PAB Newsletter #23 – The science of the “Hot Hand” in Basketball

Jun 10, 2024 | Home News, Media, News, Performance

Authors: Jaime Sampaio, Baris Kocaoglu, Julio Calleja-González, Igor Jukic, Francesco Cuzzolin, Mar Rovira, Antonio Santo

The ‘hot hand’ phenomenon has long intrigued players, coaches, and fans with its seemingly magical influence on performance. It’s the belief that a player who has made several consecutive shots is more likely to continue making shots in succession. While sceptics still question its validity, and some research disputes the existence of such streaks, recent scientific studies suggest that the hot hand may indeed be a real phenomenon, albeit with very complex underlying mechanisms.

Neurological Insights: studies using neuroimaging techniques show that when players experience a surge in confidence during a hot hand streak, areas of the brain involved in reward processing and motor planning become more active (1). This heightened neural activity may facilitate enhanced focus, decision-making, and motor control, contributing to an exceptional performance.

Psychological Factors: cognitive biases, such as the tendency to perceive patterns in random sequences, can influence players’ beliefs in their own hot hand streaks (2). The impact of confidence and momentum cannot be overstated. When players perceive themselves as being “on fire”, their self-efficacy and performance expectations skyrocket, fuelling a positive feedback loop of success.

Statistical Analysis: seminal research has stated that there is no proof that the ‘hot hand’ exists (2). However, a sequence of shots perceived as a ‘hot streak’ by players and observers might not display statistical streakiness. To test for streak shooting, we could track a player’s performance when they are perceived as hot or cold. If a player shoots better than their average when perceived as hot and worse when cold, this indicates a real, actionable pattern. Nevertheless, advanced models that account for contextual factors, shot difficulty, and player tendencies have revealed subtle but significant patterns indicative of the hot hand (3). The likelihood of a player making their next shot increases by 1.2% for each additional prior shot they made (4). Other studies have supported the existence of a small hot hand effect in free-throws, and it persists over time (5). Interestingly, a hot hand effect was identified in the NBA 3-Point Contest, but this effect is disrupted when players change shooting positions (6).

Environmental Context: ecological psychology offers insights into how players interact with their environment during hot hand streaks. In the heat of competition, the dynamic interplay between players, teammates, opponents, and the ever-changing game situation creates a rich landscape of sensory information (7). Players with a heightened awareness of this environmental context can capitalize on hot hand streaks by making instinctive, adaptive decisions that exploit opportunities and maximize their impact on the game.

So why does the Hot Hand matter for your game?

Neuroplasticity, Skill Acquisition, and Tactical Variability: enrich your training sessions with drills and games that incorporate various types of variability, ranging from repetition-based drills to stochastic resonance games (see Figure 1, for examples). Strategies with higher levels of variability specifically aim to rewire the brain to become attuned to changes in the environmental context, thereby facilitating the rapid, intuitive decision-making characteristic of hot hand performances (8, 9). While repetitive and situational training may enhance consistency, introducing randomness and unpredictability into training sessions is crucial for fostering the adaptability required for competition. The aim is to achieve mastery at the level of skill acquisition, integrated into a strategic model that necessitates continuous change and open possibilities for play. Perhaps more important than merely “getting out of the box” is the quality of the training process that allows for the expansion of one’s “box” and subsequently fills that enlarged “box” with diverse and adaptable solutions originating from each unrepeatable playing situation.

Figure 1. Diagram illustrating the integration of variability in training sessions through drills and games. The arrows indicate the progression in variability. Drills range from repetition with fixed conditions to controlled variability (expanding possibilities) and stochastic resonance (amplification of noise). Games introduce increasing levels of uncontrolled variability (unpredictable environments), including dynamic intra- and inter-team play, and continuously changing game conditions that challenge players beyond their standard game understanding.

Psychological Resilience and Mental Toughness: By cultivating a growth mindset and fostering realistic confidence in your abilities, you can navigate the inevitable ups and downs of competition (10). Embrace the belief that skill, intelligence, and creativity can be developed through effort, learning, and persistence. Additionally, adopt a holistic approach to mental toughness by incorporating psychological conditioning techniques such as visualization, positive self-talk, and mindfulness meditation. These practices can enhance focus, reduce anxiety, and bolster confidence. Remember to also consider physical health, adequate sleep, nutrition, and strong social support systems as integral components of building and maintaining resilience and mental toughness.

Unravelling the mysteries of the hot hand phenomenon is an important facet of the intricate puzzle that is basketball performance. By embracing the science behind the hot hand and integrating its insights into your training and gameplay, you can unlock the full spectrum of your potential as a player and elevate your performance to unprecedented heights.


  1. Lichtenstein, B. (2018) Evidence for the “hot hand” in shooting tendency in the NBA: A neurocognitive interpretation. Journal of Sport Psychology, 27(2), 158-166.
  2. Gilovich, T., Vallone, R., & Tversky, A. (1985) The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences. Cognitive Psychology, 17(3), 295-314.
  3. Miller, J., & Sanjurjo, A. (2019) Surprised by the gambler’s and hot hand fallacies? A truth in the law of small numbers. Management Science, 65(7), 3056-3066.
  4. Bocskocsky, A., Ezekowitz, J. & Stein, C. (2014) Heat Check: New Evidence on the Hot Hand in Basketball. Available at SSRN: or JEL No. D83, D84, L83.
  5. Mews, S., & Otting, M. (2023) Continuous-time state-space modeling of the hot hand in basketball. AStA Adv Stat Anal 107, 313-326.
  6. Lantis, R., & Nesson, E. (2021) The Hot Hand in the NBA 3-Point Contest: The Importance of Location, Location, Location. NBER Working Paper No. 29468, JEL No. D81, D91, Z20, Z29.
  7. Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2016) Ecological approaches to cognition and action in sport and exercise: Ask not only what you do, but where you do it. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 47(5), 393-395.
  8. Henz, D., & Schöllhorn, W. (2016) Differential Training Facilitates Early Consolidation in Motor Learning. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 199.
  9. Santos, S., Coutinho, D., Gonçalves, B., Schöllhorn, W., Sampaio, J. & Leite, N. (2018) Differential learning as a key training approach to improve creative and tactical behavior in soccer. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 89, 11-24.
  10. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.


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