A few years ago, thinking it wouldn’t hurt to get away from the computer now and again and be a little more active, I accompanied my son to his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class, and signed up for some classes myself. Needless to say, rolling around on the ground, getting crushed and choked by a bunch of bigger, stronger, faster guys (and gals), many of whom were half my age, was totally out of my comfort zone. So I spent the first year or so feeling totally incompetent, very insecure, and wondering why I was doing this to myself…

The experience was (and continues to be) very humbling, and made me much more empathetic to the experience of adult learners in music as well. Whether coming back to an instrument after decades away, or starting a new instrument in one’s 30’s, 50’s, or even 70’s, it can be tempting to wonder if it’s truly possible for an old dog to learn new tricks.

I do think it is possible, of course, with the right sort of practice and instruction (even if we may not pick up these new tricks quite as quickly as we once did…).

But to get some more perspective on this, I thought it might be interesting to chat with someone whose efforts to hone their craft really only began in adulthood, rather than in childhood.

And as I think you’ll see in a moment, the lessons are pretty applicable to us all, regardless of age or level of experience. So whether you’re an adult learner looking to devote more time to music as you near retirement, or a high school student looking at auditioning for college this year, I hope you’ll take away some ideas that you can use to make your practice this week a little more engaging, enjoyable, and effective.

Meet Bob Fisher

By day, Bob Fisher works as a soil conservation technician for the department of agriculture in Kansas. But a few decades ago, he resolved to become an expert on a subject that had fascinated him ever since he was a teenager – shooting a basketball. He read and watched everything he could get his hands on, began studying the physics and biomechanics of shooting, practiced diligently, and in 2010, at the age of 52, set his first world record, making 50 free throws in one minute. In the decade since, he has set 25 Guinness world records in all, including most free throws in 30 seconds (33), most in two minutes (92), and even most in one minute while standing on one leg (49).

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • Why understanding “why” is so critically important to improving skill, and avoiding frustration (1:08)
  • How the process of improvement was circular, and it took time for everything to start to fall in place (11:21)
  • Why trying to get everyone’s shot to look the same doesn’t work (16:31)
  • The importance of efficiency and making each shot as effortless as possible (18:27)
  • And the practice technique that forced him to maximize efficiency and effortlessness (19:22)
  • The counter-intuitive concept of “soaking” that he took from horse training (23:21)
  • The “games” Bob played with himself to make practice more challenging and keep himself engaged (24:25)
  • Bob describes the “one key thought” strategy that helped him to focus when trying to set a record (27:34)
  • How Bob knows when he’s practiced enough and it’s time to move on (38:27)

***Before listening to the episode, I’d recommend watching this 4-min news story that will give you a quick overview of Bob’s story: Bob Fisher - Free Throw King

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Noa: I’d love to begin by pointing out something that you said in your book that really struck me. And so I’ll start off, I think, with a quote to you of yourself from the book. And you said that, 

“You improve faster when you know what leads to success, understanding why is a crucial component of getting better. If you don’t understand the why you tend to end up grasping at straws, experimenting endlessly and going down blind alleys while becoming frustrated in the process.” 

These few sentences totally describe my experience for almost two decades. I mean, I did improve over time obviously. And I, I think I looked like I knew what I was doing most of the time, but I basically just use my ears to trial and error my way to a higher level of playing.

And in hindsight, I didn’t actually know what I was doing. I was sort of instinctively making adjustments. So, I’m curious about your own journey with this. Like how did you start to find the why? And like, what questions did you ask yourself? And if you had to distill the process by which you came to this, and retrace your steps a little bit so that we could get to where you got to, I wondered if there was some sort of formula or some guidelines of some kind, that you might be able to share.

Bob: Excellent question. The, the why to me is all important and knowledge is the key to improvement. My journey started, I guess, 30 years ago, I heard the advice become an expert in something by Dr. Joyce Brothers. And for me, that was shooting a basketball. And from that time forward, I, studied the gurus of the day and read everything and listened to everything I could on shooting.

