Tips for Spare Shooting

This is an excerpt from Championship Bowling Psychology by Dean Hinitz.

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action comes, stop thinking and go in.”


Spare shooting is an area in which it’s difficult to distinguish between mental and physical aspects of the game. At advanced levels it should be no more difficult to hit a single-pin spare with a plastic ball than to throw chewing gum in a basket a few feet away. It’s like a 30-inch (76 cm) putt for a professional golfer. Yet even at the professional level easy spares are missed at crucial times, and in collegiate tournaments they are missed at a surprisingly high rate.

Spare-Shooting Tip 1: Commit to Seeing Your Ball Cross the Arrows at Your Mark

I know this sounds easy, but if you check yourself you might be surprised at how often your head and eyes jerk up. The mental part of this is the mistaken investment in the outcome, leaping ahead of the need to stroke through your line.

Believe it or not, it’s fairly rare for the average bowler to be able to accurately tell you what board his spare shot crossed at the arrows. Most can tell you what they targeted. Most can tell you what they intended to hit. But few players can resist casting their eyes up to see their results simultaneously with the ball leaving their hands.

Keeping your head and eyes steady serves many purposes. It gives you a large point of focus, so you need not think about all your mechanics. It helps you plant and stay down at the line. And, whether you make or miss your shot, you get accurate feedback about where, and how, you’re rolling the ball. Once your ball crosses the mark, it’s natural to raise your eyes to witness what happened, but wait for that natural motion to occur.

Spare-Shooting Tip 2: Confidence Involves the Head and the Gut

Don’t roll a spare shot until you know the strategy you’re using will work. The profound importance of believing in your spare line can’t be overstated, particularly on combination spares and double wood. It’s amazing how many bowlers acknowledge that they knew they were going to miss a spare before they rolled the ball - and they rolled it anyway!

You either believe in your line or you don’t. If you question what you’re about to do, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll execute mechanically (and poorly), because your subconscious mind knows you have doubt. Or else you’ll unconsciously overcorrect. You know that you should roll it over a certain mark, but you don’t trust your arm swing, or believe in the line, so you fudge it somehow by rolling it where and how your gut thinks it will work. This shows a lack of trust in your own judgment from shot to shot. Play the spare shot that you know in your heart of hearts will work.

Spare-Shooting Tip 3: Make Sure the Traffic Light Is Green Before You Progress With Your Shot

Self-starting athletes have a kind of starter gun in their minds. A diver can intuitively feel when to initiate her first bounce. A gymnast senses when to spring onto the apparatus. A yes or a go or a now occurs in the mind. If you can’t feel this signal in your head, your response should be, No, don’t go!

Bowlers who practice visualization refer to seeing the ball path before they go. For straight spares, you want to visualize a path back to you from the pin. For hooking spares, visually work back from your break point. You must be able to feel and see things in your mind’s eye. Without this, it’s difficult to have a self-fulfilling prophecy of success.

It’s said that true commitment involves surrender to a choice. If you’re still fighting belief in your lane-play decision, you have not surrendered, which makes the go signal in your head a no-go, or a con job.

Spare-Shooting Tip 4: Value Your Best Effort More Than a Perfect Result

Imagine this scenario. You somehow leave the 2-4-5-8 bucket (unfair, I know - the universe must bear a grudge). As you prepare to roll your spare shot, you hear the click of a pistol hammer being drawn back. “Spare or die” says a familiar voice. Whose voice is it? Yours, of course.

Many athletes who are self-demanding perfectionists have a judge and executioner living in their unconscious mind. If you have extensive self-punishing thoughts or feelings following a miss, you know they are there.

“Extensive” means anything that lasts more than a few seconds. If there’s self-punishing talk like, “You @#%!” after a bad shot or missed spare, a desire to avoid looking bad in front of others, or even a feeling of increased pressure because of the importance of the spare for total score, you might be flirting with “gun to the head” bowling.

If you’re afraid to fall in this game you’ll fall far more frequently. If you’re willing to risk falling in order to fly, you have a shot at flying. The bottom line is that if you can’t stand to miss, then the pressure you feel will make you shovel and steer instead of sweetly rolling the ball.

If you’re going to be killed in your own mind for missing a spare, you’re not free to bowl. Yes, you might roll your shot, but it probably won’t have your signature on it. Your internal self-talk must be as supportive as you would say to an eight-year-old doubles partner. “Come on give it your best. I’m with you no matter what.” This kind of encouragement must occur consistently.

This is especially important after an errant shot. If you kick your own butt after a miss, you end up reinforcing your fears of the internal hangman on the next one. You must know you’re going to be OK upfront, and then you’re truly free to cut loose.

Spare-Shooting Tip 5: Feel It, Do It

It would be easier to execute spare shots if the pins would take a jab at you first. Then you could react, respond, and wipe them out. The problem is the pins are just sitting there. There’s nothing to react to, so you must move into action on your own. A great way to do this is to start with brief visualization, and then add feel.

Oddly enough, despite the term, visualization is not just visual. You can picture your ball path and roll as a form of visualization. Feel is a way of imaging with the body. Some people do this by doing a practice swing with the ball before actually setting up and going. This is similar to golfers taking a practice swing, or gymnasts moving their bodies through imaginary routines before jumping onto the equipment. When you do this, your natural and trained skills can come into play.

Having a sense of how your body will feel when you execute a shot gives you an internal point of focus and a way to generate action in a sport that does not give you the luxury of reaction.

Spare-Shooting Tip 6: Let the General Run the Show

There’s something about shooting spares that invites bowlers to get lost in the mechanics of rolling the ball. If you’re thinking about all kinds of body parts, timing, and movement, you risk overriding your automatic setting with your manual transmission.

Imagine the general of an army issuing orders. There are two approaches to take. He can talk to every private, corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant in order to execute a plan. Or he can trust that his troops have been through boot camp. This means issuing one or two general orders and trusting they’ll be carried out.

Issue one or two general orders and call it a plan.Typically, what works best is to have one physical key and one heart key. Your physical key coordinates your entire body - head, balance, soft hands, whatever. Your heart key surrenders full commitment to the shot.

Experiment with these spare-shooting tips to see which serve you best. Sometimes committing to one or two of them works better than trying to keep all five in mind.

It’s a Wrap

Don’t brood and moan over your spare shooting because you miss one here and there. This only causes all kinds of mental loading that’s best avoided. We all make more than we miss. We all miss a big one now and then. Take the stress and drama out of your spare shooting. If you follow the tips, you’ll hit most of your spares and can quit worrying about the few that you miss. This is way better than feeling you must strike every time to survive.

Learn more about Bowling Psychology.

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