This Is Bowling, There Are Rules
September 2, 2014 12:02 AM   Subscribe

Recently, I bowled very poorly and it was embarrassing. I'd like help with 2 things: a. Please help me trouble-shoot my bowling game. b. Can anyone out there give me an anecdote about how they started off as a crappy bowler but got better? did you do this?

Over the weekend, my wife and I went bowing with her parents, and they destroyed us. I bowled less than 30. Her parents were well into the hundreds.

I had a great time, but this loss kills me. I really must learn to bowl. I can't be humiliated again.

Her parents seemed to have terrible form. Her mother would nearly fall over after throwing down the ball, but somehow, she hit strikes and spares over and over again.

I'm not in bad shape, but I don't exercise too much. My wife is in the same situation. Her parents go to the gym during the week and they are fit and trim, but not insanely jacked or anything.

I started off knocking 9 pins down and getting a spare, I even bowled a few strikes, but at one point I just fell the hell off.

Nearly every time I bowled, the ball would gravitate toward the gutter. If I bowled hard, if I bowled toward the middle, toward the area next to the middle, whatever...I was feeble. Follow through didn't help, improving concentration didn't help, neither did trying to bowl slowly.

Here are a few factors:

1. I'm five feet eight inches tall, and I don't have a wide frame, but my hands are very big. Her father is similar in size to me, but his hands are small. The only balls I could find that fit were incredibly heavy. The balls he used were much lighter.

2. I had a migraine earlier in the day, I was fine though. Just a little tired.

3. My sleep schedule was way off because I normally work nights but had to wake up early in the morning.

4. I'm not good at any sport that requires a ball.

5. I'm from Mass, so I grew up on candlepin bowling. I didn't do it that much, but I've bowled very few traditional 10-pin games.

What do I do? I don't feel like practice will even be that helpful, because I'll just keep doing the same thing wrong over and over again. Do people hire bowling coaches? How do you get better?
posted by Hennimore to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
This post made me laugh, sorry!

If it is just a social thing then I think you can get some tips to improve, if you want to take it up seriously then maybe look into some lessons.

For me the trick is in the follow through (despite you saying that didn't help). I also bowled a perfect game on the Wii using this method once.

Stand just left of the centre, a few steps back, so that your right arm (reverse if you are a lefty) is going to be just right of the centre of the lane. Take a couple of steps and swing back your arm, bowl the ball close to the floor and follow your arm perfectly through so it's just right of the centre mark. I end up with my arm stuck out in front like an idiot, but hey, it works for me.

This will give you a straight bowl. Adjust as required to hit the sweet spot.

This also kills my knees, just warning you.
posted by Youremyworld at 12:42 AM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Use a lighter ball for sure. A couple years ago I tore something in my hand throwing a too-heavy ball.

That said, my mediocre 100-200 technique that was taught to me when I was 11 is to approach from one diamond over from the center line, and shake hands with the 1-pin (middle front) when you release. If the ball hits to one side, compensate by moving one diamond in the other direction next time until you get close to the pocket.. After that, try to aim a little bit!
posted by rhizome at 12:50 AM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Per rhizome just above don't roll the ball to hit the pins. Way extra long ago I was bowling and I was frustrated and a person in the neighboring lane noticed and he said, "There's nothing wrong with the way you are bowling, just roll it across the second arrow". [Second arrow to the right, I'm a righty] I remember rolling a 147 the next game.

And yeah, don't try and spin it like Earl Anthony and use a lighter ball with finger holes that are suited to your hand. It's better to hit the "pocket" than it is to miss with a heavy ball.

The approach is critical. Some people use a four step approach and some use a five step approach, either is ok but you will want to know which one you are using in order to literally put the best foot forward. [And now my roomie is wondering what the fuck I'm doing] Here is a tutorial for both.

Do these and you should be able to at least double your score.
posted by vapidave at 2:11 AM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was a varsity bowling player in high school. *plays Springsteen's Glory Days* Practice and science can fix this.