And I also studied shooters and I noticed that there was a vast, vast array of ways to shoot the ball and be successful. And I implemented what the shooting gurus taught. But for the most part, it was all based on opinion, what worked for them. And they taught one method and address the masses with that method.

In 2006, John Fontanella wrote the book, The Physics of Basketball. And by that point I was pretty disillusioned with everything else that I had read. What Fontanella did was he broke the arc… the flight of the ball down into an equation. For the most part, there’s four factors that affect it. You got gravity, you got drag force, you got magnus force to spin on the ball, and buoyancy the ball. With those four factors, from a mathematical perspective, he calculated out that a six foot player from the foul line releasing at a seven foot height should shoot at a 51 degree launch angle. And a seven foot player shooting from the foul line should release with a 48.7 degree launch angle.

Now that’s 1.3 degrees difference in launch, and nobody’s going to take that to the gym and calculate that out. But that train of thought, totally put me on a different path. And that path was, John had pretty much solved the long-short aspect of shooting, and there’s only four ways to miss when you shoot and that’s long, short, left, right. So. At that point in time, I decided that my long-term goal was to figure out left/right. And that is by far. And even John said this, that, that is by far the, the harder of the two, because there are so many different ways that you can shoot and be successful. That pretty much began a different quest for me.

And that put me on a path of knowing that I had to learn something about anatomy, biomechanics, I should say. And we’re all different anatomically, also the physics aspect of it. I studied a little bit and over time I went to the gym and I started applying this. And I, I started getting better and I should and throw in about this time, 2009, Daniel Coyle wrote the book, “The Talent Code [Greatness] isn’t born, it’s grown, here’s how.” And that inspired me to, he, he talked about myelin. Well, I never knew what myelin was. It’s the sticky substance that coats, the nerve circuit in your brain sends a signal to your muscles. It inspired me and I just went to the gym to check it out, to see if it was. If he was onto something or not.

And knowing that the brain could actually change made all the difference. And I got that from Michael Merzenich, who was one of the leading neuroscientist. It is one of the leading neuroscientists and he wrote the book “Soft-Wired” and incidentally, he has an excellent TED talk on brain plasticity. And in it, he describes the story of an experiment they did with a monkey and they had the monkey learn a simple task, which was to more or less feed itself with a spoon or something of that sort.

And it took the monkey, like 800 tries to get it. And what they did was they, they scan the monkey’s brain before and then after it mastered the task. And what they found was the areas of the brain that were related to the contact areas in the fingers that held the spoon actually grew in size and grew substantially in size.

And that is the brain plasticity aspect, where if you repeatedly do something you become better and better at it because of your brain adapts to take on any task or challenge at hand. And we’re all familiar with this. It’s just that most of the time we do it unconsciously and also K. Anders Ericsson. He mentioned deliberate practice and being focused and engaged and stretching your boundaries.

Stretching the limits of your ability. So I went to the gym and I started doing that. I started shooting free throws every day for an hour and a half every day. And after a month I noticed I improved substantially. After a couple of months, there was considerable improvement. And then at that point in time, I switched to speed shooting.

I set my goal on achieving a Guinness world record, which I had no thought of originally before I ever went to the gym that I could do that. But I, I set my sight on that and I applied for it. And my thought process was simple. Jeff Liles was one of the first who started setting, getting world records. So he was an example for me and I just looked at what he did.

Well, he had a device that he built, where he just picked up the ball and shot it, picked up the ball and shot it. So I just built myself a device like that and did the same thing. And it was the more shots, you know, Guinness don’t care how many you shoot. They just count how many you make in a minute.

So I did that. And after four months I made my first record attempt and I made, I broke the world record, which was held by David Bergstrom of Sweden. At that time with 48, I made 50 at that time. And from then in March, it was, I set the two minute record, which was 68 and two minutes. Well, when you can make 50 in a minute, 68 and two minutes is not too much of a challenge.

So I had the confidence factor going for me. So, you know, it was a matter of that started the record setting. And it just led from there, but during this entire time, my original goal, my primary goal, my long-term goal was to figure out left-right aspect of shooting. And when I go to the gym, I would bring along a spiral bound notebook and I would just diagram and write notes and do whatever.

