Please note: This is the original chapter from 1982, kept for posterity. For a current update see: 9. The Inner Game (updated)
Bowls has always suffered from the slings and arrows of the uninitiated.
Without having first tried it, they sneer at a game that is too slow, not physical enough and which calls for no great thought. It must be that way they reason, otherwise how can it be played by old people?
How little they know!
Since one can play bowls over longer periods and for more years than most other sports, it can be more demanding, both mentally and physically. The average player is on the green at least four days of every week in the season. If he wishes, he can travel and play somewhere seven days a week all year round.
Don’t delude yourself that you don’t have to be fit to do that. Take the case of a bowler playing in a tournament of, say three matches of fifteen to twenty ends in a day. He is out there for seven or eight hours, walks up to eight to ten kilometres and bends and delivers more than half a ton of bowls. This is not an exaggeration; it is what competitors at the World Championships did at Frankston in 1980 every day for eighteen days. Knowing what lay ahead of me in that event, I trained for months beforehand, walking and jogging up to ten kilometres every day. The world titles experience cannot be considered to be average but in the higher levels of the sport it can happen. The rigours of tournament play are such that you need to be very fit to maintain the necessary physical and mental effort.
Yet I rate the physical side of bowls at only thirty per cent of the game. Most of the action cannot be seen, only guessed at. It takes place inside the head, which is why I place great emphasis on what I like to call the ‘inner game’. This is the psychology of bowls, the thinking man’s approach to your own game and to that of your opponent. It is what the uninitiated do not see and therefore do not understand.
Playing the inner game is the key to winning bowls, but it cannot be learned overnight. That undisputed champion, Glyn Bosisto, once said that it took six years to become a good bowler and another six to become a champion. I don’t doubt for a moment that ‘Bossie’s’ yardstick was true in his heyday. In the ‘eighties, however, the correct physical and mental approach can cut this time-scale to four and four. The essential ingredient is experience and if you can get it while you are young and fit, then you have a head start. Seize every opportunity to get experience, be it in pennant competition, club events or the tournaments which seem to take place every week somewhere in your city, town or state.
Coming into the game when I did, I was able to pick up experience by taking part in the top-class invitation events which started around that time. In these, I was able to play against only top bowlers. Of course, you have to be on the way to being one yourself for these events, but that is all part of the challenge and you never stop learning. To underline the point, I received my first invitation to one of these tournaments in 1965, five years after starting out in the game and the year in which I won my first club championship. There’s no doubt it was a turnaround year for me. Only three years later, at the age of thirty-three, the experience gained helped take me to my first major win—the Victorian Masters Singles title after only eight years in bowls.
Acquiring, retaining and applying the lessons are very much part of the inner game. You must learn to decide which shot to play and equally important, the correct method of playing that particular shot.
One quick way to gain experience is to play regularly against different opponents for side bets. It sounds drastic but the method has the advantage, or disadvantage if you like, of learning to play and win under pressure—or go broke.
While all this is going on, you will be quietly picking up and developing the mental toughness so vital in any sportsman who wants to get to the top and stay there. To ensure the process you must practise, again and again. Experience combined with constant, intelligent practice teaches you many things, not the least of them being the cultivation of confidence in your own ability. That is my definition of temperament.
In short, the more you play and the more you practise, the more confident you will become. Your victories will become more numerous, your failings fewer. With confidence comes the ability to think positively about what you are doing; enabling you to push out those mind-gnawing doubts. The mind becomes relaxed and so too does the body.
Lack of doubt has other benefits. You are alert to changing conditions during a match, to your opponent’s weaknesses, or faults that can creep into your own game. Remember that one of the essentials of bowls is the ability to correct your own faults during a match. If for example, your first bowl is short, then you have to correct with your next. To do that you must know what was wrong with the first bowl. It is here that the alert mind comes into its own.
As I’ve said before Glyn Bosisto is without doubt the best bowler Australia has ever produced. At his peak, the factor that made him stand taller than anyone else was his ability to concentrate. His concentration was always better than that of his opponent: he could shut his mind to distractions around the green and focus on the task of winning.
This approach did not always win him great popularity with casual spectators, but that is understandable as they did not comprehend his dedication and will to win. Too many Australians seem to have this unfortunate trait of looking for opportunities to ‘knock’ their sporting champions.
Glyn’s concentration was at its highest level when he faced the prospect of defeat, which was seldom enough. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, Glyn Bosisto was a subscriber to the view that nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the threat of defeat. Dr Johnson used the word ‘hanging’, not defeat, but in Glyn’s case, they probably meant much the same. Like all champions, he hated to lose— he still does, for that matter.
