Monday, November 25, 2013

My e-mail to the PSAL boys and girls bowling commissioners

date: Mon, Nov 25, 2013
subject: Suggestion for PSAL bowling program: basic varsity instruction

Dear Ms. D’Orazio and Mr. Cutaneo,

This e-mail is in response to your post on psal.org, Bowling Coaches Advisory Meeting, soliciting "input and insight to assist in the future direction of the PSAL bowling program." I am not a PSAL bowling coach. However, I am a PSAL bowling alumnus - I bowled for the Stuyvesant High School team - who this season watched several of his alma mater's boys and girls teams' matches at Bowlmor Lanes at Chelsea Piers.

My suggestion that I believe would dramatically elevate both the technical quality and varsity competitive experience of the PSAL bowling program is the PSAL-wide implementation of standard basic instruction in bowling knowledge and fundamentals.

Varsity athletics are not about come as you are, then leave as you came, yet that is what is happening to PSAL bowlers. The boys and girls team records of Stuyvesant's bowlers, their opponents, and other schools on www.psal.org confirmed my PSAL experience and current observation that PSAL bowlers typically do not progress in a way that indicates normal instructional varsity coaching. My conclusion is the lack of teaching and training in the PSAL bowling program has retarded the progress of PSAL bowlers and depressed the competitive standard of the teams. The students who join as novices typically finish their PSAL careers with only marginal improvement despite having been PSAL bowlers for 2, 3, or even 4 years. There are individual exceptions to the norm, of course, but PSAL bowling is a team sport and PSAL bowlers can't compete for the city championship on their own. The common case with exceptional breakthroughs is exemplified by Stuy girls divisional rival HS Fashion Industries and the Stuy boys' 1st round play-off opponent, Queens Vocational Tech. [HS Fashion Industries' top bowler] and [Queens Vocational Tech's top bowler] stood out as seniors who significantly improved over their PSAL careers while surrounded by teammates who did not, indicating their individual improvement occurred independently of their PSAL teams.

Neglecting to teach and train student-athletes causes detrimental effects in any varsity sport. But instructional neglect is magnified in a technical sport like bowling because PSAL bowlers can’t run faster and jump higher to compensate for fundamental flaws. For most PSAL bowlers who attempt to improve on their own, their skill level is undermined by inefficient training, gaps in basic knowledge, and fundamental flaws that would have been preempted had they received proper teaching and training at the outset of their 1st year in the PSAL bowling program. That's the case with my alma mater. This season, I was impressed by the character and competitive mettle of the senior-heavy Stuyvesant girls team but was dismayed by their technical fundamental flaws. The girls practiced on their own over their PSAL careers, but for every thing they each did right, it was cancelled by one or two things they each did wrong. If the Stuyvesant girls team had been coached properly so that its technical bowling quality matched its exceptional team character, the girls would have been legitimate PSAL championship contenders this season rather than reaching for gritty upsets of higher ranked teams. A lack of basic instruction was also evident in the Stuyvesant boys team, which was rife with fundamental flaws with no indication of coaching correction. The defect was endemic - I witnessed no evidence of normal varsity coaching with Stuyvesant's equally flawed regular-season opponents.

I understand that knowledgable bowlers among school faculty and departmental budget and access for on-lane practices are limited. I assume those logistical limitations are not unique to Stuyvesant in the PSAL bowling program.

I therefore suggested the USBC High School Coaching Guide and USBC varsity bowling manager Brian English [his e-mail] to the Stuyvesant bowling coaches and Assistant Principal Barth. (If the inserted link doesn't work, here's the full link to the USBC coaching guide PDF: http://usbcongress.http.internapcdn.net/usbcongress/bowl/highschool/pdfs/HSBowling_Coaching_Guide.pdf. Or go to the USBC website: www.bowl.com/highschool/. Open ‘Materials’. The /highschool materials page contains descriptions and links to the USBC High School Coaching Guide PDF and other useful documents.)

For novice PSAL bowlers, the USBC coaching guide lays out the formative steps to becoming a serious bowler. For advanced PSAL bowlers, the USBC coaching guide is a useful refresher on the basics. For PSAL coaches, requiring their bowlers to learn and train from the USBC coaching guide would establish a common language and technical baseline with which to teach the game and build up their teams.

