I could have been good at this game.

I could have been good at this game.

 

I grew up outside Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s when I could bowl every Saturday morning among a big group of kids, and when I eagerly awaited watching bowling on TV. I joined YBC when I was 4 years old and bowled every year until school got in the way—or more accurately Toronto transit got in the way, because it took over an hour each way to go the annoyingly short distance between Glendon College and Bathurst Bowlerama. I ended up away from the game for about 12 years.

 

Boy, do I wish I knew then what I know now. I'm getting to that.

 

I was not a calm kid on the lanes. I got upset way too easily. I had a slightly (don't laugh) inflated impression of my own abilities. I performed best (or perhaps least-badly) on teams where I had to content myself to be the worst player in the band. And even a great band doesn't always have a great show, as we found out in 1993 at the Youth Challenge provincial championships: on a team featuring Wade Thompson, Bill Schwemlein, and Lance Burrows, we did not do well. I did not do well. (OK, I remember Bill's 835 double, so it wasn't all bad.) I continually cursed myself for how much I was letting the team down. Worse, my ego took a serious beating, because I wanted like hell to show them that I could do it, too. I was 18 and I didn't know any better.

 

Now that I know better, I wish I hadn't taken those 12 years off.

 

When I wasn't bowling, I was thinking of bowling, but I also needed to make money, so I became first a computer programmer, and then a technology trainer, and now a consultant for software companies. And nowadays, almost every company either is a software company or has a software company buried inside it. It turns out that programming the computers is the easy part—my clients need a lot more help in two other key areas: building good individual work habits and working together as a team. I looked beyond technology towards becoming a (very) amateur psychologist, and this helped me become more effective as a consultant. It wasn't until I finally turned my attention back to bowling that I saw how what I learned as a consultant could relate to competing in sports.

 

Many programmers tend to work like plate-spinners, carrying a lot of information in their head as they work, so they constantly feel distracted, and this hurt their ability to get things done. Complicated system designs force them to do haphazard troubleshooting: once they fix one part of the system, another part starts failing, and they have to quickly diagnose problems, figure out the cause, and then reach into their bag of tricks for something to try. They often have to try many different ideas to fix the problem, because different tricks work differently at different times. Worse still, once they think they've fixed the problem, the problem—or something that somewhat looks like the problem—comes back in some other part of the system. And there's always one more problem. And one more. And one more. A programmer is never "done". Trying to do this kind of work helped me build habits like clearing my mind, getting things out of my head so that I could focus on one thing at a time, and deliberate practice, which is becoming a fashionable business buzzphrase as I write these words in 2017. It encouraged me to stop pretending that I'll ever "figure it out", but rather to accept that diagnosing and fixing little problems—of adjusting my work as I go—is a permanent and normal state of affairs. The techniques that I learned in my early professional life would have been absolutely ideal in training me to become a calmer, more focused, more patient bowler in my 20s, if only I'd stayed on the lanes.

 

For decades, consultants have been advising companies to emphasize collaboration, which we bowlers would think of simply as "working as a team". If you've ever been part of a great team, then you know how wonderful it feels. We trust each other, because there's no way to avoid showing your weakness out on the lane. (You either hit the corner pin or you don't, and everyone's watching.) If you're petrified of missing a pin because your team will laugh at you or yell at you, then you're doomed to fail. Sure, we have the occasional conflict, but we yell because we care, and then we hug it out, and in the process, become an even stronger team. We commit to do what it takes to help the team win, so we accept sitting on the bench even though we desperately want to be out on the lanes working out our problems. When it's time to practise, we practise, even if we'd rather just be chucking balls and looking at how prettily the pins fall on our strikes. When strange things happen or something goes wrong, we feel like we owe the team an explanation, and together we can figure out how to correct the problem and move forward. And ultimately we care about the results. Maybe we can't control the results, but we all agree on the goal: to score well, to win matches, and to win tournaments. We do all this because we want to win not only for ourselves, but for each other. We don't always get to win, and we find ways to have fun even when we don't, but the resultsspeak for themselves. If you've had a great experience on a team—in any sport—then you probably recognize at least some of these things.

 

Coincidentally enough, one of the most influential books in my career, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, describes all five of these aspects of teamwork—and this book is aimed at businesses who are wasting "the single greatest untapped competitive advantage" today. I learned this way of thinking about teamwork in order to become a more effective team member, and then later a more effective consultant, but this would really have come in handy in my 20s and early 30s, when I could have helped build some killer teams. If nothing else, I could have made the most out of my experience as a team bowler in highly-competitive situations. I would have sought them out even more. I would have worked harder to become one of those magical people that everyone wants on their team, because "it's just better when he's around", in spite of averaging only somewhere around 225. (Who knows? Maybe improving as a teammate would have helped me improve as an individual bowler. I can only try to do that now.)

 

More recently, however, I have had to fight some symptoms of burnout and mild depression in my professional life. When the energy leaves you, it's hard to do anything. When this happened, it forced me to figure out how to do the most I can with what little energy I have. I've been forced to learn how to conserve energy as well as how to manufacture it, even when I don't "feel like it". This has led me to meditation to help me improve my focus and concentration; it has encouraged me to build systems and routines that let me do more everyday things "on autopilot". Rather than waste energy on things that should come easy, now I save my energy for unfamiliar or puzzling situations where I really need to figure something out. I wish I'd had this attitude as a younger bowler, when I might have better understood the value of keeping my mind quiet, of calming myself with carefully-choreographed pre-shot routines, of trusting the process and letting go of the results, and of taking the longer view and not panicking after making two or three bad shots. I might not have wasted so much time and energy on getting upset, on kicking the ball rack and punching the scoring table, and on generally deluding myself into believing that the fire "fed my performance". It didn't.

 

Coming back to the game in my late 30s utterly changed my life for the better. I finally lost 160 pounds because I had become too big to control my body enough to bowl. (That was a real wake-up call.) I read books like Zen Golf, The Practicing Mind, and Peak Performance which helped me see how to apply what I'd learned in my professional life to bowling. Gradually I have learned what it really takes to bowl well, and now, at the age of 43, I only hope that my body cooperates long enough for me to be able to do it. I think I know what to do, and even how to do it, and now I just need to do it. And I think I'm doing it.

 

But I really can't stop myself from idly wishing that I'd known at 23 what I know today at 43. I'd love the chance to go back in time and sit my younger self down and give him a stern talking-to—something like the firm-but-fair teacher that you respected as a kid. If only. I could have been good at this game.

 

—J. B. Rainsberger, Summerside, PEI

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