Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ten Pins and the Truth

Susie Minshew is a bowling coach, and she uses bowling to teach life. Part of that teaching is direct: she has gotten her students to lose weight or gain self-confidence through bowling. Part of that is more abstract. When we had our mini-lesson, the first thing she asked me was what I hoped to gain from the practice. She will take whatever answer you give, from “I want to average 250,” to “I want to have a good time.” Then the lesson proceeds from there. Ultimately, you are supposed to lose the obsession toward pins without losing competitiveness. I asked to have a good time, and I did, I also got a few strikes. She is considered one of the greatest coaches in bowling.

Minshew also knows a great deal about the mechanics, physics, biology and philosophy behind bowling, and she writes, which makes her perfect for the Funnel Method. If that sentence seems ridiculous, that’s partly bowling’s own fault. Minshew believes that bowling and golf were equally honorable fifty years ago, but that while golf chose to be elite and expensive, bowling chose to be universal and cheap. Bowling provided house shoes, house balls and bumper lanes. As a result, bowling is often thought of as the working-class semi-sport, and golf brings in billions of dollars in television, advertising and in useless office knick-knacks.

Professional bowlers use different balls the same way golfers use different clubs. There is a plastic spare ball that does not hook on the lane. It offers a more direct shot, whereas the regular ball can be spun to curve in on that front pin. This is only one of many examples. Bowling shoes are fairly complicated as well, and come with removable friction pads. Professional bowlers play seven game sets, throwing 15 pound balls. The point is that bowling could have a very different reputation, and there are now 100 million bowlers worldwide.

The point is also that most of us are largely ignorant of many interesting aspects of bowling. The lane is very expensive and complicated. It is made of two different kinds of wood: hard maple up front where the ball hits, and softer pine in the middle where the ball rolls. The grains in the pine can actually be placed to favor right or left handed bowlers.

The lane is oiled more heavily in the middle than near the pins, because bowlers don’t want the same slide near the end. We are talking about very small measurements. No dent in the floor can be more than, if I remember the number, 1/4000th of an inch off the surface plane. The oil is a thin application, maybe three units of oil. It is often applied more heavily in the middle of the lane to create a hump that the ball will glide around, but there are regulations about the ratio between the middle and the edge of a lane.

By looking at a lane up close, Minshew can tell you the thought process that went into creating the lane. Learning how to make practical decisions based on understanding the environment makes good bowlers, it makes people good at anything, and it is very important to the Funnel Method.

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