This article was written by Ron Clifton for Bowling This Month Magazine and may not be copied or reproduced without written consent from Bowling This Month.

The Six Basic Fundamentals Part 2

Eliminate the Kung Fu Death Grip


In part one of this series I shared with you my six basic fundamentals of bowling and how they are all interconnected to produce one complete bowling machine. It has been pretty much a staple in every sport that participants must have the fundamentals mastered before they can go on to become great players. It is also common to hear a great player of any sport emerging from a slump say “I had to go back and work on my fundamentals to get my game back”.

In this series of articles I would like to visit each of the fundamentals and explain what your performance expectations should be from each one and how they interact with each other to produce one big bowling machine.

The six basic fundamentals are:

1.      Ball fit and weight

2.      Armswing

3.      Footwork

4.      Timing

5.      Release

6.      Finishing position.


Fundamental #1: Ball fit and weight

As I mentioned in part one, many bowlers will be surprised that I would consider ball fit and weight as one of the fundamentals. I can guarantee you that an ill-fitting ball or one that is too heavy or too light will kill your game before you even get started. If you have doubts, I suggest you try one of the 16 pound house balls in your center and make a few quality shots. If you have a smallish hand you may even be able to try a house ball that is two or three pounds lighter than your current ball; a ball that is too light will affect your game as well.

The house ball is an extreme example, but a less-than-perfect fit of your personal ball will affect you as well; it’s just a matter of degree. One of the first things I do as a coach after observing a few warm-up shots is check out a student’s ball for fit and weight. Sometimes I can spot an ill-fitting ball right away, just by watching the bowler’s swing.

If the ball does not fit well or if it needs a few pieces of tape in the thumbhole, the hand will have to squeeze the ball tighter, which puts tension in nearly every muscle in the arm, so the armswing can not flow properly. A hand that is having to grip the ball to keep from dropping it will have a hard time letting go and performing a good release at just the right time…every time. Most bowlers have a hard time identifying the fact that they squeeze the ball too tightly because it is human nature to do so. 


The inexact science of ball fit 


I really wish I could just lay out the scientific specs of perfect ball fit so each BTM reader could check their balls, bring them into compliance, and be done with the subject. Unfortunately, that is never going to happen because ball fit is the epitome of an inexact science. The “standards” for a proper fitting ball has changed over the years and it seems that every expert has their own opinion on what is just right for any given hand.

I could send a bowler to five different drilling gurus to have their hand professionally fitted and I can guarantee you that no two balls out of the five would measure up the same. The spans, fingerhole pitches, thumbhole pitches, amount of bevel, and even the sizes of the holes will vary from driller to driller. All of the balls will feel differently to the bowler and release differently from the hand; some will work well and some may not; some may work well initially, but will develop problems over time.

Before you get the idea that I am picking on ball drillers, let me tell you that I am not. I will confess that professional coaches are the same way. A bowler can get lessons from five different coaching gurus and be told something different from each one; some may even contradict each other. Some of the suggested changes may work well and others may not, and like the ball drillings, sometimes the flaws will only show up over time; the same can be said for the good changes.

Ball drillers use all kinds of criteria when measuring your hand for a proper ball fit: things like sticking your hand into medieval-looking contraptions to measure your span, bending and twisting your fingers and thumb to see how flexible they are, some may have you pick up objects in order to see what direction your digits point or smear chicken blood on your forehead and chant in a foreign language. Ok, that last one may be a little farfetched, but ball drillers’ experience, education and understanding of how this whole hand/ball/release thing works vary greatly from driller to driller.

All of these little “tricks of the trade” drillers use have different levels of validity, but there is another aspect of this inexact ball drilling science that I feel is ignored too often. I believe that the ball should be fitted to your hand with as much attention paid to “how” you release the ball as any of the physical characteristics of your hand. For example, your hand could be fitted perfectly according to all the drilling charts for thumb pitch at one eighth inch reverse, but if you tend to squeeze the ball and hang on to it too long, you may require more reverse pitch in order to clear the thumbhole. Conversely, if you were to take a lesson from me and learn not to squeeze the ball so it releases by your ankle, then we may be able to move your thumb pitch to one-half inch forward.

Moving a thumb pitch from one-eighth inch reverse to one-half inch forward in just one drilling (and lesson) would been seen by most ball drillers as impossible, but I do it every day with great success; you won’t find that on any drilling chart.  My point is that how you release the ball is at least as important as the length of your span and your ideal grip may change as you progress as a bowler.



Criteria for a proper fitting ball


As I stated earlier, I can’t lay down the scientific specs of a perfect ball fit because there is no such thing. If you continue to pursue excellence in this wonderful sport, you will most likely be forever changing your ball fit. Even the bowlers on the Pro Tour keep the drill truck busy tweaking thumb pitches, spans and finger pitches from time to time.

You would think that the best bowlers in the world would at least have their ball fit sorted out by now, but this is a very fluid sport that is always changing. There may not be an infallible spec sheet that we can follow, but we have to start somewhere, so I will give you a few things to consider when examining your own ball fit.

First off, a proper fitting ball should feel comfortable in your hand when the ball is sitting still and in the full motion of a swing and release. There should be no pain felt in the fingers, thumb or any part of the hand that can be associated with the bowling ball. The ball should stay on your thumb with very little or no squeezing until the ball reaches the very bottom of the swing (point of release), where the pseudo centrifugal force combines with the weight of the ball to pull the ball off the thumb and onto the fingers. That last sentence is a very important one; notice it should take pseudo centrifugal force “added” to the weight of the ball to pull ball off of the thumb. The weight of a hanging ball alone should not be able to pull the ball off of your thumb if you keep your wrist straight and your grip relaxed.


