Trying to distract free throw shooters actually messes them up
There’s a reason they call them “free throws.” Okay, it’s because the players get to a take a shot “free” from defender, but it could just as well mean “free” as in “free points,” because they’re typically so easy to make. This means somebody’s got to do something to mess up the opposing team while they take their free throws, right?
Fans sitting behind the opponent’s basket scream, shout, and wave their arms or objects to psych out the free throw shooter. It’s a fun ritual…but it doesn’t really do any good. The brain processes motion in such a way that it can easily focus on a fixed point — say, a basketball hoop — and block out the nonsense of the other team’s fans throwing their arms in the air.
“Fans might think they’re doing something by crazily waving their ThunderStix,” neuroscientist Daniel Engber told The New York Times in 2005, referring to those big, noisy balloons fans wave around, “but to the players it’s all just a sea of visual white noise.”
However, Engber worked with the Dallas Mavericks to devise an audience-based free throw defense he found that if the crowd waved their ThunderStix in unison, it could trick a player’s mind “into thinking that he himself is moving, thereby throwing off his shooting.” Engber’s theory was put into practice in a game against Boston, and the Celtics’ free-throw shooting was off by 20 percent.