Gold Coach Michelle Mullen: How to Practice

by Gianmarc Manzione 0


Change is Hard: PWBA legend Aleta Sill, here with her 1994 U.S. Women’s Open trophy, once endured 30 minutes of gutter balls as she learned to walk straight while keeping her shoulders open. Rather than abandon ship, she struck with it, and her exemplary competitive record demonstrates the dividends that discipline paid.

How often should I practice? What should I practice? How should I practice? These are all great questions that I am asked all the time. How you practice is as important as what you practice.

The first thing I suggest you do is take a lesson from a qualified instructor. I hear bowlers say all the time that they just need to practice more and they’d bowl better. Well, maybe. But that leaves me wondering, “Do they know what to practice?” A good lesson can expedite your efforts exponentially, if you know what to practice, and then enable you to structure your practice so that it is more productive. I would consider taking golf lessons, but not until I know I can commit some time to practice.

Here are some tips to help you get more out of your practice sessions.

Do Not Keep Score. Practice is for working on technique. We never kept score while we practiced to prepare for the tour. (If the bowling center has to have the scorers on to charge you, then just don’t pay attention.) When I give lessons, the scorer is not on. During practice, score is irrelevant, a distraction at best. Yet when I ask my students how their practices are going, they often tell me their scores. I am not asking for their scores; I want to know if they feel like they are improving the technique we had worked on in their lesson.

This means not letting the outcome of a shot distract you from staying focused on technique. When you are working on developing a specific skill, focus solely on that skill, not on where the ball goes. Especially at first.

This brings to mind a great story: PWBA legend Aleta Sill had taken a lesson from former Team USA coach Sean Klug a few weeks before tour started one year. He was working with her on keeping her shoulders open while walking straight. She says she threw about 30 minutes of gutters. I love this story for two reasons. One, she stayed true to the technique she had to correct. Two, who allows themselves to throw 30 minutes of gutters? A great champion, that’s who.

Use Drills. Thinking is necessary to produce a new motion. Bowlers tell me all the time, “I just need to stop thinking!” Well, at some point that may be true, but the truth is that you do need to think to establish a change in technique. However, drills can help because they help you feel the change.

Think of drills as stepping-stones between what you have learned and your ability to create that motion, or feel, when you actually bowl. Drills help you become familiar with how the technique feels as well as help you become proficient at it. Do your drills frequently to recognize the feel of a skill you are trying to improve.

In order to execute the change, it sometimes helps to create a visual in your mind rather than think about the change in detail. An example would be to model yourself after a bowler whom you think exemplifies the desired technique. A single image can combine what would otherwise be many thoughts and make it much easier to develop the skill. I think this is especially true if you are a visual learner.

Take One Thing at a Time. If you are anything like me, you want to get it all accomplished every shot. Well, that just makes improving technique even harder. As I often say, you can have 100 correct thoughts, but that does not mean you will be able to execute the proper motion.  Trust me on this.

To properly build the foundation and improve your game, limit your thinking to one, maximum two, things at a time. You will fare much better by staying focused on a specific part of your technique; then, once you start to “own it,” you can move on to practicing something else.

Segment your practice, either by the game, or by the time. Maybe you spend a game or two or 15-20 minutes on a specific technique. Again, you want to burn it into your muscle memory. Avoiding the urge to work on too much at once can be very difficult, but if you dilute your thoughts, you will not end up with enough quality shots to develop that technique into your muscle memory. Change is hard. Do not underestimate how much focus it takes to change one thing and do it well. Plus, this gives you a chance to get used to how that aspect of your technique feels. It will take a lot of effort, let alone trying to work on something else at the same time.

Once you have worked on that one thing and believe you have made adequate progress, move on. It may take more than a game or 15 to 20 minutes. Be flexible. It’s better to have developed a single skill than to have tried to do too much and accomplished nothing.

Reserve Judgment. This is a big one. Do not judge another part of your execution while you are working on something else. That is counter-productive to making real change. If you are working on your timing, don’t just focus on the release. Focus hard on what you are working on. Resist the temptation to beat yourself up about what else wasn’t good about the shot. Like I mentioned, it is hard enough to make a change and it requires a lot of focus and dedicated effort. Don’t let your ego create a distraction.

Here’s something very important to keep in mind: When you develop certain key aspects of your approach, other parts of your game will naturally improve. So, it often pays to stay the course on those key things, such as timing and swing. The rest will start to come. I will see other parts of a player’s game start to improve just by working on the swing, or timing. Then, if those things need a little polishing, working on them will typically be easier because you have improved the overall approach. This leads to the next point.

Stay on Task Often. The release improves as a result of improving timing and leverage. But,

it is easy to chase symptoms rather than stay focused on the issue at hand. If you are working on your timing, but you don’t release the ball right, don’t jump ship and start working on your release. Stay the course on your timing until you have it down. Then, see how your release has evolved as a result of the improved timing. At that point, if your release still needs work, then work on it.

Coach Yourself. This one comes straight from the “Dos Rather Than Don’ts” department: Focus on what you do want to do, rather than on avoiding what you do not want to do. For example, rather than tell yourself not to pull the next shot, tell yourself to relax and just let your arm swing. Your mind will tend to hear and remember the verb in the thought. In this example, the verb in the negative thought is “pull.” In the second, it is, “Relax and let your arm swing.” You are more likely to end up pulling the ball following the first thought than following the second one.

I am very sensitive to this principle when I coach, striving to ask bowlers for what I want them to do, rather than focusing on what not to do. I encourage bowlers to get after it, rather than bowling to avoid a problem.

One final thought here. It is my experience coaching that change often comes in two parts. I developed this concept in “Bowling Fundamentals.” Suffice it to say that when you change one thing, it alters the feel of the rest of your approach. Once you have made a change, your body has to get acclimated to it. This is really important to understand when you are trying to work on your game. I look forward to exploring this more in my next column.

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:


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