My Quiet Eye

by Leighann Doan
From On The Ball Web Feature

In "A Quiet Eye," we saw Alan improve his golf game simply by steadying his gaze. Alan wasn't the first athlete to benefit from Joan Vickers' quiet eye training. University of Calgary basketball player Leighann Doan used it to improve her free-throw shooting skills. Now a professional basketball player in Europe, Doan recounts how quiet eye training helped her along the path to success.

Time is running out on the clock, down by one point, the fans are causing a loud distraction, the game is on the line, two free throws to win the game. . .

More than a handful of times I have had the opportunity to be in this position. Nothing can be more satisfying to a basketball player than to look that challenge straight in the eye and know, without a shadow of a doubt, you can conquer it. Time and time again, games are won or lost depending on how players respond to the pressure at the free throw line.

As a young player, just starting my university career at the University of Calgary, I was an average free throw shooter. I perfected my routine -two dribbles and a spin of the ball- but that never seemed to be enough. Despite my continual practice, I could never seem to get my free throw percentage up above 70%. This was something that constantly haunted me. I wanted to be able to finish my play at the free throw line.

I knew the importance of having a habitual routine and I did my best to focus my mind, but for some reason, I could not conquer the challenge that was before me. It seemed to be such a simple task to accomplish. However, I never realized I was missing a very integral aspect of a great free throw shooter - focusing my eyes.

Following the conclusion of my third season, my coach, Shawnee Harle, asked a few players on the team to be a part of specific research she was conducting on the theory of Quiet Eye. I had never heard of it, but it seemed like a good opportunity to pick up a few useful tricks and help out my coach. I did not realize it, but this concept was about to transform my free throw shooting. The theory behind quiet eye held the key to the success I was

An Eye Opening Experiment
The testing consisted of shooting free throws while wearing a very strange looking helmet with cameras focused on my eyes, the whole time connected to a computer. It seemed very basic but the technology behind it was amazing. I really did not know what to make of it but I thought I had nothing to lose by giving it a try. Upon completion of the testing, I was given the opportunity to have an outside look at what my eyes were looking at while I was preparing to shoot my free throw. What I saw amazed me.

All along I thought I had done a decent job of focusing my eyes on my target as I was completing my routine. Little did I know that my eyes were actually busy 'looking' around. What I mean by this is that, even though I was looking in the direction of the hoop I was shooting at, my eyes were jumping from the top corner of the backboard to the bottom corner, from the front of the rim to the back of the rim. When I stopped to think about it, that was a lot of information for my mind to register and then pass along to my body. I needed to teach my eyes how to focus on one single spot, giving my mind a chance to sight my target and then pass along the critical information to my body to perform the exact movements. It all seemed very scientific, but what it came down to was a slight alteration of my free throw routine.

Instead of just looking at the hoop, I had now learned to select a very specific spot on the rim and focus my eyes there for only a very short time. It was not important what spot I chose as long as I was able to focus on it EVERYTIME. Different shooters choose different locations as their targets, some the back of the rim, others the front of the rim and still others choose the middle of the rim. For me, I chose the back of the rim, more specifically the notch where the mesh is tied to the rim. This gave me a spot I could immediately locate on every hoop and thus perfect my routine. The importance of the routine is to have the same shot every time. How can one expect to have a high free throw percentage when one never knows what the shot will look like? By having a specific routine, doing the same action every shot and focusing on the same spot every time, I had a much higher chance of my shot being the same every time.

Essentially, when I finally got my routine in place and was ready to perfect it, it looked like this. First I made sure my feet were lined up, next I dribbled the ball three times, line up my hands, sighted my target for one second, and then let my body perform the motion I had taught it to. A routine such as this did not happen over night nor did my free throw percentage increase over night, but what it did do was give me the confidence to face the challenge that lay before me - finishing my play at the free throw line.

In the previous seasons, I did not have the attitude of a successful free throw shooter, one in which I was glad to be put on the free throw line in the toughest of situations. I had often hoped the ball would go in rather than knowing that it would go in. Now I had a new confidence that allowed me to step up to the line knowing that if I focused my eyes on my target then my body would do the rest. As a result of all this, by the next season I had brought my free throw percentage up to 80%- that is a margin of more then 10 percent.

From Theory to Practice
What I have since come to understand over the past few years is the importance of giving my mind something to focus on. It is very easy in a situation where the game is on the line to let my mind take over. Negative thoughts would begin to take over, thoughts that said I would never make the shot or sounds in the crowd that caught my attention. However, by learning to focus my eyes and give my mind a target I was able to shut out the distractions around me. In a sense, I was too caught up in my routine to notice other things going on. This takes many, many hours of practice, and it is still a skill I must work on everyday. Just like learning a new one-on-one move or correcting my shot, learning to focus my eyes has been a continuous development.

As a professional player now, I have come to understand even more the importance of perfecting this skill. The higher I go in my sport, the less distinction there is in the level of skill of the players around me. In order to be the best, I have to have a skill that sets me a part. I truly believe this has a lot to do with the mental aspect of the game, and for me that starts on the free throw line. This is a skill that I can exercise every day that helps to keep my mental game sharp. When physical skill starts to equal out, mental skills can often be the defining factor that divides the good players from the best players.

According to Doan, Quiet Eye training gave her the edge in the Big Leagues.

The theory of quiet eye has helped me to become a better all-around player. There is always room for improvement in my game and it is often the little things that make the biggest difference. Becoming a better free throw shooter adds another dimension to my game and allows me to face the high pressure challenge on the free throw line with greater confidence. Before learning of this technique, it was always a guessing game as to why my free throw shooting was only average. Now I have a very simple yet profound skill that allows me to monitor my shot. It takes time to learn this skill and many hours of practice, but as the saying goes, anything worth having is worth sacrificing for.

Leighann Doan played forward for the University of Calgary from 1996-2001. She currently plays for Clermont-Ferrand, France.