The care and feeding of a thumbhole


The thumbhole of a bowling ball requires just as much care and feeding as any pet I have ever had. If you look into your thumbhole and all you see is an empty hole, then the odds of you becoming a great bowler just got a lot slimmer.

Thumbholes require a steady diet of tape (there are many types) and or Ron C’s Magic Carpet. There are several reasons an empty thumbhole spells trouble:

1.      If your thumbhole is empty and you “think” you can throw the ball pretty well, the thumbhole is likely too loose on your thumb. When the thumbhole is too loose, you MUST squeeze the ball tightly to keep from dropping it; this destroys any hope of performing a good armswing or release.


2.      If your thumbhole is empty but yet very snug fitting to the thumb, then you are in trouble also. You see, an empty thumbhole is full of air until you stick your thumb in there, which forces most of the air out of the hole as your thumb goes in. 
When you couple a snug hole with a nice soft thumb you have basically just built a syringe, those scary things the doctor uses to give you shots. Syringes are great for moving fluids in and out but they don’t make very good thumbholes.

With an empty, but snug thumbhole, everything looks and feels just fine if you just set your ball on a table and pull your thumb in and out. The difference shows up when you actually throw the ball and the thumb needs to exit very quickly; the low pressure area in the bottom of the thumbhole will try to keep the thumb from coming out due to suction. Sometimes this suction is so subtle you can’t feel it and other times you can, even making a popping sound. One clue this may be happening to a bowler is the use of a slick powder on the thumb like EZ Slide. More about venting the thumbhole for a quick release later. (Note: a popping sound from the fingers is fine.)



3.      Most bowlers’ thumbs change size at least a little from day to day or even game to game. I could never stress enough how important it is for the thumbhole to perfectly fit the thumb at all times. In order to keep the thumbhole fitting perfectly, you must change its size using bowlers tape, Ron C’s Magic Carpet or some other means. If you have something like that in your thumbhole then your thumbhole will not be empty.


Taping the thumbhole


Taping the thumbhole needs to accomplish two things:


 #1: Create an airway so the thumb can move in and out without changing the air pressure in the thumbhole.

Many bowlers know to use tape to take up space in the hole, but most don’t know that it should also function as an air pressure equalizer. It takes at least three pieces of white tape layered on top of each other to produce two tiny airways on each side of the layered tape. This is about the bare minimum of airflow necessary to get a quick clean release from the thumb if the hole is snug, so keep this in mind when sizing your thumbhole.

You need to maintain at least three pieces of tape layered in the ball even when the thumb is swollen. It is ok to add as many pieces of tape as necessary to tighten the hole when the thumb shrinks, but I don’t think it is a good idea to have more than five pieces of tape in the front of the hole. Too many pieces of tape in the front will start to change the span and thumb pitch. If you don’t have room in your thumbhole for at least three pieces of tape after your thumb swells you can ether open the hole up or have your driller dill you a tiny vent hole.
            A vent hole is a tiny hole that is placed beside the thumb and exits near the bottom of the thumbhole. Vent holes used to be popular years ago and are covered by USBC rules, but they have disappeared over time; modern thumb slugs have vent holes built into them, but they often get clogged after being installed into the ball.
Ron C’s Magic Carpet is designed to flow air all around and through the product so only one piece is used.

#2 Keep the thumbhole the exact right fit.

Tape is added or removed to keep the thumbhole the exact right fit for the thumb as the thumb changes size. Very few thumbs (if any) are always the same size so something must be added or subtracted from the thumbhole to keep the fit perfect at all times. Tape can be added to the front of the thumbhole or the back or both. Ron C’s Magic Carpet always goes in the back of the thumbhole so white tape can be added to the front of the thumbhole if needed. I think that all tape should be placed at least one-forth of an inch below the top of the hole and each added piece should be placed one-sixteenth of an inch below the previous piece for easy removal.

Keep in mind that the “front” of the thumbhole means where the pad of the thumb comes in contact with the thumbhole, so it is usually a little offset from the very top of the hole. The “back” of the thumbhole refers to where the knuckle of the thumb comes in contact with the thumbhole and again this is usually offset from the center of the bottom of the hole.


How tight should the thumbhole be?


In my opinion, the thumbhole should be tight enough that you don’t have to squeeze the ball during the swing but not so tight that you have to really force your thumb into the ball.

From my experience, there are a lot more bowlers that have their thumbholes too loose than too tight or just right. I can’t tell you how many times I will tell a student that I need to add a couple pieces of tape to their ball only to hear them say “Are you sure? My thumbhole is pretty tight.” After adding five or six pieces of tape and noticing a marked improvement in the armswing and release, the student starts to understand that their thumbhole was too loose. They were not aware they were using the Kung Fu Death Grip because if feels natural and normal, but it wrecks havoc with the swing and release.


Finding the right snugness is really a simple exercise. Start with the thumbhole a little too loose and add tape until you feel the ball hang a little on the thumb after a few full speed releases, then take a piece out. Keep in mind that with each added piece of tape, you can squeeze a little less so you may want to throw several shots and allow your hand to relax a little before you decide to take a piece out. Don’t stop adding tape just because you feel like you have added a lot. If at the end of the process you find that you had to add seven or more pieces of tape, you may want to consider dropping your thumbhole size one notch the next time you drill a ball.

Many times during this process bowlers will discover that by the time they add enough tape to the hole to reduce squeezing a significant amount, they can hardly get their thumb into the hole any longer because it is so tight. If your thumbhole is so tight that you have to force your thumb into the hole, then you most likely need to move your thumb pitch more forward. With the thumb pitch moved more forward, the hole will not have to be as tight to stay on your thumb.

In part three of The Six Basic Fundamentals, I will get into thumb and finger pitches and spans. In the mean time, try to get the snugness of that thumbhole just right.