From day to day, when I write, I learned something and I experimented with all different aspects of shooting and different releases and, and what not. It also led me to the, on YouTube, there is some Asian pop-a-shot masters. And I say masters because they are excellent. The, the level of mastery that they have is so good.

One stood there and he’s just firing them up. You know, pop-a-shot like the, at the basketball arcade you see at Chuckie Cheese and they have even the last segment is even, they go like, 30 seconds, 45 seconds. And then the last second is like a moving basket that they’re shooting at. And this guy made like 246 out of 247.

He only missed one out of a three deal segment. And I was like, holy cow. And I studied those guys and what they were doing because of the concept is the same. You’re taking a ball and you’re trying to throw it through a hoop. Or the other thing I did was I built a contraption downstairs. You know, the whole idea was.

It’s how do you get up more practice? You’ve got in our small town, Centralia, Kansas, you had Kimbrook Tennal who was a volleyball coach and they won state. The girls won state in volleyball seven years in a row. And I talked to him about his coaching philosophy and his coaching philosophy was. He wanted more touches.

He told them touches. He wanted more contacts on the ball and practice from his girls than anybody else in. And that’s how he designed it. His practice. I mean, it was just five minutes and it was just boom, boom, boom, boom. He had him always moving. He had short lines, he had multiple, nobody stood in line waiting. The other thing he did was he had a summer camp and it, his philosophy he said was if I can get him in here two hours a day for a week. In the summer that comes to over four years, time from freshman to senior, that’s an additional 40 hours of practice that they’re going to get. He said, is that enough to win a state championship?

And he says, the answer to that is yes. Yes, generally. Also I read about Andre Agassi. He says his biography. He talked about his dad and his dad said, if you, if you hit 2,500 balls a day, that’s 17,500 balls a week. And if you hit that many every day for a year, that’s almost a million balls a year and you’ll be unbeatable and there’s value in that.

The aspect of shooting, going back to the original, the thing about shooting is you learn to do it implicitly. Over time. And there’s, there’s a term called expert amnesia to where you learn something and then you move on, you forget the basis of what you learned and because it comes so easy and as you progress, you know, somebody asks you how you, how you do that.

And it’s like, well, I just stood up there and, you know, blah, blah, blah. And you leave out all the intricate details. And I didn’t want to forget the intricate details. So I wrote it all down. There was a great book by Josh Waitzkin “The Art of Learning.” And he talked about progress is not a line on a chart.

It’s more like going in circles. You’re going in circles, you have this target and you start out and when you first start, you’re making big circles and, and over time you make smaller and smaller, smaller circles and you get closer and closer to your goal. And I can very much relate to that because I felt like I was going in circles after several years.

It was like 2012. I’ve been studying this and researching all the different ways to shoot. And if you, if you would have asked me at that time, how to shoot, I would have given you about a minute, 30 seconds to a minute answer. And, and confused even myself because it, everything didn’t fall into place, but around 2015, 2016 things started to fall into place.

And it made sense. And that comes from, you have to have a basic core understanding of the underlying whatever you’re trying to master. And then you build on that. And when you build on that, you get better and better mental representations and you go from there and eventually it all came together. And that was when, Phil Reed encouraged me to write the book and Phil Reed was, the man who wrote the book “Free-Throw” with Dr. Tom Amberry who made the 2,750 in a row at the age of 72, which is incredible. 

Noa: There are a few things I wanted to unpack from what you already just said. I mean, my big takeaway from what you described as that you approach this challenge from more of an optimistic place, it sounds like where your practice and your experiments are maybe centered more around the question of, you know, am I getting closer or further away from the solution that’s going to help me hit these free-throws consistently in this timeframe, as opposed to does this result suggests that I have the ability or does it suggest that I don’t have the ability, which seems like a very different place to, to come to it from.

So there’s a part in your book where you talked about how using physics shifts your focus away from you to what’s happening. And I wanted to have you say a little bit more about that because I remember when I was younger and practicing, practicing felt really personal to me, like not in such a effective or useful way, like if I had a good practice and I sounded good in the practice room, I would feel pretty good about myself.