Although they may lack bowling experience, PSAL coaches possess a wealth of varsity coaching experience. Adding bowling instructional resources to their coaching faculties should provide them enough building blocks to develop a normal varsity curriculum of basic instruction for PSAL bowlers, so they can have a true varsity experience. USBC's Brian English and local expert bowling instructors, who are perhaps PSAL bowling alumni, can be consulted to help customize a basic instructional template that works around the logistical limitations of PSAL bowling. While the USBC coaching guide assumes instruction will take place on the lanes, much of its content appears to be adaptable off the lanes with classroom work, off-lane exercises, and video analyses of matches and practices. (Cell-phone video capability is ubiquitous these days and should be made a valuable training tool for PSAL bowling.) Training takes longer, but the classroom teaching of the basic knowledge in the USBC coaching guide should be completed in short order. On-lane team practices, including non-decisive C games, can be made more efficient with skill drills that are coupled to classroom work, as opposed to unstructured free bowling. 'Homework' reading assignments with on-lane and off-lane exercises can finetune PSAL bowlers' personal training. And that’s before PSAL coaches get creative, such as making full-scale approach-to-arrows lane mock-ups to train on at school.

I want to be clear that I am advocating for standard basic instruction for PSAL bowlers with the object of setting fundamentals, not advanced instruction that would be unreasonable to expect from non-expert PSAL bowling coaches. With proper basic training, PSAL bowlers who join as novices should be able to attain a portable 150-160 average with a solid foundation to improve by their 2nd year on the team. And they should be able to acquire basic proficiency without expensive equipment - shoes and a custom-drilled, weight-appropriate plastic or urethane ball are sufficient. Consistent spare-making alone would raise their averages to a 150-160 level. The PSAL bowling program can defer on advanced instruction to individual coaches and bowlers.

If basic training becomes standard throughout the PSAL bowling program, I believe it would catalyze a chain reaction with a revolutionary impact on the competitive culture of PSAL bowling and, perhaps from there, the course of bowling in New York City. I toyed with the idea of limiting my suggestion to Stuyvesant for a competitive advantage, but victory is not the ultimate purpose of PSAL bowling and varsity athletics in general. The purpose of PSAL bowling is to provide an inimitably formative competitive varsity experience for our teenage boys and girls with an emphasis on 'competitive'. Therefore, reforming the varsity experience for Stuyvesant's bowlers requires a whole environmental change, which means their PSAL opponents need to improve, too.

I hope that made sense.



These are excerpts from e-mails I wrote to the PSAL bowling commissioners and PSAL coordinator Lance Hermus in our follow-up exchange:

The change has to begin by taking root somewhere. While I'd like to see the change spread immediately through all of the PSAL, I would understand if the first step was a controlled experiment, such as one girls division and one boys division that are in notable need of repair. Of course, I would suggest the experimental divisions be Manhattan I, the home of Stuy bowling. But I also would understand if PSAL bowling officials chose a division they could monitor more easily in person.

I would calibrate at a whole division rather than a singled-out team as the basic experimental unit because the regular season is a practically self-contained social interactive environment. It would be jarring if one team was singled out to do something very different from the rest of its division. And opponents naturally influence each other in the 'play up/down to your competition' phenomenon. As such, normative social expectation, peer pressure, along with cooperation among the coaches should be harnessed to help the project. If they've all been specially chosen by PSAL bowling and in it together, the coaches who compete against each other on the same days, usually in the same centers, can compare notes, and encourage and help each other in person. The time/place concentration of division matches also means it should be only marginally more work for PSAL bowling officials to track the progress of a whole division compared to a single team. In it together, the coaches can unself-consciously apply the new instructional practices in matches. Experimenting with a whole division means more could be tried within the scope of matches - granted, without interfering with the matches' integrity. If a coach falters in spite of the peer pressure and support of the other coaches, the PSAL bowling program wouldn't have placed all its eggs in one basket. Failures constructively inform, too, and are softened when buttressed by success stories.

My input on the technical details of bowling instruction is necessarily limited (I topped out as a 175 bowler after Stuy), but I do have some tactical background, such as informed my application suggestions in the 1st e-mail. Teaching bowling fundamentals isn't witchcraft; the needed coaching reforms are doable with some creativity to work around the logistical limitations. The larger hurdle is changing the prevailing mindset and retiring old ways.

I believe PSAL-wide standard basic instruction will have a greater demonstrable impact on PSAL girls bowling compared to PSAL boys bowling because bowling is primarily about technique. The basic physical abilities needed in bowling - balance and coordination - are gender neutral. F=MA power makes a difference only after the fundamentals are set. With proper training, boys and girls bowlers should reach the 150-160 plateau with equal ease and time, within 1 year, based on consistent (not perfect) spare-making and a sprinkling of strikes. From there, it's about adding strikes through advanced technique that brings power to bear and equipment upgrades, which is the stage where boys and girls begin to separate.

