The less beaten path – The professional world of 10-pin bowling

We need to address the mysterious person at the bowling alley who seems to know exactly what they’re doing. They tend to play by themselves and know the staff. They’re there before you, and they haven’t left by the time you’re done. Their movements are measured and elegant, accentuating finesse while brimming with power. Why do they keep rubbing their hands above the ball return? What’s up with that towel? You’re enamored by their thunderous elegance for a few seconds before your friends tell you it’s your turn, only for you to stumble into rolling a gutter ball in truly remarkable fashion. An anthropomorphic zero contorts across your screen in a cheesy 3D animation while the same mysterious person calmly walks with their back towards yet another explosion of pins being kneaded into the back of the lane. Strike. You may have just seen an enthusiast, professional, or someone working hard to get there.

The Intricate Components of Bowling

Pins
There are 10 pins arranged in an equilateral triangle with a vertex facing the direction of the player. Each pin is given a number from 1 to 10, starting with the frontmost headpin, or the 1 pin. The kingpin is the 5 pin in the middle of this arrangement.

Each pin is made of hard maple wood (maple wood is sometimes used in lanes too) and finished with plastic and coatings. Its notable curve gives the pin a lower centre of mass, increasing its stability, and with it, the force required to knock it over.

Lanes
Generally, lanes are made up of long depressions in a reinforced concrete slab filled with padding, i-joists (supports that hold the lane) and wedges to keep them in place, then covered with the wooden or synthetic (like phenolics) surface you see. The foundation is crucial so that the lane can withstand the violent forces and impact it is subject to.

Oil
Oil is truly the middle child when it comes to recreational bowling, but its significance is well-established in professional play. A mixture of mostly mineral oil is machine-coated on top of the lane in one of many patterns. The oil serves to reduce the coefficient of friction between the spinning ball and the lane, allowing it to glide in a relatively straight manner. At the point where the oil layer ends or sufficiently thins, the ball changes direction, “hooking” into the pins at the 1-2 or 1-3 pocket to increase the chance of getting a strike.

Typically, recreational bowling games use house patterns, which are thicker in the middle and thinner at the edges, coaxing the ball towards the centre as much as possible regardless of throw to keep things enjoyable. Professional ‘sport’ patterns (with cool PBA names like Shark, Wolf, and Badger) are more evenly distributed, varying in their length down the lane, magnifying any errors with the original throw, and demanding elevated precision. Lane oil is invisible with the exception of the blue oil the PBA uses during its World Series.

Colourful Spheres of Doom

A competently chosen arsenal of custom-drilled bowling balls is obligatory for any professional. The standard mass of ball used in the PBA is 16 pounds, or about 7.3 kilograms. Given that the ball is thrown with the same velocity, a beefier ball will have more kinetic energy, and thus makes stronger contact with the pins. In addition, a heavier ball requires more force from the bowler to manoeuvre, making it easier to add subtle modifications to the motion of the ball without over-adjusting. Balls are composed of a weight block, filler material, and a coverstock on the surface. Without being overly technical, weight blocks control the potential hook of the ball, whereas different coverstocks can grip the lane surface to fulfill that potential with varying degrees. House balls provided in recreational bowling tend to have centred weight blocks, rendering a hook-ball an unreliable pursuit. For each pattern, bowlers use a primary ball to hook the ball for strikes (knocking all pins down), and a secondary ball with less hook for added precision when going for spares (knocking down all remaining pins after failing to knock down all pins after the first throw).

Is Professional Bowling a sport?

Bowling is a global… let’s back up (pun vigorously intended). Bowling…a professional sport? Outrageous! Come on now. How difficult can gliding to rest at almost the exact same distance from the foul line while releasing a 7.3 kilogram ball with uneven mass distribution somewhere at a 2cm wide length along 39 wooden boards on the floor within a fixed fractional angular pocket somewhere between the 0-2 degree mark, adjusting the precise axis of rotation, angular momentum, and velocity of said sphere to keep up with an invisible, varying, non-uniform oil pattern while keeping immaculate timing, mental resolve, wrist and body form, and near-perfect posture optimised to your physiology to then cause said ball to curve at the end of the oil and hit one of two statistically ideal yet not guaranteed positions 18.3 metres later at an entry angle between 4-6 degrees repeatedly for tens of frames while wearing some dapper trousers…possibly be?