But if it was a bad practice saying I didn’t sound very good, I felt bad because how I sounded in that moment felt like an indicator of whether I was talented or not, where every day was almost like a test to see, okay, if I can play this well, then maybe that means I’m talented enough. And then if I play this poorly, then maybe it means that I’ve reached the ends of my ability and I’m not going to be able to do what it is that I want to or need to.

But eventually, you know, when I did begin to understand the underlying mechanics and principles around how to do the things that I wanted, whether it’s playing in tune or playing rhythmically in a consistent way and so forth. It started to change. Like I found these mechanical reasons for why things worked and why they didn’t.

There wasn’t some mysterious quality about me that I could define, but it was a very concrete thing about my thumb or about my index finger, about finger pressure, or the angle of my wrist relative to my forearm or things like that. And so. I wonder if you had a kind of a similar evolution as well in terms of how practicing felt too, and when the physics part of the equation started to come into focus, if that… I’m not sure exactly what my question is.

I’m just hoping you can talk a little bit about what you meant by that. 

Bob: Absolutely. I, I very much relate to what you just said, in shooting and I’m sure in, in playing music, confidence is a huge factor. And when things go, well, things go well, When things don’t go well, if you have an underlying understanding of just like you said, you stated it much better than I could. When you have an underlying understanding of the, of the core principles or the key concepts, you can make corrections much quicker, much easier, and you’re not out there in limbo thinking, Oh my gosh, I don’t have it today. 

Noa: One of the things that might relate to this, that I just found really fascinated because I think it’s the same in music, even though we may not be quite there yet, in terms of understanding this. You said that there is this assumption or this kind of conventional wisdom that every shot should look exactly the same, but you go on in your book to explain why that’s not really true. Can you say a little bit more about what’s wrong with the idea that every shot should look exactly the same?

Bob: Number one, physically, we’re all built differently and we’re all… we have different range of motions.

There’s, three different body types. And I went in to the study of, of all three. And it was like different people with different body types are going to generate force differently and we all have different hand size and we all have different finger lengths. So that impacts shooting. I mean, your hand size, your finger length, it can impact which method might be the best for you.

The key principle of balancing the ball. When you’re shooting hand before the wrist snap starts, that applies to everybody. It’s just a matter of correlating the correct release with the balance of the ball. And that’s, in essence, the core concept that I operate on is if you balance the ball perfectly in one hand before the wrist step starts, that ball is going to go straight every single time.

So if I’m going to the gym and I’m having a bad day, then it’s just a matter of well balance the ball better. And. It takes care of the problem. So from a physics aspect, that’s going to work every day of the week. So that takes the focus off of myself. The idea that I think, well, I don’t have today. No, I just miss center line.

You know, if you bounce the ball, it’s like spinning the ball on your finger. If you have a spinning ball on your finger, you’ve got the exact center of the ball on your finger, and that’s what you want to do all the way through the wrist snap. And if you do that, The ball is going to go straight. If you get off center one side of the other, then you’re going to miss left or right.

Accordingly. 

Noa: So it sounds like there’s some things that are part of the shot that should look exactly the same all the time. But then there are other parts that don’t have to look the same and that could be compensated for by other things going on, perhaps? 

Bob: I would think so. Yes, everybody has in their mind the ideal shooting form.

And that varies from, from person to person depending on their past previous experience. And well, I mentioned one core principle there. Another core principle I have is no matter who you are, you want to generate force as efficiently as possible when shooting, because that allows the shot to be effortless.

And if it’s effortless, then studies show you are more accurate. 

Noa: Was there a particular way that you found for yourself that enabled you to practice shooting with less effort? I mean, was it like kind of a system or process that you go through to figure out how to minimize effort? When shooting? 

Bob: What I did was, the speed shooting aspect was key for that because when speed shooting and when I talk about speed shooting, you know, shooting free throws everybody, thanks to bounce the ball three times, stand there, bring the ball up and shoot.

Well. So for me, speed shooting was you put 10 balls on the rack and they roll down to you and you shoot them as fast as you can. And you shoot 10 balls in five seconds. That’s speed shooting. And what that does is that makes you use a very efficient motion. If you take all the time in the world and I’ve seen this, it’s unbelievable.