Speaking of champions, David Bryant holds the theory that there is no such word as defeat— it must never be thought, let alone spoken—only the word, victory. That theory and the Bosisto story serve only to emphasise the point about confidence, concentration and temperament. One sure way to achieve concentration on the green is this.
Before your shot, particularly a vital one, visualise yourself playing the perfect bowl —draw, drive or controlled shot— whatever is called for. Imagine it as vividly as you can, then step onto the mat, automatically recalling all the points about feet placement, grip and stance, etcetera. The chances are that you will play the perfect shot.
To take it one step further with a specific example: you are shots down, the bowl in hand is your last and you have to draw to win the end. Visualise yourself drawing to a bare jack with no other bowl on the green. Forget they are there, or you will create doubt in your mind. You will not be thinking positively.
After the World Championships at Frankston, I struck up a friendship with a man named Jim Goulding. Jim is a clinical hypnotherapist who has helped many sportsmen and sporting teams to reach great heights. When we met, I was in a bit of a trough, coming mid-way through a long, hard season. The main problems were too much bowls and a build-up of pressure within. On top of this, there had been a rapid growth in my responsibilities and work as a bank manager. The result was a spate of minor health problems and a drop in my performance on the green during the 1980-1981 season. While Jim was teaching me the art of relaxation, he was also working on the theory that during my matches, I was spending far too much time analysing my bad shots and thus building up a negative mental attitude. He was right, and his teachings worked, enabling me to restore confidence in myself and find good form again. One of my biggest remaining problems, and perhaps it is yours too, is becoming so wrapped up in the emotional side of a game that it interferes with my concentration. It is a trap I must be alert to in each match I play.
Preparation for any match does not start just a day or two beforehand.
It must go back a long, long way, perhaps to the beginning of the season or even the previous year. How you practised over those months could determine how you will play in the match.
Basically, intelligent practice means the cultivation of a ‘perfect’ delivery, one that is well-grooved and will stand the rigours and the pressures of any match. You will recall my earlier statement that the draw is the basic shot in bowls; all the rest are merely variations or extensions of the draw. It follows then that a large part of your practice time should be spent on perfecting the draw; or to put it another way, perfecting your delivery.
A summary of my practice methods indicates the following breakdown:
- Draw-shot bowling – 95%
- Trail or controlled shots – 3%
- Drives – 2%
That’s how your time should be spent, too.
If there are faults in your delivery, you should practise that shot or hand until they are eradicated.
If you are having problems with a particular length, then work hard at strengthening that weakness. This approach has paid off for me. For example, in 1965, at the Ararat Club in Victoria, one of the weaknesses in my game was playing long ends. So at every opportunity I practised ‘ditch to ditch’ in an endeavour to iron out the fault. Without all that effort I would not have won my first club championship that year. My opponent in the final was a renowned long-end player, but after the weeks of practice at that length I was able to match him.
Do not however, concentrate for too long on one aspect of your game. Match those figures above and you will strike a fair balance in overall practice.
Before any match, the top bowlers should always prepare themselves mentally, especially if the match is an important one. Each will have his own method. I’ve worked out mine over the years to the point where it is routine, yet simple and effective. Oddly enough, it was only recently that I discovered Sir Robert Menzies followed almost exactly the same method before he gave any political or after-dinner speech. It seemed to work well for him, too.
By all means, do some thinking about the forthcoming match during the lead-up days, but on the night before, forget all about it. That is the time for relaxing, preferably with a good book, but definitely not one about bowls. The second furthest thought from your mind should be bowls; the last thing should be the match itself. If you do find thoughts about the match stealing into your mind, let them come. They won’t stay long if you don’t attempt to fight them. You will relax and have a good night’s sleep.
The next day (the morning of the match) you’ll be easy in your mind and raring to go. Plan to arrive at the club half-an-hour before the match is due to start. Those thirty minutes will be the most critical of all in preparing your mind. If possible, go for a brisk walk or do some muscle-loosening exercises. They will help you to overcome that pre-match tightness that all good players experience.
Then get away by yourself for from five to ten minutes. Sit in the car or in a quiet corner of the locker room by yourself, breathe deeply and gather your thoughts. One way to do this is to concentrate on something, a small object such as a keyhole or a mark on the wall. Examine it in all its aspects: shape, colour, size, length, breadth, any peculiarities, so that your mind is focused on something specific and not flitting from one thing to another.
