1. What tournaments may I get asked to bowl in?
First, congratulations on being asked! Your improvement is showing. Tournaments are a great opportunity to experience a more challenging bowling environment while getting to know your league friends a little better. You might even pocket a little cash if your team wins!
It's not uncommon for a bowling league to field one or more teams to compete in the major national USBC tournaments (often referred to as "nationals"). One type of nationals is the Open Championships (primarily for men but women are allowed) and the other is the Women's Championships (women only). Because of the sheer number of participants, these tournaments go on over three to four months with teams coming and going from all over the country during the period. Winners are determined at the end of that period. The tournament location changes from year to year. Information on these tournaments is available on the USBC website.
Leagues may also field one or more teams for the state and local USBC tournaments in your region. There will usually be an "open" championship but there may also be tournaments for women, seniors (generally 50+), and/or youth. A private organization may also sponsor a tournament in your area. These tournaments typically take place over one or more weekends, and tournament flyers are usually available on a rack at each bowling center.
Most tournaments are open to any USBC sanctioned bowler in good standing who has bowled at least 21 games in the same USBC sanctioned league in the last year or so. There are no minimum average or other qualification requirements. One exception is the national Seniors Championship, which you can only qualify for by winning your state seniors competition.
See the Youth page for specific information about youth tournaments.
2. How do tournaments work?
Most of the state and local USBC tournaments are handicap tournaments (handicap was explained in Level 2). The nationals, however, are scratch tournaments but bowlers are grouped into divisions based on entering average and prizes are awarded in each division.
Some USBC and private tournaments will be played on the bowling center's house shot (the everyday oil pattern). The national and higher-level tournaments will be played on something a little more challenging. USBC tournaments do not disclose the oil pattern in advance, while the private tournament's flyer or website will tell you if a pattern other than the house shot will be used and what that pattern's name is. See #11 for more information on oil patterns.
Most tournaments at this level are comprised of three games each of team play, doubles, and singles, or nine games in total, with the winners in each category being those with the highest total "pinfall" (highest total score).
Tournaments may have more than one squad time. A squad is simply a number of bowlers who have all signed up to bowl at the same time. Some tournaments allow you to "re-enter," which just means that you can pay another tournament fee to bowl an additional squad or squads beyond the one you first signed up for. Tournaments may have a limit on the number of times you can re-enter or will forbid it altogether. Re-entering can be a good idea if you did not bowl well in your original squad.
Some tournaments will be bowled Baker-style, where all of the members of a team bowl just one single game where each team member alternates frames with the others. Baker is common in high school and collegiate bowling. Some other tournaments will be bowled Scotch-style, where the team members bowl alternating shots of a single game. Scotch is generally limited to certain doubles tournaments.
Winning a cash prize is often referred to as "cashing," and the prizes to be won vary depending upon the tournament. Look for the tournament's cashing ratio. For example, if it's 1 in 3, many will win small prizes, while 1 in 10 means a few will win large prizes.
3. How much will it cost me to participate in a tournament?
All tournaments have an entry fee, which will vary from around $30 for a local tournament to considerably more for the national and higher-level ones. For tournaments away from home, you will also have to pay for a hotel unless you can stay with a friend or relative. Many bowlers double up on hotel rooms to keep the costs down. If you are too far away to drive, there will be airfare and possibly baggage fees to get your bowling balls there. You may also want to rent a car if where you are staying is not near the bowling center, you want to go sightseeing in the downtime, or you just want the freedom to do your own thing.
Team and doubles tournaments usually have an optional additional "all events" fee to qualify for the prize(s) for the highest total score(s) of all games bowled in the tournament.
4. Can I use the same bowling ball(s) that I use in league?
As long as the ball is USBC-approved (indicated by the letters USBC etched into the ball's surface) and was drilled in compliance with USBC Equipment Specifications, yes. Be advised that balls are subject to spot-checks by tournament officials at the national Women's Championships, and all balls are inspected before squad time at the national Open Championships.
5. How many bowling balls will the other competitors bring?
For tournaments bowled on a house shot, bowlers will usually bring anywhere from one to four bowling balls, especially bowlers who bowl at other times at that bowling center and therefore know the lanes and the house oil pattern well. If you are unfamiliar with the center, you may want to bring more to be able to handle whatever lane conditions you encounter.
