Almost every time I coach a bowler, I’m reminded of the expression relating to chewing gum and walking at the same time. Inevitably, bowlers are able to perform an effective armswing while standing still and are able to walk efficiently with no bowling ball in their hands. Doing both at the same time is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of the sport.
At the highest levels, bowlers will manipulate ball speed, axis rotation, and other elements related to the transfer of energy to the bowling ball. At the average level, league bowlers will also slightly modify elements of their game with varying degrees of effectiveness. In either case, the bowler’s ability to adapt the transfer of energy to the bowling ball depends first on the ability to generate that energy. Since the prevailing knowledge is that your legs account for more than 50 percent of your power, that’s the best place to start.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to look at the starting position as it relates to the feet and legs only. The vast majority of the time, bowlers will fall into one of four categories when it comes to placing their feet on the lanes.
- Parallel – Apart
- Staggered – Apart
- Staggered – Together
- Perpendicular – Together
Most beginners will start with a parallel foot alignment and their feet farthest apart (Position 1). This usually doesn’t lead to good mechanics as no one actually walks with their feet shoulder-width apart. Remember, the idea is to create power through efficiency and this kind of stance puts your body in an inefficient position from the beginning.
Typically, placing your feet in a staggered position with your eventual slide foot in front is the ideal technique to promote a slightly open hip alignment (Position 3). Both heels should be on the floor. Having this position with the feet too far apart (Position 2) will show its inefficiency as soon as you start walking since one foot or the other will have to go diagonally toward the other one. Exaggerating this type of open stance and placing your back foot behind your front foot also creates a few problems (Position 4).
First, your hips are inevitably more open and possibly out of alignment with your shoulders. With your hips open more than your shoulders, you create a twist in your spine that goes against your initial ball start. You rotate your spine in the backswing, but it should not be rotated before you start walking. Second, your back foot must travel around the lead foot when it starts to move. Whether that is your first or second step, your back foot ends up traveling a greater distance.
Gait is the official term for walking or, more accurately, a person’s manner of walking. When studying gait, several measurements are used including cadence (speed of walking expressed in steps per minute), stride and step length (two different measurements), pushoff, and about a dozen other elements. Step length is the measurement from one heel or toe to the other foot’s heel or toe. Stride length is the measurement from the heel placement of one foot to the next time that placement occurs (e.g., from left heel to left heel).
From a bowling perspective, step length and cadence are crucial. They are also where the old and new school of bowling sometimes offer conflicting information. Common bowling knowledge from prior decades was that a bowler’s steps should get longer as they approach the foul line: the first step should be the shortest and the slide step should be the longest. Current theory holds that in an efficient delivery the next-to-last step is the shortest, called the timing or power step.
Personally, I will look at a bowler’s game before establishing what is best. For the vast majority of young players using modern techniques, I will use modern theory when it comes to analyzing footwork. For older generations with enough muscle memory to create consistent (albeit slightly less efficient) footwork without a power step, it would require a complete overhaul of the swing timing and footwork to make the switch to the modern game. Not everyone is up for that kind of change. Consistency comes first, not a precise measurement from heel to heel based on your height.
Whether you subscribe to one theory or the other, no one argues that the slide should be the longest step. It stands up under simple logical scrutiny since your ball must travel the entire distance it took to travel in the previous two or three steps. It simply needs more time and without enough time, the muscles will instinctively take over in order to maintain balance. The body will seek to maintain balance as a priority over throwing a good shot.
Recently, Joe Slowinski published an article analyzing the slides of top pros (How far should you slide, BTM February 2013). With the exception of a very small number of pros who plant, (Michael Haugen, for example), the importance of sliding the appropriate length for your game is undeniable if you want to take your game to the highest possible level.
The direction in which you walk is also an area of the bowling approach that has evolved over time and can still be debated by new and old school coaches and bowlers. First, the definition of the word “drift” needs to be made clear. If you start on board A and slide on board B every single time, you are not drifting. You are simply not walking in a parallel line with the boards. In fact, most people that start on board A and slide on board A aren’t walking in a straight line either! If you start on board A and slide on board B, C, D, E, or F, that is drifting.
For righties in general, walking straight usually isn’t bad (depending how you get there), walking left is not bad unless it’s excessive, and walking to the right or drifting are just about the worst things you can do with your feet to damage your bowling game. For lefties, it’s obviously the opposite.
With today’s modern game, explaining footwork direction can look like one of those dancing diagrams with precise foot placement. Your slide leg and foot should always go straight, while your non-slide leg should be crossover steps. In order to promote an efficient armswing, high level bowlers will walk around their swing by crossing their ball side foot in front of their slide foot. This promotes opening the hips and efficient use of your core in generating and transferring energy to the ball as well as allowing the swing plane to be straight.
The power step is also a crossover step, often with an open facing toe to further open the hips and push into the slide. Again, a bowler’s power should be derived more from their legs than their arms, as the leg muscles are much larger and stronger. This also promotes a straight swing plane and is specifically why walking right (for righties) is inefficient.
By walking into the path of the ball, you force the body and arm to correct/change the swing path, resulting in inefficiency. Again, the body’s priority is self-preservation so maintaining balance and avoiding hitting itself with a 15 pound object is more important than throwing a good bowling shot, no matter how much you want to do it. By using inefficient movements, you will inevitably ask your body to make that choice and it will always choose itself over your desire to strike.
You simply can’t discuss effective and efficient footwork without discussing shoes. Like bowling ball reaction down the lane, your slide is affected by the friction between your shoe and the approach surface. There are two very important elements to a quality bowling shoe: adjustable slide length and traction for your power step. (See the Shoe Table for shoes currently on the market that meet both these criteria).
For several years now, adjustable slide length has been an option with bowling shoes. Changeable soles and heels are a part of the technology of every high end shoe, but bowlers still do not use this enough. Every center is different and even lanes within a center are different, so being prepared to change your slide length so that you are sliding (and stopping) at the right time relative to your timing is incredibly important. Break each new sole and heel in and then be prepared to use whatever combination matches up best to the conditions you are bowling on. Competitive bowlers will change balls to adapt to conditions, so ask yourself if you are using your shoes to the same level of effectiveness.
Having a rubberized tread sole on your non-sliding foot is one of the most important things to change among bowlers who do not already have this technology and wish to improve. Without being able to push into your slide, you are either generating less power with your legs than you could be or actually losing energy by having your foot slide backward in the power step.
For the bowlers reading this who already have shoes with this technology, never underestimate its importance. For bowlers reading this who do not have this technology, it is worth the investment of buying more expensive shoes to improve your game. You might need to adjust a few things in your approach to adapt to a rubber sole on one foot, but it is a fundamental part of an effective and efficient use of your feet to improve your bowling.