The forms that some players can come up with. Because you can shoot a hundred different ways and be successful one time. But if you will speed up the motion, if you  go super fast, you eliminate inefficiencies. And that’s what I was trying to accomplish with that. And that’s not to say that I did that all the time.

The other thing I did, and this was from Daniel Coyle’s book “The Little Book of Talent” was slow it down tremendously to where you go super slow. 

Noa: Well, I’m curious about that because that’s something that’s coming out of music too. Last month, I spoke with a trombonist who had this background in kinesiology and motor learning as well.

So I was able to speak to this from a research perspective and, and he was an advocate for not just doing slow practice, which I think is really common in music, but also advocated for doing at tempo practice or practice at the speed that you would eventually have to perform a skill at from the very beginning, the rationale being you can get away with a lot of extra movement and a lot of extraneous things physically that won’t work at tempo.

And that kind of actually get in the way a tempo inhibit you from doing what it is that you need to be able to do. And learning things at tempo helped expose some of it, which sounds like what you were describing in your book as well. I think you mentioned that speed shooting will, will show you your natural tendencies expose what’s going to happen when you shoot at tempo. I love the example you gave too of the, I don’t know if it was somebody on your team or maybe you and your wife were just watching the game, where, you know, he ran down the court at the very end of the game, try to make a layup, but because he hadn’t practiced making a lay up at full speed was surprised at what ended up actually happening.

Bob: Which he blew the layup because he didn’t account for momentum.

There was a great, interesting book called “MVP Machine,” and it’s about baseball and the current state of baseball. And in it, one of the baseball players, said what he would do with his kid. He said, instead of playing catch in the yard, like everybody does, he said, what I would do would be to go in the backyard where I have a fence and I would throw the ball as hard as I could into the fence.

He said, because your son is going to do the same thing. He’s going to follow you. And by throwing the ball as hard as you can into the fence, that is similar to throwing the ball long range. So you have long, long ball tossing and throwing the ball in from the outfield. And by doing that, he’s going to be more efficient and he won’t pick up bad habits by just tossing a ball back and forth 

Noa: Because he’s doing something that more closely replicates what he would actually have to do in a game? 

Bob: Correct. Yes. 

Noa: I wonder go back real quick. Before I forget, you mentioned the, the volleyball coach who had a lot of success with his team and it makes total sense to increase the number of repetitions that you can get into a limited span of time.

So you’re not sitting around waiting and I could see where at other times you’d want to increase the span between practice attempts. You can process it and think and analyze and figure out what to adjust, but in terms of maximizing repetition, but minimizing the number of mindless repetitions. I wondered if you could describe what the right kind of repetition of looks like. Would it be something that someone on the outside would notice or is it really more just what’s happening in your head with your thought process or how do you balance repetitions, but not useless repetition?

Bob: I was talking with, with a guy who is very into horses and he, he went down to Texas and went to a training on handling horses.

And he introduced me to a term that, I had never heard before. And he said after your horse does, he says, you’re trying to try and to do the. Do whatever it is you’re trying to do with a horse. And once the horse does it correctly, he says, what you want to do is just stop for 30 seconds and let that soak in.

He said, so the term is “soaking.” He says, your, your natural reaction is he did it right, you want to do it again, but by stopping and letting it soak in it, embeds it better in your brain. 

As far as, the practice aspect, I always tried to not go on automatic pilot and keep things challenging. Some of the things I did, I, I had to go back through them through my notebooks and I just wrote down some of the things that I did, typical practice session, but at different times, I did all of these things, shot right-handed, shot left-handed, shot blindfolded, or close my eyes and shot a lot, standing on one foot, standing on the other foot, standing on a foot, holding one foot behind your back, kneeling.

I kneel down at the free-throw line. I put on a baseball glove and I threw the ball through the net with the baseball glove. I was sometimes did school presentation, and I thought that’d be kind of neat. Shot underhand, shot hook shots from the free throw line. I’d work on dribbling the ball between my legs and then flipping it up with one hand when I caught it and, making it off that, going left and right.

