Serious bowlers seek all avenues to remain competitive. They stay abreast of all new equipment and pursue all means of elevating their games. During the past 15 to 20 years, the bowling game has undergone a big technological boom.

Coverstocks are designed to improve strike percentage. Shoes are devised to improve the sliding process. Numerous arm, wrist, and finger supports have been created. Some are for the prevention of pain or injury; others are for greater stability in the release. All these innovations have had a profound effect on the game.

Tailoring the ball to fit your game

Bowling balls have evolved from the original wooden ball to rubber, then polyester, urethane, reactive urethane, and proactive urethane materials. During the early years of bowling, from the 20s to the late 50s, balls were made of rubber. They were limited in scope and unlimited in longevity.

The average bowler used ONE ball for more than an entire league season, often up to five years and even longer. Elite bowlers, particularly staff members of bowling ball companies and players of nationally sponsored teams, encountered little difficulty in acquiring new equipment. The average cost of balls in the 40s was under $18 and peaked in the late 50s at about $25.

Today, a top-caliber bowler may be content to carry four to seven balls in their arsenal: two for oily lanes, two for medium lanes, two for dry lanes, and one hard-surfaced ball, preferably  polyester, for spares. To be competitive in the 21st century, a bowler must have a complete arsenal: balls that hook at different distances down lane to maximize scoring. This can only be accomplished with balls that have different cores and shells.

High average bowlers own at least four and as many as 30 balls. They can make each ball react differently by altering the shell, core, and method of drilling. Some balls will go long and flip hard on the back end. Others will go long with a gradual arc. Some are designed to hook early with a strong back end reaction and others hook early with a smooth reaction on the back.

Built-in variables

There are different variables that affect the ball’s path to the pocket. The radius of gyration (RG) determines how soon the ball hooks. It’s a measurement of the ball’s moment of inertia. The moment of inertia is the ball’s resistance to revving up. The differential RG determines how much a ball can flare to create more friction with the lane. The shell material also affects the friction on the lane.

Polyester balls hook very little and are primarily used to pick up single pins. Urethane shells create a medium amount of hook with a smooth arcing motion. A reactive shell causes the ball to slide in the oil and hook sharply on the back of the lane. Shells that contain particles create friction in the oiled area of the lane for more hook overall, especially in the front.

Thus, serious bowlers need an assortment of balls to keep competitive. With top-of-the line balls costing upward of $200, this can add up. However, many bowlers feel the more balls they have to choose from, the less they have to adjust their physical technique to create the shots they desire. Although a wide range of equipment affords many options for scoring, some bowlers become frustrated and confused with too many balls at their disposal. A few of the top bowlers on the PBA tour carry fewer balls and prefer to overcome difficult conditions by changing speed and hand positions.

The right fit

Ball drilling experts consider the following when fitting a ball:

  • The span – distance between the fingers and thumb; the pitch – the angle the holes are drilled in the ball; and the hole size and shape which is determined by the size and shape of the digits;
  • The strength of the hand, wrist, and elbow is a factor in determining the proper weight of a bowling ball. Carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and tendonitis are considerations.
  • The flexibility of the hand and fingers plays a major role in determining pitch. As one grows older, flexibility decreases. Bowlers who work principally with their hands will have different flexibility than those who do not.
  • Skin texture play a role in pitches. Some hands are smooth and dry; others are rough and moist. Those with smooth and dry hands benefit from less reverse pitch. Conversely, those with moist skin require more reverse pitch.

Changes in the hand and fingers can occur quickly. Ignoring proper grip adjustments may cause physical problems and adversely affect your bowling. According to internationally renowned drilling expert and former president of IBPSIA Jerry Francomano, “You can’t outbowl a bad fit.”

The size of the hole is an important factor. Although a competent driller will concede on the size of the hole to somewhat patronize a customer, rarely will he or she relent on pitch or span. Most skilled players prefer a tighter hole.

Most skilled bowlers use tape to adjust hole sizes to get the perfect feel, particularly in the thumbhole. Less skilled players tend to use too large thumbholes and then apply and adjust the tape. When the level of proficiency increases, they drill new balls which require less tape. I suggest regular visits to a certified technician at any bowling pro shop displaying the IBPSIA logo.

