Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why is your bowling so inconsistent?

This post was inspired by a comment by one of our readers, MaddysDaddy, who wrote, "If I may be so bold, how about something on improving consistency or why we can be so inconsistent? I go from throwing 213 one game to 127 the next. I leave the alley ready to quit then can't wait to bowl again when I get home."

How many people can relate to this? You put up a 195 in one game only to follow it with a 135. What happened? How did you seemingly go from being a pretty good bowler to a lousy one in no time? Did something change mentally? Physically? Did you cross the magical threshold between buzzed and drunk? If you average over 200, you are accustomed to even larger changes in your game scores. For example, you might go from 260 to 170 in consecutive games. What is the cause of such violent ups and downs in bowling scores?

Well, when we see something change, we assume that it must have changed for a reason. Bowling scores are proxies for skill. When we see a bad bowling score follow a good one, we assume that there was a change in ability. Right? Well, probably not. In the great majority of cases involving massive differences in game score, there was absolutely no change in skill. In fact, nothing really changed except luck.

This is where the incredulity sets in, where you call "bullshit" on me, but listen brothers and sisters, I speak the truth. We see cause and effect all the time where there is absolutely none. For instance, this lady thinks God helped her win the lottery. Nope, she just got lucky. Here's another example. We fish for trout. We might cast out 50 times and get absolutely no action. But then, we might catch two fish in the next three casts. Our perception tells us that the fish are starting to hit, that conditions are improving, but in fact this sequence of events in very easily explained by chance. Again, nothing changed, although for some reason our primate brains are strongly wired to believe that something did change.

Your next argument is this... Well, maybe that's true in fishing or lottery, but bowling just isn't that way. In bowling, you are pretty much control of the entire system. You can't control a lottery number picker or the appetite of a trout, but you can control almost all aspects of your own bowling game. Well, this is true, sort of.

Let me start with something you will probably accept as true. Let's say you bowl a 175 and follow this up with a 172. Can we all agree that you pretty much bowled the same game? There was no appreciable change in skill, right? What if you bowled a 175 and then a 165? Still the same, right? Maybe you converted one less spare, but did your skill level change? You get some spares. You miss others. A difference of one spare isn't a huge deal.

At some difference, though, you will start to believe that something did change. For example, if you follow a 175 with a 120, you probably think that something happened. It is simply too great of a change to explain by chance, you might say, but nope, that's not the case. I don't know if I could really convince anybody of this without a bowling robot, but I'll use the next best thing, my bowling simulator.

Again, for those of you unfamiliar with it, I use it to simulate bowling games. It can simulate any bowler, and it produces very realistic scores. It is based on two sets of probabilities: 1) the probability of any given 1st ball score; 2) the likelihood of picking up a spare given a certain first ball score. For this post, I'll simulate my own bowling based on the 108 games I have for myself in our database. Here is my simulated distribution of game scores, which is remarkably similar to my actual bowling.
Notice that a large range of scores are represented. Of those scores, 95% fall between 211 and 116. Keep in mind that in the simulation, nothing was changed. My bowling "skill", represented by those probabilities, remained absolutely constant, and yet more than 100 pins of variation in scores can be expected to result. The only thing that changed was chance. If by chance, my simulated self got a lot of strikes, I scored high. If I got very few marks, I scored low.

How are scores expected to change from game to game?In the simulation, changes in consecutive game scores look like this:

Again, from game to game there was no change in skill,yet a difference in score of 50 pins is not an unusual outcome. In fact, a change of 100 pins or more is expected to occur once in every 100 games. It could be an awesome experience, or a humiliating one, but what is clear from the simulation is that it is a rare but expected outcome attributable to chance in bowling.

To this, you might respond that simulation is not real life. So what if your computer says that this can happen. How do you know that is how the real world works? Well, my actual changes in game scores are remarkably similar. Last night, I rolled 139, 179, 124. I promise you that there was nothing magical about Game 2.

So how does chance operate? Well, every time you roll the ball, you have an intended result. Consider the strike throw. You are trying to hit the pocket. Sometimes you do. Sometimes, you don't. Sometimes you get a strike. Sometimes you don't. When you are really skilled, you are frequently painting the pocket. When you aren't, that ball is over the place. Still, nobody gets a strike all the time. Sometimes, a bad throw is rewarded. Sometimes, a good throw is punished. As we get better, the likelihood of getting a strike grows, but it never becomes a certainty. There is always some element of chance. With increases in skill, the role of luck is reduced, but it is never eliminated. It will always be there. It will always cause game and series scores to change wildly over short time scales.