And then, took two balls and I would shoot them at the same time. The other thing I did was occasionally Connie early on Connie went with me to the gym, Connie, my wife, and she would throw me the ball and wherever I caught that ball, I would shoot from that position, which was extremely challenging. I took sunglasses and I put tape over one eye black tape over one eye.

So I could only see the rim with one eye. And then I would switch and I would put tape on the other eye and see it with the other eye. Anything out of the norm. I was also very big on space repetition. I would go down, I would go downstairs, practicing in the morning, go to the gym at night and by space repetition and mixing it up.

I think that contributed tremendously. And, the world record attempts. they were a form of testing because sometimes they didn’t go well. And it was a matter of what did I do? What should I do better? And you learned from that.

Noa:  I’m intrigued by the blindfolded thing, which you mentioned. Cause I think there’s a section in your book where you say that we don’t trust our tactile sense as much as our visual sense and there are a couple of things related to that I’m curious about, but yeah.

What, what changed when you had to rely more on your tactile sense than what was happening visually? 

Bob: Your sensitivity of touch improves. You rely on it more. And without your sight, you feel, you feel a ball better. You can, you can, for me, it was a matter of pinpointing exactly what contact area, of my fingertips was on the ball at the moment of release.

And it’s a matter of coming up, balancing a ball, and then going to that contact area through the wrist snap. And if you do that, you know, you’re, you’re just money every time. 

Noa: So it sounds like it made you more sensitive to the fundamental kind of necessary aspects of shooting that led to consistency.

One of the things that I was like in my head, I was like, I don’t know how he does this. So when I’m watching your YouTube videos of you shooting all these shots, if you miss a shot, or if you miss two in a row and you know that, you know, you only have so many attempts in a 30 second span or one minute span.

Like, how do you not let that affect you or get you down in the moment or does it? I mean, is it, I’m just curious how to avoid being too negatively influenced by what’s happening results wise 

Bob: Before I attempt, an event, what I do is I think of what is the key thing that I need to be successful. One key thought.

And I try and hold that thought throughout a event. And normally that if you pinpoint, you know, what you need to be successful and you, you focus on that key aspect. Because I’m only able to think of one thing at a time and a lot of time, my mind is wandering and it’s, you gotta, you gotta quickly bring it back, but that’s, I forget where I learned that, but I, I heard that somewhere and it, it seemed to help because when I first started, I would go into it and I’d have a list of things.

And it was like, there’s no way I’m going to remember these 10 things. Yeah. Having one key thought seemed to help. 

Noa: Can I ask what that thought was for the attempts? 

Bob: It varied. It varied. It varied depending on where I was at in the process. I can tell you now, like this morning I went down and shot for 15 minutes and my, my thought was balance the ball before the wrist snap, we’re going to balance the ball and do it quickly.

At another point in time, it might be, I want to, I want the ball to leave off the the outside three quarters of my middle finger. You know, if I’m using the middle finger release, I want to, I want the ball to release off that contact area and I will focus on that. And both of those will be successful.

It’s just a matter of it’s just matter which one I choose to use. I mean, it can be anything that’s, that’s going to help. Yeah. 

Noa: That’s one of the things I was curious about with regards to your, your one-hour record also, because I imagine. That’s a real endurance challenge, not just physically, but also mentally.

I mean, what did you think about when you’re having to shoot shot after shot for an hour? How did you avoid you know, like having your mind wander to lunch, I guess I’m curious. What did you try to focus on? And B how did you stay there and C, how did you prepare yourself in advance to be able to do that for an hour mentally?

Bob: 20 years ago, I ran a marathon and, and I used the same training methods that I did building up to the marathon. And it takes, it took considerable time to build up to where you’re able to stand there and shoot free-throw after free-throw averaging almost one a second for an hour. And what I did, the big thing was how do you counter fatigue?

And what I did was I, I learned, I had to mix it up. I had, I developed the ability shoot left-handed over time. And what I would do was I would shoot 10 with my right hand. And then I was switched and shoot 10 with my left hand. And there was four, five, or six, I think, attempts that I made at the hour record that I did not break it.

