What bowling can learn from Little League

Imagine a sign by the side of the road: “Youth baseball teams, now forming! Meet at West Side Park, Friday 5 p.m.”

9-year-old Annie and her mom are driving by. “That sounds like fun,” Mom says. “Want to sign up and learn a new sport?”

“Sure,” Annie replies, eagerly.

On Friday, Annie and her mom show up at the park at the designated time. “Hi, I’m Annie,” she says to Coach Joe.

“We’re the Panthers, and we’ve got a big game tonight against the Sharks,” Coach Joe says upon meeting Annie.

“Here’s your mitt. You’re gonna be shortstop — now get out there!”

“But I’ve never played before,” Annie protests.

“Well, we’ve got a big game!” Coach Joe replies. “Oh yeah, you’re batting third.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Annie says, louder. “I don’t know anything about baseball, and I’ve never thrown or caught a ball before.”

As parents and athletes, would you find this acceptable?

In all other sports, no beginning athlete is thrown into competition on the first day. There are practices. The coaches go over the rules and strategies. There are batting and fielding practice and drills. They talk about when the first game is going to be, and they (coaches and players together) devise a game plan well in advance of the big day.

Yet, in bowling, a beginning bowler can sign up for youth league, show up on the first day, and we tell them things like, “You’re going to get 10 minutes of practice, then you’re going to bowl 3 games. Now go bowl!”

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In this photo, veteran instructor Lonny Olson is teaching a “Learn to Bowl Better” class in Tacoma, Washington. The class is aimed at beginners, with the hope of getting many of them to sign up for leagues (although not all of them will).

The beginners are taught lane courtesy, how to bowl “league style” (alternating lanes), ball return safety, aiming using the arrows and dots, finding a starting position on the lane, and the basics of a four-step approach.

When these bowlers show up for the first day of league, they will already be armed with some guidance. Someone has taken the time to show them the basics of aiming and delivering the ball BEFORE their first competitive league session.

If these kids sign up for league, they stand a good chance of enjoying it — and STAYING!

I went in a bowling center once during their Saturday morning youth league. There were no coaches. There was a 10- or 11-year-old boy in his first year of league. His score looked something like this: – – – 3 – – 5 1 – – – 6 – – – 1 –

His swing went in all directions, wrapping behind him, launching the ball into the gutter before the arrows on most shots. His fundamentals were way off, yet there was no one around to correct him. Behind him, his parents sat at the counter, eyes buried in their phones, checking social media and texting — probably making plans for later that afternoon, after they would leave the bowling center. They weren’t the slightest bit interested in what their son was doing on the lanes. And their son wasn’t really that interested, either. Through 9 frames, he did not even have a score of 20.

An 11-year-old who throws 60 percent gutter balls, and has no one to help fix his game, will NOT be interested in continuing to bowl. His friends are probably playing other sports — and without anyone to help him improve in bowling, he will quickly get discouraged and follow his friends to other activities.

In the Pacific Northwest it’s very encouraging to see what Lonny and other like-minded instructors, coaches and pro shop operators are doing with coaching bowlers of all abilities, starting right at beginners all the way through advanced levels.

Too often we focus on growing youth bowling by trying to get lots of sign-ups for the first day of league in August. Instead I say, “how many of those kids will still be around in January?”

Yes, growing bowling starts with the sign-ups — but we’re only as strong as our coaching.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on becoming a USBC-certified coach, visit: http://bowl.com/Coaching

Story and photographs © 2017 by Kevin Hong.

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