Don't be surprised to see some bowlers who brought more than four bowling balls! These are the competitors who have experience in tournaments where more challenging oil patterns are being used. The additional gear allows the competitor to better deal with lane "transition" as the tougher oil pattern breaks down during competition, as explained in #11 below. But don't think a bowler with fewer bowling balls is less of a competitor. There are a few bowlers who choose to make do with just three or so, even at the higher levels.
You can bring as many bowling balls as you want if you are coming by car, although the tournament may limit the number you can take to the bowling floor. Those who have to fly usually bring no more than six balls (in two three-ball carriers such as those made by Vise) to fit the Southwest Airlines baggage allowance, assuming they are able to carry-on their clothes or don't mind paying an extra $75 each way to check a third bag for those clothes.
Some competitors will opt to ship their bowling balls ahead of time. But overnight shipping is prohibitively expensive, and regular shipping requires that you put up with being without your gear for practice at home during the shipment time.
6. How can I get my bowling balls to the tournament if it is not close to home?
Those who are within a reasonable distance (and some who aren't but love driving) load up their SUVs with their bowling balls and drive to the tournament. Many who are further away choose to fly Southwest Airlines because it allows two bags free. If Southwest is not an option, it can happen that another airline's first class seat, with its two- or three-free bag allowance, is cheaper than its coach seat plus baggage fees.
7. If the tournament runs over more than one day, will I have to drag my bowling balls to and from the bowling center every day?
You probably will for most local and state tournaments. At nationals, large lockers will be available for a daily fee. At the national Level 4 singles tournaments, you will likely be given access to a free "paddock," which is usually a secured room or area where you can leave your gear for the duration of the tournament. If you use the paddock, it's a good idea to attach distinctive tags to your bags so that you easily can spot them in the crowd since many three-ball carriers look alike.
8. What do the tournament competitors wear?
Clearly you will want to wear something that will be comfortable to bowl in, but be aware that most tournaments have restrictions. Shorts, jeans (or just torn jeans), and/or hats may not be allowed. Some women will wear skorts (note that the cupped-hand rule usually applies), while many wear capris if not slacks. The tournament rules will tell you what you cannot wear.
For team tournaments, your team may decide to have jerseys made for its members to show team unity. Generally the team's captain will coordinate the ordering process for the jerseys.
9. What else do I need to bring to a tournament?
In addition to your bowling balls, clothes and jerseys for the tournament (don't forget bowling socks!), plus non-bowling clothes if it's an overnight trip, you'll want to bring anything that is unique to your bowling game. It's a good idea to pack anything that is critical in your carryon luggage, to avoid the risk of not having it because your checked luggage was routed to another city or lost altogether. It's true there will generally be a pro shop at the tournament venue, but it may not be open before the tournament starts, and even if it is, the shop may not have the exact brand or size you need immediately available. How would you feel if you had to compete in the bowling center's shoes instead of your own? You get the idea.
Most important will be your bowling shoes, and if your shoes are the customizable type, the soles and heels you think you might need. You may also want to bring your wrist brace if you use one, any special kind of bowling tape you use, any replacement grips or slugs that are in brands or sizes not usually stocked, and any preferred bowling ball cleaner.
It's a good idea to always bring your USBC card as many tournaments require you to show it at check in.
If you are going to nationals and you have a preferred way you like your bowling balls drilled, you may also want to bring (in your carryon, of course) your drilling specs. There will be shops selling the latest gear from the popular brands, with the option of having it drilled while you are there. Shop personnel can also fit you for drilling if you did not bring your specs or if you want to try something different.
10. How do I register for the tournament? Do I need to check-in once I get there?
If you've been asked to bowl as part of a team, the team captain will handle the tournament registration and will collect each team member's tournament fees. Once you reach the tournament venue, let your team captain know right away so that he or she can check-in the entire team.
For the national USBC tournaments, your captain will likely want to check-in at least a couple of hours in advance, as there may be a long line and there are often registration glitches that must be resolved before bowling starts. All teams bowling at particular squad time must then assemble in the squad room, before the squad starts, for opening announcements and recognitions.
