I grew up playing basketball and one thing coaches always tell players is that they have to have confidence when they shoot the ball. If you shoot while thinking I hope I don’t miss, then you are going to miss. If you are worried about being yelled at for missing a shot and if you are afraid to miss, then your chances of actually making a shot are slim. At the same time, shooting with confidence, believing you are going to make the shot before you have even caught the ball, is going to make it more likely that you will score. Visualizing a perfect swish before you shoot, the wisdom of all my coaches said, and your swish will come true, but think about what might happen if you miss, and you are out of luck.
I don’t know how much I believed this during my playing days, but the idea was everywhere. There were certainly times I can still remember where I was afraid of missing a shot, only to miss the shot. I can remember a moment from my senior year, where I was wide open for a three on the left hand side. I knew I was going to shoot the ball before my teammate even passed it to me, and I knew I was going to make the shot. “Shoot it,” he said as he passed it to me – not that I needed any extra incentive – and of course, I swished the shot and nodded my head like I was LeBron James as I ran back down the court.
Research from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that there really might be something to this shooting mindset. Kahneman writes about a study of college students who were asked to complete a word scramble and then walk down the hall to another room. When students were presented with words associated with the elderly, the average time it took them to get up from their chair and walk down the hallway to the next room was longer than it was for a control group who didn’t have word scrambles related to old people.
Kahneman writes, “The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”
Simply thinking about old people made people move slower. Thoughts, even thoughts and ideas that people were not directly focused on, changed the way people behaved in the physical world. It is like listening to some pump-up music while pumping iron, but without deliberately setting up the environment to get you in the zone for the physical task. The ideomotor effect represents the connection between our mental state and our physical performance, and it appears that it can be conscious and intentional as well as subconscious and unknown.
So while it might seem like a bunch of superstition to believe that visualizing a swish versus fearing a missed basket will influence whether or not you make a shot, the ideomotor effect might actually make it a reality. My coaches probably hadn’t heard of the ideomotor effect or of a study of slow walking college students thinking about old people. Nevertheless, their intuition seems to have been correct, and my thoughts while shooting basketballs in high school may have played a big role in whether I made a shot or missed.