And what I learned was you cannot. You get in a rhythm and you’re making shots with your right and you want to just keep making shots, but after 60 or 70 shots, there was no your arm, my arm was gone. So I learned that you have to fight that a little bit and just be disciplined and switch back and forth, back and forth until you get to a point where, okay, 15 left.

If I want to go more with one than the other, then. Then fine. Incidentally Perry Dissmore that 2371 in an hour Perry Dissmoore came back and upped that to like, I’m not sure what it was, but he did reclaim that so kudos to him and he, how he does it. I don’t know. He’s shot them all with his right arm and it’s like incredible, but hey, I’m old.

I’m now 63 and, and he’s still a young man. So more power to him. 

Noa: I guess I’m also wondering, as in particular, before this one hour record did practice a week or two out, or maybe even a month out look different than normal practice that you might do like today or tomorrow 

Bob: Within the last week I tapered down.

And I didn’t wear my arm out, up to that point in time, I just put in more time at the gym, but the last week leading into that, I did taper off. And, the, like the night before I just went to the gym and shot for like a half an hour. And that was it. Because as I said, the fatigue aspect is just a killer.

I went down and watched Jeff Liles attempted a 24 hour record. just last year. And I went down to Oklahoma, Oklahoma to watch him do that. And, you know, the thought of him standing there at the line, watching him as he started that, the thought of him standing there for 24 hours shooting a basketball, just, it was just incredible to me, you know, but, unfortunately after about five hours, he, his arm locked up and he was unable to continue.

He had done that numerous times before, but you know, like that Jeff is getting older as I am. I don’t know. He, he advised me to stay away from the 24 hour record. And I’m doing that. Wears your shoulders out. 

Noa: Well, I don’t even know how one would. Well, I guess you could stand for 24 hours, but even that.

It does not seem particularly appealing to me as an activity.

Bob: I would agree. I would agree with you. There’s people that think it’s crazy to do it for an hour. And I would agree. 

Noa: I wanted to ask about Tom Amberry’s record too. I know that you got to know Tom pretty well and having to shoot for just 12 hours or not just 12 hours and making that many shots and having to make them consecutively.

To me seemed like a whole other challenge as well. Mentally. It made me think of the particular kind of stress that I experienced when I was recording something. You know, in the beginning of recording a particular take of something, it’s fine. I mean, you just started, if you’re only three lines into something, you can stop and start again, if you mess up, but the closer you get to the end, especially if it’s.

A long movement of a concerto. You know, you’ve been playing for 14 minutes already. You just have one minute ago, it’s a couple of difficult things coming up. It’s gone really well so far. I would start getting more nervous and starting to tighten up a little bit and be like, Oh, I have to make sure I don’t ruin this take because this was so awesome.

I don’t know if I could do it again. How do you have a sense of, and maybe you’ve had this experience too, when the kinds of challenges that you’ve had for yourself, but how do you avoid the tendency to think in terms of, not screwing up. Do you know what I mean? Like, like, do you have a sense of how he did this and managed to not start worrying about missing?

Bob: He would say it’s focus and concentration. With him, it was total focus on his he had, a seven step routine that he went through for each and every free throw. And it took him about six seconds to run through that routine. And it was just incredible. He was a foot doctor, incidentally. He was a foot doctor before he retired at the age of 69 and then started going to the gym shooting free throws every day. And he had told me that he had a very successful practice and he reduced the amount of time it took to do several different surgeries and he did time and motion studies during that time that he was a foot doctor.

A po-diatrist, as he would say, his mama would have said, why can’t you be a rich-diatrist, but that was Dr. Tom’s humor, but he was just his ability to focus and lock in was just unparalleled. 

Noa: I’m not sure how to ask this exactly, but I’m curious as to how you would teach someone to shoot who’s new to basketball.

Like, I mean, you talked in your book about. The whole, you know, distal external focus versus internal focus and so forth. But then there are a lot of things that you described in your book related to the mechanics of the shot and, you know, the center line principle and all that, which is fascinating.