This is going to sound laughable, but bowling's an endurance sport. Sure, you can MRAUUGH!! the ball down the lane for the first few frames and make the pins explode, but you'll wear out quickly doing that.

The biggest and best piece of advice I can give is finding your mark - the spot on the ground where you will stand for the first ball of each frame.

My coach told me to pick an arrow on the lane to aim for and to never change that spot. For me, that is still the center arrow. Before you do your run/hop/skip down the lane, note where you're standing. See the boards and dots on the ground? Those board and dots are the same in every alley. Remember where your feet are.

Shaking hands with the ball means that when you release the ball, your hand is going to be palm-to-the-left, like you're shaking hands. This will give the ball just enough spin to make the pins tumble without MRAUUGH!!ing it down the lane. While you're learning, bring your right arm straight up to eye level releasing the ball and hold that position as the ball rolls across the arrow you were aiming for. When you watch the ball the whole way down the alley, you'll see how your natural throw wobbles and spins and more importantly, where it crosses that arrow. When you hold your position, you see if your hand is palm-to-the-left or not. There should be a straight line from your eyes, to your thumb, to the center arrow, to that 1-3 pocket that rhizome mentioned.

After seeing where my natural throw crossed the center of the lane, I'd move my starting position. Look down. See the boards? If my natural throw was crossing the center part of the lane 3 boards to the right of the arrow, I'd move my starting position 3 boards to the right. It sound counter-intuitive, but you're still going to be aiming for the center arrow, so this forces you to throw further to the left. Anyway, once you find that spot where you are consistently rolling the ball over that arrow and into the 1-3 pocket on the first frame, remember it forever. Sometimes you'll have to adjust it based on the greasiness/shabbiness of the lanes you're at, but my mark has been the same for twenty-cough years.

For most second throws of the frame, stand at your starting mark, find the front-most pin that's still standing and move your starting mark 3-5 boards to the right (if the remaining pins are to the left of the head pin) or 3-5 boards to the left if the remaining pins are to the right of the head pin. Remember, after you throw you want a straight line between your eyes, thumb, arrow of choice, and pin you want to hit first.

Obviously there are nuances to it, and spinny tricks to hit the splits, and some people with wicked curves that look otherworldly, but finding your consistent mark will make 90% of the game easier and more fun. Good luck!
posted by kimberussell at 3:10 AM on September 2, 2014 [54 favorites]

Nthing, aim for the diamonds a couple of meters down the lane; forget about aiming at the pins.

I always try to think of myself as "pushing" the ball up the lane; rather than "throwing", it helped with my follow through.

Likewise, thinking of my arm as a pendulum (starting up, swinging down and back, and then using momentum + weight of ball + a little bit of muscle to speed) helped maintain consistency.

Work out your steps. A decent run up is essential for me as I'm moving forward as the ball is swinging back.

Don't get a ball that's too heavy, you lose all control. My girlish man-wrists bowl with a 10 or 11 pounder if I can find it - which is low for a typical guy, but I can control it.

I don't do much spin as it aggravates my wrist like hell. But with the following up above and a predominantly straight bowl (a big no no in bowling!), I regularly get above 150, and my highest score was a glorious 223, so strikes and do happen.

Also, if your consistently veering left, take a step to the right and bowl. Consistency is key, then you can tweak.
posted by smoke at 4:21 AM on September 2, 2014

My bro gave me a tip which seemed to work for me. Focus your gaze on where you want to hit (which is slightly left of the front pin for me as I'm a lefty) and then just swing for it. It seems to work.
posted by Wysawyg at 5:04 AM on September 2, 2014

I used to bowl for fun, and I could get strike after strike until it would start to make my thumb joints hurt too much and I'd lose control and start screwing up. But assuming you don't have fat, weird thumb joints like me, my technique might just make you the next... um, famous bowling person. (I don't know any famous bowling people.)

Maybe this is all stuff everybody who bowls already knows, but it was a thing I figured out on my own and it sure worked for me.

