Your Bag of Tricks

As published in Bowling This Month in June 2013

“My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you'll win....Channel your energy. Focus.”

Carl Lewis

American athlete and winner 9 Olympic gold medals.

When it comes to bowling for money, titles, or glory you have to have your go-to strategies. For better or worse, you are probably pulled to your favorite balls, your favorite hand positions, and probably your favorite strike lines. All of that is fine and good…as long as you can adjust as needed.

You have your bag of tricks, and like a good magician, you pull out the ones that wow the crowd most often. So, after all of the reading and work you have done in order to be a student of the game, you may also have your mental game bag of tricks. Hopefully you do. As you may well know, what goes on inside your head is a huge determinant of what happens with your ball on the lanes.

With the Intercollegiate Tournament Championships just passed (congratulations to champions Robert Morris University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore), the vital nature of having robust mental strategies under pressure was clearly evident. Made and missed spares once again became one of the story lines for teams that advanced—or didn’t.

Players, and teams, who advance in tournaments, have mental game bags of tricks as familiar to them as their physical tools. Terms like visualization, self-talk, championship attitude, and trust, are part of the vocabulary of many tournament players. Yet, during crunch time, many really great players cannot remember how to employ these strategies in order to win.

This month we are going assemble a competition tool chest. This will be a brief description and summary of methods and techniques that have been fleshed out far more fully in past issues. It can be really handy to have a ready made plan, and this is one issue you can throw into your bag for use as needed.

Five Techniques for the Road

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having

a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.”

Jack Nicklaus

  1. Visualization. The number one gold standard technique that has been used by athletes throughout the ages is visualization. Could you do it in a pinch right now? Could you do it for a national title? Let’s hope so. It’s one of the easiest, most effective things you can pack in your bag.

Visualization keeps getting highlighted in the mental game. What makes this grab bag technique so important? Here is your answer. The mind and the nervous system cannot make a distinction between a real event, and one that is vividly imagined! As a further example of this, brain scans of people who are in dream sleep show the brain activation that parallels the dream material.

Moreover, the same neurons in your brain fire whether you are actually rolling a ball, or whether you effectively imagine you are bowling! Virtually everyone can do this, and you can call it anything you want.

Here’s a brief training summary. Close your eyes and see your favorite bowling ball in your mind’s eye. There you just started. Now imagine, see, or sense yourself rolling your best shot. Boom! You just did it again. Now image a rolled ball along a line to your break point, see the ball find friction and turn to the pocket. There you have it; you have taken your first steps towards mastery!

You can play with this skill in a number of ways too. You can think about how the ball feels in your hands. You can imagine feelings of happiness, thoughts of confidence, and the great feeling of great timing. You can even picture and hear the crack of the pins being blown around.

Here is one for you. The very best time to practice your visualization is right after you have rolled a cherry shot. That is when to log into your brain, “That’s how I feel when I bowl!” This thought, feeling, and image is what you want to run like a movie for days in your mind.

Internal Dialogue

“I've always believed that you can think positive

just as well as you can think negative.”

Sugar Ray Robinson

It is no secret that bowlers talk to themselves before, during, and after they roll their shots. Yet, for something that has so much critical impact on how they perform under pressure, it is often surprising how little training or discipline players have about how they control their internal dialogue.

There are several ways to master this part of the mental game. First, you have to roll a few shots in order to observe what you do. Or perhaps you can just roll a few in your mind first.

There are four main kinds of talk that bowlers engage in when they are playing. These are as follows:

  1. Positive. “You can do this. Nice shot! This is your chance. Be great.”

  2. Negative. “You stink. I always choke under pressure. What if I mess up?”

  3. Instructional. “Keep your head down through the shot. Soft hands. Push, posture, post.”

  4. Random. “I wonder what we are doing tonight. If the Giants win they will be in first place. That guy/girl bowling on lane 3 is kind of hot.”

Shifting your self-talk is a discipline. The problem is that many athletes feel like they are giving themselves a sales job or a pep talk when approaching internal dialogue strategies.

Your first move is to simply pay attention to what you actually do. Note that it is rare that beating yourself up verbally will help you in any way. Usually negative self-talk just bumps up self-loathing, anger, frustration, and doubt.

