Throughout his 14 seasons as a professional basketball player, Rick Barry shot 89.3% from the free throw line. If you combine his time in the ABA and the NBA, that’s good enough to be ranked 7th all-time. And, although he wasn’t the most beloved teammate of all time or, frankly, the most beloved human being of all time, Barry had a surefire way to convert at the free throw line. The only problem was, he “shot like a girl” — underhand.
Through his meticulous nature, Barry perfected a shooting form that’s been proven by physicists to be superior to the conventional shooting motion used by everyone else. Sure, there are countless players throughout NBA history who were prolific free throw shooters while using the conventional, over-the-head method. But every year there are players being paid millions of dollars to play the game of basketball who, year after year, shoot foul shots at a rate of 50%.
Now, if you’re a car mechanic and I offer you an inexpensive tool to cut the time you spend working on cars in half, would you use it? Or, if you’re a computer engineer and I offer to teach you a new way to code software that would drastically improve your performance at work, would you take the time to learn it? My guess is that your answer would most likely be “yes.” So why isn’t every single player shooting below 65% at the free throw line not calling Rick Barry to ask for pointers?
One possibility: Shooting underhand was for girls.
The Fear of Being Not Cool
In an interview with Business Insider, Shaquille O’Neal is quoted as saying, “I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand.” While no one can refute Shaq’s prolific run as a dominant force in basketball— he’s probably a Top-15 player in NBA history—imagine a world where he shot 75% at the free throw line and is vaulted to the Mt. Rushmore of NBA players. In fact, Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell talk about this in the most recent episode of The Book of Basketball 2.0 podcast. You could argue that one of the main things in Shaq’s way was his fear of being seen as weak or not cool.
Alas, I’m guessing that the vast majority of individuals reading this aren’t world-class athletes being paid millions of dollars to play a sport for a living. So how does this apply to the rest of us? There are plenty of ways that men refuse to shoot free throws underhand. For instance, how many times while growing up did we witness our fathers or other, older men refuse to ask for directions, instead leading the family to drive needlessly around for miles, wasting gas? Or, how many times have men refused to go see a therapist when the data clearly shows that it can help? For most of our lives we have been told there’s only one acceptable way for a man to shoot free throws, and it isn’t like a girl.
So, let’s dig into that a bit more. Why don’t men engage in the type of behaviors that are objectively beneficial to them? One answer could be that the rigid gender scripts written over generations don’t allow for it. For some men, the fear of losing one’s manhood can be more powerful than reaping the benefits of self-improvement.
Why Men Place Pride Before Health
Over time, so much value has been put on the traits that make up a rugged male individualist. And, men have been taught that the show of strength outweighs any nominal danger that may or may not be a byproduct of this behavior. For instance, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health showed that women are more likely to see a doctor for preventative care. It’s common sense that men having routine physicals will help catch dangerous ailments and diseases before it’s too late; but here we are. Men still avoid the doctor unless they have a limb going the wrong way or are being rolled into an ambulance after a massive heart attack.
Another, more relevant example to this piece, is the issue around counseling. Decades of research have proven that psychotherapy is effective on a wide variety of behavioral and emotional problems. Granted, it’s not perfect —many things rarely are—but there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that it can help. Yet, the stigma surrounding the vulnerability required to render counseling effective is still there. Sure, it’s much different than it was 30 years ago, but there are still men who scoff at the idea of sitting in a room with another human being and talking about their feelings … like a girl. So, what do we do?
Permission to do Things Differently
I contest that there isn’t one singular thing we can do to combat this, but I have one idea: Let’s begin a discussion about the permission structure surrounding therapy. Sure, there are times where counseling is prescribed when severe trauma has been suffered, or intense mental illness due to chemical imbalances must be addressed with the proper medication, or specified treatment modalities must be employed that are designed for specific conditions. But it’s also o.k. to just come in and work on yourself.
Let’s have a discussion about the courage it takes to walk into a therapy room and become the fullest version of yourself. Let’s build a permission structure where coming into therapy is the “manly” thing to do. Let’s build a permission structure where it’s not about how we shoot the free throw, but about how many of them we make.