When you first approach the aisle, there is, for lack of a better phrase, an arrow made of arrows. Here's a picture of a bowling aisle. See those little brown arrows, forming a /\ shape? What I would do was, I'd hardly look at the actual pins, and I'd just roll my ball hard and fast at the very peak of that arrow. Right down the center of the aisle, in other words.

I don't know if I figured out some big bowling hack or if I had some weird magic bowling arm or what, but really, as long as I aimed at the center arrow I would almost always get a strike or at least a good spare. Try it, if you haven't already.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:29 AM on September 2, 2014

A friend and I used to go bowling for giggles when I was a student. We were inconsistent, started off well, got the occasional strike etc. One day we noticed someone doing the 'overly try hard' approach in the lane a few over. They did this really exaggerated follow through, ending up with their bowling side leg right behind and over away from the ball with their hand stuck right out. It was an amusing picture.

So being arseholes we decided to copy and exaggerate it. We started bowling in a way that ended with us completely splayed out with our back legs right out to the left (we are righties). We found ourselves ridiculously amusing (we may have been drinking...) and then... We realised. Our scores had dramatically improved. Lots. Like, by a TON in consistency and accuracy. We did that sudden stop after bowling one time and mocking and went "oh. Um. It's not exaggerated flair, it's proper technique".

So, being engineer types we decided to work out why and think about it. Basically, it is about making your arm swing straight - bring your arm straight back and with your last step (the one where you would release the ball. If you let the ball fall down with a straight (in the vertical plane) swing it will hit your leg. So you tend to curve the swing around your leg too much (and gutter to the left) or not enough (and gutter to the right). You need to make sure at the last planting of the feet you are essentially standing on one leg, leaving a clear path for the ball to go through (watch some videos of pros and watch for this).

And this is the key to starting to get better - starting to get consistent. Once you can throw the ball straight, keep working on that until you can always work on throwing straight. We realised (same with learning to play darts, by the way) that as long as you can throw repeatably, you just have to move where you start to change where the ball ends up. DON'T AIM. You're not good enough yet. Just focus on throwing the ball in a straight line until it is repeatable. Then just change your starting position to match the right spot on the pins stack.

Watch some video. See what they do. Don't worry about aiming and such yet, just try raising the ball behind you and bringing it through to the front in a straight and vertical arc. I ignored all markings and everything until I could throw the same place every time. Then I started aiming. We were pretty good when we still bowled regularly just from that change.
posted by Brockles at 5:32 AM on September 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

Keep your eyes focused on the pins until after you've released the ball. By doing this one thing, I went from a gutter bowler to getting my first strike all in one afternoon.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 7:05 AM on September 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was a good bowler in high school, using techniques as described above.

Much later, in the 90's (I don't bowl any more, actually) I noticed that the bowling centers had started renting really grippy, rubber-soled shoes that were completely inappropriate for proper technique. Your feet have to be able to slide on the floor. If they don't, the ball is going to pull you with it down the lane. Watch the videos linked-to in this thread. Brockles' comment above seems like a good analysis of how bowling works.

So maybe the combination of floor surface and the rental shoe soles is giving you problems. You may have to buy some second-hand shoes with smooth slidable (leather?) soles and/or put some rosin on your soles for proper technique.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:09 AM on September 2, 2014

I took a bowling class when I was in college and it echoed a lot of what kimberussell says:
  1. Practice to be consistent in position and steps to the line
  2. Don't overthrow
  3. Release to a handshake
  4. Until you have the arm strength, use the lightest ball you can find
When I started the class, I was bowling 70/80's. When I left the class I was bowling consistent 140's, which is effectively one of 8/9/spare/strike.

I am like you. I'm 5'11" and have gangly arms with huge hands. When I go bowling, I have search the entire alley to find a 10 pound ball that fits my hand. It stinks, but it's what I have to do.

Otherwise, If I use a 12 pound ball, my first game is strike/spare and then it goes straight downhill.
posted by plinth at 7:19 AM on September 2, 2014

Yep, aim for the diamonds, I used to only wear my glasses when I absolutely had to (driving, class) so when I would go bowling I couldn't really see the pins anyway so I just aimed for the dots on the floor in front of me. It wasn't until I wore my glasses more regularly that I realized I bowled better before and a bowler friend told me why.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:29 AM on September 2, 2014

"oh. Um. It's not exaggerated flair, it's proper technique".

