This morning I watched Steph Curry hit 286 straight three-pointers in a matter of minutes. The video, which stitched together the Golden State point guard’s storied 2014-15 MVP season, was on YouTube, naturally. I watched it multiple times, which I imagine is a phenomenon that accounts for a number of its more than 2.4- million views to date. But the most instructive screening came with the sound off-when I couldn’t hear “Curry! Three!” and “Curry hits the Three” and “Curry with the deep three” and “Curry unloads the three” and some version of that 282 more times.
Watching Curry-who, in the following season would outdo even this one, hitting an unimaginable 402 threes and winning the only unanimous MVP title in NBA history-is like sneaking into a master class in shooting. There he is, again and again, poised with the perfect footing, the perfect form, the perfect flick of the wrist, the perfect follow-through. There he is, in a seemingly effortless sequence of motions, sinking 25-footers in high, rounded, tractor-beam arcs that slip silently through the rim.
How anyone can aim like that-with such precision and consistency-is a great human mystery. And indeed, no matter what neuroscientists may claim, we’re not close to solving it. Some speak of the “Quiet Eye,” discovered by Canadian researcher Joan Vickers, which is a relatively long-lasting period of fixed gaze that many athletes seem to have just prior to aiming. (The quiet eye appears to tame the raucous brain that can’t seem to stay still.) Others point to a “mosaic of well-known cortical and subcortical areas associated with the planning and execution of goal-directed movements.” Others suggest aiming is an unseen tête-à-tête between lightning-fast “allocentric” (focusing on something or someone outside of yourself) assessments and “egocentric” ones, between framing the target in space and framing one’s own position relative to it-which involves activity across multiple regions of the brain, from the early visual cortex (allocentric judgment) to the parietofrontal cortex (egocentric), from the superior occipital gyrus (natch) to the inferior occipital gyrus, and then some.
In short, still much to figure out. But that said, there is something that improves almost everyone’s aim-and that’s to give us a target that we instinctively want to hit. This is why putting a decal sticker of a fly near the drain on a men’s room urinal (or actually painting it into the porcelain receptacle)-a practice that is becoming more common in places like airports-is so extraordinarily effective at reducing what its politely referred to as “human spillage.” When the motionless fly targets came to urinals at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, spillage rates reportedly dropped by 80% and led to a significant reduction in bathroom cleaning costs, to say nothing of wet shoes.
This is the quiet power of such target priming-a costless incentive to take a moment and aim. Very few, if any, of us will ever be able to square up and hit a three-pointer like Steph Curry. But there is magic nonetheless in the simple things we can do to improve our aim, whether we understand the process or not.