The "Typical House Bowler" gets a coach by Gianmarc Manzione

    08/06/10

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    Confessions of a Typical House Bowler Part II

    THBGianmarcManzione2.jpgIf you read my previous story on breaking free of the house condition mindset, you know me now as the hack who tried his luck on Sport Bowling patterns after 20 years in the delusional wilderness of house-shot leagues.

    Author Gianmarc Manzione.

    You know that in those 20 years I logged a certified 834 series, season after season of 200-plus league averages, and a chest full of trophies and medals that I took to be a genuine reflection of my bowling ability.

    And you know it took a 17-week stint in a Sport Bowling league to help me discover how unfortunate an assumption that had been all along.

    In those 17 weeks, I logged a high game of 199 and a low game of 99. My timing disintegrated week by week as my terror of throwing a shot so errant as to be humiliating grew to immeasurable proportions.

    In short, it was the kind of performance you only agree to watch at gunpoint. But it was not enough for me to confirm the pro shop banter I'd heard about how ignorant the typical house bowler tends to be of the chasm between "recreational" and "competitive" bowling. Personal experience proved this was true — and painfully so — but I wanted to know why.

    What is it about the typical house bowler's game that is so incompatible with the flatter patterns the pros are accustomed to on the PBA Tour? What is it about the way typical house bowlers see the lane, the way they use their equipment, the way they throw the ball that is given to the kind of horror show I myself put on in my 17 weeks on Sport patterns?

    USBCCoachBobLearn.jpgFor answers, I turned to USBC Silver coach and five-time PBA titlist Bob Learn Jr. (pictured right). The place where we would meet to answer these questions was as ideal a learning environment as possible: the brand new, state-of-the-art International Training and Research Center in Arlington, Texas.

    The principal advantage here would be that we had control over the environment — we could dictate lane patterns, and we could heighten the difficulty of the patterns through time as my fundamentals improved. I also would be bowling on a pristine, Brunswick Pro Anvilane surface that would offer the cleanest-possible ball reaction.

    My sessions with Learn began unassumingly enough; we laid down a house shot and he asked me to bowl. The trauma brought on by the spectacle that ensued is probably something that Learn has not quite yet shaken off — I don't know, I made sure never to ask — but he asked me to bowl, so I bowled.

    My timing had become absurdly late after squeezing and aiming the ball in response to the much less forgiving lane patterns I had bowled on during the prior 17 weeks. I was not even pushing away until the third step in my five-step delivery, forcing me to muscle through my release and hit up on the ball at the finish.

    Consequently, the first shot I threw in front of Learn had the trajectory of a missile dropped from an F-16 and sounded like an asteroid striking a planet by the time the ball hit the surface of the lane.

    I had held onto the ball so long with the intent of muscling it toward my intended target that instead I sent the ball reeling well right of it and out of play. I simply could not let go of the ball; it was as if the thing had been glued to my hand. This problem would soon become a central focus in my work with Learn.

    It was a little hard to look Learn in the eye after that first shot. Had I done so, I probably would have seen some sickly hue of green pass over his face before he regained his composure. Clearly, 17 weeks on Sport patterns did not just leave me in need of a great coach, it left me in need of a licensed psychologist. What was equally clear, to both me and Learn was that we had a lot of work to do.

    Just a few sessions in, I had the answers I was looking for, and they all pointed to a common theme: for 20 years, I had been a victim of misconceptions shared by the vast majority of typical house bowlers — misconceptions about everything from bowling shoes to ball motion, lane play to footwork.

    But after just a couple weeks of gradually purging my mind of these misconceptions, the results suggested that I was on to something: I shot a 242 on the USBC Masters pattern.

    If you, too, are a house-shot wonder who has at least some vague suspicion that the inflated average printed next to your name on your weekly league sheet might not be the most accurate appraisal of where your game really stands — you know who you are — below is a list of four major misconceptions which, once corrected, helped bridge a gap in my bowling knowledge that yielded nearly instant results on the lanes.

