In an extract from a new book on how elite athletes are made, Tim Wigmore and Mark Williams unlock the secrets of the world’s best players
When she has a free throw, Elena Delle Donne bounces the basketball three times. Then, she says a few words to herself and “I let it fly”. Nineteen times out of 20, Delle Donne scores.
Delle Donne is the most successful free-throw shooter in basketball history. She has landed 93.8% of her free throws in the rim – over 3% more than nearest rival, Steph Curry. She once made 59 consecutive free throws.
For Delle Donne, the road to perfection – or as near to it as possible – begins in practice. During breaks in training, while her teammates sit down and have a drink, Delle Donne shoots free throws instead. This work ethic is in keeping with the entire philosophy that governs her practice; it is best to train when she is physically and mentally tired to replicate match conditions.
“I practise free throws during all of my workouts and shoot them right after doing tough drills so I’m tired,” Delle Donne said. “Generally, when people are tired their mind is the first thing to go. So, if I can lock in and knock down free throws while tired it helps me in game moments when it’s on the line.”
Before she leaves practice, Delle Donne must make 10 successful free throws in a row. Such discipline imbues her with the confidence to shoot free throws when they matter most. Her record in playoff games is even better than overall.
“Sticking to the routine stops me from overthinking,” she explained. “You should never rush on the line but there’s also no reason to draw it out too long.”
The Delle Donne method is founded on simplicity, enabling her to repeat it under the fiercest pressure: bouncing the ball, setting herself up to shoot, and uttering a few words to herself. “It is something that is super positive and gives me confidence.”
One of the hallmarks of Delle Donne in these crux moments is her unstinting focus on where she wants the ball to go. In the seconds when she is about to throw the basketball, “I always stare right at the front of the rim right before the shot and as I shoot … To hit your target you have to keep your eyes focused on it at least until you release the ball.”
The feeling of reaching a plateau on the sports field is a familiar lament for athletes. Why, suddenly, do some athletes cease improving? And how do others avoid this curse?
The optimal challenge point is the sweet spot for training. This is the point at which practice is difficult enough to push athletes to develop new skills, but not so challenging that it is completely beyond their existing capabilities. The notion was developed by the scientists Mark Guadagnoli and Tim Lee.
“If an appropriate level of challenge is created during practice, some degree of short-term failure should occur, allowing an opportunity for growth,” Guadagnoli explained. “As a general rule, if you find that someone has more success than about 70–75 % of the time during practice, they’re probably not being stressed appropriately.” Such a rate of failure in practice yields effective long-term learning.
Leading athletes have been shown to be more inclined to work on their weakest areas. The effect was demonstrated in a study of expert and intermediate Gaelic footballers who practised two types of kick towards a target – from the hand and off the ground – using their stronger and weaker foot; the players were free to practise the skills however they wanted over a six-week period. The expert group practised the skill they were weakest at 65% of the time; the intermediate group practised the skill they were weakest at only 35% of the time. Expert players also spent longer reflecting on their performance before, during, after and between practice sessions and rated practice as more effortful and less enjoyable – but, perhaps as a result, improved at a faster rate than the intermediate players. At the end of the training period, the experts displayed a more marked improvement in performance. More onerous training help them avoid plateauing.
Eric Thibault is the assistant coach of the Washington Mystics. One of his responsibilities is effectively to be Delle Donne’s personal coach.
After each WNBA season, Thibault and Delle Donne discuss her previous campaign. Then, they hatch a plan for what she will do over the off-season. This process does not judge her by conventional WNBA standards, only by the player that they think Delle Donne can become. “We’re talking about somebody who is already one of the best players in the league, so we came at it from the angle of these are going to be incremental gains,” Thibault explained.
Before the 2018 season, Thibault and Delle Donne identified a relative weakness of her game: her lack of assists. “Our biggest room for improvement – your ability to make teams pay for over-helping and giving you too much attention,” Thibault wrote in his write-up of Delle Donne’s ‘offseason outline’ for 2017–18. In the outline, he wrote:
You have a career average of 1.6 assist per game, with 1.2 turnovers per game. For the sheer amount of attention you receive, you could achieve three assists per game without breaking a sweat (and without reducing your shot attempts)… For how much you have the ball, your turnover numbers are good. We would just like to turn the ‘escape’ passes against help and double teams into ‘attack’ passes.
In 2018, Delle Donne went from 41 assists in the season to 67, comfortably the highest yet in her career. In 2019, her career best increased again, to 68.
Thibault uses video analysis and data analytics to break down Delle Donne’s shooting percentages all over the court. Before they got the technology, he or another coach would write down all of Delle Donne’s shots during practice. The analysis encouraged Delle Donne to take more shots in areas she is strongest, and to improve in comparatively weak areas.
