In this article, we are going to explore mental toughness as it applies to the sport of bowling and two methods that you can use to develop your mental game. In pursuing this goal, we are going to look at examples from the world of actors and from the military.
Some people will tell you that mental toughness means being able to look your opponent in the eye, growl like a wild beast, and scare them into submission. Others may say that mental toughness is a quiet confidence that doesn’t require any direct confrontation at all. Still other people may say that mental toughness is keeping your cool when everyone else around you is cheering for the other team. Who is right? Maybe all of these points of view have some value.
In the world of bowling coaching, one of the most important qualities that a coach can help a player to achieve is “confidence”. Webster’s dictionary defines confidence as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one's appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities”. I believe that mental toughness arises, at least in part, from that self-assurance that we define as confidence.
Most, if not all of us, have experienced at least some moments of confidence and self-assurance. We have also experienced many moments where we didn’t feel confident or self-assured at all. The magic question is, “How can we create more and more moments of self-assurance when we bowl?”
During high school I spent much of my time with student actors. I became friends with actors even though I had a terrible fear of being in front of an audience. Maybe that is why I wanted to be close to actors – because they seemed to have mastered the art of being in front of a group and playing many different roles. Their ability required confidence and it seemed powerful and attractive to me. My actor friends spent hours and hours researching and rehearsing their characters and their lines. Practice was crucial to performing at their best.
Later, I served in the United States Army which offers soldiers the option of navigating a series of very challenging obstacles that can create extreme fear, such as the fear of heights. This was termed the “Confidence Course”.
The Army also gives soldiers experiences that closely mimic the actual events that they may encounter in battle. These experiences include negotiating an open field with barbed wire and other obstacles while live bullets are flying overhead; actual experience in a tear gas chamber; and throwing a live hand grenade. In a manner similar to the preparation of actors, soldiers rehearse and practice the events that might occur in battle with as much realism as possible.
Now let’s talk about how acting and the U.S. Army can help us to develop mental toughness and confidence in bowling.
Most of the top coaches that I have consulted do not believe that confidence comes from a single lesson, a scholarly text, or a magic pill. In fact, many coaches don’t believe that confidence is possible if you are not out there competing in the “heat of battle”.
Putting yourself into a competitive environment with higher level players will challenge your skills and test your abilities.
On the other hand, we all know someone who seems to exude confidence in almost everything they do. Their confidence or self-assurance appears like something natural which they have always possessed. Does someone like that come to mind for you?
What the Army training can teach us about bowling is that we can greatly benefit from going into “battle” on the lanes and facing our fears. It may be the most valuable way to face fears and learn to become mentally tough.
In his book, The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental Emotional Physical Conditioning from One of the World's Premier Sports Psychologists, James E. Loehr talks about the similarities between athletes and actors. Dr. Loehr is a world-renowned performance psychologist and Co-Founder of the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida.
One of his key theories is that becoming mentally tough can be achieved by taking on the characteristics of what we believe a mentally tough athlete would be like.
For example, how would a mentally tough athlete act, how would he/she look, how would they walk, how would they talk, how would they prepare for an event, or how would they handle a setback or a mistake.
Loehr believes that by giving thought to these questions, in as much detail as possible, athletes can begin to take on the “role” of the mentally tough performer. As an athlete begins to act “as if” he was mentally tough, those characteristics will actually become a part of their skill set. The athlete would first take on the thought process of a mentally tough performer, then the athlete would prepare like a mentally tough player, and finally the athlete would gain the confidence those results in mental toughness.
To summarize this brief analysis of becoming more mentally tough, here is a three step “practice plan” that you can use to improve your skills:
1. Take the steps necessary to enter competitive events and test your bowling skills under pressure. You can begin with smaller events at first, but bowling in tougher events against mentally tough competitors is one great way to develop your own mental game.
2. Make a written list of all of the characteristics you can think of that a mentally tough bowler would possess. How would they act? How would they prepare for an event? How would they act under pressure? How would they talk? How would they treat others? How would they dress? How would they care for their equipment? What kind of pre-shot routine would they have? How would they handle a bad shot? Write down as many characteristics as possible, using your own judgment as a guide.
3. Then adopt as many of these “mental toughness” and “confidence” characteristics as you can during your next bowling event. Behave “as if” you are already the mentally tough player that you imagined in item 2 above.
Mental toughness and confidence can be learned and the practice plan above will give you a great beginning. I think you will find that the results will be very interesting. Bowling, like life, is an ongoing process of skill development and improvement.
There are many more sources of information on mental toughness and confidence to help you to continue learning; some of these resources are listed below. Send me an e-mail at Rick.Wiltse@Kegel.net and let me know what happened, and what you learned from your experience using my three step practice plan.
“This Is What Privates Go Through During Army Basic Training” by James Clark – Task & Purpose, May 16, 2016
The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental Emotional Physical Conditioning from One of the World's Premier Sports Psychologists Paperback – November 1, 1995, by James E. Loehr , Forward by Chris Evert.
Act As If: A Winner’s "Fall Back" Position, Competitive Advantage, Dr. Alan Goldberg, 03/17/2009.