“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.”
American athlete and winner 9 Olympic gold medals.
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.
In preparation for competition, we are going assemble a competition tool chest. This is a brief description and summary of methods and techniques that work for champions. Throw this into your coaching 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.”
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? Can you teach it? 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 far as your brain is concerned, executing a shot perfectly in your mind’s eye is almost like actually throwing the shot with the body.
Here’s a brief training summary, given as if it is instruction to an athlete: Close your eyes and see your favorite bowling ball in your mind’s eye. There you just started. Now imagine, see, or sense/feel yourself rolling your best shot. Boom! You just did it again. Now image a rolled ball along a path 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.
“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 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.”
Your first coaching move is to simply have the player pay attention to what they actually do. Note that it is rare that beating yourself up verbally will help in any way. Usually negative self-talk just bumps up self-loathing, anger, frustration, and doubt.
Positive self-talk cannot be a con job. The player can remind their self of the great things they have done before, the shots they have delivered, and the assurance that they will bring their best game. *Here is a Key note for an an athlete to integrate: What you know with certainty in your mind will be reflected in your athletic actions!
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. You can have your bowler try practicing any one of the following techniques for anywhere from three seconds, to three minutes. Once he/she becomes proficient at this. Just initiating breath work will signal the 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 deeply 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) For practice, do this once or twice every time you stop at a red light, get off of your cell phone, and for sure during your pre-shot routine, and after the shot. It may well change your life.
4) Practice for longer periods of time, between three and twenty minutes at home, in order to train the brain to be able to shift quickly into relaxation mode.
Adding An Anchor
“Work. Don't Think. Relax.”
― Ray Bradbury
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 exhales from any of the breathing techniques discussed above, add a focusing or cueing word that sets up a desired mental and emotional 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 a player.
An especially good time to add your best anchor word 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 serve as a centering mechanism before shots.
Flow to Go
“The main thing to do is relax and let your talent do the work.”
Ultimately, it may not really matter if you get your mind quiet. What matters is that a player can relax the parts of the 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 one wishes to relax. For soft hands make a fist. To relax your mind (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, the athlete needs to be respectful of their body. They should not do anything to the point of pain. Do not over-tighten, or tighten for too long. Check with a physician, trainer, or even a psychologist if you have a question about whether, or how, to do any of these exercises.
If all of this body work is too foreign to you, then teach the absolutely simplest body relaxation move there is. Have the player wiggle his/her toes, while setting up, before the push away. This will do two things, first it will help to bring the player into the present moment, second, the orientation to the feet will help the bowler to balance correctly before settling into the starting stance (plus not too many people can stay tense when they are wiggling their toes!).
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."
They say that it is a poor workman who goes to the job site without his tools. The mental game tools in this grab bag are as basic and essential as a hammer and a saw. Armed with this equipment a bowler can be prepared to do battle anywhere, anytime.
This handout is adapted from the June 2013 Bowling This Month Article, “Your Bag of Tricks”, and From Hinitz, D., Bowling Psychology, Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL. 2016.
Not for public distribution. Reprints by permission of Dean Hinitz, Ph.D. only. firstname.lastname@example.org