We can build a world where improving the way you thoughtfully communicate with your partner is defined as macho. We can build a society where getting down on the floor with your children as they play and giving them the affection they deserve, is the strong thing to do. We can build a world where calling up your best friend to tell him you love him is the new textbook definition of manly. If we’re able to do all these things, the science tells us that we can lead more fulfilled lives. Rick Barry said, “My dad said, ‘Son, it doesn’t matter. They can’t make fun of you if you’re making them.”
Power. Vulnerability. Fear.
Thank you Zach for giving us permission to consider the fact that posing as invincible just isn’t where it’s at any longer. Slowly, our culture is moving away from organizing around a value system that places powerful dominance above all else. We have seen the shadow side of this worldview in recent years. Some are at the top, and everyone else is lower. Zero sum game.
The new worldview is emerging and it is an inside job. I am more powerful than my fears and insecurities. I am more powerful than my concerns of what I fear other people might think of me. I am more powerful than shame and guilt. I am more powerful than status, money, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. And “I” is the part of me that is a part of you, and apart from you. This emerging self understands the interdependence of all people, and all things.
Rick Barry shot like a girl. My partner and I have a device, the Free Throw Trainer, that can be used to aim at the hoop, no matter how you shoot. It is more pragmatic than manly.
In the future, what will work is compassion—toward one’s own self and others—and that includes our natural environment.
My greatest concern today is not around getting over the illusion of our powerful manliness on the basketball court, but over the illusion of our dominance over Mother Earth. She doesn’t care about your ego, or mine. If she is damaged when we protect our ego, she will eject us.
And getting ejected by Mother Earth is game over.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Andy.
I think it is interesting that most things can be brought back around to the notion that we have a planet to take care of. There is the notion that we as a society see the earth as “Mother” Nature and see it as feminine energy that can be under the domain of the patriarchy. You could apply the notions of this article to environmental conservation and flip the paradigm to show that conservation can be “manly.” We can save our natural resources and, in the long run, foster more economic growth rather than looking at what the stock price will be at the end of Q1,
I’m surprised, and disappointed, that it took a guy so long to do this. When I played basketball in high school, most of us (girls) could, with a little practice, get free throws into the basket 7 out of 10 times. I’d expect professional players to be able to do it 10 out of 10 times!
It’s such a pity that the men’s movement in the 70s (Stoltenberg et al) against gender stereotypes didn’t develop nearly as strongly as the women’s movement. You guys have about 50 years of catching up to do! (So, so glad to see this site!!)
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this piece! I agree that there is plenty of work to do. We are hoping that the use of the internet as a place to come together and share our thoughts and opinions in good faith. Free throws seemed like as good of a place as any to get a conversation started!
Hi Zach, thanks a lot for this piece and your work. However, I think the example is misguided, as not only men are afraid of throwing free throws like a woman; women are as well: Female professional basketball players do not in fact use the underhand free throw either.
As for your broader point, I agree that admitting vulnerability is a barrier to men seeking out therapy but, on the other hand, it seems like an uphill battle to change societal attitudes. Rather, or in addition, it might also work to frame the service differently, such that it is not about admitting vulnerability. I think this might work because it does not seem that men have trouble seeking out help if it is framed as an personal trainer in the gym.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Michael. I think you are right to point out that female professional basketball players do not employ the underhand strategy, but I was pointing out that reluctance based on the things that male professionals were saying in regards to employing that. I agree it is misguided to label these things as wrong by ascribing them to feminine qualities, but it can’t be denied that those societal sentiments were leading these men to avoid this technique.
As for your second comment, I think both things can be true. I think that we can equate men seeking help for mental health issues as “going to the trainer” while also properly acknowledging it as requiring vulnerability. It might be a bit of an uphill climb, but making sure that labeling these feelings and actions properly is important when it comes to shifting the entire conversation as a whole.
Again, thank you for your cogent thoughts.
I am a golfer with a 3.9 slope index and I putted one handed for more than a year. You just have to use logic and the b–ls to be unconventional.
I’m also a 5 foot 3 inch female, with a 70% free throw average.
Interesting, but even the girls don’t shoot free throws like that. I’ve watched basketball fom the Rec Leagues thru High School into College and on to the WNBA and I don’t remember too many, if any, players using that technique. Although Wilt Chamberlain would shoot that way from time to time.