The Seven Deadly Sins of the Mental Game

Two Wolves

 There is an old story about a Cherokee Indian chief who was teaching his grandchild about succeeding in life.

“A fight often goes on inside people,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
“One wolf is evil – he represents fear, doubt, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
“The other wolf represents good – he is confidence, self assured, joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Which one do you feed before you bowl?!!

The Bowling Landscape

The bowling landscape is littered with the names of bowlers, some unknown, some famous, who never seemed to reach their potential as players or competitors. People might say, “Yeah, he was talented, but he just couldn’t make it out on tour.” Or “Sure, he has fifteen titles, but imagine how many he could have had if…”

Sometimes the reasons for not reaching one’s potential are obvious or even public. Drugs, alcohol, injury, or even motivational let-down are disappointing factors in an incomplete career. There can be a myriad of other reasons too. Life changes and losses, financial limitations for training and competing, or simply having a game that is rooted in the style of some other era, e.g. from decades past, have been causes for downfalls and incomplete careers.

Beyond all of those reasons, there are mental game hindrances, “deadly sins” if you will, that have accounted for more pressure, more choking, and more competition wreckage, than could probably ever be accounted for. This month we will look at seven of the worst of them, and see what can be done to bolster your defenses against these pitfalls.

The Garden Of Eden

 Biblical legend has it that all was blissful for man and woman in the Garden of Eden until Adam and Eve changed things. According to the story they left the euphoria of selflessness and freedom, and took a bite out of the apple of ego and self-consciousness. Out of this event, all sin and misfortune was said to stem.

That darn ego, and its accompanying mental game pitfalls, have taken down giants. Naturally, in line with this, there are a few “poison apples” out in the garden of bowling. They lead to a certain amount of misery as well. We will study those poison apples this month. But here is a caution--look, but don’t eat!

Seven Deadly Sins

1)      Approval Seeking.

 "When you're out on that floor cheering, you don't worry about the judges or the other teams. All you need to worry about is cheering your heart and soul out and knowing that you are doing the very best you can." ---Corey Phillips

The need or desire to impress anyone outside of yourself can cripple your bowling. Whether it is your coach, your teammates, your boy/girl friend, or your parents, you surrender your power when you have to impress anyone else. This “sin” probably accounts for more league, tournament, or television choking than any other single factor.

As soon as you have to perform for someone else you chip away at bowling with your true self, your true center. Lots of players can still bowl with the backpack of approval-needs on their shoulders, but it never feels as free. You tend to tighten your muscles. And the fun and life of the game has the plug pulled on it.

To compete just one game without reflecting on the appreciation, approval, and accepting of anyone else is to compete freely. Most bowlers have never played one entire tournament free in their careers. Wouldn’t that be something?!! At the end of the day, you have to play for yourself. You may as well, no one is more qualified to do so!

2)    Perfectionism.

There are three kinds of sin here. Everyone uses the term “perfectionism”, but seldom is the three-headed monster that comprises it identified. First is the kind that most people think about, demanding that you execute perfectly. Arm-swing, target, foot-work are all supposed to look a certain way. And, of course, your results are supposed to be amazing as well.

 The second kind is a team killer. It also hurts your kids and your students. That is demanding perfect execution and results from others. That is the classic, “I’m only demanding from them what I ask of myself.” The problem is that what you ask of yourself borders on crazy, so you are asking them to be a little crazy too. Nice, but ineffective and stressful.

The third kind of perfectionism is the belief that others are demanding perfect bowling, and results, from you. See #1 (approval seeking) above for an accented description of this one.

Perfectionism leads to a concern about making any kind of mistakes or imperfections in your bowling. Over-concern about this takes one beyond the pursuit of excellence in into the zone of anxiety, lowered confidence, and repetitive thinking about mistakes and failures.

              It is pretty hard to focus, concentrate, and enjoy the game when this is going on. They say angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Take yourself lightly

3)    Being Unprepared for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Most players are not really prepared for anything out of the ordinary, no matter how good or how bad.

Recently PBA star Michael Haugen, Jr. shot 300-279-300 in a three game series. What is striking about this is the amount of prosperity he was prepared to endure without sabotaging this spectacular set.

Not a lot of bowlers can do that mentally, independent of their physical skill. Many players will sandwich a 300 hundred game in between other pretty good games. Or similarly will fit in a four or five bagger with a spare in the middle.

There is a whole lot of clenching that goes on in the tenth frame when a perfect game is on the line. The same thing is true for the last several frames before an 800 series. You have to be ready to be great. Most people simply won’t allow it otherwise.

