Monday, July 20, 2009

The Basics of Problem Approaches

The Basics of Problem Approaches

Intended Audience: All bowlers ending their approach with a slide

The Problem

It has happened to just about every bowler who has ever played the game or sport of bowling: problem approaches. Whether they are too sticky or too slick, bowlers risk injury, low score, and bad habits as a result of not being able to slide "normally".

The biggest concern is injury. Bowlers that stick bad enough can tear a knee ligament, quadracept, or ankle. Bowlers that slide too much risk a pulled groin, hamstring, or strained abdominal muslces. In either case, the bowler may end up going over the foul line, slipping on the lane conditioner, falling, and hurting any number of body parts. Anyone that's been around bowling long enough has stories related to these accidents.

Another concern is low scores. Any time a bowler is taken out of the normal flow of their physical game - and footwork is a huge part of that - it impacts that bowler's ability to perform. Beyond that, the bowler must operate out of a comfort zone both physically and mentally. Bowlers that know they are going to "stick" are often cursed before they even step on the approach because they are afraid of sticking. The same is true for sliding too much.

Finally, if a bowling on problem approaches lasts long enough, the bowler may adjust by doing any number of actions that result in bad habits. For example, a bowler that is sliding too much may slow their footwork without the proper corresponding change in pushaway and release timing. If enough repetitions are performed, the timing and pushaway problem become part of the bowler's game and can lead to a slump.

Why do Approaches Change?

There are a number of reasons why approaches change: from bowling center to bowling center or even in the same bowling center from day to day, week to week, or even shot to shot. The biggest two culprits are foreign substances and humidity.

Here, the term "foreign substances" is used loosely to mean dust, goo, gum, tar, powder, rosin, water, lane conditioner, rubber from a bowling shoe heel, etc; basically anything on the approach other than the bowler. Some of these substances, such as powder and dust, make the approaches slippery. Other substances, such as rosin and water, make the approaches tacky/sticky. Water may be counter-intuitive, but usually water soaks into the sole of the shoe and creates a sucking, vacuum-like effect with the approach when a bowler attempts to slide. Clean approaches generally work the best. Bowling centers should regularly clean and buff their approaches.

Humidity is another factor, especially in parts of the world where both humidity and temperature can vary widely over the course of a year. Like with water on the approach, if it is humid enough in the bowler center, water in the air also eventually soaks into the pores of the approach and the soles of bowlers' shoes. It seems few bowling centers invest in a dehumidifier these days. Generally speaking, the more humid the bowling center the stickier the approaches and the less humid the bowling center the less sticky the approaches.

Lane construction is also a major factor. Wood approaches tend to allow for a better slide. Wood doesn't seem to be as affected by humidity, most likely because of the grooves in the wood versus the pores in synthetic approaches. Synthetic approaches are tackier. Some of the newer, more porous synthetics seems to be better, but are still more prone to humidity.

Check Shoes and Environment

Whenever you encounter a problem with the approach, the first thing you should do is check your shoes and if no problems are found there then check the environment.

The soles of bowling shoes need to be kept clean and dry to provide a consistent slide. The biggest enemy of a good slide is liquid. It's counter-intuitive, but wet bowling shoes will reduce a bowler's slide and make the bowler stick. Dust and dry debris can cause a slip or longer slide. Keep the sole clean.

If nothing appears to be wrong with the shoes, check the environment. Is there liquid on the approach? Is the roof leaking? (I've seen this happen plenty of times) Is there a foreign substance on the approach? It's better to ask someone at the front desk to send someone down to clean the approach than it is to risk injury.

In the case of powder - Easy Slide, Baby Powder, whatever - another bowler on the same lane(s) can be the source. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas the USBC needs a clearer rule. There is one place the rule is clear: shoes must not leave any residue on the lane. From the USBC web site

QUOTE: USBC’s only rule relating to shoes is Rule 12, “Approaches Must Not Be Defaced.” Rule 12 prohibits soft rubber soles and heels that rub off the approach. Today, many bowlers are wearing a tennis shoe on the push-away foot to give more momentum and keep from sliding. Tennis shoes that do not leave a residue on the approach may be worn. Bowling centers, leagues and tournaments may have their own rules regarding the use of bowling shoes.

