The Reality of Ball Don’t Lie with Art Rondeau
“Ball don’t lie” has become a sort of widespread belief in the basketball world. Simply put, “ball don’t lie” implies that the basketball ia an all-knowing entity which, by going through the rim or not, reveals if a foul should have been called. Hence, while a player playing pick-up ball in the park could call a foul when he was not touched or flop well enough to draw a whistle from a referee in an organized contest, him missing his free throws would be a result of “ball don’t lie” as the ball is aware that those free throws shouldn’t have been attempted.
Explaining it makes it sound pretty weird, but it’s a popular phrase used in the confines of basketball, even on the brightest of basketball stages, the NBA. Rasheed Wallace has been one of the most quotable players in NBA history, and one of his mainstays is the use (he yells it out loud) of “ball don’t lie” after an opposing player misses a free throw Wallace believed should not have been taken.
I was laughing at one of these instances watching a video on YouTube recently, and it brought up this question in my head:
Is there any truth to “ball don’t lie”?
No, I’m not asking if a round ball with a leather exterior can dictate whether a player was fouled or not and then force itself to fall through the hoop or clank out under it’s own power, I’m asking if there’s a mental effect on the player knowing that he shouldn’t be at the line. If say, I flopped on a drive to the tin, and the ref blows his whistle. I’m stepping up to the line, knowing in my head that I completely and utterly fooled the official into getting me two free throws. Will the “ball don’t lie” ideal in my mind somehow cause me to miss?
To further investigate this theory of mine, I got in touch with Art Rondeau, an expert in the mental side of sports performance who has worked with NBA players like Allan Houston and Chris Dudley. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @ArtRondeau, or at his website, ArtRondeau.com.
I asked Rondeau the aforementioned question, and he provided a bounty of information confirming my hypothesis:
“Not to be facetious here, if we’ve seen enough evidence that it might be true (very good FT shooters missing FTs after questionable calls), then it’s either ‘mental’ or ‘metaphysical’. I’m not going to comment on the ‘metaphysical’ here. Just the ‘mental’.
A few situational ground rules:
1. The player is a good FT shooter. (Doesn’t have to be Ray Allen but can’t be
Dwight, either.) He’s warmed up, stretched out, has taken a couple of other FTs
within the past few minutes, and has no physical challenges. (Either big injury
or tight muscles from the contact.)
2. He has to believe that either the call that went his way was incorrect or
that the call was questionable. (Could have gone either way.) If he believes
that the call was correct, then a BDL-miss wouldn’t come into play.
3. He’s got no challenges around making the shot. It’s not going to be his
10th made FT in a row and he doesn’t believe he can hit 10 in a row. It’s not
going to set the franchise record for made FTs in a career, etc. Just a regular
4. He’s got to believe that BDL is either accurate or possible. If he
wholeheartedly believes that BDL is false, that impacts the shot and probably
increases the chances that he’ll make it. If he’s never heard of BDL, it won’t
have a mental impact.”
Rondeau first sets some parameters as to where BDL has realistic effects on a shooter, being that the player must be a decent or good free throw shooter, he must genuinely believe the foul call was incorrect or questionable, it’s an ordinary free throw with no records or streaks attached and he needs to have heard of BDL (most basketball players have) and must have some belief in it.
Again, not belief in an all-knowing ball, but in his trip to the line being undeserving and that having an impact on him. Now keep in mind how much the mind goes into making a free throw. Any over-thinking can cause a missed shot, a player’s focus should only be on his routine when stepping up to the line. Art moves on to how BDL can negatively impact a player’s free throw:
“First, because he believes in BDL and knows he didn’t get fouled, he starts consciously thinking about BDL and how it might mean he’s going to miss the shot. That means he’s focusing on BDL and/or about how not to miss instead of just focusing on going to the line and shooting like he normally does.
Second, although I’m relying on my own work with elite athletes here and not to
any study (although I’ll eventually set one up), even if he doesn’t start
consciously focusing on BDL, the fact that he believes in it and knows he
doesn’t deserve the FTs can make his unconscious help him miss. It might make
him feel tense (which also makes the muscles tense) and he might short arm his
shot. There are other ways it can play out (he suddenly starts getting pictures
of past missed FTs for example).
None of this means that he won’t hit a free throw, it just means that it might
clank around before it bounces in. The funny thing is this: if he truly
believes in BDL and he makes a FT, it probably won’t shake his belief in BDL.
Instead, he might start questioning whether it was really a bad call by the ref
and start thinking that ‘maybe I did get hit and didn’t realize it’. The
psychological term is ‘cognitive dissonance’ and, in general, it means taking
events that don’t conform to our beliefs and reinterpreting them so that they
do. Humans are interesting creatures.”
This is quite the revelation, especially when Art talks about missing the free throw because of a player’s unconscious. You don’t even need to be thinking about the concept of “ball don’t lie” for it to have an impact on your free throw attempt, an eye-opener to say the least.
The use of analytics in sports is ever-expanding and has been increasingly paired with studies into the mental aspects of them as well. Here we see another example of how the human mind can play just as big of a factor on the sports we watch as the human body. Who would have thought that a playful phrase aimed at players benefiting off of incorrect foul calls could have a real effect on the game? Turns out it does, and that’s something to keep in mind. Just not too much, though. You might brick a free throw.
*Art Rondeau is one of many talented people studying the mental aspects of sports to better the fan’s knowledge of the game and the players’ effectiveness in playing it. I’d like to thank him here for answering my question and allowing me to share his response to all of you.