Oft times a bowler will come back on the approach shaking his/her head because a ball didn’t strike, or a sleeper pin continued to sleep on a spare shot. The expectation is that if you do all the right things, then the pins and score will respond appropriately. But the truth is that good drivers get T-boned in intersections, good people get ripped off by con artists, and great bowlers do not carry the rack sometimes. If you expect life to behave differently, brace yourself.

Finally, worse yet, sometimes you don’t feel good when you play. Sometimes you miss badly. Sometimes you just can’t handle the lane condition. This is “the ugly.”

First, you have to be prepared for all of it…because all of it is going to happen. Secondly, you have to know that none of it means more than it means on that given day. You can be great sometimes. Life deals you some wicked cards sometimes. Trust that if you stay with your training and your competing, you won’t remain an awful player.

4)    Distraction-the voices inside your head, and the noises outside.

Whether it is doubt, negative self-talk, irritation, or fear, there is a lot of vibration that can get you off of focusing and concentrating on what you do best…bowl.

       Outside-of-you can be anything from other players stepping up on the

       approach, to cheers for or against you, to people talking on cell phones. Most  

      bowlers have some form of personal pet peeve.


      Counter-intuitively, it is vital to know that any attempt to control a mind that

      wants to roam will lead to even more distraction! The answer is never to push

     distractions away. You are flirting with bowling hell if you are engaged in

     destructive self-talk, focusing on what is going wrong, or attending to

     anything that is out of your control.


     Rather, you have to take your inner-self, and direct your attention to thoughts    

     and feelings that empower your bowling. You can direct your thoughts to

     actions you can take that will be effective.


     You know that you can push-away at the right time as you begin your steps.

     You know that you can let the ball begin its descent by itself. You know that    

     You can summon up feelings that smack of courage, empowerment, and

     assertiveness. Control what you decide is important to focus on. Get clear   

     about this. You are not your mind. The mind can do whatever it would like to


5)    Getting Psyched Out Before the Game.

    "With confidence, you have won even before you have started."

                                                                             ---Marcus Garvey

Painfully, players and teams that do not succeed have often scripted their results ahead of time. On the good end, the same is true for those who do actually triumph.

If you sampled bowlers before a tournament or a PBA telecast, and asked them where they think they will finish, their predictions would likely be close to accurate. If you could get a real read on players’ hearts and minds before playing someone with a big reputation, playing on television, or facing a stout competitor in the finals, you would have an advanced preview of who had a chance to play to win. You would see who was playing on hope instead of conviction.

You must play with conviction. It doesn’t matter who you are facing. It was said that Goliath was a forty point favorite over David. All you ever need is a sling shot and a chance.

6)    Playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.

"Being the best that you can be is possible only if your desire to be a champion is greater than your fear of failure." ---Sammy Lee

Defensive driving works on the freeway, not on the bowling lanes. Playing defensively may help you stay on the lanes. It might even ensure that your ball gets to the pocket. But you will generally get mowed down by other players, and teams, who are playing to win.

Playing not to lose is a mindset of self-protection. It is a form of taking all of the previous “deadly sins” of bowling, and converting them into a bad news competition attitude.

You may not look stupid if you play this way. You may stay relatively clean with respect to strikes and spares. But you will also find yourself dissatisfied with your pin carry, the constricted feeling in your muscles, and the joylessness with which you are playing.

7)    Focusing on winning.

             A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never    

            be enough with it." ---Irv Blitzer (John Candy), Cool Runnings


              Focusing on winning can be a fine motivator in practice. But it can be

             Confusing, stressful, and a hindrance during competition. Focusing on

             winning before or during a competition has three problems:

1)     first, if you are attached to having to win in order to be okay, you have your self at stake. You might as well bowl with a gun to your head.

2)     Focusing on winning is like focusing on having a perfect game, or concentrating on getting a double, before you throw the first one! There is nothing really to focus on.

3)     Lastly, focusing on winning does not give you any cues or clues for effective ways of getting it done. You actually can focus on aspects of the lanes, your body, or your competition spirit. But focusing on winning itself is empty mental calories.

Feed the Right Wolf

There are your seven deadly sins. We are all human; hence we all err. Expecting perfection with respect to these has already been detailed as one of the problems. However, you can do your best. The issue is whether you have the fortitude to “feed the right wolf!!”

"Whether I fail or succeed shall be no man's doing but my own. I am the force; I can clear any obstacle before me or I can be lost in the maze. My choice; my responsibility; win or lose, only I hold the keys to my destiny." ---Elain Maxwell


As Published in Bowling This Month Dec 2012