- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- You are only competing against yourself. There are no factors working against you trying to trick you into giving a worse performance.6
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.↩