If another bowler is placing something on their shoes and the shoes then leave a residue on the lane, the bowler is violating this rule.

Unfortunately, there will be times when there is nothing wrong with your shoes and nothing apparently wrong with the environment. Humidity or simply a bad wood/synthetic surface may be the problem. In that case, a bowler has only one option: adjust.

Equipment Adjustments

A good set of bowling shoes and some related equipment can help bowlers avoid most unpleasant approach problems.

Consider purchasing a pair of shoes that supports interchangeable soles, especially if you regularly bowl in a number of different bowling centers. Each different sole provides a different level of slide/stop. Sometimes, adjusting to a humid bowling center is as simple as changing the sole of the shoe.

Even shoes with non-interchangeable soles made by different companies have different levels of slide/stop. Unfortunately, there's no way to really know unless you try them and there aren't many places that will let you try before you buy with bowling shoes. Don't be afraid to own more than one pair of shoes from more than one manufacturer.

Another tool that can help with tacky approaches is the slide sock. Not to be confused with a shoe cover (discussed next) a slide sock is typically made from felt or some other soft material and is worn over the slide shoe, help in place by an elastic band. It is similar to having another sole that can be added to any bowling shoe to promote a longer slide. I don't specifically endorse this product, but the web site will give you an idea of what a slide sock looks like and how it can help:

The best of shoes will not work correctly if they get dirty or wet. Shoes that have gotten dirty can be fixed using a dry towel to remove dust or gritty materials. A stiff wire brush can be used to remove gunk and goo. If shoes get wet enough, they become unusable and a hazard to other bowlers on the same lane(s). Here is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound a cure. When wearing bowling shoes, watch where you step. Consider buying a shoe cover. These elastic socks go over the bowling shoe to keep them dry and clean when walking around. Bowling shoes should never be worn outside the bowling center.

A note on the use of a wire brush:
Typically bowlers use these when they are having a problem not sliding enough. I've been told that if the shoes are brushed front to back, it will help produce a longer slide and if brushed side to side, it will help produce a shorter slide. I've tried both and haven't noticed a difference between the two, but a brushed sole almost always (regardless of direction) helps promote a longer slide. Most pro shops carry wire brushes made for this purpose, but you can likely also find one at the local discount store.

A note on the use of EZ Slide/Easy Slide:
This has been a topic of hot debate in some circles. My take on it is simple - if one bowler who is having problems sliding should be allowed to use powder (or whatever they would like) on the soles of their shoes to help them slide - regardless of the consequences to other bowlers on the same lane(s) - then another bowler on the same pair should be allowed to use pine tar (or whatever) on the bottom of their soles to prevent them from sliding too much. To illustrate, "Bob" and "Mike" are bowling on the same pair of lanes. "Bob" is having a problem sliding and "Mike" is not. "Bob" decides to use Easy Slide and it works great, but he leaves a residue of powder on the approach. "Mike" bowls next, slides through the residue, and keeps on sliding too far and ends up over the foul line. If "Bob" has done nothing wrong, "Mike" should be able to apply a liberal amount of pine tar to his shoes on his next shot.

The problem with this logic - arguing either way - should be obvious. Given free reign, bowlers would quickly degenerate the approaches into a cesspool. In my opinion, both "Bob" and "Mike" are wrong. It seems the USBC agrees. That's why the USBC rule reads that it is illegal for shoes to leave any residue on the lane. Too often bowlers will put whatever they think they need on the bottom of their shoe and the rest of the bowlers on the same lane(s) be damned! That is a churlish, inconsiderate, and unsportsmanlike attitude.


While bowling is a physical activity, it is generally a safe activity as long as the approaches are in good shape. When it becomes difficult to slide "normally" injury and other negative results can occur. If this happens, check your shoes and the environment and eliminate anything that can cause problems. However, there are times when there is nothing wrong with shoes or environment and you must adjust to the poor condition. Be prepared! Keep your shoes clean and dry and invest in equipment that will help you adjust to problem approaches.

Bowl well!