THB Chronicles Part II: Our resident THB is back—but this time, he’s got a coach

If you stopped by back in mid-January, you saw a story called "THB Chronicles." You know me as the hack who tried his luck on Sport Bowling patterns after 20 years in the delusional wilderness of house-shot leagues. You know that in those 20 years I logged a certified 834 series, season after season of 200-plus league averages, and a chest full of trophies and medals that I took to be a genuine reflection of my bowling ability.

And you also know that it took just a 17-week stint in a Sport Bowling league to help me discover how unfortunate an assumption that had been all along. In those 17 weeks, I logged a high game of 199 and a low game of 99. My timing disintegrated week by week as my terror of throwing a shot so errant as to be humiliating grew to immeasurable proportions. In short, it was the kind of performance you only agree to watch at gunpoint.

With my ego so firmly in check as to be irretrievable, I made a concession that occurs to so few house bowlers thanks to a combination of forgiving lane patterns and seemingly limitless ball technology: I needed a coach. I soon found one in the form of Bob Learn Jr., a four-time PBA titlist and USBC Silver coach.

By that point, my timing had become absurdly late after squeezing and aiming the ball in response to the much less forgiving lane patterns I had been bowling on. I was not even pushing away until the third step in my five-step delivery, forcing me to muscle through my release and hit up on the ball at the finish. Consequently, the first shot I threw in front of Bob Learn Jr. had the trajectory of a missile dropped from an F-16 and sounded like an asteroid striking a planet by the time the ball hit the surface of the lane.

It was a little hard to look Learn in the eye after that first shot. Had I done so, I probably would have seen some sickly hue of green pass over his face before he regained his composure. Clearly, 17 weeks on Sport patterns did not just leave me in need of a great coach, it left me in need of a licensed psychologist. What was equally clear, to both me and Learn, was that we had a lot of work to do.

Learn immediately honed in on flaws in my game that I shared with the vast majority of my fellow THBs: I was not using my legs at all, I had a pair of bowling shoes so old that they looked like I had stolen them out of somebody’s trash, I had totally misinformed notions of how to generate revs, and I placed too much emphasis on ball choice and not enough on how to properly use the equipment I had on hand.

“Ninety percent of typical league bowlers do not use their legs,” Learn told me.

The fundamental misconception here was that I could overpower less-forgiving lane patterns by clinging to the ball as if it were a winning Power Ball ticket, slowing down my steps, and muscling the ball towards my target. I did not realize that any hesitation in my footwork creates a corresponding hesitation in my arm swing; consequently, I had to muscle through my arm swing more than ever before.

I needed to pick up the speed with which I approached the foul line, let my ball fall into the swing much earlier, and essentially “chase” the weight of the ball through my approach. At first, attempting to do this felt like I was racing Seabiscuit to the finish line on the last leg of the Triple Crown. But as soon as I trusted the weight of the ball to carry me through the duration of my approach, I felt the muscle gradually leave my arm swing and my timing begin to correct itself.

My swing became more of a relaxed pendulum that swung in the direction of my target with not nearly as much physical exertion as before, greatly improving my accuracy. Getting to the line more quickly also helped me get my thumb out of the ball much sooner than before and stop hitting up on it. Soon my ball no longer had the hang time of Jordon dunking from the free throw line and the lane no longer sounded like a bombing site when I threw the ball. In fact, my very best shots hardly made any sound at all.

After a few games of bowling this way, though, I also felt as if someone had stuck a javelin straight through my right leg. Now that I was using my legs instead of my upper body to create power, I was also using muscles that I had never used in bowling before. Walking up the stairs to my office the next day was an experience I hope never to endure again at any point in my life (thanks, Bob).

Learn quickly focused in on another major problem — a totally convoluted hand position I had developed in the hope that it would help me generate more revs. I would set up for each shot with my wrist twisted outward so that my fingers were on the inside of the ball — a position so unnatural that it caused wrist pain. I have a name for that particular hand position now: “The Carpal Tunnel Clutch.”

With my wrist in this position through the release, I was coming around the ball so much and creating such a pronounced axis rotation that my ball quite literally turned sideways at the breakpoint. Learn encouraged me to relax my hand by keeping it somewhere under the ball, even slightly to the outside of it. He also encouraged me to stop trying to hook the ball and instead just keep my hand straight up the back of it from first step to last.

I was amazed at what I saw: Though I was not trying to turn the ball at all and kept my hand completely behind it through my release, the ball still made an aggressive turn toward the pocket. I was learning to trust the core dynamics of my ball to do the work for me that bowlers had to do themselves in the days of urethane, plastic and rubber. I was also learning that just allowing the ball to roll off my fingertips rather than hitting up on it gave me a ball reaction that was both aggressive and more predictable than those screeching 90-degree turns I’d grown accustomed to in my Sport Bowling experience.

Another thing Learn quickly noted in our first sessions together was the shape my bowling shoes were in. He had a good reason for noting this. After all, my mother had purchased them for me when I was 14 years old. The problem? I am now 30.

“Your shoes are one of the most important pieces of equipment that you can buy as a bowler,” Learn said.

These shoes had become so unspeakably decrepit that Learn suggested donating them to the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame (although they made for an excellent conversation piece at league). With shoes whose soles were so worn that I might as well have been skiing downhill, it would be impossible to achieve the kind of aggressive footwork that would help rid my arm swing of muscle. I needed shoes that could offer far more traction than the broke-down jalopies I was wearing.

I bought myself a pair of Dexter Men’s SST 5 LX Black shoes — no, my mother did not pay for them — and immediately felt more stable at the line than I had in years. I quickly realized that in addition to the above-mentioned hesitation I developed in my Sport Bowling experience, bowling in shoes that were half my age was another big reason my footwork had become so labored.

But there was more work to do, and one new pair of shoes would not do it all for me. After just the first practice shot I threw on the longest pattern Learn had me bowl on — a 43-foot World Tenpin Bowling Association pattern — it was clear that just keeping my hand straight up the back of the ball and earlier timing would not be enough to get my Virtual Gravity to the pocket. This is where I, in my glorious stint as a house-shot wonder boy, might have hit up on the ball even harder or made a hasty ball change.

Instead, Learn supplied an Abralon pad (2,000 grit) and used it to change the texture of my ball surface so that it would be grittier and therefore read the lane earlier. It worked like a charm. Whereas I was used to focusing merely on “breakpoint” as that spot down the lane where my ball would snap back, my first shot with the ball Learn had altered read the lane much sooner and began to hook in the mid-lane. I was still keeping my hand straight up the back of the ball, doing absolutely nothing to force it to turn more aggressively, and yet even on a longer pattern the ball found its way to the pocket just fine.

I should note that I did not correct the flaws that Learn identified in my game overnight. I still muscled through many shots and squeezed it so much at the release that my thumb and fingers came out of the ball at virtually the same time, resulting in the bowling equivalent of a Tim Wakefield pitch. But while any gratification I got out of my sessions with Learn came gradually and only in exchange for the best shots I could possibly make, it inspired me to learn more, continue to work hard, and take another shot at Sport Bowling on my own.

That is precisely what I intend to do this spring when I will once again compete in a Sport Bowling league. But this time, I will be equipped with some great coaching and a wealth of new knowledge. Be sure to check back with later this spring for a report on my progress.