     


    1. Use your legs


    One of the first observations Learn made was that I was not using my legs at all. As with many other flaws Learn identified in my game, this was one that I shared with many of my fellow THBs. "Ninety percent of typical league bowlers do not use their legs," Learn said.

    My steps had become tediously deliberate on account of my late timing. What I did not realize is that the slightest hesitation in my footwork triggers a corresponding hesitation in my arm swing, leaving me with no choice but to muscle through the rest of my swing. This is the reason my timing had become so late that my ball had more hang time than Jordan dunking from the free-throw line.

    The fundamental misconception here was that I could correct the inaccuracy on Sport patterns by guiding the ball to my target with muscle; to facilitate this added muscle, my footwork slowed to a crawl.

     On house shots that guide the ball to the pocket from seemingly anywhere regardless of how the ball is thrown, it is virtually impossible to "overpower" the lane — particularly with the kind of equipment I throw (Virtual Gravity, Emerald Vibe, both with 4-inch pins and drilled with the pin above the fingers).

    Emerald Vibe layout. Click on the image to enlarge it.

    On the flatter patterns I confronted in-session with Learn at the ITRC, however, the slightest evidence of muscle in my swing would manifest itself on the lane in the form of a wildly off-target shot.

    I needed to pick up the speed with which I approached the foul line, let my ball fall into the swing much earlier, and essentially "chase" the weight of the ball through my approach. Learn stood beside me and, as soon as I launched into my first step, pushed down on the ball in my hand to force me to pick up my pace.

    This felt exceedingly awkward at first; I felt like I was racing Seabiscuit to the finish line on the last leg of the Triple Crown. But as soon as I trusted the weight of the ball to carry me through the duration of my approach, I felt the muscle gradually leave my arm swing and my timing begin to correct itself.

    With less muscle, my swing became more of a relaxed pendulum that swung in the direction of my target with not nearly as much physical exertion as I was imposing on the ball before. This improved my accuracy to an astonishing degree.

    All along I had thought I needed to muscle the ball toward my target; what I really needed to do was just free my swing and let the ball go. If this sounds like it is easier said than done, there is a good reason for that: It is easier said than done. It took many repetitions just to get my footwork in sync with my arm swing.

    It occurred to me that the 50-plus games a week the pros bowl on tour sounds like an awful lot of bowling to the THB. However, when you're bowling correctly — without muscle — the demand that such an amount of games makes on your body lessens considerably. Previously I would be gassed after just a few games; in my sessions with Learn, I threw nine or 10 games and felt like I just warmed up.

     


    2. Eliminate muscle


    With my footwork now much less deliberate and the momentum with which I got to the foul line now far more aggressive as a result, I could tackle further misconceptions: that ball speed and accuracy are achieved with muscle, and that you get the ball to hook by absolutely wailing on it at the finish with all the upper-body strength you can muster. Wrong again. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

    "In every other sport people play growing up — baseball, basketball, football —they learn to throw the ball with their upper body. But there's a big difference between a five-ounce baseball and a 15-pound bowling ball," Learn said.

    "In bowling, you have to respect the weight of the bowling ball, and just like an NFL quarterback planting his feet to guide the direction of the ball before he throws, in bowling you use your legs for power and to guide the ball toward your target —not your muscle."

    Learn's suggestion that the vast majority of THBs muscle the ball because that is the way they have handled the ball in any other sport may have been one of the most eye-opening things he said in our sessions.

     This is bowling, not football — I am not standing behind center with my Virtual Gravity looking to throw it 60 yards for a touchdown, so why would I be throwing it as if that were the case? Sounds simple enough, right?

    Virtual Gravity layout. Click on the image to enlarge it.

    "Trust me, you will struggle with this for the rest of your life," Learn said as I became increasingly amazed at my inability to stop muscling the ball, a habit that I had clearly been indulging for 20 years.

    Correcting my footwork helped, but there were other problems.

    After years of hearing Randy Pedersen opine about rev rate and "working the inside of the ball" on so many PBA telecasts, I got it in my head that to bowl like a pro meant that I had to find some way to create as many revs as I could and, yes, "work the inside of the ball" — whatever that meant.

