The Mental Game: “Shot Taxonomy”

Shot Taxonomy

The Problem

You are standing next to the ball return waiting for the ball to come back. You notice the bowlers on the next pair and note something peculiar about their style, or the type of ball they are using. You look down and notice a piece of smashed Popcorn that somehow eluded the broom. Ah, there is your ball, you pick it up, stand on the approach, find your mark and fire away only to exhibit some flaw in your release and miss the intended trajectory by 5 boards! Somehow the ball recovers enough to salvage a light pocket hit and leaves a weak corner pin. This is the 5th one you’ve left this game! The frustration mounts all you can think about is that stupid corner pin. The ball pops out of the return, you grab it and take your starting position on the approach. All that is going through your mind is the first shot as you make your approach. Only this time you yank the ball and flag the corner pin. Sound familiar? …what’s wrong with this picture?

“Taxonomy”: The Order of Things

Taxonomy is a fancy way of suggesting that something has an orderly progression. So, what does that have to do with Bowling! Well, just about everything when it comes to the mental aspects of the sport. Have you ever seen a Batter in Baseball go through the same strange ritual as he prepares for the next pitch? One of the strangest rituals I’ve ever seen is that of Nomar Garciapara. He would furiously adjust the Velcro straps on his batting gloves and tap is toes into the dirt and nervously wag the bat waiting for the next pitch…every time! He is not the only one. Almost every professional athlete regardless of the sport seems to go through something in anticipation of an athletic sequence. There seems to be some kind of routine that the athlete uses to prepare himself for the next athletic event. In the case of Nomar, awaiting the next pitch. Some athletes do this instinctively others have to learn it.

Dr. Dean Hinitz has spent a significant amount of time researching the mental aspects of sport. I highly recommend his book “Focused for Bowling”. One of Dr. Hinitz’s key observations is the notion of a shot cycle in Bowling. It is the steps that those athletes at the top of the sport use in one form or another for each athletic event (shot).

What I will do for the remainder of our discussion is to take what I’ve learned from Dr. Hinitz and spice it up with my own personal experience in trying to explain this to you.

First Things First

Just like our bodies go through a repeated series of steps to execute a shot, our mind has a lot to do with the shot as well. Some of you have heard me say “get the junk out of your head” or “commit to the shot” .. or something like that. Well today I’ll unlock that door for you. What do I really mean? Is it really committing physically to the shot? Well, yes … and no. Yes, you need to commit to the shot but, there is a lot of preparation mentally that has to happen first.

Four Steps to Success

Essentially, the entire shot cycle can be viewed as four distinct steps.

Step 1 – Planning

This is where it all begins. It should start before you ever step foot on the approach and can be initiated as early as you like. Here we want to focus on what we plan to do with the next shot. Each time we throw the ball we should learn something. Something about ourselves, the lane the ball reaction, etc. That feedback is what drives the planning step. We are like a General putting in place a plan of attack. We are making decisions about things like ball speed, release, trajectory. …and, gulp, how much of a chance we are going to take. How much we will commit to the shot. This speaks directly to confidence. Suffice to say that commitment means to deliberately decide that you will be the best you can possibly be on the next shot. This step sets the stage for what is to follow but, what triggers the beginning of the shot cycle? You guessed it the pre-shot routine. That is a mental trigger that you use that communicates to every part of your being that you are now in competitive mode. That is why Nomar adjusts the Velcro and kicks his toes in the dirt. Its his pre-shot routine! If you watch any professional athlete they all have one and you can see the cycle start in each one of them…its soooo obvious.

Step 2 – Execute and Commit

This is where the rubber meets the road so to speak. Here we are focused on nothing but committing to execute our plan. We need to be absolutely focused on that one objective. There is no room for apprehension about things like “what if I mess up?” No room for thinking about what if I miss, what will be the consequences in the game. All of these negative thoughts must not be allowed to surface. You must have one goal and one goal only…execute the plan flawlessly! Muscle memory and training have got to be allowed to take over. Trust your body to remember what to do. After all, you have practiced countless hours to get to this point. You cannot be thinking about mechanical things during the approach because that will get in the way of executing the plan. It is OK to remind yourself about small things like focusing or not squeezing the ball or maintaining a free and easy swing. You must bring everything you have to executing the shot.

Step 3 – Reaction

The point here is that you have made your shot. You’ll know if you committed to executing right away because you’ll feel it and see the result. In either case, something is going to happen. Either you will have executed flawlessly or not. In either case allow yourself to process the emotion good or bad. If you were successful revel in the moment. If not, then allow yourself to feel the negative emotion. That’s right, I said feel it. Don’t suppress it…let it go no matter what it is! Why, you say? Because allowing the emotion to manifest communicates to you on a conscious and sub-conscious level. It provides vital feedback to you mentally.

One word here…never, never, never repeat to yourself what you did wrong especially if it involves a mechanical flaw. Because, your sub-conscious is like a child it will do exactly what it learns and is told. By going through the errant motion you are reinforcing your sub-conscious with how to do it wrong. Always, always, always tell yourself how it feels to execute flawlessly.

If you executed flawlessly then congratulate yourself, celebrate …experience the emotion. This communicates to your sub-conscious as well. Like I said above, your sub-conscious is like a child. It is trying to do exactly what you tell it because it wants the praise. That’s right it wants to be praised for pleasing you. So, tell it when it did a good job. …and teach it what it means to do execute flawlessly.

Step 4 – Cleansing Breath (Release)

OK, now we need to complete the cycle. Let everything go so that you can prepare for the next shot. You cannot allow any thoughts of what just happened crowd your mind. Tell yourself “its in the past…that is what happened…so what? Now what are we going to do next?” Let your mind reset and clear from all of the thoughts and emotion over what just happened. This step is crucial as it completes the shot cycle. Take a breath exhale and let all of the emotion drain out of your body!


So, what happened in the scenario at the beginning of the article? Well, a great many things. First, its likely that the bowler (you) did not know about the shot cycle and therefore was not mentally prepared to execute a shot. The key is that we need to keep each one of these steps distinct each with the same level of importance. Do not let the activities of one step overlap with the next. Don’t shortcut them or omit one or more of them.

Here is the typical pattern to the shot cycle:

  1. During the pre-shot routine learn from the previous shot. Set a plan in place for the next shot.
  2. Step up on the approach and commit yourself entirely to executing the shot. Translate that intent into movement and let your body handle the mechanics of the physical shot.
  3. Allow yourself to acknowledge the emotion. You don’t need to showboat here but, process the emotion appropriately.
  4. Get over it, clear your head, take a deep breath and exhale. Let all of the emotional reaction exit your body.


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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