And that’s just for a strike. 

By no means is it an easy task. While the US based Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) attracts less viewers than, say, the NHL or NBA, getting to the big leagues requires immense dedication. Generally, to simply qualify for the PBA, you must roll a minimum average of 200 (out of a maximum of 300) over at least 36 consecutive games in one season. To actually win titles is a different ball-game (once again, pun vigorously intended) altogether.

While bowling may not seem like a physically exerting activity, it certainly requires extensively well-developed muscles pretty much everywhere, a supremely refined repertoire of throws, and impressive plasticity to deal with atypical situations. Try to keep up with a two hour long elite bowling training session, and you will definitely feel the burn early, assuming any calluses don’t get to you first.

Most people feel internally dissonant when confronted with the thought of calling bowling a sport, but that’s probably due to its accessibility and reputation as a non-physically demanding recreational activity. Still, it’s not the sport’s fault that it’s enjoyable at any skill level. After all, I must say that I haven’t met very many individuals with a proclivity to go ice curling or plan an outing for any of the 4 Olympic throwing disciplines with friends every other Thursday “for some fun”. Yet, all of these sports share crucial features with bowling. Setting aside sweepers (which require raw strength and basic techniques) the real juice in curling comes from a well-practiced homogene of subtle throws, adjustments, and tactics. 

“You can’t mess up the other team in bowling.”

You absolutely can. Since competing bowlers take turns rolling on the same two lanes, bowlers incessantly alter the oil pattern by moving oil with every throw, constantly forcing opponents to subtly adjust to or avoid certain areas to prevent premature or late hooking of the ball. Players with differing dominant hands need to get creative in making it harder for each other, as they play on different sides of the lane. In addition, higher RPM (revolutions per minute) players tend to be challenging to play around as the friction their rolls generate leave deep grooves in the oil, leaving a thinner layer of oil along the ball’s path and a thicker layer nearby. Most crucially, professional bowlers have reasonably displayed the “hot hands” phenomenon, going through hot or cold “spells”, or periods of increased and decreased performance during games. Since bowling has less external variables involved, it can be reasonably assumed that these spells are mostly mental phenomena, leaving room for plenty of mental trickery and much need for mental fortitude. A crowd of fans being literally metres away doesn’t help much either.

“Bowling requires no creativity/skill/talent, just practice.”

  • Tell that to Jason Belmonte, who introduced a two-handed approach so unique, effective, and rattling to the extent of league-wide controversy and rule-checking in the PBA. In addition, look at Jesper Svensson or Brandon Novak, professionals also known for their effective yet unorthodox playing styles.
  • Pros have displayed their ability to selectively knock out pins, or know immediately after release which ones will be knocked down.
  • Pros constantly adjust to a multitude of oil patterns.
  • It takes very little time for a pro to learn to strike with a drastically different ball than what they’re used to.

“Bowling is boring to watch.”

Unlike most sports, there’s significant action occuring in bowling every few seconds. Although team games are rare, individual professionals’ personalities tend to shine in the alley, overall giving professional games quite the intense atmosphere.

Although Javelin, Hammer, Discus, and Shot Put require enormous strength, they require mastering one throw each. Despite this, all of these disciplines are firmly instated within society’s view as respectable, “true” sports. Better yet, the same opinionated statements used to dismiss bowling as a sport could probably be used to dismiss golf, yet seldom are. 

All in all, the notion that bowling isn’t a real sport should hand in its two weeks notice and book a flight to some tropical island where hammock-linked palm trees abound and fancy cocktails with quirky straws are served in cracked 7 pound house balls.

As 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat may or may not have said:

“I have discovered a truly remarkable sport in bowling which, for the sake of brevity, this margin is too small to contain. C’est vraiment cool. You should watch it.”

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