This, exactly. I grew up with candlepins and it took me a long time to get any good at what I called "big ball bowling" The most important things for me were

- having good comfortable shoes that didn't make me feel slippy or weird (wear the right socks, etc)
- a ball that was the right weight
- with the right finger holes (this is HUGE, seriously try on a dozen balls and get the one that is light and that has finger holes that match your fingers)
- with decent technique (I call mine the robot arm, basically keeping my wrist almost entirely rigid)
- aiming in the proper way
- with decent strategy (knowing when to move over one way or the other, knowing when to shift my aim)

I really dislike those lanes (most of them nowadays) with the animated nonsense that appears between balls or frames but if you can go to a lane that has the ones that have little coaching videos, they can help. So if you have a few pins on the right to pick up, the video will basically say "Move three boards right" or something and it helps you adjust and shows you where you would need to hit in order to actually pick them up. The pins look one way but in reality there is a LOT of space between them, so sometimes what you think you need to do to knock them down is not actually what will work.

So at first just concentrate on being consistent, even with a little ball. Just try to release the ball in the right spot and roll it down the center, even if you're slow (what everyone said about the arrows). Watch your feet and where they end up. After you can aim better, work your way up to tossing the ball with a bit more power. Then maybe try being able to aim for other spots so you can pick up leftover pins. A lot of it really is repetition and trying to learn how to bowl, not just doingthe movements of what you think will work.

Bonus: one of the extra ESPN channels shows bowling shows occasionally. They are sometimes fun to watch to see a lot of people who are really really good and look at what they are doing and listen to commentary from people about what is working for them and what is not. Just like any sport, there are styles and there may be one that works better for you as you improve. Good luck. The good news is that unlike candlepin, you can improve rapidly. It's really hard to get a perfect game (or a really high score) in candlepin, much easier in "big ball bowling" and a 30-ish score for your first time out is totally okay.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 AM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a bit tongue in cheek, but it works if you want to try it: Instead of getting better, try asking your FIL "I'm trying to improve my technique. Tell me, do you breathe In or breathe Out when you are about to release the ball?" The next few frames will have him concentrating so hard on his breathing that he will not be able to hit anything, and you will win at least those frames!!
posted by CathyG at 2:33 PM on September 2, 2014 [16 favorites]

All of the above are excellent tips, so they're worth internalizing as much as possible. I am teaching myself to bowl opposite handed right now due to an injury, so I'm basically starting from scratch - I carry a 145 average, and in my first other-handed bowling session, it took me six frames to hit a single pin.

What I find useful as I learn is to remember that the details in the above comments are definitely things you need to know, but when you're standing at the line with the ball in your hand, less is more, mentally. As you get ready to actually roll the ball, think these three thoughts, in no more detail than this:

1. Follow the thumb
2. Straight back, straight out
3. Punch yourself in the forehead

Now, what do those actually mean?

1. Point the exposed knuckle on your ball-holding thumb where you want the ball to go, and keep it pointed that way.
2. Swing your arm straight back to start, and make sure you finish with a straight through motion (don't pull your arm across your body once you've thrown the ball). Arm = pendulum.
3. When you follow through, follow through completely by bringing your hand up towards your forehead after you release the ball.

Good lucK!
posted by pdb at 2:37 PM on September 2, 2014

I never even HEARD of candlepin bowling until I went to Massachusetts, but I'd imagine it's quite different from the sort you're trying.

1. Start out with the lightest ball you can find and work your way up.
2. Definitely get the closest ball to your hand size.
3. What was said above at staring at the head pin the entire time.
4. Carefully swing your arm straight back and shoot it quickly forward, aiming at the head pin. Make sure you have some force going on.
5. Practice like hell.
6. If you can, get a hold of a Wii and practice bowling on that. Seriously, it's really nice to be able to practice "freebie" style.

