On Underhand Free Throws and Work Family Balance for Dads

Rick Barry shot underhand free throws. (creative commons)
Rick Barry shot underhand free throws. (creative commons)

Rick Barry shot underhand free throws. What we working dads can learn from this example.

One of the oddest things about world-class NBA players is that some of them are terrible free-throw shooters. Free-throws should be one of the easiest aspects of the game- the shot is always the same distance and no one is trying to guard you. Even so, some great players, mostly big-men such as Shaquille O’Neal, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, make less than 50% of their free-throws. This means fewer points and a reduced chance to win. In fact, opposing teams have made a habit of intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters near the end of close games, often resulting in the player having to be taken out of the game during crunch-time, hurting their teams chance at victory. The term for this was called “Hack a Shaq.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In fact, there is a better way to shoot free throws than the typical overhead technique. And every player who makes less than 65% or so of his free throws should use it. But they don’t. Why?

Because the better way is using underhand free throws, which, to many, looks unmanly- and is often termed “shooting granny style.” This, despite the fact that one of the greatest NBA players of all-time, Rick Barry, used this technique to great success. In fact, Rick Barry led the NBA in free-throw percentage for seven seasons using his underhand free throw technique! Why aren’t there more who imitate his style?*

Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest players of all-time despite shooting 51% from the free throw line. He briefly used the underhand free throw technique and made 28 of 32 free throws during his record-breaking 100 point game. He then stopped shooting underhand because, as he once wrote:

“I felt silly. Like a sissy.”

Facepalm.

“One best way” thinking persists despite there being an at-least-equally effective alternative. And this alternative is eschewed because it is deemed unmanly. Sound familiar?

The same dynamic seems to operate when it comes to work-family balance for working dads. There’s the traditional path- as a working dad, you love your kids and take care of your family, but work comes first. Your spouse, even if she works, becomes the primary parent and you become the helper. You don’t talk too much about family while at work, and keep your use of leave and flexibility under the radar.

And, for lots of dads, especially those with traditional values, this works perfectly fine. Just like the traditional overhead way works well for most good free-throw shooters in the NBA.

But this dynamic doesn’t work for everyone. The alternative approach- being a more overtly hands-on dad- is best for many dads and their families. But many dads don’t follow this route because social pressure and employer culture considers this style of fatherhood to be “unmanly” – just like underhand free throws.

Many frustrated dads would do better by thinking differently about their roles at work and at home and making a conscious choice that works best for them even if it goes against the grain. Yes, there will be some “Mr. Mom” comments, befuddled in-laws or skeptical bosses, but you only have one opportunity with your kids’ childhoods. For men who have options in terms of finances and careers, many would do well to chart their own path. Sure, it may seem awkward at first. Underhand free throws do, as well.

In fact, Canyon Barry, Rick’s youngest son who played collegiate basketball and shot underhand free throws, states it very plainly:

“Why should a player be able to tell his boss, the people who are paying him multimillions of dollars, that he’s not willing to try to do something to make himself better, which is going to make the team better?”

I’d put it slightly differently- Why wouldn’t a smart manager try different techniques to get the best out of employees?

I strongly believe that more employers need to value and embrace multiple kinds of work-family arrangements to better suit their different types of employees. In many cases, it is managerial pressure that restricts employees to one approach- just like with underhand free throws. Thankfully, many large companies are starting to make progress, but still, too many dads are constrained in their work-family choices.

So, why don’t we see more alternatives for working dads? The same reason we see almost no one shoot underhand free throws. As Canyon Barry says:

“I don’t know whether it’s their egos or they’re just not willing to change. It’s crazy.”

Agreed.

What do you think about looking unmanly? or underhand free throws? Any stories to share? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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* As I was preparing this post, a friend told me that Malcolm Gladwell discussed this very topic in his podcast. Check it out for more detail.

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