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Making Spares with Bill O'Neill

This is an excerpt from Bowling Psychology by Dean Hinitz.

“From the pro level to the extreme amateur, keep it simple. It's still the same game that you knew it was when you got up there.”

Bill O'Neill, seven-time PBA champion, U.S. Open champion, international gold medalist, three-time collegiate player of the year

“I just know that I'm going to do what I came to do. You have to be that way in order to be successful.”

Bill O'Neill

Making Spares With Bill O'Neill

Photo courtesy of PBA LLC.

Bill O'Neill has seen a lot in bowling. He's one of just a handful of players who has known the experience of being a collegiate national champion, a professional tour champion, and a gold medal winner in international competition as a member of Team USA.

Now a seasoned veteran, Bill was for a period considered by many to be the best bowler on tour who hadn't won a professional title. He had been in the finals a lot, “10 or 12 times,” but had never closed it out. That all changed in 2009 in Detroit, when he faced Ronnie Russell on the television final.

Bill had already defeated Walter Ray Williams Jr. in the round of eight to make the telecast. His first opponent was Hall of Famer Amleto Monacelli. The lanes were tough, and neither player scored well, with Bill shooting “170 something” to win. To prevail in the end, Bill knew that his whole game, especially his spare game, was going to have to be solid. “I just wanted to avoid splits. When the lanes are hard, you just have to believe in yourself. You're not going to shoot 240 or 250. You just have to trust yourself.” It seemed like a good plan, and it was. As in so many other venues, Bill O'Neill emerged a champion.

Bill O'Neill is so rock solid in his spare game that he's a clear and obvious choice for exploring mental tricks for making spares. Ironically, what Bill does and recommends is so simple that it doesn't qualify as being a trick. He starts with a preshot routine that does not vary. It's a way he creates familiarity and a sense that he has done this thousands of times before. “That's the idea of the preshot routine. Keep everything the same, strike shot or spare shot. That's why I take a deep breath - it gets me back to the place of mental calmness. I know that I've done this 100 times.”

“First I put my hand down and dry it off, get some air. I then wipe off my right shoe and my left shoe so there's nothing on my shoes. I wipe my ball off. It's part of my routine. I don't want to change it.” Added to that routine, Bill creates a sense of certainty for himself: “I get myself set. I kind of adjust myself, wiggle myself into a spot that feels right, look at my target, and go.”

“I try to make sure I take a big deep breath. I try to make sure that right before I step up on the approach I let out a big exhale and get it all out.” Most important, he believes in himself. “I trust that everything that I work on, and that my ability hasn't gone anywhere. No matter what the situation, everything is still equal. From the pro level to the extreme amateur, keep it simple. It's still the same game that you knew it was when you got up there.”

Bill recognizes that for many players, as they advance, the excitement and the nervousness can be part of the experience. You don't have to have ice in your veins to be a great spare shooter. And you must hold on to your preshot routine as part of your spare-shooting ritual. “When I step up there, I might think about just one thing. If you think about more, it's not good. Depending on how I'm bowling that moment, that one thing could change. Of course it's anxious, but you learn over time how to handle the anxiety. You have to train your body and your mind that everything is the same. You go through the same routine every time.”

As far as technique and strategy go, Bill O'Neill favors rolling straight at almost every spare, except for perhaps some combinations, such as a 2-8 spare. “I'm a guy who likes to shoot spares straight no matter what. Ninety-nine percent of the time I'm shooting straight at everything. You take all the variables out of play when you do that.”

Although a plastic ball might be the obvious choice for most straight spares, Bill no longer travels with one. To conserve his arsenal, he's worked on, and mastered, coming up the back of the ball to shoot his spares. “Because with overseas travel I could only take six balls, so I wanted to learn. I haven't noticed any negative effects of that.”

Bill emphasizes minimizing the mental interference that can be part of the spare-shooting process. He's leery about taking too much time to overthink things, or to consider being too perfect. “When I start hanging out up there too long, the hand sweats, and different things go through my mind. The over-analyzing of everything is bad. When you're competing, there's just no need to go out there and over-analyze.”

Bill's clear intention paves the way for him. “I'll get this eerie calmness that comes over me. I just know that I'm going to do what I came to do. You have to be that way in order to be successful.”

Conversely, when you allow your mind to linger in other places, that doesn't play well. “When the doubt creeps in, you get out of rhythm and time. It doesn't always go 100 percent according to plan. The weakest part of my game is when I'm over-analyzing too much.”

Of those rare times when Bill or another professional misses an easy spare, he suggests some common human factors are part of it. He emphasizes the need to be completely present, but not perfect, when shooting spares. “There could be a lapse in concentration. Some people leave a ring 10-pin and are angry that they have to shoot it. Then they just go up, and they aren't even there. When it goes bad, you get down on yourself. It's good to remember the right things to do.”

That seems like a good plan!


Learn more about Bowling Psychology.

More Excerpts From Bowling Psychology