Positive self-talk cannot be a con job. You can remind yourself of the great things you have done before, the shots you have delivered, the assurance that you will bring your best game, and the knowledge that you can play. Here is a Key note: What you know with certainty in your mind will be reflected in your athletic actions!

Technical self-talk is purely instructional. Before winning her first U.S. Open Kelly Kulick could be overtly heard saying to herself, “Keep your shoulder up, keep your shoulder up.”

Technical self-talk is generally most important when you are learning new skills and techniques. When you use technical self-talk during competition it can still be useful, but generally the truth is that it distracts you (in a good way) from stressing about the pressures of the competition.

Even random talk has its use. When you are lifting weights you don’t keep the dumbbells bells in your hands the whole time. You put them down between sets. The same is true for your bowling.

You don’t have to be focused on the last shot, or the next shot, for the entire tournament. Reflect on what there is to learn. Plan for what you intend to do next. And then if it pleases you, you can think about hot bowlers, good movies, or dessert.

Cooling the Engine

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

Amit Ray

The ability to calm yourself down, to relax while you play is very important to any bowler looking for peak performance. If you can allow yourself to relax under the gun, you can greatly reduce mental interference like doubt and worry. And you can put a dent in your physical interference like nausea and shaking. Ultimately your concentration and performance shoot up.

The easiest technique to learn and to practice is breath work. Try practicing any one of the following techniques for anywhere from three seconds, to three minutes. Once you become proficient at this. Just initiating breath work will signal your brain that it is time to relax.

  1. Simply focus on the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Make an internal note about how calm and steady your breathing is.

  2. Breathe down the back of your throat a couple of times. Notice how you take in about an extra pint of air when you do this. It signals the brain that everything is under control and safe.

  3. Listen for your breathing when you do this, and see if you can allow your chest muscles to relax on the exhales. For practice, do this once or twice every time you stop at a red light, or get off of your cell phone. It may well

change your life.

  1. Practice for longer periods of time, between five and twenty minutes at home, in order to train the brain to be able to shift quickly into relaxation mode.

Add An Anchor

There is a technique called “anchoring” that can push re-set in your brain, and help to create the confidence that most everyone loves when they play. On your exhales from any of the breathing techniques discussed above, add a focusing or cueing word that sets up your desired state.

Examples of great cue words are: relax, smooth, laser, clean, one (won). Really, any simple word or very short phrase that orients you to your best play can work for you.

An especially good time to add an anchor is after a particularly sweet shot. See if a word appears. Probably one will. Much like with imagery, that is where you mine the gold for future excellence. These anchor words work on exhales, and as centering words for your self-talk before shots.

Flow to Go

“Work. Don't Think. Relax.”

Ray Bradbury

One more word on relaxation, from a purely physical perspective. And this might sound odd to you. At the end of the day it may not really matter if you get your mind quiet. What matters is that you can relax the parts of your body that are important for shot delivery.

There is a technique called progressive muscle relaxation. In this method all you do is take four to six seconds to slightly over-tighten the area of the body that you wish to relax. For soft hands make a fist. To relax your brain (sort of), knit your eyebrows together and purse your lips (Make sure you are off camera for that one). To settle your mid-section down do a half-curl with the arms along with a standing sit-up motion.

As with any physical motion, be respectful of your body. Do not do anything to the point of pain. Do not over-tighten, or tighten for too long. Check with your physician if you have a question about whether, or how, to do any of these exercises.

As another option, you can bring your focus and attention onto any body part that you would like to relax. You will find that with practice you can direct your attention to a muscle or muscle group, move it around a little, give it the command to relax, and your body will behave. Remember, your mind can do what it wants. Your body is the one that has to ease up.

Your Tool Box

"You can never be sure exactly what collection of problems you're going to face, ... That's why you need your whole toolbox in front of you."

-Donald Kettl

They say that it is a poor workman who goes to the job site without his/her tools. The mental game tools in this month’s grab bag are as basic and essential as a hammer and a saw. Armed with this equipment in your personal arsenal you are prepared to do battle anywhere, anytime. No opponent, no tournament, no TV finals could be too big. The world can be won with one determined warrior who has the right arrows in his/her quiver… and now you have yours!!

Some source material drawn from Sport relaxation techniques, Stephen Walker, Ph.D. to the voices in your head: identifying and adapting athletes' self-talk.