Eventually you might want try practicing a "curve," (twisting your wrist while throwing) which is how the people who look like they're bowling crazy really knock down the pins. But it's easier to practice that on a Wii.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:29 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good advice above. Another thing to remember is to keep your form constant. You can hit your mark every time, but if your form isn't the same, that ball is going to go everywhere. This is especially true in the later frames, and someone mentioned above that it's a test of endurance. You get a little tired, your shoulder starts to dip, and suddenly your 1-3 pin pocket (if you're a righty) has shifted to the backdoor.

I learned the 4-step approach, but YMMV. At start, hold the ball up in the ready position, using the dots on the floor (adjusted for how the lanes roll). I'm right-handed, so I step forward with my right foot, at the same time extend my arms all the way out, holding the ball with both hands while keeping my shoulders straight. My second step (left foot), I start to bring the ball back in a straight line, and my left arm starts moving out to the side for balance. By the time I take my third step (right foot), the ball should be completely behind me, and my left arm fully extended. My fourth and final step (left foot), I bring the ball forward, at the same time moving my right foot behind my left leg in that splayed-out ice-skating-like form (also for balance, and for getting my right foot out of the way of the ball), and my right arm is attempting to roll the ball to the arrow I've picked out as my forward mark.

Another thing that might help is if you keep your wrist straight. That means if you hold the ball with the back of your hand flush along the line of your forearm, you keep that form in your windup and follow-through. Any bend in the wrist during your windup will alter your form and thus the path of the ball.

Basically, whatever form works for you, keep it consistent.

If all forms seem confusing, the next time you're at the alley, try shadow bowling. Just step up to the lane without a ball and practice your form.

Oh, and I hope it's already been mentioned to you, but don't start to bowl at the same time as your neighbor in the next lane. Just a bit of alley etiquette, plus you risk getting in the way of someone's approach.
posted by CancerMan at 10:05 AM on September 3, 2014

Apologies if this is obvious, but this was my highest rated comment in Ask MeFi so surely others made this mistake- are you using your index finger? Because you shouldn't.

I can't say my game became competitive, but I at least went from the 30s - 40s to 70s - 90s without making any other adjustments.
posted by castlebravo at 8:03 PM on September 3, 2014

I'm from a New England bowling family where my dad actually was a coach in the kids' league. I've tried little-ball as well. A question I feel I can offer some good advice! Anyhow, ten-pin and little-ball are quite different.

In big-ball it is absolutely imperative that you let the weight of the ball do the work. If you want to roll harder, you can increase the backswing. However, it really has very little effect on your score. My dad (the coach) actually starts his delivery with the ball around his thigh, doesn't backswing past 45 degrees, and it does not matter at all. Gravity and your approach give the ball velocity, not your arms.

You are also supposed to release the thumb before the fingers. As long as your wrist is not limp, this will pretty much happen automatically. The ball rolls off your fingers and starts rolling (hopefully straight) down the lane.

Keep your thumb between 10:00 and 12:00 o'clock: if you imagine holding the ball in front of your body before your delivery, your thumb pointing straight up is at 12:00. This is how you control the spin on the ball. 12:00 is no spin, 11:00 is minimal spin but a little more natural wrist position. A common mistake is to hold the ball like a suitcase, with your thumb at 9:00. With this mistake you will roll a knuckleball.

The 4- or 5-step delivery should be the same as candlepin. First step (of 4) is extend the ball forward, second lets the ball swing down, and the third and fourth will happen automatically and you don't need to think about them (the third completes the backswing, and on four the ball is coming forward). A 5-step delivery is the same as 4-step, except you take an extra step first without moving the ball. The important thing is that in that first step you want to have the ball in your hand with your thumb and wrist in position, because they don't move.

