The free throw in basketball is one of the oddest inventions in sport. For most of the game, athletes race, leap, twist, and struggle against each other. But then after a foul, the game all but stops so that a solitary player can take an utterly uncreative shot. There are pauses in other sports (e.g., penalty kick in soccer, opening serves in tennis), but in those cases a feisty defender stands ready to respond.
Free throws, unlike other plays, are not a case where a player can put in extra effort in a critical situation; indeed putting in extra effort will make you miss. A free throw is about calmness and doing the same dull thing in the same dull way over and over, and some of the most dominant players in all other phases of the game (e.g., Wilt Chamberlain), never mastered the different set of skills involved in free throws.It is no accident that the people who can drain a freakishly large number of free throws in a row are middle age or old. In mid-life, we calm down emotionally and become creatures of routine. What seemed like unbearably dull traditions when we were young becomes our contented existence as we age. Just as some of us in mid-life experience a strange sense of serenity when we get off the same bus for the 1000th time to come back to the same home from the same job, others can find a peaceful flow point where they can hit hundreds or even thousands of free throws in a row.
I played basketball a lot when I was young and I was good. At my current age, I no longer am: I am slower, clumsier, weaker, less creative in my playmaking, get sore more easily, and recover more slowly. Yet there is one thing I do better than ever. Yesterday, I fell behind my fast and energetic sons in a idiosyncratic family-created shooting game and could only come back to win by hitting 9 free throws in a row. To my sons’ shock, I walked calmly up to the line and drained them all.
“How did you do that?” one of my sons asked.
“Same way I go to work every day, buddy – at this point, it’s just another comfortable routine”.