Bowling is a messy and noisy system. If you want to gauge how you are doing, try not to obsess over the game to game variation. Real changes in skill become evident over periods of months and years.


  1. I think we all agree that anybody who has a bowling simulator must have some good knowledge. I opt for my classic Solo, "Never tell me the odds!"

    Two words: Oil Paterns!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Don't know where I fit into this theorem, but I lost total control of my bowls last night-- a 347 series, the worst I ever bowled in league. I'm convinced that form is the problem more than aim, speed, etc. (though all those factors matter considerably). I thought about giving it up last night... But I'm going to practice again on Friday. For whatever it's worth.

    Your (or my) next dissertation ought to be on luck. I really, really believe there is no luck in bowling (or playing the lottery or anything else) from a purely objective (and very sterile) point of view, that is, outside one's own perception. We may perceive a wobbling pin that finally falls for a strike as luck, but...

    (You should hear me talk on miracles.)

  4. Urb,

    About oil patterns, I agree, and I don't. It is true that from week to week the condition of the oil changes, but every week we bowl on the same pattern, what is called a "house shot". What changes is how worn it is. As I understand it, the lanes are oiled before the league prior to ours. So, generally speaking, we should get the same oil in the same state of wear. We know that's not necessarily true, especially for you since you use the left side of the lane. Whether a lefty used the lane in the prior league should have a big effect on you. But I'm taking about game to game changes in score, and I just don't see the oil changing so quickly between games to cause a 60 pin drop or rise in score.


    I know where you stand on this. Here is one way to see luck. Let's start with the bad kind.

    You know when you let go of that perfect ball... it hits its mark with perfect speed and spin. It slams into the pocket with pinpoint precision right where it should. As you are turning around to take your seat, you watch the 8 pin wobble but not fall. The lack of a strike was a matter of missing the pocket by a micron, or maybe the pin setter set the pins slightly off. You executed perfectly, but you didn't get a strike.

    Or maybe you let go of the ball, and you think, "Oh crap". The ball breaks into the pocket but barely touches the head pin. You expect an awful result, but by some strange domino effect, all of the pins lazily fall. You walk back, shrug your shoulders and say one of the following quips:

    a) "Better to be lucky than good."
    b) "Even a blind squirrel can find a nut".
    c) "Exactly how I drew it up."

  5. UMJ- I guess there are also those times when nobody bowled in our lane in the prior league. Those conditions are very foreign to us.

    EB- As for your 347 series, I am in a major funk lately. Thus, my previous post. If I rolled a 347, I would be thinking about never bowling again, too. Keep your head up, buddy. I bowled yesterday to get some practice. I was so disappointed in my 442 that I just had to do something. I did not practice well. When I was there, I talked to a guy who has competed in professional tournaments. I was complaining about having little consistency in my first shot. It's all over the place in terms of position, speed, and spin. He looked at my scores, and asked "how long have you been bowling?" I said, "About three years." He said, "You are better than I was at that stage."

    The point is this. My recent slump has made bowling seem like a chore. But I need to accept that my bowling career is still young. I should not expect to be averaging 170 or 180 at this point. Getting there is a long term project, very long term. It will come with time, but it takes A LOT of time. I don't know if I have the patience to stick with it.

    One league night, I averaged 198.6 over three games. When that happens, you can fool yourself into thinking that you have arrived. You can set your expectations too high. I have had a couple of mediocre outings lately, but they should be expected. I should be happy that I am better than I was this time last year, and then, I was a little better than i was the same time the previous year. I expect the same will be true two or three or five years from now if I stick with it.

    So, stick with it, brother.

  6. Thanks, Todd. Not to sound like a drama queen, but I have hit crisis status. I am THE most dysfunctional bowler I know right now, and I haven't been bowling all the long, either, but long enough to expect a 500 serieseach outing. Last night I started off crappy, got emotionally bent, and never really recovered. And when you're really bad, everyone wants to help-- a good ball comes from good form, good placement AND good follow-through. Why I cannot seem to do those three things every frame is the most frustrating part of all this. I bowled better before I was concerned about all of that business-- board placement, ball speed, form, adjustment for dry or oily lanes, etc. I need a lower angst level. Before I have a stroke by the middle of the first game...

  7. Thanks for this post Todd, it was a real eye opener for me. Our team had a big game last weekend so I hit the practice lanes 3 times during the preceding week, only to roll a 393 series on the weekend which is a helluva lot lower than I thought someone with a 150 average should produce. After reading your post I now understand that having a bad series every now and then is 'normal' for someone like me and it is unrealistic (statistically speaking) for me to expect to bowl a 450+ series every time I lace 'em up. That, my friend, is liberating! Keep up the good work with the blog!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.