• BJ Mumford, B.S.S

Shaping a Shooter: How to transform your coaching mindset from an Engineer to a Guide

Coaching and sport culture is dominated by the narrative of “the grind”, "overcoming adversity", and doing it the hard way as a badge of merit. Most of this is unnecessary, and is much like fighting upstream, going against the current (in this case, the momentum of a player’s experience and past success), constantly getting off track, and sliding backward if you ever let up. 

I call this the “Engineer” approach, one that starts with a theoretical ideal in mind and sets out to build that ideal from the “raw" players - regardless of player experience or past success. Several assumptions are made about what the players are capable of, and the coach ends up fighting upstream. They will fight through any adversity or pushback from players to achieve their ideal, while perceiving a lack of adversity as "something missing”.

These coaches often create arbitrary and artificial “adversity” in an attempt to toughen players mentally, but to the players, it just looks like chaos. Coaches describe the experience as “I can’t take my eyes off of them” for fear their hard-fought changes will be abandoned at the drop of a hat by players that feel the coach's approach is in opposition to what they already know how to do well.

The counterpart to the "Engineer" is the “Guide” approach, one that takes into account the current situation, experience, and unique ability of players. The “Guide" creates a role and a development plan that fits the player while guiding them toward improvement. The “Guide" is coaching downstream - in sync with the momentum of the player’s experience and past success - and will experience very little adversity or pushback by players who feel the coach understands them. Organic adversity arising from striving for improvement is seen as valuable, and pushback from players is taken as information to be used in refining their coaching approach. 

Let's take shooting a basketball as a test case to demonstrate the differences between these two coaching styles:


"More arc!"

"Use your legs!"


These are among the many things parents and coaches yell at players during games and practices. The question is, are these cues effective in creating a lasting change in technique?

With the increasing popularity of youth sports, kids are playing competitively at very young ages. We find that by age 10 most players already have a level of experience and success to make them impatient with instructions that start at level 0.

They have likely made thousands of shots "their way", and attended 3-4 years of summer camp where the same instructions on how to shoot are given every year. They can probably recite all the steps to "BEEF" or a similar method of shooting instruction, while their actual shot in games looks like they have never heard of it! 

Most coaches (and parents) persist in giving the same instructions LOUDER and more frequently since the player is "just not getting it”. They are fighting upstream - both parent and player are frustrated, games are not fun anymore and the player is on their way to burn out.

Evidence suggests that once players figure out how to make even 1/10 shots go in the basket, they are likely to keep doing it that way... Ignoring any instructions that contradict their current solution for making a ball go in the basket - to the endless frustration of parents and coaches!

Shooting is arguably one of the most complex and precise physical movements in sports. We can think about shooting a basketball as a problem that requires a unique physical solution for each player. This is why shooting clinics, camps, and large group classes are ineffective at making lasting changes to a specific player’s shooting technique.

While there are optimal objective measurements for shooting such as the angle of release, etc, NBA players have proven that millions of shots "their way" are enough to achieve respectable shooting success with non-traditional shooting techniques even at the highest levels of competition. http://www.nbamixes.com/craziest-shot-forms-in-nba-history/

In my opinion, teaching shooting "the way it has always been taught” following sequential steps is no longer valid. It is irrelevant for players with any significant experience, and too boring for players that are young enough to be without experience (these players are best served by a variety of experimentation with shooting through play).

So how can we help players improve their shooting without teaching them how to shoot following sequential steps A->B->C?

The alternative is what is called "Shaping" (see applied behavior analysis and TAGteach), and is incredibly effective in creating lasting positive changes in any technique. 

Most shooting instructions start with the “Engineer” approach - an ideal shooting model that they ask the player to fit their body size, level of flexibility, coordination, and strength into all at once - abandoning their body’s current solution to the problem of shooting. The equivalent of fighting upstream!

Thinking about it from the player's perspective, we are asking them to reprogram their nervous system's pattern for “shoot a basketball" that A) is already working, and B) has been ingrained by thousands of repetitions over several years. 

This feels, in the words of players, "uncomfortable", "wrong", or "weird" (If you have ever tried changing which pant leg you put on first, or brushing your teeth in a different pattern you’ll understand the feeling). 

A change made in this way is not likely to last past the point when the coach demands they do it "the right way”. When the coach is not looking, whatever changes were implemented are likely to be discarded in favor of the player’s “normal" shot. 

Shaping avoids this conflict, “adversity”, and negative experience by providing the player with a level of comfort. By starting with the reality of what the player is already doing, the coach can guide or "shape" their shooting technique toward the ideal by applying small, incremental changes. When done correctly, these changes are reinforced and rewarded by making more shots!

The key to this method is identifying and prioritizing the leverage points that will have the greatest impact on a shooter's success.

For instance, shooting too flat is a common problem across all ages, from the 8-year old using a super-man-body-launch, to the HS player with an overhead catapult motion. Both players will miss long most of the time as they are sending all of their power forward, while their target for making a shot borders on the size of a mail slot due to the angle of approach to the rim.

