When you first start to learn how to bowl seriously, you will naturally spend most if not all of your time working to improve your technique. It may even seem crazy or frivolous to you that there is a mental aspect to bowling!
As you progress, however, you will likely start to notice how your state of mind impacts your bowling. If you feel happy and confident, you bowl well. If you feel down and unsure, your bowling suffers.
It turns out that learning how to handle your state of mind, commonly called developing your mental game, will be a key ingredient to your bowling success. In fact, it's not uncommon to hear professionals say that their mental game is 90% of their success.
Here are some key points to consider as you build your mental game. The guidance presented comes from books (their names are in italics) that are fully referenced with links at the bottom of this page.
1. Reign in your perfectionism.
You must not be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are an important part of learning. Think of a toddler learning how to walk. Because the toddler has yet to develop concern about how others view her, she fearlessly tries for that first step, falls, tries again, and again, until she remains upright. She ignores each failure but definitely remembers each success and works to build upon it until she's running faster than your can keep up with. You must be like that toddler when you are learning.
2. Use video.
One of the fascinating points from the book The Inner Game is that the author found his students learned faster after watching videos of "the right way" than after him telling them how to do it. So, plan to watch videos of a pro bowler with a style similar to yours. Also, video yourself, and than save the videos where you executed well and use those videos for reference (and inspiration!).
3. Sense how you feel.
Experience how your body parts feel when you execute a good shot, instead of focusing on what they should be doing when you do a bad shot. Then, work to channel that good shot feeling into all of your shots.
4. Move on once you have a consistent and accurate throw.
Continuous focus on perfecting your physical technique will keep you from having a consistent and accurate throw. You'll find yourself assuming that every unsuccessful shot was unsuccessful because you did not throw it well. You must have a throw you can trust in order to progress to learning how to play the different areas of the lane (referred to as lane play) and how different balls roll and turn in unique ways on the lanes (referred to as ball motion). With that knowledge you will know how to adjust to different lane conditions and which ball to choose for those conditions. Go back to tweaking your game once you have a good handle on lane play and ball motion.
5. Think in practice, execute in competition.
The Inner Game says each person has a Self 1, the thinking (and worrying) self, and a Self 2, the executing from muscle memory self. When Self 1 is in charge, telling the body "don't forget to do this" and "be careful of that," the body is on guard and that tenseness inhibits Self 2's ability to do what it does best - bowl! It's okay for Self 1 to be in charge during your practice sessions, but in competition, it's important to muzzle Self 1 and trust Self 2 to do its thing.
This hashtag of the Professional Women's Bowling Association reflects the state of mind that the pros are in when they compete - executing, not worrying, not second-guessing. You should bowl fearless, too, when you compete.
7. Allow yourself to relax.
Trying hard to relax will likely produce the opposite effect. Allow yourself to relax. Self 2 will ably take it from there.
8. Don't judge, but do observe.
Self 1 will also be quick to scold you when you are not bowling well, and that criticism will make Self 2 subservient as the body tenses up to try harder. That rarely produces a good result. You must change the power dynamic here. Get Self 1 to trust that Self 2 knows what it is doing and instead provide Self 2 with non-judgmental observations on each shot. Self 2 can work with this! It will make the adjustments it knows how to make and produce better results going forward. This is why you will often hear the pros say "one shot at a time." It reflects their belief that you shouldn't let feeling bad about the last shot get in the way of making a good shot next.
9. Go outside your comfort zone.
Sign up for tournaments that are more difficult than your last. The more challenging the obstacle, the greater the opportunity to discover and extend your true potential. As Focused for Bowling says, "only those with true intention who are willing to step beyond comfort zones get to scale to the top of their personal and professional mountains."
10. Remember that even the best bowlers don't win that often.
You may feel like you are not winning as often as everyone else. That's because others like to brag about their wins but are fairly silent about their losses. That's logical - it's more fun to share good news about yourself than bad. The reality is that most have had more losses than wins. In baseball, a .300 batting average is considered really good, meaning that the batter got a hit only 30% of the time! It's the same in many sports, bowling included. The next time there is a high-profile national bowling tournament, take a look at all of the results, not just the winners. You'll be surprised to see the "big names" who did not make the cut to go on to match play, let alone the finals. Even the very best have bad days.
DEALING WITH A SLUMP
11. Know that all good bowlers, even Hall of Famers, have had slumps.
They survived their slumps to go on to even better things. Ask your coach to tell you about one if his/her slumps, and how they broke through it. You'll see right away that you are not alone.
12. Determine if your slump is due to a technical problem.
Use video to see if you can tell if something looks off. Or ask a coach or a sympathetic friend to check if there is anything wrong with your technique. But keep in mind that slumps can just as easily be due to an issue with your mental game.
13. Consider going back to basics.
If it turns out you do have a problem with your technique, is it because you been trying something new because you have seen a successful pro do it, or because you were told it's the way it should be done? Pros sometimes win with techniques that are not textbook. It could even be that something that is textbook is not best for you right now. Go back to the technique you were using when you were bowling better. Once your confidence returns, give that technique a try again.
14. Work to feel good about yourself.
Is bowling your only activity in life? A well-balanced life is important for success, and that means also doing non-bowling things that can help you through the down times of bowling. Participate in something else that you are good at. Even just remembering past successes in all aspects of life, or taking inventory of the things you are good at in all aspects of life, can give you a boost. Success happens when your sense of self-worth is peaking.
15. Don't shun support.
Withdrawing from others because you are bowling badly can remove the very support that could help pull you through. Make sure you have relationships, in bowling and beyond, where you feel supported.
BOOKS TO READ
The information on this page is only a small part of the guidance available from the following books:
Two books apply sports psychology directly to bowling - Focused for Bowling by bowling psychologist Dr. Dean Hinitz, and The Handbook of Bowling Psychology by bowling psychologist Dr. Eric Lasser plus renowned bowling coaches Fred Borden and Jerri Edwards.
A tennis book for bowling?
The impact of the mental game is virtually the same in all sports, so it is no surprise that a book that some bowling professionals cite as the key to their mental game is The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. Groundbreaking when it was published in 1972 and most recently updated in 1997, the book is an easy read with clear examples and illuminating anecdotes. Some bowling pros own more than one copy (often one for home and one for tournament travel) and re-read it periodically. Another general book with many points helpful to bowlers is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.