Here's what happened.
So I'm at home for the summer after my junior year of college. I'm working a little bit, practicing my horn (trombone) a little bit, typical low-key summer. I decide to shoot some hoops on my badly rusted childhood basketball goal. I step up to the free throw line... brick. I run get the ball and try again. Brick. I try a few more shots... mostly bricks.
Wow, I didn't remember how to shoot the ball. So I decided to try an experiment. What if I work on shooting the basketball as methodically as I practice my instrument? I was at home for the summer, so I had plenty of time... and I tried it. The most awesome part is that it worked. I got really good at shooting the ball.
Method to the Madness
I decided to be systematic about my approach to shooting the basketball. Just like practicing the trombone, I started with something I knew I could do every time. For playing my horn, its a nice concert F in the middle of the horn. For shooting a basketball, it's standing two feet in front of the goal. When warming up on my trombone, I don't move onward until I'm solid on the easy stuff.. then I start to stretch the range and technique. I did the same systematic approach on the court. And it worked beautifully.
So let's talk about the brain for a second. All skill based activities deal with synaptic connections in the brain (aka muscle memory). Once you perform a new technique, your brain creates a synapse, or pathway. When you repeat, it reinforces that synapse. It's kind of like if you walk over the same patch of grass every day for a few weeks.. the path is nothing at first, but eventually it becomes ingrained. Now, if you took a slightly different path each time, the grass wouldn't be as affected. So it is important to make sure it is exactly the same every time. I figured out how to coordinate my body to make the shot. Then I repeated the motion over and over and over and over. You get the idea. I was slow and methodical. If I missed a shot, I would examine the technique. Then I would shoot the ball a hundred more times (sometimes literally).
Here's the system I set up (from what I can remember of it):
Story on the side!
So my basketball shooting got really good! It lasted too. Well into the next school year. I would go to the basketball courts and continue my shooting practice from time to time. One time a bunch of athletes came out to play a game. I'm pretty sure they were football players and they were huge. They couldn't really kick me off the court, so I was invited to play. They were way better at ball handling than I was. They were also in better shape. Which is why it was so darn fun to NOT miss my shots when I got the ball. Especially the 3 pointers. There's nothing like a skinny little trombone player holding his own with some real-deal athletes. I had the time of my life.
Complicated Stuff - The Mental Game
Now it's time to get into the other part of the method that's not so straight-forward. There's been numerous books and articles written about this method in every field. This part is the mental game you have to play in order to fine-tune a skill. I call it "zooming out." To me, I mentally zoom out of the situation and let my physical motion go on auto pilot. When I was shooting my bazillion shots, I would zoom out further on each repetition. As a musician, I like to focus on my breathing. It brings me the most calm (especially to my mind). Here's my process:
In my first few years of teaching, I was afforded the opportunity to put this theory to practice.