Lessons in Ball Reaction, Pt 1

True bowling ball reaction is hard to see and even harder to explain. Bowling is highly conceptual and intuitive, and reading ball reaction may be the greatest example of this. Sometimes it requires examining the subsequent stages of ball roll and/or pin carry to identify earlier characteristics. For example, you may have to watch how the ball rolls in the midlane and transitions on the backend to identify if the ball is having trouble getting through the heads, or is getting through them too easily. A soft backend reaction may be the result of the ball not gripping or revving in the midlane early enough rather than issues with the backends themselves. Poor ball reaction may be attributed to the ball itself or the condition, rather than the possibility that you’re playing the wrong area of the lane. There are a myriad of reasons for why a ball is doing what it’s doing, and this often makes correctly identifying ball reaction extremely difficult. Incorrect diagnosis is common, and can critically impact decisions on adjustments during the set, and subsequent ball purchases or surface adjustments.

Errors in reading reaction are quickly apparent, and unfortunately sometimes they can be expensive. If you believe your ball isn’t hooking and you make a surface adjustment to a more aggressive grit when it’s actually already burning up, your ball reaction will get even worse. Most people will eventually arrive at the issue by a process of incorrect adjustments. This takes time, is costly, frustrating, and confusing. In my opinion, the issue is that most people aren’t able to read CORRECT ball reaction, meaning that they don’t know what good ball reaction is supposed to look like in the first place. Much like reading sheet music, some people can learn to play an instrument and copy tunes without ever learning how to read notes. Some people can make ball choices based on similarities with their old equipment without really knowing why that equipment works for them. But just like the play by ear musicians faced with playing a piece off of sheet music without having accompanying audio, when these bowlers face a lane condition they aren’t familiar with, or that they don’t match up with well, it can be a rough experience. They will either say the ball hooks too much or doesn’t hook enough, change to a different ball without analyzing what the ball is doing, and may miss a simple adjustment that would prove successful.

A large percentage of bowlers feel like it’s too tricky and something they just aren’t able to do, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I think that once someone is taught how to read ball reaction, that a very high percentage of people would be able to do it successfully. Let’s talk about proper reaction, or design reaction. Bowling balls are generally supposed to skid through the heads (the first 20 feet of the lane), begin to rev in the mids or midlane (roughly 20-35 feet), and finish strong (though not necessarily sharp) on the backend. Skidding through the heads helps the ball retain energy for revving in the mids, for a strong backend move, and for hitting power at the pins. If a ball does not get through the heads clean, it will accelerate the transition through the stages of ball motion, burning energy early, resulting in a sluggish or non-existent move on the backend, and weak hit at the pins. However, very wet heads may result in the ball pushing too far before it begins to rev in the midlane, making transition late.

Moving to the mids, if the ball clears the heads cleanly, but the mids are dry, you may or may not see a pronounced few board “jump” when the ball suddenly encounters friction before it’s ready to. In the mids where the ball should be revving instead of hooking, the dry shocks the ball into immediate action and can burn a significant amount of energy very quickly. Sometimes the ball can still finish and hit strongly, and sometimes it won’t, it just depends on how dry the area is and how large it is, though a couple board move early may result in overhook. Though just like excessive oil in the heads, a high amount of oil in the mids will delay the ball revving and make the ball late to transition, resulting in a weak backend motion and weak hit. At the same time, even if you have squared up or are playing straight to combat the oily conditions, a ball that is too weak, whether it’s the core dynamics, surface prep, or layout, will still be late transitioning and could be uncontrollably sharp on the backend, or could “roll-out” or “stand-up,” meaning that the ball is burning all its energy very quickly going from extreme oil to extreme dry. These are undesirable reactions from a standpoint of control and pin carry.

Bowling balls come in several different designs to help get you as close as you can be to comfortable on a wide variety of patterns. This is why it’s important to own several different bowling balls if you are competitive or want to be competitive. This is also part of what makes it tough. Ever see someone walk into a bowling alley lugging 8 balls in, and then not be able to find the pocket with any one of them? Sometimes people will buy balls as a “crutch,” mostly to protect them from having to adjust for several different reasons. Either they are physically limited, mentally inexperienced, or unwilling or unable to adjust.
The major concept that is simultaneously the hardest to understand is hook and what it looks like. To the average bowler, hook is the motion you see the ball make when it changes direction, and that’s not the case at all. Ever wonder why your Vibe might possibly “outhook” your Sync? The best analogy I can use to describe it is with tires. Your Vibe is like a set of racing slicks, perfect for Nascar stock cars on the tacky high friction asphalt tracks. Your Sync is like a set of snow tires or dirt track tires, offering grip on a much softer, looser track. Imagine putting snow tires on a stock car and trying to race a Nascar event. Those soft tires would be destroyed inside of a lap, while the car slides all over the place. Now imagine putting racing slicks on a dirt track car. Again, you would have a similar result. However, lane conditions are both wet AND dry.

