How to Make More Basketball Shots, According to Physics

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Want to improve your shooting average in basketball (or with wastepaper)? Shoot slower. That's the advice of scientists, based on new research published in the Royal Society Open Science and reported by The New York Times.

A physicist and a mechanical engineer from Harvard and Yale, respectively, used mathematical models of the arm and thrown projectiles to figure out the best strategy for basketball and other throwing sports, like darts. They then compared their results with real-life data from athletes to make sure it measured up.

They found that, like so many other things in life, there is a tradeoff between speed and accuracy in throwing: Throw faster, and you’re guaranteed to throw less accurately. Scientists have long observed this, but aren’t entirely clear on the reason why. This latest piece of research suggests that it’s not just that you aren’t releasing the ball at the right moment when you throw fast, but that the faster motion of the throw affects the curvature of the ball’s flight path.

They found that the most accurate throw is generally just a little faster than the minimum required speed to get your projectile (like a basketball) to the target. If you are going to throw something at a high speed, though, a shallow overhand throw is best—especially if the target you want to hit is below your shoulder. For darts, they found that the ideal shot is an overarm throw with a speed of between 11.4 and 12.3 miles per hour, about as slow as you can throw while still having the dart hit the board hard enough to stick.

Unfortunately, increased accuracy sometimes comes at a price that not all athletes are willing to pay. Data has shown that basketball players who shoot free throws underhanded (a.k.a. “granny style”) are more accurate—but very few players are willing to do it.

[h/t The New York Times]