Do that for a minute or two and you will find that gradually you are transferring your thought processes to the manner in which you are going to tackle the match and your opponent. In your mind you will see yourself on the mat, going through your delivery and follow-through, smoothly and with rhythm.
It is time to meet your opponent.
THE VITAL FACTOR
Now, we come to the heart of the inner game —on the green.
It seems to be the fashion nowadays to deride the concept of winning.
These ‘knockers’, I believe, have their values confused. Certainly some aspects of some sports, as well as some sportsmen, have earned a tarnished image, so that those who play by the rules, literally as well as in spirit, stand out like candles in the darkness.
The fact remains that ours is a competitive world, no matter how much some wish it were not so, and competition is the root of all sport. There has to be a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be? It is a question that must be faced honestly. To win you have to beat an opponent, and to beat him you must want to beat him.
Your practice and mental preparations have given you the confidence in your own ability. From the beginning of the match, you must wear this air of confidence so that it can be seen and felt by your opponent.
While I certainly deplore gamesmanship, there must be an element of psychological warfare in any match. It begins even before a bowl is delivered. If I win the toss and the mat, I usually throw a medium-length end and continue on that length until my opponent wins the mat. If true to form, he will then reveal his strength by rolling the jack to his favourite length. When this happens and I win the mat back, I will always return to ‘his’ length. In this way, you can gain a psychological advantage by displaying your own confidence in your ability to beat him at his own game. He has nowhere to go and even if he does prove too strong on his favourite length, you can always reverse the situation when you eventually win an end.
During the game there is a need for a constant re-appraisal of the situation. It may seem unimportant if you are playing well and winning, but any change in the game can threaten your control and you have to be alert and responsive to these psychological moments. If on the other hand, you strike a lean period, a re-appraisal of your delivery, tactics and mental approach can be enough to get you going again.
First, have a good think about your delivery and follow-through. If you need time to do it, walk up to examine the head, even if you know what the situation is there. Your rhythm and follow-through must be working properly to maintain consistent line and length. If they are not, and the results are obvious, then take your time and get back to basics with your next shot.
Second, give the situation a re-appraisal. Your concentration can be affected in several ways — by engaging in conversation with your opponent or spectators, or by watching every single delivery put down by your opponent. Fill in time between your shots by looking about at the scenery, or perhaps the sky, for there are few things more restful. Take care though, not to waste time and keep your opponent waiting. If you are distracted just as you are about to bowl, leave the mat and return when you are ready once more. If allowed, as in international rules, follow your bowl to the head from time to time. It helps to reduce tension.
When you find yourself being beaten constantly on the draw-shot, don’t hesitate to change the pace of the game. Only in the extreme should you speed it up. Preferably, slow the game down and when you have the mat, change the length or the area of the green being used. It helps to break up your opponent’s rhythm. I recall playing the redoubtable John Dobbie in the Victorian Masters a few years ago. To me, John plays at an appallingly fast pace and after I had led 16-1, I found myself down 17-18. My mistake was in trying to match John’s pace. I was playing him at his own game, in other words. After a re-appraisal, I consciously set out to slow things down. There were plenty of anxious moments after that, but the change in tactics worked in the final result. Incidentally, both John and his brother David have that confident, superior air about them which tends to make their opponents doubtful about their chances.
When the going gets tough in a match, keep cool particularly in these last few ends when the score is close. Take your time and again, walk slowly to the head to give yourself a few moments’ break. It ensures that you don’t deliver the bowl before you have had time to think about it. Picture for a moment all those great sportsmen you have seen over the years. Many take their time before committing themselves to an action.
Gary Player, the South African golfer, is a good example. I saw him once, during the tense moments of the final round of a tournament, bend down and pick up a blade of grass. There was nothing casual about the movement, although it may have looked that way to some. What Player was doing in fact, was giving himself time to breath deeply and slowly which is a recognised way of easing tension. He went on to win.
The blending of experience, practice, confidence, concentration, preparedness and determination can be seen in any of the really top bowlers. You know them by their victories and the way in which they achieve them. You know them too, by the way they handle the rewards of those victories — it is far harder to be a winner than a loser. Less is expected of a loser.
Then there are the plain good bowlers. I have seen many play superb bowls to win a tough match, then in the next round, play poorly to lose against a man they should have beaten. They go on doing this all their bowling lives, never learning the secrets of application to the job in hand.
There is only one match that counts. The one you are playing.
There is only one bowl that counts. The one in your hand. Play it like the champions do— as if it were your last.
When you do that, you are ready to play winning bowls.