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Practice? We're Talkin' About Practice?

It’s not glamorous, but devoting a week to an organized practice routine will pay dividends.
By Kim Terrell-Kearney

Most bowlers spend at least some time practicing before the start of the bowling season, but once the season starts few return to the lanes between league sessions to work on their game. Now that league season is winding down and tournament season is approaching, you should think about getting yourself better prepared for bigger challenges.

Obviously, preparation comes from practice. Not simple bowl-a-few-games practice, mind you. Good preparation comes from organized, purposeful practice. You should be willing to devote yourself to three to five organized practice sessions.

A good practice regimen should help improve your consistency and your ability to adjust. In today’s game, versatility is critical. Being able to alter your speed and your release are key to that versatility, and are things that should be added into your practice routine. The key to productive practice is to work not only on areas of strength, but also on areas of weakness. We all fall into the trap of working on things we’re good at. But working on all areas of the game, particularly versatility, is important because when you find yourself on conditions that call for something that may not necessarily be part of your “A” game, you can adjust with the knowledge that you haven’t totally ignored that part of your game.

When I was coaching at Delaware State, I never asked my players to do something that they hadn’t at least practiced. Naturally, there are several ways to accomplish most tasks, and as a bowler you need to know which ways work best for you. If a condition calls for you to get the ball further down the lane, one bowler may accomplish that through a change in speed, whereas another may do it with a change in release. You can only determine which approach you’ll be more successful with if you’ve practiced that task.

Get Down To It
Set aside one week for practice. If you can manage to bowl five practice sessions, great. If not, try to set aside at least three days. An hour should give you ample time. Too much longer and it will be difficult for you to maintain focus and energy. Practice should be broken down into three categories: Spares, your physical game and ball motion/lane play.

Always start with spares. There is no fun way to practice spares, and it is too easy to dismiss them. Get them out of the way first. I’m a firm believer in just shooting 10 of whatever spare you are practicing, and aiming for a high percentage of success. Shoot 10 7-pins, then 10 10-pins, followed by 10 2-pins and 10 3-pins. There are no shortcuts to this. If you are lucky enough to be at a bowling center whose pinsetters allow you to set up particular spares, great. If not, shoot these spares off of a full rack. If you’re shooting at a 10 pin, you’re successful as long as you don’t hit the 3 pin in the process. The same with a 7 pin. As long as you don’t hit the 2, it’s a good shot. If you are shooting the 2 or 3, just make sure you don’t hit the head pin.

It’s not fun, but it’s critical that you practice spares every time you practice. I don’t usually practice multi-pin spares. Everyone’s spare system is based on being able to convert these key pins. If you can pick up a 3 pin, you can likely convert the 3-6-10, and so on.

Physical Game
Every bowler has a pretty good sense of what makes their game work. For me, it’s my first step. If I don’t have that dialed in, the end result is never going to be consistent. I always practice my push direction. I’m sure most bowlers can single out something at the start of their approach that triggers a good shot, whether it’s the direction of the pushaway, the timing of their pushaway, the shape of their pushaway or even the length of their first step. You should spend 10 minutes or so working on that physical part of your game.

One of the biggest challenges is having a second set of eyes while you practice the physical part of your game. Sometimes you have to be a little creative. If I’m working on the size of my first step, I’ll put a towel on the lane off to the side, but still in my peripheral vision. I can tell by looking out of the corner of my eye if I’ve overshot the towel. Likewise, if you want to work on your crossover step (the second step on a five-step approach), get a straw from the snack bar and tape it on the approach where you want your crossover step to land. If you land on the straw with your second step, you’ve been successful. If you have a tendency to push left with your push direction, take 10 consecutive shots focusing on pushing out over your right kneecap.

Another good practice routine is posting your shot. Throw 20 shots, holding your finish stationary and balanced until the ball hits the pins. Stay down on the shot. This will prevent you from running out the shot or using body English the second the ball leaves your hand, and will encourage good balance and commitment to the shot.

Skill Drills
There are several ball motion drills that will help you become a more versatile bowler. The speed drill is great for teaching you how to adjust to different oil volumes on the lane. Most bowling centers clock your ball speed. Once you’re lined up, throw 10 shots. Note the speed. Then throw 10 shots from the same spot throwing the ball 1 mph slower. Then throw 10 shots 1 mph faster. To get softer, move up on the approach 6 inches and heighten the ball in your stance. To get faster, move your starting spot 6 inches back on the approach and lower the ball in your stance. The value of this drill is that it will allow you to adjust speeds based on the volume. When the volume is heavier you want to get the ball into a roll sooner. The easiest way to do that is to get softer with the shot. Conversely, as the lane breaks down there is more friction, so you need to get the ball further down the lane.

Another great versatility drill is to strike from the same spot using several different balls. If you have three balls, get lined up using Ball No. 1. Once you’ve doubled with Ball No. 1, try to double from the same spot with Ball No. 2. Once you’ve doubled, repeat the exercise with Ball No. 3. Repeat the process until you can throw six strikes in a row using the three balls. Success will require you to change speeds or release to get to the pocket without moving on the approach.

The next practice session, pick those three balls and get lined up with all three. In this drill, you can pick anywhere on the lane for each ball, but your goal is to throw six strikes in a row. You know that you can strike from a particular spot with Ball No. 1. Ball No. 2 hooks more, so you know you need to move the appropriate amount on the approach to get to the pocket. This drill will help you understand how each ball in your arsenal reacts, and will teach you how to play different zones on the lane.

Bonus Points

I’m also a firm believer that your practice routine should occasionally include work on your mental game and equipment. There are plenty of books out there that will give you a better understanding of the mental approach to sports. Likewise, it’s always good practice to take care of your equipment, whether it’s replacing your inserts or having the surface of your ball refreshed. Practice isn’t always fun, but it is important if you want your game to improve. An organized practice routine, even if you only do it a few times a season, will better prepare you to face the varying challenges that will surely be thrown your way in competition. And preparation breeds success.

— Kim Terrell-Kearney is Assistant Head Coach of Team USA and the International Training and Research Center in Arlington, Texas