Traditionally both players would be repeatedly instructed to “shoot higher, get more arc” without effect. When asked what they need to do, they can usually parrot back the instructions "shoot higher, get more arc”, but without specifics, these are not actionable instructions!

The questions left unanswered for these players are: 

  1. How high is higher? (objective measure)

  2. What body parts need to do what? (specificity)

  3. When does a specific body part move? (timing)

Through shaping, we can answer all 3 of these, with different approaches for each shooter’s symptoms. For Super Man - there is a short term and long-term solution. The short term priority solution to his body-launch (assuming he is 8 years old) is to use a 27.5” youth size ball and shoot on an 8-foot high hoop, with a 16-foot 3pt line. Once he has the appropriate size ball, hoop, and distance expectation (scaled to the size of his body), we can apply the same cues as we would for a player in 6th grade or older that is shooting using a full-size ball and hoop. 

To implement such cues, we need focus. This is what the TAGteach method provides. You must say your final instructions in terms of: 

  1. What you want (positive statement, as opposed to “what not to do”)

  2. One thing (singular focus - see our past article on “the myth of multitasking”)

  3. Observable (You can see it and objectively determine success y/n)

  4. Five words or less (Sounds simple, but this is the hard part!)

The order of cues for the coach should be:

  1. "2-Foot Landing" - correct for the super-man tendency toward forward balance that usually results in dominant leg forward, split leg stance on landing after the shot.

  2. “Start at Chin" - the start point for the ball is right under the chin (disregard elbow position - start and endpoint of the ball is what we want to see)

  3. "Elbow to Eyebrow" - the endpoint for our follow through to get a high release, which usually results in short misses initially - taking us to step 4….

  4. "Hips Forward" - driving hips forward on the jump creates a vertical body and powers the ball upward.

Working slowly through those 4 cues, 1 at a time, and repeating each separately for 3-5 attempts as needed, will shape your shooter toward the ideal for a quick, vertical, high-release jump shot.

The long term solution is working on core and hip strength through bodyweight exercises to stabilize and synchronize the muscle groups needed to create power for a jump shot out to 3 point range (You will notice that changing ball and hoop size allows many players at this age to start making shots from a scaled 3pt line of 16 ft without issue).

For Catapult - there is a similar sequence of cues, with a different start point. The primary symptom is the ball coming behind the forehead, ending with a forearm lever motion sending the ball forward. Looking from the profile view, you would see the ball start near the shooter’s hips, making an arc away from the body and back to the top of the head before releasing forward - the total path creating a slightly-rounded “Z” shape. 

The order of cues for the coach should be:

  1. "Start at Chin" - in both vertical and horizontal direction (starting too far away from the body even though at chin height creates the same top half of a “Z"

  2. "Elbow to Eyebrow” - the endpoint for our follow through to get a high release, which usually results in short misses initially - taking us to step 3

  3. "Shoulders Over Toes" (at catch) - load power over legs like a compressed spring (common cause of catapult is insufficient leg power - not necessarily leg strength - as many issues are related to a lack of synchronized muscle movement)

  4. "Hips Forward" - While "shoulders over toes" creates potential energy, driving the hips forward releases that energy into the upper body as the jump shot motion is completed.

Other cues we use for shaping:

"Left-Right” - Footwork consistency is a huge comfort for players. Having the same footwork (permanent pivot, R-L for LH players) every time they catch a pass is often a great start point for shaping as it doesn't feel to the player like they have to change anything about their actual shot, yet by improving consistency of footwork they develop consistent speed, rhythm, and power every time they step into a shot.

“Quick-Quick” - we talk a lot about rhythm in shooting practice, and developing consistent timing of footwork is key. Quick-Quick describes the rhythm of footwork landing as the feet step into a shot, fast but more importantly - evenly timed. We also frequently use “match speed of both feet” as a reminder, as a Quick-Slow rhythm is common - usually due to lack of a good grip on the catch…..

"Sticky Hands" - is a huge awareness builder, we find that most players are unaware of what their hands do when they catch a pass, and most are moving the ball in their grip between catch and shot. Having "sticky hands" means their grip is set on the catch and stays through the shot, which takes practice and repetitions to build a habit, but the results can be amazing.

"Palm On Ball" - many players catch with fingers spread too wide, pulling the ball up on their fingertips too much, reducing their wrist power behind the ball, and often over-spinning the release leading to short misses with too much backspin.

"Two Fingers Down" - once all the other pieces have been addressed, most missed shots become small errors to the right and left sides of the rim. Reminding players to use index and middle finger "like railroad tracks" as the final point the ball touches, allows them to feel control of the ball as it is released. Our reminder for this is "fingers down" to ensure a follow-through that provides both forward momentum and backspin.

BJ Mumford, B.S.S 

Practice Design Specialist, and Confidence Guru



"We help kids bridge the gap between practice and games, giving them the confidence they need to compete at their next level.”

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