Your target isn't the pins, it's the arrows or a spot as far out as the arrows. Stand to the right side so that you roll towards the center; this gives you more room to keep the ball on the lane and any natural spin you have will work in your favor. A good starting point is to stand almost all the way to the right, between first and second arrow, and aim for second arrow. See where the ball goes, and you can adjust either your target or your starting position.
posted by cotterpin at 3:26 AM on September 4, 2014

Consider going to the pro shop & buying the cheapest ball they have that they can drill for a custom fingertip grip. Buying my own ball & getting used to the release that the fingertip grip afforded was that thing that took me from ~100 to ~150 within a few weeks. A decent pro shop manager should take a few minutes to fit you & show you the difference between a house ball grip & a custom-drilled grip. I only occasionally crack 200 but that's mostly because I don't go enough. Bowling is a little bit expensive. Lastly, follow through if you want to put some spin on the ball. Don't try to twist your arm - swing in out at the handshake angle, then keep your hand going on up to your forehead.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:44 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Following on to Devils Rancher's advice about the ball: look on Craigslist and find a cheap 10-pound ball, then take that to the pro shop and have it redrilled.

Check with the pro shop first to find out what it will cost and if they'll do it, but it should be cheaper than anything in the shop itself.
posted by CathyG at 10:52 AM on September 4, 2014

Not being a very athletic person by nature, I took bowling as one of my two required gym classes in college. Basically, kimberrussell has got it on the nose. You'll need to practice a few games and observe where you're letting go of the ball. Then you can adjust where you stand accordingly. The dots at the foul line (and the ones before the foul line) line up with the arrows, by the way, and are the same in every bowling alley. For me, my best ball launch position is roughly halfway between the 2nd and 3rd dots from the right, and it's been that way ever since I figured that out in my bowling class. When I started the class I'd be lucky to bowl a 50, but now, even years later, I can consistently break 100 and am usually in the 125-130 range.

That odd follow-through gets people to make fun of me, particularly my wife, but dammit, it helps. (My bowling instructor referred to raising your arm in follow-through as "take a drink!" -- I think this was because it was a class full of college kids.) It's so intuitive to me now that I have to force myself not to do it if I'm being laughed at.

Also, be sure you're selecting a ball correctly. When you put your thumb in the thumb hole, lay the rest of your fingers flat on the ball. The other two holes should line up under the second knuckles of your fingers. Also, make sure you're not using a ball that is too heavy for you.

I moved to MA after I graduated college, joined a social bowling league (10 pin) at my employer, and bought my own ball, because I just couldn't do very well with any of the balls at the alley we used. I still have that ball. I don't live in MA anymore and I don't bowl regularly, but I still do on rare occasion.

(By the way, I went on a date shortly after moving to MA where the woman said she was going to take me bowling. I'd never seen candlepin, though I'd heard of it, however, I didn't realize that "bowling" in MA usually means "candlepin" by default. I was all WTF? and did very poorly. So the techniques are different, no question.)
posted by tckma at 3:06 PM on September 8, 2014

My bowling coach said that "Bowling is the lazy man's sport" because gravity does all the work. If you are pushing and pulling the ball, you are merely interfering with the natural pendulum motion of the ball, with your shoulder as the anchor of the pendulum. So first of all, don't drop your shoulder, or the whole pendulum mechanism goes awry. Next, let gravity do all the work. Your first move is to push the ball forward and let it drop. It will swing backwards past your body. Now here is where most people blow it. They think they have to push the ball forward with their muscles during the final forward stroke, and hurl the ball down the lane. No. Your goal is merely to release the ball when it reaches the appropriate point in the forward stroke. If you release naturally, your fingers will cause the ball to spin perfectly, giving the sideways rotation that makes the ball curve. Then follow through, keep your arm swinging in one plane, and after release, keep it in that plane. If you finish with your arm pointing anywhere other than directly down the lane, you will have steered the ball off course.

Yeah, I had a bowling coach. I was picked to be on the lane's own league, the elite of all the people who bowled there, which was the path to being a pro in the PBA. I did pretty well, I rolled a 280 and I think my average was around 220. Then I mangled my fingers and had to quit. Darn it, I was just getting good.

Anyway, I have a ton of other bowling tips but most of them are hard to describe, it's easier to just show you. I don't know how I'd do that on AskMe.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:03 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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