Let's say basic coaching instruction improves a hitherto dormant boys team and girls team so that each owns, conservatively, a 600 (4 X 150) A-Team by the following season. Let's say their B-Teams are made up of 1st year novices at 400 (4 X 100). That hypothetical boys team would rise into, if I recall correctly, the 20s on this season's PSAL city ranking, which would be a significant upgrade, moreso with the ladder play-off format. However, that hypothetical girls team would rise to 5th on the PSAL city ranking with a strong enough A-Team to defeat every other team except New Dorp and maybe Tottenville. In other words, while there's plenty of untapped bowling potential on the boys side, there are reservoirs of untapped bowling potential on the girls side, and every PSAL bowling team can make this upgrade.
--

While watching Stuy's matches this season, the phrase "soft bigotry of low expectations" came to mind.

There's no way to water down the influence of PSAL bowling coaches on the attitude of PSAL bowlers. The coach structures the team and sets the competitive standard. When a PSAL bowling coach doesn't care enough to teach the game, train his bowlers, and enforce a high standard, the team will follow the coach's cue. The students, in turn, won't care to learn, practice, and compete as serious varsity athletes. As high school students, PSAL bowlers know the varsity archetype of training and competing under a coach who instructs and holds his team accountable. So, when PSAL bowling coaches neglect to fulfill even a rudimentary version of the varsity archetype, they implicitly teach their teams to disregard bowling as a serious varsity sport. The return on investment from PSAL bowling coaches who don't coach is PSAL bowlers who don't respect and don't commit to the sport.

I'm not a good enough bowler to offer much advice on bowling instruction. I can endorse the USBC high school coaching guide for its similarity to the resources my class-year teammates and I used when we learned the game, but that's about it. However, I can suggest that it's important to indoctrinate 1st year PSAL bowlers right away, before they can limit their expectations or pick up bad habits. Instill a serious attitude about PSAL bowling from the outset with proper training and a competitive varsity ethos, and the rest will fall into place.

I think the hardest challenge will be readying the coaches. The Manhattan coaches I watched this season would need to learn bowling fundamentals in order to teach them. That shouldn't be too difficult, but I'm not convinced they have the wherewithal to develop basic instructional programs on their own. To begin, I think guidance and an instructional template need to be developed and pushed down from your level. Then the program can be adapted and refined with feedback.
--

The tip-of-the-tongue excuse by PSAL bowling coaches and phys-ed assistant principals is the shortage of budget and access for on-lane practices. I believe that roadblock will need to be bridged by PSAL-level guidance that includes creative work-arounds such as I suggested earlier, e.g., classroom and video work, off-lane drills at school, perhaps with lane mock-ups, take-home on-lane and off-lane exercises, reading, and video review, and ways to make the precious few team practices more focused, efficient, and productive than unstructured free bowling. For example, team practices can be used to introduce on-lane skill drills that the students then repeat on their home lanes.

As far as other common excuses, PSAL bowling coaches who (inexcusably) haven't already learned their bowling basics, including the instructional theory, should learn them in short order. Bowling fundamentals are not esoteric, and as professional high-school teachers, learning in depth then teaching subject matter is what they do. And varsity sports normally require training schedules for coaches and students in addition to scheduled matches. The current shortage of scheduled training in the PSAL bowling program is actually abnormal. The addition of normal varsity instruction will help normalize the varsity experience for PSAL bowlers. Generally, training with teammates and coaches is as impactful on the students as the matches. Training is where much of the personal, social, and team-cultural growth happens. A template that overlays a training schedule onto the PSAL bowling season shouldn't be difficult.

As I said, I'm not a good enough bowler to flesh out my suggestions with much more detail. But once the idea is accepted that basic instruction in PSAL bowling is feasible despite the practical constraints, I believe tailoring a training program for the PSAL will be relatively simple for creative bowling instructors. I analogize it to the weapons training in my Army basic training. Shooting, like bowling, is mostly about technique, and like PSAL on-lane practice, our access to the firing range was limited. Thus, most of our weapons training took place in classrooms, the barracks and other company areas, and a crude, frustrating simulator (equivalent to a poorly made lane mock-up). If the Army can teach soldiers how to shoot with limited access to firing ranges, then the PSAL should be able to teach 1st-year novice PSAL bowlers how to bowl with limited access to the lanes.

I don't expect there is a ready-made working model for lane-limited varsity bowling instruction at either the high school or college level. If there is, the USBC's Brian English should be able to help you find it. I expect the PSAL bowling program will need to invent its own.

