Norm Duke on the Mental Game

PBA Hall of Famer Norm Duke at a 2006 USBC / Next Level Bowling clinic in Kansas City  

After physical abilities, the element that separates all great athletes is their ability to function mentally. Many people ask me, “What percentage of bowling is mental?” All of it! As soon as you can physically get the ball down there and knock ten pins over once, it’s conceivable to mentally do it every time.

Knowing how to play the game

For a long time, I had one of the worst mental games. At first, this was because I didn’t know enough about the game of bowling to separate myself in terms of the knowledge factor. I had to learn how to play the game properly and then apply that knowledge. It’s one thing to know something; it’s another thing to be able to apply it. Several of today’s top players are seemingly peaking in their late 30s, after their physical skills are actually starting to dwindle. What separates them is their ability to play the game on a higher level mentally and apply what they have learned from experience.

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses

Another part of developing my mental game was recognizing that I have weaknesses. I learned a long time ago that you can practice for two or three hours on something that you’re very good at, but you will improve very little. If you want to improve quicker, you should take something that you really stink at and dedicate resources to that weakness and make it your advantage. Keep an open mind so that you can actually recognize your weaknesses because sometimes they’re not easy to find unless you’re looking for them.


Confidence is the hallmark of the mental game. It is what separates great players. But you don’t just dream up confidence or wake up confident. Confidence comes from knowledge, experience, and preparation. It is impossible for me to be confident unless I know I am physically capable of repeating shots. I have to be able to repeat many different types of shots and select the appropriate shot from many possible ones—and it has to be done on demand and without fear. Preparation is what makes this possible. If I put preparation off, what I’m doing is trading that time with someone else because somebody is preparing at that moment. You will lose a lot of battles if you make too many bad time trades.

Preparation also means that you’ve got to learn your body: what it is that makes you tick, mentally and physically. You have to know things like when to eat so you don’t get hungry in the middle of a round. You have to know when you need rest and when to work out. You also need to know how to relax and what level of nervousness you perform the best under. Learning and applying all of this knowledge is now part of my mental preparation, just like practice.

Controlling your thoughts

Another important part of the mental game is controlling your thoughts. No one or no thing controls your thoughts. You have the choice to be happy or sad. You have the choice to be smart or dumb. You have the choice to see yourself in a good light or a bad light. No matter what happens, your thoughts are still your choice. It really is a choice that you make, and a positive outlook will always beat a negative one.

You can’t keep stewing on past mistakes. If you’re going to get stewed up every time you make a mistake, then bowling for a living will be a long and miserable life! Mistakes will come in droves, but the great shots will come too, and my job is to minimize one and maximize the other. If all I think about is that I threw a bad shot, I’m maximizing the mistake portion and minimizing the successful portion in my head. Everything is a weighted measure: what you’re not putting on the positive side, you’re packing on the negative. Sure, you have to find out what your problems are, but you do this to learn, not to fuel the negative. Quickly determine what is happening and why you’re not enjoying success, and then decide what you need to do to get the job done. After that, you can just discard the shot in your mind.

Controlling your behavior

One big difference between great players and good players is behavior, especially in adverse situations. Some players can leave a solid 8 or a solid 9, and it’s like it doesn’t faze them. That sort of behavior is what I think all of us need to strive for. It’s not that I want everybody to go out there and be mechanical or not be emotional. I’m a very emotional person, but I require a certain type of behavior from myself because staying composed brings many benefits. It allows me to keep my heart rate and blood pressure down, which allows me to stay under control. It also shows my competitor that I can handle the situation—and not only can I handle it, but I can handle it and still be a threat, which can scare the heck out of them.

You see players sometimes who look like they’re about to pop. We call them “hot heads.” They’re just trying to get it out—that’s all they want to do; they just want to get all that “stuff” out. Well, the reason they need to get it out is because it’s in there in the first place—that is the problem! What I’ve learned to do is try to control what is allowed to enter my head—that is the key.

You can’t let it show when you’re nervous. You know other players get nervous, but some just don’t show it. Walter Ray doesn’t sweat profusely or do some of those physical things that make it obvious that he’s nervous. So, when I look at him and he looks like he’s about to go get the paper, he hasn’t given me anything and, in my mind, I haven’t rattled him. I need my opponent to be in trouble. I would like to see sweat, shortness of breath, and all the other physical changes associated with nervousness. If I don’t get any of that, but I feel it myself, the advantage will be with my opponent.

Set yourself apart!

These are just some of the elements of my mental game, but the development of the mental game is really never ending – and the more you learn about it, the more you learn you don’t know. Don’t get discouraged because it can be overwhelming, especially to younger players. I think everybody can use help. If you can acknowledge the importance of the mental game and get the help you need to develop yours, it will give you the ability to set yourself apart from the good bowlers and help you become a great bowler.

Norm Duke
USBC Hall of Famer

Photo courtesy of USBC and Next Level Bowling