There is a lot that happens in the world of bowling that is really really hard. Most of it does not get discussed. Maybe you think that it doesn’t count. Maybe you are old school and don’t want to complain. Maybe you just don’t know what to do.

Really challenging stuff happens sometimes. I never met anyone older than about 18 years who hasn’t figured that one out. The thing is, the hard stuff can take so many forms. The obvious ones are injuries that take you out of the game for a little while or maybe for a long while. There are things like choking on an opportunity and having to live with the results, losing cherished friends and teammates in any number of ways, and, of course, aging.

“Toughness is shown in how you respond to adversity. Can you respond without losing your footing and your direction? If so, that shows me that you’re tough.”
-Tony Dungy

This month we are going to look at what happens when you get hit with one of life’s ice-balls. There is a remarkably predictable set of responses that athletes have when the adversity hits. So if you have ever been “beaned” read on. There is always a way through the woods. The only problem is that sometimes it really is through the woods, so to speak.

Getting hurt

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
-Arnold Schwarzenegger

Bowling is unique in the sporting world. Players have an asymmetrical approach to delivering the heaviest object in conventional sports. Even if you are a fitness buff, with great core strength and a balanced body, with enough repetitions, anyone can break down.

The types of injuries that show up can range from toes, to fingers, to hips, to lower backs. If that happens to you, it is never fun. When it is a smaller thing like stress on the thumb or toe, it is hard to really know how to react. It is amazing how such a little thing can cause such major alterations in the ease of bowling. You wouldn’t think a pinky finger could matter so much, but it does.

When the injury is more serious, like a lower back or a knee, things get more involved. First of all, you can’t bowl or perhaps you can, but it is not easy. If you are sidelined, you have the misery of not being able to play. But worse than that, there is often the fear that you will never return to being your normal self.

Bowlers react to injury with a wide variety of mental and emotional reactions. These may include denial that anything is really wrong, anger about being hurt, pain or depression around not being able to be in the game.

If you are hurt, you can follow these steps:

  1. Know that feeling is healing. What you feel, your brain and body can heal. If you numb out with pain killers, your body may be compromised in reading what is needed to self-repair. If you numb your feelings out with denial, minimization, or alcohol, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to move past the hard parts.
  2. Deal with the realities of the situation. Get the skinny on exactly what is wrong and what is needed for recovery. Any time spent on what could have or should have happened is completely wasted.
  3. Your new goals are recovery goals. Find out what is needed to get better.
  4. Actually do what is needed to get better. (see #3)
  5. The more positive you are, the more quickly you will recover.
  6. Be patient. There is an ethic in sports that it is somehow noble to play through pain. The truth is that sometimes playing through pain is the exact wrong thing to do. Go slow to go fast later.


“Winners have to absorb losses.”

Losing can be really tough. Coach Dean Smith said that if winning or losing was a matter of life or death you were going to have problems…you were going to be dead a lot.

Losing can be hard for a number of reasons:

  • You train hard and sometimes it feels like there is just no payoff.
  • You may not be getting what you want out of your results and it can lead to some real questions about how good you really are.
  • You may be bowling well in practice, but messing up in competition. This leads to potential thoughts about your mental game or your worthiness as a champion.
  • You really wanted to win a significant event. You know that making some form of “the show” is special and sometimes rare. It matters to you and you didn’t get what you came for.

When any of the above happens, you can get mad, frustrated, embarrassed, or just shut down inside. Sometimes feelings of wanting to quit go along with the experience. Your reactions usually depend on the magnitude of the defeat you went through.

Simply put, when you suffer results that are not what you hoped and wished for, you have two response options, helpful or non-helpful. The negative path is the one that has you living in fear and self-criticism.

Bowlers who fail, which is everyone from time to time, can become so self-critical that they create choking and negative future results that are consistent with their self- criticism. We really do set up self-fulfilling prophecies that give us outcomes, positive or negative.

If you say, “I stink,” you will. If you say, “I get to make the show, but I never win,” you won’t. If you say, “I am a choker,” you are. The power in your reflections about why you haven’t succeeded more often is under-recognized.


“I’ve never known anybody to achieve anything without overcoming adversity.”
-Lou Holtz

Bowlers who succeed have a very different progression of adaptive thoughts. By far the most important thing here is to objectively find the truth of why you didn’t get what you wanted.

