Every time Steve Nash goes to the foul line, he shoots five or six free throws. Sure, there’s the two that really count, but the NBA’s all-time free throw percentage leader always takes several imaginary shots before getting the ball. He says it helps him not only visualize the ball going through the net but also gets his brain and body prepped for the upcoming motor skill. After almost 3,400 regular season attempts, his 90.4% success rate seems to work, even if Dwight Howard isn’t interested.
Actually, this “dry run” motor imagery is a well-used technique across several sports. Golfers always take the imaginary swing or putt before stepping up to the ball. Batters take their nervous hacks before the pitch. Football placekickers, the ultimate “hero or goat” athletes, focus on their warm-up kick before their team breaks the huddle. While mental imagery and visualization are common for athletes, there is growing evidence that including the actual physical motions, also known as dynamic imagery, creates the best results.
In a recent study, Aymeric Guillot, neuroscience professor at the University of Lyon, tested elite high jumpers to see if this action-oriented imagery would help them not only clear the bar but use better form. They performed a series of 10 jumps at 90% of their personal best. They were randomly asked to perform either a motionless mental imagery session or to use their whole body as much as they could to rehearse the jump, without actually executing it.
Guillot’s team found that basic mental imagery without motion did improve the success of the jumps and the form quality by 35%. However, those jumpers that included active, dynamic motor imagery increased their success rate and form by 45%.
“Our study on high jumpers suggests that dynamic imagery may provide a training edge to professional and amateur athletes,” commented Guillot. “This technique may also be of use to people in other disciplines where ‘dry run’ rehearsals are routinely used.”
The research appears in the latest issue of “Behavioral and Brain Functions”.
“A pre-performance routine accomplishes three main physical goals:
1. Stabilizes the motor pattern
2. Adds consistency
3. Establishes a rhythm
When Nash attempts his practice shot, he uses the Imaging step. Rather than pure visualization, where a player may imagine a previous made shot, Nash adds the kinesthetic element. He imagines the ball going through the basket, but he also feels the shot.”
McCormick credits Nash’s pre-shot process, kept identical for every attempt:
“When Nash takes a pre-practice shot without the ball, he is accessing the motor pattern and moving it to the working memory. He stabilizes the motor pattern, so he can retrieve the pattern more quickly and effectively than someone who shoots cold. His routine also rhythmically prepares the movement. Most motor skills have a rhythm to them, and Nash feels the rhythm of his shot during the practice shot rather than shooting the real free throw cold.”
Given Nash’s well-documented success, who better than the man himself to describe his mindset before each free throw? All players and coaches (wanting to be smarter than Dwight Howard) should watch this video: