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Why does Swarthmore’s basketball team practice foul shots from 14½ feet? Science.

Garnet coach Landry Kosmalski is open to trying new things. A Swarthmore professor suggested a new technique in practicing at the line and it is part of the routine now.

Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski says, "We look kind of cookie cutter. But we’re definitely off the wall.”
Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski says, "We look kind of cookie cutter. But we’re definitely off the wall.”Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Allen Schneider, longtime Swarthmore College psychology and neuroscience professor, is a basketball fan, but he wasn’t actively looking for ways to help out Swarthmore’s men’s basketball team. He’d just watched Garnet coach Landry Kosmalski enough to think the coach might be receptive to this theory in Schneider’s own field.

“I think what I did was, I bumped into the article — anything on reconsolidation catches my eye,” Schneider said the other day. “I’m such a basketball and Landry fan, I thought this could be an interesting thing to try. I think I e-mailed it to him.”

The article was titled, “Want to learn a new skill faster? Change your practice session.”

Could this be done for Swarthmore’s foul-shooting drills?

“When he gave me the paper, and I read it — it’s very persuasive,” Kosmalski said.

At the time, a few years back, Swarthmore was the top-ranked Division III team in the country. Kosmalski was not messing with that success on the fly. He’d get back to the paper.

This 2016 article, by a writer named Mihai Andrei in ZME Science, focused on a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, led by Pablo Celnik, now the director of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins.

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Schneider, the Swarthmore professor, wants to emphasize, this was not his study. He was just the conduit, getting it to the coach.

But why wouldn’t a basketball coach take a look? A passage in the article practically demanded it: “The key to learning a new skill (like playing the guitar or shooting those hoops for example) isn’t only in the hours you put into practice, but also how those hours are spent. Scientists have found that by adding slight variations in the practice routine, you can keep your brain more active and facilitate the learning process.”

Kosmalski pleads guilty to being a big reader himself, always looking for ideas to incorporate into his program.

“I’m a little off the wall,” Kosmalski said. “We look kind of cookie cutter. But we’re definitely off the wall.”

The research explained how volunteers in the Hopkins study were split into three groups. The first had a learning session, then a second one that was identical six hours later, and then the same again the next day. The second group had the same learning session the first time, but with slight differences for the second and third sessions. “Similar tasks, but with minor differences.”

The third group, a control group, only conducted the same first session, with no follow-up sessions.

The finding: “The second group was more accurate and almost twice as fast as the first group. Participants in the third group performed on average 25% worse than the ones in the first group.”

Trying it out

How could you not be intrigued? The pandemic took out the 2020 NCAA tournament and the entire 2020-21 Swarthmore season, but Kosmalski resolved to try it before 2021-22. Their internal practice findings suggested: Keep going with it.

The paper had used a basketball example of trying a slightly heavier ball, but Swarthmore came up with its own experiment. What if they practiced sometimes shooting free throws from 14½ feet … and other times from 15½ feet? That’s what they now do, in addition to the standard 15 feet.

“We don’t do it every day,” Kosmalski said. “In fact, part of the paper says, you need to do it, then not do the normal distance for like six hours.”

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“Landry should be given major credit for this,” Schneider said. “The procedure, the protocol, is wonderful.”

As a team, Swarthmore made 71.3% of its free throws in 2018-19, when the team went to the national championship game. The next season, when Swarthmore stayed No. 1 the whole way … 73.6%.

After the year off and this new training method, Swarthmore has made 76.5% last season and 74.9% this season.

That kind of leap sounds statistically significant. There’s a little more variance player to player, some improving, but not all.

One key, Schneider said, is that the difference in routine is very minor. Think about it, if you were practicing 20-footers one day and 15-footers the next, that’s a whole different shot.

“What’s crucial for this phenomenon to occur — first a person needs a memory to begin with,” Schneider said.

Basketball players standing at the foul line have that, for better or worse.

“That’s already embedded,” said Schneider, who just formally retired, but still teaches a not-for-credit seminar on campus and keeps office hours as an emeritus professor.

So retrieving that memory, but under slightly different conditions, allows for change to the process itself.

This is all simplifying things to an extreme degree. But basketball players (and sportswriters) do not need to understand the science behind it.

“I spend an entire seminar on it,” Schneider said of reconsolidation, a field of his academic expertise. “It’s not a simple process.”

‘Roll with it’

At a practice last month, Garnet players were practicing from 14½ feet, not blinking at the, uh, weirdness of it.

What goes through a Swarthmore player’s head when his coach brings something like this to him?

“I think you absolutely roll with it,” said Swarthmore senior guard George Visconti. “But I think we do a lot of things different.”

So maybe “a chuckle,” Visconti said, at the first mention. “But this is just par for the course with Coach Kosmalski. He’s huge into human psychology. It was spot-on for him. And I think we have this overwhelming trust in him, and all the coaches. So OK, bring it on. Once you start doing it, see it on the practice plan, it becomes routine.”

It’s hard to know, Visconti said, whether that factors into his own improved foul shooting, from 73.8% in 2019-20 to 77.6%, to 84% this season. How much of that is his own comfort with college ball and all the work put in? There’s no way of breaking it down. Visconti doesn’t try to overanalyze it. He said sometimes even in a game he’ll think he didn’t shoot that well from the field but looks at the stat sheet — “Oh, I actually shot the ball well.”

Might as well trust the coach, since this season, Swarthmore is 22-3 and ranked 15th in the country going into the Centennial Conference Tournament, which starts Friday night with a home game for the Garnet. As it happens, Johns Hopkins, home of this research study, is the Centennial top seed, also 22-3 and ranked eighth in Division III.

What if it all comes down to foul shooting? What if Hopkins has inadvertently helped Swarthmore?

Maybe all is fair in the interest of science.

“Original and new memory are working mutually to enhance the skill,” Schneider said “It’s a way to learn on top of something that’s already learned.”

One-and-one, so to speak.