The Serenity of Old Men Shooting Free Throws

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.

Free throw whiz Ted St. Martin
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”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “The Serenity of Old Men Shooting Free Throws”

  1. I took up free throws in my 40's. All I got was a sore elbow that wouldn't go away. If that happens to you, see a doctor before you decide to keep playing through it.

  2. Old women, as well as old men, might have higher percentages in free throw success. Wouldn't surprise me. Having just turned 75, I am delighted to discover there are things I am loving about being old, with serenity being in the top five or so. What I also love is having time to try things I have been putting off way too long — writing a novel, learning to draw, thinking up new political narratives. It's quite wonderful, actually.

      1. My sentiments exactly! And in any case, if you’ve gotta die, I can think of worse places than a rustic cabin in the woods in Alaska.

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