sports psychologist & clinical psychology

BARELY TWO MINUTES INTO N.C. STATE’S GAME WEDNESDAY AGAINST GEORGIA TECH, WOLFPACK SHOOTING GUARD COURTNEY FELLS CAME OPEN OFF A SCREEN AND TOOK HIS FIRST SHOT, A 3-POINTER NEAR THE TOP OF THE KEY

Greensboro News Record – Jan 26, 2008 – Jim Young – Barely two minutes into N.C. State’s game Wednesday against Georgia Tech, Wolfpack shooting guard Courtney Fells came open off a screen and took his first shot, a 3-pointer near the top of the key.

Swish.

It was a great beginning to a great game for Fells, who went on to make nine of 11 shots and score a game-high 23 points.

It was the type of game that observers of college basketball have in mind when they use some version of this line: “If he hits his first shot, he’s going to have a good game. If not, he usually struggles.”

Two nights earlier, ESPN’s Sean McDonough had said virtually the same thing when Syracuse forward Donte Greene was 1-for-10 on the way to a 5-for-19 game against Georgetown. Greene had missed his first shot, and apparently that was the impetus for his poor performance.

Or was it? Is the first shot really that important? Or is it one of those basketball clichés that’s really more tired than it is true? It depends on whom you ask and which player you’re talking about.

Roy Williams doesn’t think much of the first shot. As always, North Carolina’s coach has a golf analogy handy to explain why.

“Tiger Woods doesn’t always birdie the first hole,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys that can really get it going at one point during the game and some guys that start out shooting like crazy and then it falters at the end.”

Williams’ top shooter, Wayne Ellington, seems to back up that assertion. After making his first attempt of the game, Ellington has hit 43.1 percent of his shots this season. But if Ellington misses his initial shot, he shoots at a 49.5 percent clip the rest of the game.

Duke’s Jon Scheyer is an even more extreme case. For some reason — perhaps because he comes off the bench instead of starting — Scheyer has been woefully inaccurate on his initial shot this season, making just three of 17 (17.6 percent). But after those 14 first misses, he has gone on to shoot 55.4 percent. In the three games when Scheyer actually sank his first attempt, he made only seven of the 20 other shots he took (35 percent).

“It’s just a shot,” Scheyer said. “If you make it or miss it, it doesn’t affect me. You’ve got to keep shooting it.”

Then there are Fells and Brandon Costner, an N.C. State forward. Costner has struggled with his shooting touch all season, but it’s clearly more of a problem when he misses his initial attempt. In those games he has made just 21.8 percent of his other shots. When Costner’s first shot goes down, his percentage on the other attempts jumps to 37 percent, a considerable improvement.

Fells’ shooting percentage improves when he makes his first shot — from 45.8 percent to 53.1 on his other attempts — but it seems as if he thinks his start is even more important than those statistics would suggest.

When Fells makes his first shot, he hunts for more, averaging nine more attempts in those games. An initial miss makes him more conservative. He hoists up only 5.5 more shots in those games.

Why such a wide range of results? Because we’re dealing with that most fickle of basketball qualities — confidence.

“There’s an efficiency that’s apparent in somebody who is extremely confident,” said Dr. John Murray, a sports performance psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla.

That confidence springs from results. Just about any player will say he feels good about his next shot if the previous one went down. If the shot before was a miss, the numbers start to vary.

“It’s the difficulty with coping and refocusing after a miss,” explained Dr. Renee Newcomer Appaneal, an assistant professor in sport and exercise psychology at UNCG. “That’s a very common challenge that athletes, particularly at a high level, face. More often than not, they’re going to miss. They’re going to fail.”

That’s why the players who develop reputations as top shooters often are described as having no conscience. They just aren’t bothered by misses the way other, more erratic shooters are.

“A lot of times a player might think if he misses a shot, it’s a mistake,” said Duke assistant coach Chris Collins. “I know we go through that with certain guys on our team. We want our guys to … we call it: ‘Shoot our bullets with confidence.’ ”

Building that confidence or keeping it sometimes means dancing around the first-shot question. Coaches frequently say it’s a problem … with players they’ve seen on other teams. Players will either deny it’s an issue or, like Ellington, say it’s a thing of the past.

“That was one of my problems last year,” the North Carolina sophomore said. “If I missed my first one or two shots, I kind of got down on myself and lost some confidence, and I missed some more.”

In Ellington’s case, and in the case of others, experience is the best way around over-reliance on first-shot success. Hit enough shots in enough games and you have something to fall back on if attempt No. 1 clangs off the rim.

Get to that point, as Duke sharpshooter Taylor King has, and you can take the good of the first shot and throw out the bad.

“It’s not important to me,” King said when asked about his first shot.

Unimportant only if it’s a miss. If it’s a make, well, that just bolsters the confidence already there.

“Once you see the ball go through the basket,” King said, “your eyes light up.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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