The bottom line is that if you really learn what you need to, every shot, every game, every tournament, then you are a self-improvement machine. Your confidence builds because you know that you are getting better every single time you compete.

This last point is critical. Players who live in regret over what happened, who self-punish and self-doubt, create pressure. Instead of com – petition being fun and exciting, it becomes an arena to keep trying to prove they are not the player they fear they are. Most of those fears center around four themes:

  • I’m not a good enough bowler at a physical game level.
  • I am not the stuff true champions are made of.
  • I am not destined to be a winner; I am a runner up kind of person.
  • I am unlucky.

The cure here is to boldly tell the truth in each of the four categories. Almost mathematically to the degree that you have the courage to tell the truth, you can have the possibility of change and success.

Let’s look at the items in order. First, there is plenty of objective data available about your skill level. All you have to do is get feedback from any reputable coach or even to look at smart phone video of what you are doing.

Maybe your game is limited. Perhaps you struggle with certain oil patterns or transitions. You may not have the speed control, ball command, or understanding of where and how to play that would put you in the champions seat. All that is really needed here is an accurate analysis and the commitment to get better at what is weak in your game. This doesn’t guarantee that you will win, but it does guarantee that you will give yourself a much better shot at it.

“If you’re a champion, you have to have it in your heart.”
-Chris Evert

With respect to item number two, for better and for worse, players will tend to have results consistent with what they think they are. Most people do not remember that famed champion Carolyn Dorin-Ballard was on television twenty times before she won a professional Tour event. But what happened after that was transformational.

During her best year on Tour, Carolyn won seven times. One could argue that all of a sudden her game took a quantum leap with respect to her physical ability. But that does not make sense entirely, given the stellar physical skills of some of the other players on Tour with her at that time.

What happened instead, perhaps, is that Carolyn’s idea of what she is (not who, but what), shifted to champion. Hence, she tended to win because she expected to and deserved to. She kept re-proving what she already knew about herself. It looks really similar for Walter Ray.

If, however, you think you are not a champion until you actually win, it is going to take a lot longer. You can be proving or you can be being. Actually being a champion up front will cut down on your choking and increase your excitement when you play. And, when you line up right, you get to win!

What we are saying here is that you will keep re-confirming your idea of yourself. If you think you are always a bridesmaid, never a bride, i.e. a runner up, every time you play you will mess something up in order to land there. You will start choking or missing spares. You can change your stars in an instant. It’s just that most players don’t get that.

“Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods. Instead, it is a way of thinking and behaving.”
-Richard Wiseman, PhD

Lastly, if you believe that you are unlucky, you will find plenty of evidence to prove that this is so. There are plenty of studies that show this (see BTM March 2012). On the other hand, bowlers who literally create lucky breaks do the following:

  • They are good at creating, picking up on, and acting on life’s opportunities—both planned and unplanned ones. They see the opportunities that are all around in their environments.
  • They make “lucky” decisions by checking their gut and taking action.
  • They expect good things to happen, hence the world tends to line up more for them.
  • They are resilient, shaking off the bumps and bruises of circumstance and making good things happen out of short term misfortune.

When you live like this, some things happen in practical terms. Your armswing gets looser. You stop over-aiming shots. You don’t back off your shots and you will likely exit the ball more cleanly, without dumping or steering it.

Your formula for success

“The roughest roads often lead to the top.”
-Christina Aguilera

Your formula for success is grounded in the way you deal with adversity. Virtually no one gets through their bowling life (or their outside life) unscathed! The point isn’t to shoot 900 every time or to win every time you shoe up. It is not to go through your athletic career imagining that you will never hurt, grow older, or lose flexibility.

No. The target is to have a way of showing up, facing up, and sometimes growing up, that allows you to stare down adversity until it says, “I get it and I give. I brought my game, but yours was more convincing.” Only then will life step aside, take a bow, and admit you into the champions circle.

Do you have what it takes? You wouldn’t have made it to this spot if you did not. Congratulations, you are on your way!

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
-Haruki Murakami

The author wishes to acknowledge Jeannie Atkinson for editorial assistance with this article.

Some source material drawn from “The Mental Side of Athletic Injuries” at, and “Dealing With Defeat” at

Dean Hinitz

About Dean Hinitz

Dr. Dean Hinitz is a clinical sports psychologist in Reno, Nevada, a bowler, former competitive gymnast, and black belt in Japanese-style Karate.