Emotions, Strategy & Confidence: Michelle Mullen on the Mental Game

by Gianmarc Manzione 0



Unflappable: USBC Hall of Famer Jeanne Naccarato featured one of the more unflappable demeanors on the ladies’ tour, never letting on whether she had just bowled 150 or 250.

Controlling your emotions helps you stay on task and to focus on what you can control, without worrying about what you can’t control. You can control your own performance, but you cannot control the performance of another bowler or even the outcome of a game or tournament.

When I first went out on tour, I took note of the demeanor of veteran player Jeanne Maiden (Naccarato) during qualifying. After each game, we had to move to the next pair of lanes, and I followed Jeanne. I was coming on to her pair as she came off to go to the next one. I was taken by how constant her demeanor was, whether she had just bowled a 150 or a 250.

In my youth, if I had just shot a 150, you knew it. I was visibly upset. Mentally, I would just bounce off my last outcome into my next performance. My focus was clearly interrupted or, at best, inconsistent.

But Jeanne never seemed to change her disposition or outwardly react to her performance. She was able to maintain the same focus regardless of the situation. She appeared unaffected and always on task to perform from game to game. She understood how important it was to maintain a constant focus, and had obviously honed her skill to do so. I was thoroughly impressed. Developing this focus leads to better success — not to mention the advantage she gains by displaying such strength on the lanes, which is intimidating to any competitor.

Have you ever gotten so mad at leaving a 10-pin that you blew picking it up? I understand that it can be frustrating to leave the corner pin, especially on a good shot. However, if you get so upset that you are unable to focus well enough to pick it up, how upset are you after you miss it? You allowed your reaction to disrupt your focus, which led to missing the spare. And you had made a good shot to begin with. You just needed to make your spare and change your strategy to strike the next time.

Learning to control your emotions is a process, and it is not easy. One of my students came into the pro shop and said he had just watched a match I was in on YouTube. He commented on my laser focus. He obviously saw me when I was on top of my game. But it made me immediately think about the many times that I could have done a better job of remaining focused. It is humbling to think about the role that focus and the ability to refocus plays in performance. And it’s largely a function of controlling emotions.

I have been to national amateur competitions and have competed professionally. It is amazing how much more common it is to see open frames come in clusters at the amateur level, whereas it is rare to see a professional follow an open frame with another open frame. This is because professionals recover more quickly from their mistakes than amateurs do.

Many amateurs let mistakes linger in their heads. Professionals learn to manage and control their emotions to maintain focus. Furthermore, they learn how to refocus, regardless of the situation. Focus is essential to survive at the highest level, at which the mental game makes a greater difference.

You can strike 10 times in a row to begin the game or you can have an open in the previous frame. Theoretically, you should approach the next shot exactly as you did the previous one, regardless of the circumstance. Learning to maintain an even keel arms you with the ability to perform, regardless of the scenario.

One of the best quotes ever is by the great Aleta Sill: “Champions have a short memory.” Year to year, tournament to tournament, block to block, game to game, frame to frame.

The Role of Strategy
Is it you or your strategy? This can be a tricky question. Let’s start by declaring that you cannot outperform a bad ball reaction. Sometimes when you are not bowling or scoring well, you try to perfect your form for better results when a poor reaction on the lanes is really the problem.

If your lane-play strategy is not good and your ball reaction is poor, meaning that you have little to no room for error, you must improve your strategy to be able to make better shots. When you have a little bit of room for error, you make better shots because you can relax your swing.

Tightening up your swing is a subconscious reaction. That’s why it can be difficult to determine whether you or your reaction on the lanes (strategy) is the culprit. Again, I learned this on the way to winning my major title, the Sam’s Town Invitational.

In contention to make the show, during one of the match-play rounds I was struggling to score and became very upset with myself for the way I was throwing the ball. Then, I became equally upset with my ball rep, Doene Moos, for suggesting I make a ball change, because I knew it was me and not the ball.

But Doene knew it was the ball and not me.  Reluctantly, I made the ball change, and he agreed to stay with me through it. First shot, I struck. Then I struck again. Suddenly, my swing loosened up and I shot 300.

Had I not given in to the change in strategy, I would have kept trying to throw the ball more perfectly, which tightened me up in the attempt. But what Doene could see was that I had no room for error to be able to relax and let it happen because of my ball reaction. Because of him, I used that ball all the way to the title.

Sometimes you have to change your strategy to loosen up. It can absolutely be the key to scoring better and even to winning.

This is a lot to take in if you are the type of bowler who gets more upset about a bad shot than a bad break. That’s what true players do. You tend to blame yourself and try to perfect your execution when you really need to change your lane-play strategy. By adjusting your equipment, line or release, you can create forgiveness in less-than-perfect shots. This will enable you to relax your swing.

Recognizing when the problem is your strategy can be difficult in the heat of battle. When you don’t realize that your reaction is causing you to make bad shots, your attempt to make more perfect ones only tightens you up more. Then, your poor results only frustrate you, causing you to tighten up worse. I totally get it and have been there more often than I ever realized at the time.

Making adjustments involves a series of educated guesses. That’s all you ever have. So as long as your decision makes sense, commit to it without second guessing it. The more educated you are about how your equipment reacts and how the different conditions play, the better your initial adjustments will be. And when you do make a change in strategy, fully commit to it. This will help you make a better, more relaxed shot.

Because of your resolve, the quality of your swing may even lead to a successful scoring shot, even if the adjustment was not dead on.

Consider a golfer who is trying to decide between two clubs. His caddy can influence the mental frame of the golfer based on his reaction to the decision. If the golfer makes a decision on his own and the caddy questions it, the golfer may doubt his decision and not be as relaxed and trusting when he makes the shot as he would have if the caddy had expressed clear approval of the decision — even if he wasn’t sure, either.

Committing to a questionable but educated and committed change in strategy can lead to a better outcome than making a perfect decision but committing only halfway to it.

Developing Confidence
Competence breeds confidence. While there is much more detail about this in Chapter 12 of my book, “Bowling Fundamentals,” I’ll cut to some key points.

Develop your physical skills and your ability to navigate through strategy, and you will become more confident. It’s not a magic pill; it’s hard work and determination.

Also, becoming more physically fit will help you with your mental game. There is definitely a connection between body and mind that you can cultivate by getting into good shape. I know this to be true. Besides, your physical game also will improve because of your increased strength.

I often reflect on what a mentor and friend, Denny Torgerson, once said to me: “When you think it’s mental, it’s physical. When you think it’s physical, it’s mental.” I think about it often, to this day, still wrapping my mind around how profoundly true I believe this to be.

I LIKE to pose this question to bowlers to evaluate their mental makeup: What makes you more upset — a bad break or making a bad shot?

Players with the proper type of focus answer that making a bad shot is more upsetting. They take responsibility for the shot, knowing it is all they can really control, not the outcome.

I am a firm believer that breaks even out. We easily take notice when we get a bad break, but forget about all the good ones.

Your answer to the question determines the type of bowler you are — performance oriented or outcome oriented.

— Michelle Mullen

Michelle Mullen is a USBC Gold-level coach and the author of two books, “Bowling Fundamentals” and “How to Pick Up Spares.” Her instructional column, "Foundation Frame," appears bimonthly in Bowers Journal International. To subscribe now for much more of the industry's best coverage of bowling news and incisive instructional tips and analysis, go here: https://www.bowlersjournal.com/bowlers-journal-subscriptions/


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