For state and local tournaments, your team should generally be at the tournament venue no later than 30 minutes before start time but earlier would be less stressful! Most of these tournaments have one or more tables where check-in and related activities are handled. It's rare that check-in will be handled at the bowling center's main counter. It's a good idea to check-in on your own for your doubles and singles parts of the tournament, especially if you will be bowling these events on a different day from the team event.
Some smaller tournaments will allow "walk-ins" on the day of the event, where you can enter the tournament even though you did not register and pay in advance. Be sure to confirm before heading to the bowling center that the tournament will accept walk-ins.
For all tournaments, you will likely be asked to show your USBC card. Don't forgot to bring it!
11. Should I take notes or use an app to track my bowling while competing at the tournament?
There are two schools of thought about this. On the one hand, noting the name of the center and which oil pattern was used, your scores on each pair of lanes, which bowling balls you used, where you stood and where you targeted, and which pins you knocked down and which you left standing, can help you decide which areas to focus on in competition in the weeks that follow. The notes can also serve as strategic intelligence for the next time you bowl in that same center.
On the other hand, if your notes tell you one thing and then lane conditions are different from the last time, your score may suffer because you stubbornly followed your notes instead of making a needed adjustment to the new conditions. The best bowlers are those who adjust quickly to any situation. Additionally, you may find the pressure to take complete notes or enter each shot into an app, and the need to keep track of your notebook or phone at all times, increases your stress level when you need to be more relaxed.
It's all a matter of your personal preference and what works for you. You can find links to bowling apps on the Resources page. As for taking notes the old fashioned way, any old small notebook should do.
12. I've been told the tournament will use something more challenging than a house oil pattern; what do I need to know and how should I prepare?
In league, you bowl on the standard oil pattern ("shot") of that bowling center ("house"). Generally, a house shot has most of its oil volume concentrated in the middle of the lane, between the second arrow in from both gutters and running from the foul line to about 2/3 of the way down the lane. This is why bowling balls thrown over the second arrow will be more likely to strike - they are "guided" by the edge of this oil concentration right to the pocket. (Of course, your results may vary!)
While it may seem like the house shot in one bowling center is quite different from that in another, the difference is actually quite minor compared to the differences between any house shot and the more challenging oil patterns.
A more challenging pattern has the oil applied more evenly across the lane, at a distance that could be a few feet more or less than 2/3 of the way down the lane, and using a total oil volume that is generally more but could also be less than a house shot. Hitting the pocket on this type of pattern will be much harder. Your ability to strike will depend much more on which bowling ball you are using (solid, hybrid, or pearl cover, symmetrical or asymmetrical core, etc.), where you stand on the approach, what your target is, what "breakpoint" you are aiming to hit, what position your hand is in when the ball rolls off your hand, the speed with which you throw the ball, and how many times the ball revolves as it rolls down the lane.
Complicating matters is that, with players playing different lines to the pocket, and with their bowling balls soaking up the oil as they go down the lanes (especially balls with solid covers) and pushing it down the lane (especially the plastic spare balls), the location and consistency of the oil will change with each game and perhaps even frame. You will need to know how to adjust for these changes on the fly, keeping from becoming discouraged if you can't immediately find an adjustment that works.
Success will be next to impossible without practice and experience on challenging patterns. If the tournament has disclosed in advance which oil pattern will be used, your bowling center may be willing to put down that pattern on one or more lanes at a specific time so that you and your fellow competitors can practice on it. Patterns are usually diagrammed in something called a program sheet, lane graph, or Kegel diagram, and how to read them is explained in a helpful USBC Bowling Academy video.
But, some tournaments, such as the USBC nationals, no longer disclose the patterns in advance. The best way to prepare for nationals, and for any challenging oil pattern for that matter, is to join a "PBA Experience" or "sport" league. This type of league gives you the chance to bowl on a variety of challenging oil patterns, thereby building your confidence in being able to adjust to any oil condition you will face. But be forewarned: Your average in this league will likely be 25 or more pins lower than your usual average because the conditions are that much more difficult.
Confused? Overwhelmed? Perhaps watching this fun video from Vox Magazine will help.
13. When will I be ready to move to the next level?
If you are a truly a serious bowler, you have been practicing frequently and doing whatever it takes to improve your game. Once you have become comfortable in the competitive team environment, you may find yourself wanting to step up to the challenge of individual competition. That's when you are ready to move on to Level 4.