I selfishly look forward to these reforms coming to Stuy bowling and the Manhattan I division. I don't want to witness anymore of what I saw this season: the anomie of the Stuyvesant boys team and the winning team character of the senior-loaded Stuyvesant girls team undermined by team-wide technical flaws that should have been corrected by real varsity coaching at the start of their PSAL bowling careers.
--

If you believe it is feasible for PSAL bowling to be normalized as a varsity sport, but the chief obstacle is small-minded coaches and assistant principals (who hire and instruct the coaches) whom you lack the power to compel, then it seems the solution is to seek out like-minded coaches and assistant principals whom you don't need to compel. Start small. Work closely with the select few coaches and APs who want what you want and are willing to work with you to bring your vision to life.

Big things grow from small things. If your reach exceeds your grasp, then start by reaching within the limit of your grasp. Crawl, walk, run. Spark, tinder, kindling, fire. A seed becomes a forest.

Maybe only a handful of PSAL bowling teams have like-minded coaches and promising conditions for reform. Maybe only one team has them. If you can successfully reify your vision at a handful of schools, or even just one school, to start with, you'll then have a working model with DNA that can spread throughout the PSAL.
--

The Staten Island teams have a high competitive standard. In terms of reach versus grasp, they are low-hanging fruit and good tinder to catch a spark. The SI division is a place to demonstrate that normal varsity coaching can work logistically.

However, SI bowlers are already elite. I doubt they qualify as typically novice PSAL bowlers. Using them to develop a PSAL-standard basic instructional template strikes me as like developing a basic math program for regular-ed or special-ed students by basing it on specialized exam-school students.

Said another way, I conceive PSAL-standard basic instruction as taking typically novice PSAL bowlers and training them to a 150-160 level by their 2nd year with basic knowledge and fundamentals, and a solid foundation to improve. But if SI bowlers have been properly coached outside of school, are they appropriate test subjects for your experimental pilot program?

That said, refreshing the fundamentals doesn't hurt. SI bowlers would still benefit from the social-cultural added value of normal varsity coaching. And, if normal varsity coaching can be shown to work in SI, then the logistics would be viable elsewhere.

Now, that reservation applies to SI boys teams, not SI girls teams. Judging by their records on psal.org, most SI girls bowlers would benefit from basic instruction, which, combined with the healthy competitive bowling environment in Staten Island, makes them excellent candidates for an experimental pilot program.

I think your cite of some parts of Queens and Brooklyn is closer to the mark. Students in those areas are exposed to serious bowling via local leagues. Unfortunately, most leagues don't coach. Good bowlers try out for those school teams with some regularity, but not enough of them to fill out line-ups like the SI teams. Some years they get lucky with a coincidental cluster of good bowlers, but most years they don't.

The PSAL format encourages upsets. Any team that can field 4 or more bowlers who are merely good enough can, on a good day, upset a powerhouse team. The question is, how can a PSAL team that usually mixes good bowlers with novice teammates become good enough to compete with the top teams every year?

The answer is a system that turns novice bowlers into fundamentally sound bowlers every year, like the JV squad in other varsity sports. With proper coaching, PSAL teams wouldn't need good bowlers to try out, because they'd manufacture good bowlers from novices. Then, the few elite bowlers who do try out would join teams that can immediately go toe-to-toe with the powerhouse teams. The competitive standard of the whole PSAL bowling program would be raised thus.

Here's my plug for Stuyvesant as a candidate for your experimental pilot program:
There's no denying that the state of bowling in Manhattan is discouraging for competitive youth bowling. However, most Stuy kids commute from the outer boroughs. For PSAL bowling, Stuyvesant profiles more like a Queens or Brooklyn school than a Manhattan school in terms of the students' exposure and access to bowling at home.

Bowling is a thinking man's sport based heavily on technique and attention to detail. Stuy bowlers are smart, disciplined, hard-working, respond well to structured instruction, and they're competitive - ie, they're coachable. They're just not being properly coached. If they're properly coached, Stuyvesant bowlers will reward you with demonstrable improvement.

Stuy's bowlers want to be better; check out their quotes in the Stuyvesant Spectator coverage:
Boys: http://stuyspec.com/sports/24575/pinheads-bowl-over-the-falcons/
Girls: http://stuyspec.com/sports/24582/winning-is-right-up-the-pinheads-alley/

(Note: The Pinheads is the girls team name. The boys team isn't named after the girls team. The boys were nameless this season, indicative of their anomic state.)
--

Eric

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