“It wasn’t so much an area where she didn’t shoot well, it was more about balance,” Thibault explained. “We just found a couple of areas where she was under-utilizing her skillset. She only liked to go to her right hand one side of the court and so she was wasting an opportunity on the other side of the court to do the same thing.”
Thibault wanted to make Delle Donne “harder to predict”. While she was efficient all over the court, “she barely ever turned to her right shoulder from the right block”, doing so in just four out of 51 possessions in 2018. “A team that did its homework could sit on her left shoulder and anticipate a shot.”
In some drills, Thibault barred Delle Donne from turning on her left shoulder when receiving the ball in the right block, forcing her to turn on her right shoulder. “We might make her play one-on-one against one of our coaches or practice players where she couldn’t start by going the way she would normally go. We’d make her try to score going the other way.”
Delle Donne seldom delves into the statistics herself, but trusts enough in Thibault to act on his findings. “He works all that magic and I just show up and we work those spots.”
At the heart of Delle Donne’s training is the idea that practice shouldn’t just replicate the game, but be harder than it. Taking shots at the end of an a training session is designed to replicate the feeling at the end of an intense play-off game, she explained. “We’ll do certain drills that are high conditioning, and then we add shots to them at the end. So that’s a way to figure out how to push through the fatigue and mentally get past being exhausted but still be able to shoot.” A heart rate monitor is attached to Delle Donne during workouts, to ensure her intensity matches that needed in games.
In training, opponents are sometimes allowed to foul Delle Donne in a way that would be barred – officially, at least – during games. “I’ll always have a defender who’s contesting each of my shots, and there’s times when I’ll have them push me at the waist, so I still find a way to finish and make the shot while being hit.” So if Delle Donne is fouled during a game, she has learned how to take a shot regardless. “If you can finish while being exhausted and also getting hit here and there I think that’s a great thing to practise.”
The ferocity of her training makes actually playing games seem easier. “I like to make practice way harder.”
Steph Curry is such an extraordinary basketball shooter that fans flock just to watch him train. It has become an iconic sight; about an hour before each Golden State Warriors game, Curry is on court, receiving basketballs to shoot into the basket.
He begins by taking shots from just a little past the mid-range line. Then he moves further away, past the three-point line, into the corner of the court. These shots require extraordinary precision to execute – and Curry makes them even harder, taking the shots off-balance, with one leg off the ground, or leaning back, replicating the pressure exerted by an opponent.
“You find some very unorthodox ways to challenge yourself,” he explained. “It’s mostly balance work in terms of challenging yourself and making it a little bit harder in your practice than in the game – things click. That’s how all balance works – that is the foundation of your jumper shot.”
Curry’s pre-game routine does not finish until he has taken shots from inside his own half, long past what is futile for virtually any other professional basketball player. “In terms of trying to sustain it and shoot at a high level it’s about practising the shots I’ll take in games and repeating that motion over and over and over again.”
This is how Curry has become the best three-point shooter in the history of the NBA; he has scored 20% more three pointers per game than anyone else in history. Curry is at the apex of a revolution.
The attempt to refresh his practices is at the core of how Curry has changed the way the game is played. He even went through a phase of wearing goggles in training. “It’s just an extra stimulus that could test you and challenge you, take away some of your senses so that you could really lock in focus. As hard as I could make things in practice, that’s the easier it gets in games.” Using such goggles can help athletes develop multisensory function. Wearing goggles that prevent athletes from seeing their limbs during practice encourages them to use non-visual information to move their limbs, freeing vision to focus on what is happening elsewhere on court.
As Curry has improved, what he demands of himself in training has become ever more demanding. “I’ve got to continue to push myself. I hesitate sometimes to open the veil on that because there is a process to building your game and I do not want children kind of jumping steps in terms of their development. Once you get to high school, college, you can start to add more and more.”
Delle Donne’s offseason outline for 2018–19 included one very specific goal. She wanted to join Curry in the hallowed 50–40–90 club – maintaining a 50% field goal percentage, 40% three-point field goal percentage and 90% free throw percentage over the regular season.
In 2019, Delle Donne became the first ever woman, and only the ninth ever player in the NBA or WNBA, to join the 50–40–90 club. It was the latest mark of her greatness, but also of her ability to make good on the plans she hatched with Thibault.
“It’s funny to look back on that,” Thibault recalled. “Sometimes with Elena you can say something or make a suggestion or work on something, and she’s so capable of quickly turning around and implementing it or reaching a goal.
“When you have somebody that’s that elite and invested in their success and willing to work on what to other people may be pretty marginal things – a normal athlete might say oh that’s good enough, I’m already shooting X percentage, that’s already a great percentage. But when you have somebody that’s that willing to be coached, that’s already at that level, it just makes you want to help them any way you possibly can.”
This is an excerpt from The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore (Nicholas Brearley, December 2020).