Imagine snow tires on a car on a dirt track with asphalt hairpins. You would get as good a grip as possible, with a smooth but strong transition to the asphalt. Now imagine racing slicks on that same track. You would get very low grip until you hit that hairpin, where you would transition violently, the car would be very difficult to control. This is the same concept as hook. Aggressive balls like the Sync are microscopically textured, and the coverstock is also slightly softer to allow the ball to still grip in the oil so that it transitions through the different stages of ball motion in the right places. This type of ball is meant to offer control and hook on heavy oil, where you don’t want a skid/flip reaction in the first place. Balls like the Vibe are less aggressive, have smoother coverstocks and are generally harder, giving them a better ability to skid through dry lane conditions and retain energy for a strong backend motion. The conditions predominantly provide the necessary friction to make the ball transition properly.

A Vibe can still look like it outhooks a Sync on wetter conditions, provided the backends are strong and clean. However, you will have much better luck controlling a Sync than you will a Vibe, because while the Vibe never gets into a roll before it hits the backend where it will take a hard turn, the Sync has been hooking earlier in the oil even though you aren’t able to “see” it, so that it will be able to deliver a strong, but controllable turn. You should be able to understand now why people quite often mistake hook for the backend motion they see, and why hook rating can be very misleading, or is at the very least greatly misunderstood. The vast majority of lane conditions you will see will not be wet enough to warrant using the most aggressive balls on the market, though people believe that hook is universal. The more a ball hooks, the more it should move on a drier condition, right?

Snow tires technically offer more grip in snow than racing slicks do, but that is a comparison through snow. If no snow is present, there is nothing for the tires to grip through. The slots in the tires, much like the microscopic texture of the surface of the bowling ball, allow a place for the snow to go into so that the peaks can still come in contact with the road. With racing slicks, like harder polished balls, there is nowhere for the snow to go, meaning that the slicks won’t be able to come into contact with the road at all. While the Sync still has coverstock peaks that are able to still come in contact with the lane, the Vibe just glides on top of the oil, or essentially hydroplanes. On a dry condition, however, the texture works AGAINST the Sync because the Vibe has more surface area coming in contact with the lane because it has a flatter, smoother surface. This is why a ball that technically hooks more can appear to be weaker on a dryer shot, because the hook rating is in oil, not on dry, and because the Sync will have more surface area in contact with the lane than the Vibe.

This is why it is important to look at what condition the ball was designed for, this and the hook rating will provide you important information IF you interpret and apply them correctly. Like I said above, the hook rating measures how much that ball will hook on heavy oil. However, a piece of information that is most overlooked and/or misunderstood is what condition the ball was designed for. If a ball was designed for medium oil, yes it corresponds to hook rating as far as how much the ball will hook, BUT the key piece of information here is that if a ball is designed for medium oil, it will perform better than most other balls on medium oil. That ball was designed specifically to excel on a medium oil pattern, it’s not simply an extension on hook potential or additional related information. This means that on light oil, a Vibe SHOULD perform better than a Sync.

So why does a Sync cost more than a Vibe if it doesn’t perform better across the board? Most people associate price with performance, which is logically reasonable, but they also don’t know why the difference. All bowling balls cost roughly the same to produce, whether they’re a Sync or a White Dot. The reason for the price difference is several different factors. There are a few different angles they take advantage of, but the primary reason is research and development costs. As new bowling balls keep hooking more and more, the older technology is able to be utilized in a less aggressive reaction bracket. Take the Ebonite Cyclone for example. The coverstock on this ball is GB 10.7, and if that doesn’t sound familiar, it’s the exact same coverstock used on The One, which was a brand new high performance ball a decade or so ago. With a few small adjustments from The One, due to the progression of ball technology and lane oils, the Cyclone is able to fit nicely into the entry level light oil category. Now that the R&D has been paid or recouped, all that remains is production cost.

It’s also important to keep design surface and layout in mind too. A ball is released with what the manufacturer deems to be the best surface prep for the performance they designed the ball for. This is why light oil balls are polished, and why most heavy oil balls are dull. At the same time, you don’t want to put a layout on a ball that’s going to mute or nullify the strengths of the ball or its design characteristics. Take the Motiv Primal Rage as an example, this ball is billed as a backend monster. It comes polished and it’s meant to create a strong backend move where other balls would still hit weak or be soft. Picking this ball only to sand the surface and go with a weak or smooth layout to tame down the backend is counterproductive. If you want a stronger, smoother ball reaction, it would be better to go with a ball that was designed for that type of motion.

All this being said, it’s really only scratching the surface of ball reaction. With myriads of different lane conditions out there, different lane surfaces, developed lane to lane characteristics, and millions of bowlers all throwing the ball differently, it’s critical to understand the concept behind reading ball reaction. All the information in the world can’t and won’t ever make it an exact science given the billions of variables that make up each individual ball reaction. However, in Part 2, I will try to describe phases of ball motion in more detail and attempt to show you how to identify correct vs incorrect ball reaction.