Bowling is a mental sport. Very few accomplished bowlers would argue with this statement. Then why is it that when a bowler is attempting to improve their game, they pursue more revs or the hottest new equipment, rather than mental skills? For me, proof that mental skills were critical for bowling at an elite level came from countless observations of bowlers who possessed unbelievable deliveries and physical games, but for some reason never seemed to bowl as well as one would expect given that phenomenal ability. On the other side of the coin, I have also known bowlers who nobody would give a second look to walking through the bowling center, yet these athletes are winning regional titles, racking up honor scores, and excelling in major competitions. I knew there had to be more to it than revs and new bowling balls. It became obvious to me that focusing only on the physical game and neglecting the mental side was as unbalanced as attempting to walk around with a two-ball bag with only one ball in it.
In bowling, there is a lot of time spent waiting in between shots. That provides ample opportunity for good mental preparation. On the other side of the coin, however, it also provides a breeding ground for bad thoughts and psyching oneself out. For example, I know one bowler who spends a lot of this waiting time noticing all the lucky breaks that bowlers around him are getting, and comparing that luck to the 10-pins he’s leaving. Needless to say, that does not put him in an optimal frame of mind. Other bowlers may spend this time getting overly nervous about the string of strikes they have racked up, envisioning that 300 and all the glory that it will bring. By the time it is their turn to bowl, they are so nervous they can barely walk.
Bowling is a self-initiated Sport
Bowling is a self-initiated sport. In other words, the bowler steps up to the approach and goes through a pre-shot routine and delivery at his/her own pace, as opposed to needing to react to a ball thrown or kicked to him/her, for example. So given proper mental skills, there is really no excuse for not being mentally prepared for each and every shot. We’ve all heard about the importance of the pre-shot routine, yet so few bowlers know what to do during that time to create an optimal mental state.
As a bowler, particularly before I became a psychologist, I can look back on a long career of misguided attempts at achieving an ideal mental state during competition. I can only imagine the same is true for other competitive bowlers. How many of us have attempted to “get pumped up” in the hours or minutes prior to a competition? We listen to upbeat music, give ourselves Lombardi-like pep talks, and envision all the spoils of a record performance. But how do we know that increased arousal is really what is best for us? In truth, engaging in one of these self-initiated interventions is like going into your medicine cabinet and taking a random pill without knowing what your ailment is in the first place.
The Emotionally balanced bowler
The showmanship of the PBA Tour notwithstanding, more often than not the mentally strong bowler is the one who remains more or less emotionally balanced. S/he doesn’t come unglued after making a poor shot or getting a bad break, and they also are not outrageously celebrating every strike with fist pumps and obnoxious gestures. Watching them during competition without looking at the scoreboard, you may be hard-pressed to know whether they had six strikes in a row or six opens. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy your night of bowling or celebrate your accomplishments. But consider this balanced emotional approach to your game if it is your goal to improve and reach that next level. And if you are totally committed to reaching an elite level in your game, give some thought to your next financial investment in your game. When you analyze your current game, which side of your two-ball bag is really lighter?