    What I ended up with was a totally convoluted hand position. I would set up for each shot with my wrist twisted outward so that my fingers were on the inside of the ball — a hand position so unnatural that I began to experience wrist pain. I have named that particular hand position "The Carpal Tunnel Clutch."

    With my wrist in this position through the release, I was coming around the ball so much and creating such a pronounced axis rotation that my ball quite literally turned sideways at the breakpoint on patterns such as the Cheetah.

    What I did not understand is that "rev rate" has absolutely nothing to do with axis rotation; I had mistakenly interpreted my ball's extreme response to the end of the lane pattern as proof that I now had that magical rev rate that would turn me into the next Robert Smith. Foiled again!

    Learn encouraged me to relax my hand position by changing it from somewhere inside the ball to somewhere under it, even slightly to the outside of it. He also encouraged me not to "try" to turn the ball at all at the release and just keep my hand straight up the back of the ball from first step to last.

    I was amazed at what I saw: Though I was not "trying" to turn the ball at all and kept my hand completely behind it through my release, the ball still made an aggressive turn toward the pocket at the breakpoint. I was learning to trust the core dynamics of my ball to do the work for me that bowlers had to do themselves in the days of urethane, plastic and rubber.

    As long as I let the ball fall into my swing early enough and let my thumb out of the ball soon enough, my rev rate increased exponentially though I had a completely forward roll.

    Again, a primary lesson here was that "rev rate" doesn't mean my ball is rotating sideways; the term simply refers to the speed with which my ball is rotating — not the direction in which it rotates. And this is also the point at which I discovered that "hitting up" on the ball is the last thing you want to do if you're looking for the ball to hook; just unloading at the finish and allowing the ball to roll off my fingertips gave me a ball reaction that was both aggressive and more predictable than those screeching 90-degree turns I'd grown accustomed to in my Sport Bowling experience.

    The combination of faster footwork and a much more natural hand position took more muscle out of my swing than ever before. I should note this did not happen overnight; I still muscled through many shots and squeezed it so much at the release that my thumb and fingers came out of the ball at virtually the same time on occasion, resulting in the bowling equivalent of a Tim Wakefield pitch.

    This was merely the residue of the mind games that resulted from my intimidating experience on Sport patterns as well as the many years during which I was muscling the ball on house patterns too forgiving to penalize me for doing so. It will only lessen over time with practice.

     


    3. Your shoes are your foundation


    Times are tough. People are pinched for cash and families are looking at ways to trim budgets. But one thing I quickly learned from Learn was this: If you're going to be a serious bowler, you'll have to suck it up and buy a top-of-the-line pair of bowling shoes.

    "Your shoes are one of the most important pieces of equipment that you can buy as a bowler," Learn said.

    He had a good reason for noting this. The pair of shoes I was using when we first got together was a pair that my mother had purchased for me when I was 14 years old. The problem? I am now 30.

    As you might imagine, these shoes looked like I had stolen them out of somebody's trash (although they made for an excellent conversation piece at league). They were so unspeakably decrepit, in fact, that Learn suggested donating them to the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame. Out of fear that such a sight might provoke acute nausea in museum patrons, however, we decided against the idea.

    Editor's note: We were so curious that we asked for a photo of the old and the new shoes and here they are. Click on the images to enlarge.

     Learn caught me sliding sideways. He caught me stopping about six feet before the foul-line in a subconscious fear of sliding on shoes whose soles were so worn that I might as well have been skiing downhill.

    Clearly, this was a major impediment that had to be overcome to achieve the kind of aggressive footwork that would help rid my arm swing of muscle. I needed shoes that could offer far more traction than the broke-down jalopies I was wearing.

    "Many people go for the cheaper shoes that don't provide the versatility necessary to adapt to a variety of approaches," Learn explained. "Without proper footwork it is very difficult to repeat shots, and your shoes are the most important tool you have to improve your footwork."

     I bought myself a pair of Dexter Men's SST 5 LX Black shoes (and no, my mother did not pay for them). The shoes came with two interchangeable soles, one for very slippery approaches and one with much less traction. I chose to use the latter for the time being.

