The Mental Game: “Planning”


The Problem

You are in the middle of a block of games, you have been doing well up to this point. Everything is working, you have been around the pocket all day and you feel like you are throwing the ball very well. You sense that your timing and release are great and you are relaxed and confident as you address the lane for the next shot. You make the same shot that you have made all day but, this time something unexpected happens. Your ball starts its move to the pocket earlier than usual resulting in a shot that hits the rack dead on the one pin resulting in a wide open split. You stand, a little confused, at the line in disbelief. After your second shot you ask yourself “how can that be” as you replay the previous strike ball back in your head. Suddenly, its time for you to make your next shot. You resolve in your mind that you will not repeat the last mistake. But, what was the mistake…everything felt fine. You address the pins once again and once again everything feels great when you deliver the ball. Only this time the ball squirts past the breakpoint and misses the pocket altogether leaving a nasty washout. You again stand at the foul line in disbelief. “What is going on here” you ask…

Planning: “Failing to plan is planning to fail”

As we have discovered, Dr. Dean Hinitz has identified a four step shot cycle that breaks down a shot into four independent steps. He identifies “planning” as the first step. It is an old saying that “failing to plan is planning to fail”. What that means is that if you do not have a plan you are really “planning to fail”. In other words you are leaving everything up to chance. Also, we know that planning the shot is important but, what should we plan? Well, here I must say that much of planning comes with experience. Sadly, experience cannot be taught. However, I can share some thoughts on the types of things that a developing bowler should focus on when planning the next shot.

First Things First

Without going any further we need to realize a few things. Lets explore a question. When you plan what do you base your plan on? Hopefully, you will answer that question by saying something to the effect of, “I plan based on the last shot”. Many people will respond to that question by giving a similar answer. But, think about that for a minute. There is much more to that simple answer than you think. Consider that with every shot made on a lane the oil pattern is altered. Factors like time, temperature, and humidity also has a direct effect on the lane condition. When you throw your ball it communicates to you what the lane condition is and how it is changing. In order to truly master the planning step in the shot cycle you must become an expert at understanding not only what your bowling ball arsenal is capable of but, also being able to read the lane conditions and anticipate the changes as well. Advanced bowlers can actually anticipate the changes in the lane and make adjustments very quickly. Those that can stay ahead of the changes are the ones who consistently do well in competition. We’ll discuss reading lane conditions at a different time. Right now we need to focus on the “what” of the planing step.

Making The Correct Adjustments

Making adjustments in your game should be ongoing throughout any competition. You need to evaluate the lane condition after every shot and pay close attention to where other bowlers are playing and the reaction they are getting.

One of the best pieces of advice that I can pass along is that if you are struggling with a particular condition don’t just sit and wallow in a pool of negative thoughts, take action! Find someone who has a similar style to you and is successful on the condition and observe how they are playing the lane. What equipment are they using? How is their equipment setup? What line are they playing? What ball speed, etc. One thing is for sure there is no shame in this approach. Believe me if you are putting up big scores there is no doubt someone is behind you watching what you are doing.

With that advice in hand what types of adjustments should we consider? First off, don’t panic! As I’m prone to say; bowling is largely a mental game. Stay calm, keep your composure and confidence in your ability. When it comes to bowling I firmly believe that keeping things as simple as possible is always the best bet. I believe it is true for all aspects of the game including adjustments.

The list below is a recommended order of adjustments for you to consider. You should go through this list in your mind when you feel you need to make an adjustment.

Foot adjustments

In general, the simplest adjustments to make are those with your feet. Remember that horizontal (left and right on the approach) foot adjustments should always be made in the same direction as the error in the shot. So, if the ball has consistently been light in the pocket you would adjust to the right on the approach (for a right handed bowler, left for a lefty). If the ball is consistently high in the pocket then you would adjust left for a righty and right for a lefty. When these adjustments are made, typically you use the same target line as you had been using right along.

Eye Adjustments

Eye adjustments can be made to control two aspects of ball reaction. First, you can adjust your eyes horizontal (from left to right) on the lane. This is often used along with foot adjustments in order to change entry angle into the pocket or to change the shape of the line you are playing. Vertical eye adjustments can be used to effect the length of skid the ball experiences on the lane. A vertical adjustment is accomplished by changing the spot on the lane you use to target your shot. By looking further down the lane you will cause the ball to skid further before rolling. This means that the ball will travel further down the lane and will break later. By looking closer to the foul like will have the opposite effect. How does this work you ask? Well, it is actually simple; when you target further down the lane you subconscious mind will make you reach for that spot where looking closer you will tend to get out of ball much sooner. A nice side effect is that this technique has no impact whatsoever on your timing!

