When coaches discuss shooting, variability tends to be considered a mistake. There tends to be a biomechanics-biased view of shooting: There is one optimal skill execution, and any variation from this optimal technique is error.
The differential learning perspective espoused by Schöllhorn (2000) suggested that there is no single repetition of a skill by an individual: Every repetition, even of a closed skill (free throw), differs slightly based on environmental, individual, and task constraints.
Another viewpoint suggested that experts are not the most consistent, as coaches believe, but those who are able to vary their techniques as necessary depending on the task (Button et al., 2013). Stated differently, “optimal variability is when a biological system demonstrates stability but with a capacity to change when required” (Stergiou et al, 2013).
In the video above from Klay Thompson’s record-setting third quarter against the Kings, most see an amazingly consistent shooter. However, every shot that he shoots is different; he is able to vary his technique when required.
First, the pre-shot movement differs, which changes the shot. He shoots off the dribble and off the catch; the starting point for one’s shot changes based on the hand with which he dribbles or the location of the pass reception. He shoots moving toward the basket and moving away from the basket. He steps into shots right-left and left-right and on a one-count.
Second, his release differs. He shoots early in his jump and near the apex of his jump. The height of his jump varies between easier, more uncontested shots and a more contested shot.
Third, he jumps slightly backward, basically straight up and down, slightly forward, and forward on his shots. On most shots, his feet remain straight and he lands with two feet, whereas on at least one shot, he kicks his right foot forward as he shoots.
These are differences that are noticeable at full speed. With super slow-motion, there would be other slight variations.
These are not mistakes, as we are taught when we are young shooters. Thompson does not make these shots despite these variations; he makes the shots because of the variation. Less-skilled shooters cannot vary their shots based on the task, as Thompson demonstrated. Thompson’s variability illustrates his expertise.