And it seems also on some level essential to understand to grasp the fundamental concepts underlying left-right success. How do you balance those two things? Or like where does one come into play? I mean, it’s there, you just kind of throw everything at somebody or does it depend on where they’re at in their development or their age?

I’m just curious if you have a sense of when one comes into the equation, 

Bob: The experience level of who you’re teaching plays a vast role and how you apply. Or how you teach. For the most part, as far as internal versus external that you’re referring to external is what you’re trying to accomplish. And the vast majority of players, I would say, just apply force through the center of the ball.

You know, feel, feel the weight of the ball, apply force through the center of the ball. And that would put their focus on the object, the ball, rather than what get your elbow under the ball. Worst advice you can give a player, get your elbow under the ball. It’s terrible because then they’re thinking about their elbow and you, and you see college players.

We watch games on TV, my wife and I, and, and a player will step to the line and shoot and make the first free throw. And I’ll say, I’ll bet he misses the next one, because you can tell he’s thinking about his elbow. Rather than just making it a very natural shot. I should probably throw out why you shouldn’t have your elbow under ball it, because we got, what’s called a carrying angle of the elbow.

You know, your arm is angled inward and it varies from player to player. For men it’s like 11 to 15 degrees and females it’s like 13 to 17 or somewhere in there. According to the studies that I read. 

Noa: So that’s one of those individual differences that if we try to make everybody shoot the same, we ended up messing something else up further down the line.

Bob: Exactly. Larry Silverberg, in a conversation, he said, science verifies best practices. And he’s, he’s very much, I think, on target with that. And if you know that science is behind it, to me, that makes a difference. It really does 

Noa: Actually. Sorry, one last question that came to mind. Sometimes I wondered if I had done enough repetition to try to solidify something.

And I know you mentioned the idea of soaking with the horse trainer. Was there any kind of guideline that you had for yourself as far as knowing, okay. You know what? I’ve done enough repetition. I feel like I can move on to another aspect of shooting or another skill or another exercise. Yeah. How did you know if you had practiced enough?

Bob: And whenever I got bored with it, whenever I got bored with it, I would change things up because you never want to get bored because if you get bored, you, you go to automaticity and you just do it and that’s not good, or it’s not most effective. I should say.

Notes

  • Bob mentions physicist John Fontanella’s book The Physics of Basketball (3:10). You can get a sense of what’s in this book, and the sort of trail of thinking Bob began to follow, by reading this article: Galileo Got Game: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Physics of Basketball
  • Here’s an 8-min summary of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (5:02): The Talent Code Core Message
  • And a 2-min summary of myelin (5:18): 2-Minute Neuroscience: Myelin
  • Bob mentions neuroscientist Michael Merzenich (5:32), whose TED talk is here: Michael Merzenich: Growing evidence of brain plasticity
  • A quick summary of deliberate practice by Anders Ericsson (6:46): Anders Ericsson - Deliberate practice makes perfect
  • Jeff Liles (7:33) was one of Bob’s inspirations: Jeff Liles Basketball Free Throw World Record
  • Wondering what pop-a-shot (9:07) is? I don’t know if this is the video that Bob was referring to, but check out the guy on the left. Seriously: Pop-A-Shot Master
  • Bob references “expertise-induced amnesia.” (11:21) Here’s a little more on that: Expertise Induced Amnesia
  • Bob also mentions Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning (11:56) in the context of learning as a circular process. Here’s a short interview with Josh: Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
  • Here’s a short golf video with Phil Reed that gets into some of the ingredients that helped Tom Amberry (13:22) hit 2750 free throws in a row at the age of 71: How the World's BEST Free Throw Shooter can help YOUR PUTTING
  • A few videos related to Daniel Coyle’s book The Little Book of Talent (20:24): Videos @danielcoyle.com

Learn more from Bob

Bob once said that “Anyone could do what I do if they knew what I know.”

While the physics of shooting a basketball may not all transfer to playing an instrument, I think many of the other aspects of training and performance he describes absolutely would. If you’d like to learn more about what Bob has discovered and utilized in his own training over the years, you can check out his book here:

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.

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