Monday, February 15, 2010

Not in shape? Not a problem

Almost a year ago, I wrote a long rant about the lower status of bowling in the world of sport. An anonymous commenter chimed in with, "For the sake of tv, it would help if bowlers had more hair (on their heads) and less gut. You know, looked a little more like athletes." It has certainly been my impression in observing both avocational and professional bowlers that fitness is not a major concern for many bowlers. This is not to say that all bowlers are on the portly side, but many are. Fitness, both aerobic and muscular, should be an asset in bowling, but is it?

One way to answer this question would be to compare a series of measurements of fitness in bowlers to their performance, and in fact, such a study has been performed. In June of 2000, Benedict Tan and colleagues published a paper titled "Correlations Between Physiological Parameters and Performance in Elite Ten-pin Bowlers" in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (pp. 176-185). For a group of 42 highly skilled bowlers in Singapore, Tan et al. compared bowling performance to age, height, weight, Aerobic Power Index, grip strength, leg strength, and flexibility. They also examined the relative performance of three different types of bowlers "heavy ball strokers, heavy ball crankers, and light ball spinners" (p. 177).

Here are their results:

Allow me to translate this table for you if you are unaccustomed to looking at such data. Tan et al. compare physiological measures (on the top) to bowling score for males and females (left). They are using a method called correlation. Correlation measures the degree to which two variables are related to one another. The correlation coefficient, in the table listed as "Pearson Correlation" measures the strength of the relationship. This value can vary between -1 and 1. A high positive value (close to 1) means a very strong positive relationship. For example, a strong positive correlation between height and score would mean that you could predict average bowling score based on height, and that taller bowlers generally got higher scores. A strong negative correlation (close to -1) between these variables would imply that shorter bowlers are better. A value close to zero means a weak to nonexistent correlation. In the analysis of height vs. score for males, the correlation coefficient is -0.14 meaning a weak negative correlation... or that shorter bowlers appear to bowl better.

Equally important, however, is the next row on the table, the one labeled "Significance". This row tells us the probability that the observed relationship can be explained by chance. In other words, if you compare height and score for 42 bowlers, there will always be some degree of correlation even if none exists in the real world. Simply by chance, for example, the shorter bowlers in your sample might be a little bit better than the taller ones. In science, we do not consider any correlation to be meaningful unless the significance value is less than 0.05, which means specifically that there is a less than 5% probability that the observed correlation could be explained by chance. If you examine that table, you will see that there is only one meaningful result, the one I have circled in red. There is a positive correlation between aerobic fitness and bowling scores in females. None of the other variables showed any relationship to bowling average.

In other words, with the possible exception of aerobic fitness in women, in bowling, it does not matter if you are tall, short, fat, skinny, aerobically fit, strong, or weak. In fact, it doesn't even matter if you are young or old. They also found that it does not matter whether you are a stroker, cranker, or spinner. So what does matter?

The paper concludes that "other factors like mental skills and technique have a greater contribution to bowling success at that [elite] level." Here's the take home message. If you want to be good at bowling, spending a lot of time at the gym probably won't do much for you. You can do just as much good sitting on the couch and eating junk food. If I had to guess, like almost every activity, the secret to being good at bowling is really just practice. Now, get off your ass and go to the gym anyway!

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