product of other factors such as musculature, genetics, neurology , but "reps," as we call them in sports, are essential to mastering a task. If you're a good free throw shooter, chances are you worked hard at it, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of players wh0 have remained in the NBA for a decade have improved their free throw shooting over the tenure in the league.

But in Monday's Wall Street Journal, Chris Herring examines a different subgroup,"players who have inexplicably lost the ability to shoot free throws." Herring spoke to veterans like Marcus Camby and Brendan Haywood and retired big man Olden Polynice, whose free throw percentage dropped to 26.2 percent during his final NBA season.

Herring also talked with some specialists, including former Golden State Warrior shooting coach Buzz Braman, who worked with Andres Biedrins. Braman worked with Biedrins on mechanics, but also enlisted the Warriors' broadcast crew for one particularly unorthodox approach:

Specialists usually find themselves working with a player's confidence just as much as his mechanics. Buzz Braman, a former shooting coach with the Golden State Warriors, said he asked the camera crew that televised the team's games to find pretty women in the crowd and display shots of them if and when struggling shooter Andris Biedrins made a free throw.

The way Braman saw it, Biedrins—who shot 30.6% from the line in 2005—would see the women during film study, and garner positive reinforcement from their reaction to seeing his shot go down.

"I know fixing mechanics is important," said Braman, who helped get Biedrins up to 62% by 2008, "but if a guy doesn't believe in himself, do mechanics really matter?"