Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Free Throw Percentage and Franz Liszt

People who know me know that my favorite sport is basketball. I've recently begun going to a court near my house and one day I was practicing my free throws and I thought about the process behind it. A few things came to mind:

  1. There is very little variability in the task of shooting free throws. The height of the basket never changes, and the distance from free throw line to the basket never changes. The weight of the ball may vary slightly from case to case, but in an ideal world, this would not be so.
  2. Due to the task having so little variability, it would seem that deliberate practice would improve one's effectiveness. Inversely, if the rules suddenly changed and stated that the free throw line must move arbitrarily between shots, then one could hypothesize that it would now be more difficult to practice the task of free throw shooting because the new variable would make the task less repeatable.
  3. Free throw shooting is not a task which requires or benefits from creative thinking. In other words, there are no shortcuts to becoming a good free throw shooter, except deliberate practice.
  4. You are only competing against yourself. There is no defense on free throw attempts, and it is impossible for the other team to somehow outmaneuver you into becoming a worse free throw shooter.1
  5. For some reason, free throw percentage varies greatly among professional basketball players. Shaquille O'Neal converted approximately 50% of his free throws,2 whereas Ray Allen has a free throw percentage around 90%. Most players fall somewhere in between.

Now there seems to be a disconnect between item 5 and the premises that are established in items 1 through 4. Item 5 suggests that it is clearly possible for a person to shoot a free throw percentage of 90%, and items 2 and 3 would seem to imply that the best way to get there is through deliberate practice. Shaq no doubt could have improved his team's effectiveness considerably if he had put in the deliberate practice required to master the task of free throw shooting. So how do you explain his poor percentage? Perhaps Shaq considered his own value as a player to be so high that his poor free throw shooting was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.3 (This would certainly shed some light on his defiant reaction: “I make them when they count.”4

It might be better instead to consider marginal players who are also poor free throw shooters. For some players, free throw percentage could mean the difference between staying in the league and washing out for being too big of a liability to ever make it into the game in clutch situations. Or put more succinctly, it could be the difference between being a millionaire and not being one. And if one can become better at free throws simply by practicing them more, and not by some other factor outside of one's control (such as height), then it stands to reason that no marginal players should be poor free throw shooters because the risks of poor free throw shooting are too high from a career standpoint. But for some reason, such players do exist. Louis Amundson is a good example, who has only started seven games in a seven year career, while scoring just 4.0 points per game and shooting an abysmal 45.5% from the line.5 Poor free throw percentage is a serious liability for Amundson, and it would seem that this would be the element of his game it would be easiest to improve. So why doesn't he? After all, as far as basketball-related tasks go, free throw shooting is less complex and more repeatable than, say, figuring out how to drive to the hoop against a seven-foot-tall human being (a task which clearly fails item 4 above).

To highlight this problem, consider an example from the musical world. A couple of years ago I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra perform Piano Concerto No. 2 by Franz Liszt. The name of the soloist escapes me now. I'm sure I could find out his name if I did enough Googling, but for the sake of this post, I actually prefer to leave him anonymous as a subtle commentary on the lack of respect we give to classical musicians. Needless to say, the performance was totally lights out. I cannot think of another musical performance I have heard that had such speed and precision. This leads me to another set of points, which parallel the ones I laid out above.

      1. There is very little variability in the task of performing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2. The score never changes. Any variability is actually introduced by the performer for the sake of artistic interpretation. But any musician knows that artistic interpretation is best applied when you already have complete command of the piece on a technical level. Furthermore the level of precision required to memorize and reproduce an entire piano concerto would seem to be higher than the level of precision required to make, say, 80% of one's free throws.
      2. There is not really any debate that deliberate practice increases one's effectiveness at performing a piano concerto. Just like the example of the moving free throw line, the concerto would be more difficult to master if, for some reason, the notes written on the page changed before every performance. Repeatability is key.
      3. Playing a piano concerto does benefit from creative thinking, but mostly in the area of artistic interpretation. There are no real shortcuts to learning the piece on a technical level. Deliberate practice cannot be avoided.
      4. You are only competing against yourself. There are no factors working against you trying to trick you into giving a worse performance.6

  • The ability to play a piano concerto varies greatly among those who play keyboard, and even among those who play professionally.

  • It is good to consider an important difference between music, which is open to interpretation, and sports, which are mostly judged by absolutes. Louis Amundson almost certainly increases his market value if he improves his basketball skills. On the other hand, if the keyboardist from Maroon 5 were to acquire the skill necessary to play Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, would that increase his market value? Probably not.7

    Now if someone were to say “I will pay you $10 million one year from now if you either learned to play Liszt flawlessly or shoot free throws above 80%,” which would you choose? To me the answer seems obvious.8 So then is Louis Amundson just a lazy idiot, or is there more that goes into it than deliberate practice? Could we all learn to shoot as well as Ray Allen if we had the time and dedication? I do not know.

    And then consider the examples moving free throw line and the piano piece that changes before every performance. Ray Allen is relatively a very good shooter from every spot on the floor. If the free throw line were to move before every shot, Allen's individual percentage might change, but the fact that he is a far better shooter than Shaq would likely not change. Similarly, a constantly changing piano piece would be more difficult to perform in an absolute sense, but a trained soloist will always be able to play it better than an untrained musician.

    This all goes to show that specific skills do not exist in isolation. One does not become a great piano soloist by only playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 over and over again, but by playing a wide repertoire of difficult and expressive music. Ray Allen is a great free throw shooter because he is also a great three-point shooter and a great mid-range shooter. It is difficult to draw a one-to-one correlation between the time practicing a very specific task and effectiveness at that same task. This is because skills complement each other, and practice at one task could affect one's effectiveness at a similar task. So is Louis Amundson's free throw percentage low because he is not willing to practice that particular task, or is it because he is relatively bad at scoring in general, and his free throw percentage is just an expression of that? Either way, 45.5% is REALLY bad.

    1 Though I'm sure players have found ways to out-psych opponents into missing free throws.
    2 The Wikipedia article for “Hack-a-Shaq” is unsurprisingly quite amusing.
    3 Does anyone know if this is really true? I'm legitimately curious.
    4 I've been told that all free throws count for one point regardless of game situation.
    5 On good days I can shoot nearly 50% from the line, and I'm going to law school, so I see no reason why someone making millions of dollars should not be able to shoot greater than 50%.
    6 Unless you count music critics. It's been said, “why do you need a license to drive a bus, but not to ruin people's lives?”
    7 Though I hope I'm wrong.
    8 And I consider myself much more of a musician than a basketball player.

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