"Aim Small, Miss Small": The Sniper's Shooting Workout

The movie American Sniper, follows Bradley Cooper, a legendary Navy Seal who becomes one of the most lethal snipers in American history. In one scene, Bradley Cooper is going through sniper training when his instructor gives him a piece of advice that stuck with me, “aim small, miss small.” The instructor tells him to aim for the button on a man’s shirt rather than the whole shirt. If he misses the button by 2 inches, the enemy’s still going down. But if you miss the shirt, you miss the entire target. 

The idea of “aim small, miss small” has clear parallels to shooting in basketball. Aiming small would be to choose a rivet on the rim. Aiming big would be to just look at the whole basket. I could write a whole article on where to look when you're shooting (and I might in the future) but for now, I want to focus on a training technique that follows the "aim small, miss small” advice. 

It’s called Swish-Only Shooting and it’s very simple. Swishes are the only makes that count. No shots that rattle around and in. No back rim and down. Just swishes.  

Is Swish-Only Shooting Appropriate for Me?

Anyone can use swish-only shooting. Just try it for a drill and you'll find that you're automatically more focused.

But it works best for players who are already decent/good shooters who want to become great. It’s especially useful when shooting becomes boring and you don’t feel the same thrill from doing a shooting workout. Swish-only shooting is a new challenge that can spark your competitive juices and rev up your level of focus.

If you feel like you’re plateauing, swish-only shooting can help take you to the next level by increasing the difficulty of your workouts. It forces you to be more precise and lock in on every shot. It’s tough to get through a swish-only shooting drill if you’re not fully engaged. 

How do I Implement Swish-Only Shooting?

Obviously, you have to adjust the amount of makes if you’re only going to count swishes. But how much? I’d recommend taking 10-40% of your normal makes depending on your skill level. So if you were doing a drill where you were going to make 10 shots, you now have to swish 1 to 4. 

It may sound easy, but trust me, it’s tough. Especially if you’re shooting on the move, it can get tiring really quickly. 

Warning: at some point, you’re going to get really frustrated with swish-only shooting. Last summer, I was doing a swish-only drill by myself and I lost it. I was shooting curl threes and had to swish 4. I must’ve made 8 or 9 shots but none of them were swishes and I was already getting tired. My count was still at 0 and I started getting angry.

After 1 particular make that felt perfect but ended up hitting the back rim, I blew up. I grabbed the rebound, screamed at the ball and punted it into the rafters. I’m embarrassed to admit that I lost my cool, but it’s true. I’m usually an even-keeled guy, but there’s something about swish-only shooting that can get under your skin. After I took a deep breath and calmed down for a second, I finished the drill fairly quickly.  

Shooting free throws after the drill, I was able to get some perspective. I was making shots! The whole drill I was actually shooting the ball very well, but I wasn’t reaching my new expectation. By aiming for swishes, I had raised my standard and forced myself to be more precise. And even though it felt like I was doing a terrible job I was actually doing very well if my standard had been to simply make shots. 

That’s the power of raising your standard. If you consistently aim for a higher bar (or in this case, a smaller target), you’re forced to be more precise for every rep. Over time, that precision and concentration will add up and you’ll find yourself improving faster than everyone around you. 

When you go back to counting makes regularly, you might find your shooting percentages have improved. It’s like swinging a weighted baseball bat. Once you return to the normal bat, it feels as light as a feather.

There’s a clear parallel between military snipers and basketball snipers. If you say Steph Curry is the best sniper in the league, most basketball fans will know exactly what you’re talking about. So let’s take a lesson from real snipers to become a better basketball sniper, “aim small, miss small."