    Since my old shoes had become so worn as to have absolutely no traction whatsoever, using the sole that would create the least amount of friction on the approach would help ease the transition from old shoes to new.

    I immediately felt more stable at the line than I had in years. I was now consistently sliding toward the foul line rather than in the general direction of the wall to my right — surely a plus.

    I quickly realized that in addition to the above-mentioned hesitation I developed in my Sport Bowling experience, bowling in shoes that were half my age was another big reason my footwork had become so labored.

     


    4. Out-of-the-box ball surface is not the only ball surface


    For years I have watched 185-average bowlers show up for league lugging arsenals worthy of 20-time PBA titlists. Rather than ponying up for an arsenal vast enough to require a U-Haul to transport it to league each week, consider this: it is a lot cheaper to invest in a $6 Abralon pad with which to alter the surface of your ball than it is to buy a ball for every conceivable scenario.

    After just the first practice shot I threw on the longest pattern Learn had me bowl on — a 43-foot World Tenpin Bowling Association pattern — it was clear that just keeping my hand straight up the back of the ball and earlier timing would not be enough to get my Virtual Gravity to the pocket.

    This is where I, in my glorious stint as a house-shot wonder boy, might have moved right, hit up on the ball even harder, and attempted to muscle it into the pocket. Many THBs, such as myself, might just as commonly make a hasty ball change.

    Instead, Learn supplied an Abralon pad (2,000 grit) and used it to change the texture of my ball surface so that it would be grittier and therefore read the lane earlier. It worked like a charm.

    Whereas I was used to focus merely on "breakpoint" as that spot down the lane where my ball would snap back, my first shot with the ball Learn had altered read the lane much sooner and began to hook in the mid-lane. I was still keeping my hand straight up the back of the ball, doing absolutely nothing to force the ball to turn more aggressively, and yet even on a longer pattern the ball found its way to the pocket just fine.

    Accompanying the altered surface was a key adjustment Learn asked me to make: house shots trained me to see the lane from side to side, as opposed to front to back, and I had grown accustomed to swinging the ball across many boards. Doing so required me to adopt a kind of open stance on the approach with my feet pointed outward at my target.

    Instead, Learn had me close my stance with my feet pointed straight ahead and throw the ball straight up the boards rather than swinging it out. With my newly-altered ball surface and knowledge of what Learn calls "preset angles," I was able to keep my ball in play with far more frequency than I ever had on Sport shots before.

    For the most part, I had always behaved as if the surface that a new ball has when it comes out of the box is permanent. Sure, I had gone to the pro shop to get a ball resurfaced here and there if I felt my ball reaction was softening or the surface of the ball had absorbed too much oil. But I rarely played around with different ball surfaces using Abralon or Scotch Brite pads.

    A ball's surface out of the box might not even be the most ideal surface for your game or the type of lane conditions you bowl on from week to week. While it is illegal to alter your ball surface during competition, it is not illegal to do so during the practice session in league and tournament play.

    THBGianmarcManzione1.jpgOn a Sport Bowling league in which you know what pattern you'll be bowling on beforehand, it is perfectly legal to adjust your ball surface accordingly before you get to the center. I definitely will take advantage of this much more frequently going forward.

    By the end of my 17-week stint in a Sport Bowling league, I was ready to stop bowling altogether. I was deeply dejected and lost every last scrap of confidence I once possessed.

    But the handful of genuinely great shots I threw each week under Learn's tutelage meant more to me than so many years of honor scores on recreational lane patterns. Each strike or converted spare was, for the first time in many years, a reason to feel a sense of real achievement.

    That gratification was far from instant. It came gradually and only in exchange for the best shots I could possibly make. But it left me inspired to learn more, continue to work hard, and take another shot at Sport Bowling on my own.

    That is precisely what I intend to do this spring when I will compete in a Sport Bowling league. But this time, I will be equipped with some great coaching and a wealth of new knowledge. Be sure to check back in September for a detailed report on my progress.

     


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    Part I: Breaking free from the house condition mindset