Determining the best weight

The primary factors in selecting the right ball are comfort and scoreability. Most PBA players use a 16 pound ball, but many of them have dropped to 15 pound balls to minimize the effects of today’s powerful missiles. Some have even dropped to 14 pounds. However, a 14 pound ball is more inclined to deflect off the headpin and not carry through the pocket. Therefore, it is not advisable for those who can handle a heavier weight.

Maximum weight for a bowling ball is 16 pounds. These balls are normally manufactured with a gross weight of approximately 16 pounds, 2 ounces. The added 2 ounces compensates for the 2 or 3 ounces that are removed in the drilling process.

Two noted professionals, Amleto Monacelli and Mike Aulby, used 15 pound balls instead of 16 pound balls to minimize the hard-hitting effect of the 16 pounders. This was the philosophy credited to Hall of Famer Dave Davis, who used 14 pound balls during the latter part of his career. Nonetheless, the majority of PBA players continue to use 16 pound balls.

Altering ball surfaces

Bowlers can use sandpaper or abrasive pads in a variety of grits to alter the surface of the  ball. Although USBC regulations prohibit the practice of forming a track in the bowling ball with a foreign substance, it is permissible to alter the entire surface of the ball. Actually, original USBC regulations banned any tampering with ball surfaces and relented these rules several years ago.

Pads are available in a variety of grits and, if properly applied, can profoundly affect ball reaction. There are assorted grades of pads, each providing a different reaction on the ball. The use of any pad or sandpaper under 400 grit greatly enhances the biting effect of the ball on the lanes.

Bowlers who seek additional traction by applying grittier sandpaper or more abrasive pads  run the risk of early hook and may experience the consequences of the roll out factor on dry back ends. Although roll out can be overcome through excessive speed. this strategy, in many situations, can profoundly hamper a bowler’s rhythm and timing and be counterproductive.

Sandpaper and pads can be used to apply a high finish to a ball. A 600 grit is used for a medium to smooth finish, whereas grits in the 1000 to 2000 range are used for high polish.  Abralon, Scotch-Brite, Siaair, and NEAT pads have all become widely used products. In fact, ingenious bowlers have mastered the art of using abrasive pads on a ball to preserve the skidding effect in the early part of the lane, yet maintaining an advantage for traction in the hooking stage of the lane.

Hand and wrist supports

Various wrist, arm, finger, and forearm devices have flooded the market. All are designed or purported to aid in shot execution. It is interesting to note that superstars like Parker Bohn, Norm Duke, Chris Barnes, and Walter Ray Williams shun performance-enhancing gadgets.

One of the more unusual accessories is a glove worn by Pete Weber. It is built similarly to a golfer’s glove; that is, it covers the hand. However, Weber uses this glove solely as a protection for his fingers.

Although some hand and wrist supports appear to be cumbersome and uncomfortable, they have proven beneficial to many bowlers, particularly females. Basically, many wrist supports are devised to prevent the breaking back of the wrist, thereby ensuring a firmer release. Wrist, hand, and arm accessories are a matter of preference and have become a mental comfort. Also, on the professional level, it is a source of income for players who endorse these products.

Skin treatments and tapes

Bowlers, particularly those who apply excessive effort in executing shots, often experience sore thumbs. Although most PBA stars are not as susceptible to thumb and finger problems as other bowlers, they can nonetheless be affected by the rigors of delivering 16 pound balls repeatedly day after day and week after week.

There are liquid skin treatments used for the prevention of injury or to protect an already injured area from further damage. There are also multi-colored tapes of various thicknesses for the hand and fingers that perform the same task.

Accessories play an important role in a bowler’s arsenal. Remember, what is good for one bowler is not always good for everyone. The most important equipment for high performance is a properly fitted bowling ball. Wrist and hand supports, tape, sandpaper, abrasive pads, liquid skin treatments, and fitting tapes can enhance a bowler’s game, but the only truly offensive weapon for knocking down pins is a ball that fits comfortably, comes off the hand cleanly, and is released out on the lane with no difficulty.

John Jowdy

About John Jowdy

John Jowdy has been a bowler, author, instructor, and speaker over the last 60 years. He was coach to some of the most successful bowlers on tour. John’s awards and accomplishments include: Bowling Coaches Hall of Fame, ABC and PBA Halls of Fame, International Bowling Coach of the Year. He was a contributing writer for Bowling This Month for 13 years. John Jowdy passed away in 2013 at age 93.