Hand Adjustments

Adjustments to the hand during the swing and release can be tricky to master. There are some simple hand adjustments that can be learned faster than others but, in all cases learning to control the subtle hand adjustments is a great asset for any bowler. Suffice to say for this discussion that altering the hand has a direct relationship on three essential factors of the ball’s rotation on the lane. Had position directly effects the Axis Rotation, Axis Tilt, and Revs on the ball. Hand adjustments are always used by a bowler to alter these attributes when changing how the ball reads the lane.

Speed Adjustments

Adjustments to the ball’s speed on the lane can have a profound effect on how the ball reads the lane. An increase in ball speed has the effect of decreasing revs and giving the ball less opportunity to read the lane. A decrease in ball speed generally has the opposite effect. Ball speed should be manipulated by one technique only. To increase ball speed you should hold the ball slightly higher in your stance when you initially address the lane. This causes the back-swing to become higher which generates more ball speed without causing a muscled swing or impacting the bowler’s timing. To decrease the ball speed, the ball should be positioned lower when you address the lane. This has the opposite effect.

Equipment Change

The last adjustment is a change in bowling balls. There is a common mistake made by many inexperienced bowlers. They unfortunately think that the hottest new ball is going to be the one to propel them to stardom. Well, suffice to say that a ball is a tool and it must be used for what it was intended to be used for. The setup of the ball has a lot to do with its reaction as well as how the ball is constructed, i.e. coverstock and weightblock combinations.

For most advanced bowlers I recommend an arsenal of no more than four balls. Three of the balls should be setup to handle a wide range of lane conditions, with some overlap between the balls, ranging from dry to wet conditions. The last ball should be a plastic spare ball. I firmly believe that a bowler should learn to go straight and firm at spare shots using a plastic ball. Why? …you ask. Simple, why do you hook the ball? Answer…because statistically you have a higher percentage chance of carrying all 10 pins if the ball enters the pocket at about 6 degrees. That is the only reason why you should hook the ball! Hooking the ball into spares makes little sense in most cases because you are at the mercy of the lane condition for your spare shots. Like it or not, bowling is and always will be about making spares. Here’s proof, when was the last time you saw someone never have to shoot a spare during any competition? Answer: NEVER! Since bowling is about putting yourself at a competitive advantage and since the lane condition has a dramatic effect on ball reaction, you can take that factor completely away if you use a plastic ball for your spares since it is virtually unaffected by lane conditions.

So, with so many balls at your disposal in your arsenal, how do you decide which one to use or even start with. Good question! I’m glad you asked. First, you need to identify what is known as a “benchmark ball”. This is a ball, usually the middle ball in a three ball arsenal (not counting the plastic spare ball) that provides what you might consider an “average” reaction on most conditions. Next, and just as important, your practice on a lane is very important as well. Here is methodology that I learned and use to get myself “lined up”.

Using your benchmark ball throw a shot straight down the second arrow and observe the reaction. The second arrow is used because it gives a good gage of the lane condition. Remember, the ball is speaking to us all the way down the lane. Take a couple of shots to get lined up with the benchmark ball. Use the other two balls in your arsenal with the appropriate adjustments to observe their reaction as well. Make note of which ball gives you the largest margin for error. That is the ball to use for that particular line. Next, try several different lines and repeat the process. What you know within just a few minutes is how each ball reacts on this particular pattern with several lines. Rank the lines in your mind starting with the line and ball combination that gives you the greatest margin for error in getting to the pocket. You now have a plan of attack for the competition by selecting the most forgiving line. You now know that you can switch lines with confidence if you have to. In the remaining few minutes of warm ups take out your spare ball and practice your corner pins. This will allow you to warm up your spare game.


There is a lot to the planning step. But, with careful consideration at this point a disciplined bowler can learn to overcome many different lane conditions.



Fran Varin is a USBC Silver certified coach who coaches throughout Rhode Island. He is also a coach for the Rhode Island Flyers and Bryant University. He can be reached at

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