Oil On Bowling Lanes

If you watch closely, bowling balls actually “slide” down most of the lane. Near the end of the lane, the ball gains traction and begins to roll. This happens because the lanes are coated with a thin layer of oil. The invisible oil on the lanes is the source of complexity in bowling, and this article will teach you all about it.

The best way to get a strike is to hit “the pocket” at a significant angle.

In order to properly hit the pocket at the correct entry angle, we need to use the oil to our advantage. Since the ball can slide across the oil without rolling, we can put inward rotation on the ball so that when the ball does eventually gain traction, it will hook in the direction of the spin and create the entry angle necessary to strike. If you are right-handed, “inward” rotation means counter-clockwise. If you are left-handed, the inward rotation would be clockwise. Without the oil, this kind of hook shot wouldn’t be possible, because the ball would gain traction right away and just roll into the gutter.

Learning to control this slide/roll is where the difficulty, and complexity of bowling come into play. Bowling is all about adapting to current lane conditions as it relates to the oil. The oil is laid on the lane in a very specific way. The amount of oil used, where on the lane, and the pattern in which it is laid is called an “oil pattern”. When it comes to professional bowling, there is a myriad of different oil patterns that the bowlers must learn to deal with and adapt to. Most likely, the only bowling you have done has been on a THS (Typical House Shot) pattern. This is a special type of pattern that is designed to help you out. It gives you a bit more leeway in your shot and in some ways brings the ball to the pocket for you.

To get a better idea of how different oil patterns require different throws, check out the video below. It’s a snippet from the 2018 PBA Positional Round.

As you can see, the Johhny Petraglia pattern is much flatter and much wider, although it is shorter. A THS looks similar to the Mark Roth pattern on the right. Both of these lanes would require very different strategies in order to consistently hit the pocket. Although the THS is much easier to bowl on than patterns like these, it can give you a good idea of how important a factor the oil can play. Most oil patterns have a few things in common, as you can see above; the middle of the lane has the thickest oil, and as you move outwards, the oil gets thinner. The very outside board is typically completely dry to help avoid gutter balls. Learning the balance between how much oil the ball contacts, and when/where on the lane it contacts the drier boards is quite literally the most difficult part of bowling.

The oil causes interesting things in your shot. For example, although it is quite counter-intuitive, if you are consistently hitting left of the pocket, you can actually keep your visual target the same, but move your feet left and this will cause your ball to go further right as it gets to the pins. Moving your feet left will cause the ball to slide through more oil, meaning it gains traction a bit later which will lead to less overall hook. In short, if you are consistently missing in a direction, try moving your feet a board or two in that direction. If you aren’t getting enough hook, and you are missing to the right, you can move your feet right, because it will cause your ball to contact the dry boards sooner to gain traction earlier.

Now that you have a basic understanding of oil patterns. The next step is to learn about how they break down. As you bowl on a lane, the ball will throw oil around the lane and cause the middle to dry out a bit and get oil on the “dry” boards on the edge. Due to this breakdown, your shot will have to change to continue hitting the pocket. What this means is that if you throw a shot and get a strike, you can throw that same shot again and not get a strike. It’s kind of strange to think about, but constant adaptation is one of the most important parts of bowling. In the video below, you will see that although he was getting strike after strike after strike, he read the lanes and saw they were breaking down and decided to switch balls. In my opinion, the thing that separates good bowlers from world-class bowlers is preemptive adaptation rather than reactive adaption. What I mean by this is that “good” bowlers will begin to miss and then decide to change their shot. On the other hand, world-class bowlers will change their shot before they even miss.

As you can probably see, bowling is all about reading, understanding, and adapting to different oil patterns, and adapting to the constantly changing oil conditions. The oil on the lanes is a sort of double-edged sword because, without it, our only option would be to bowl straight balls, but the degradation of the pattern on the lane makes it difficult to consistently do so without constant adaptation.

Here are a few rules of thumb that may help you conquer the oil patterns:

  1. Move your feet in the direction of your miss.
  2. If you need the ball to hook more, throw slower.
  3. If you want the ball to hook less, throw faster.
  4. The less oil your ball contacts, the more it will hook.
  5. The more oil your ball contacts, the less it will hook.

Learning how to consistently, preemptively, and correctly adapt to the constantly changing lane conditions is a life-long endeavor and is not something to be taken lightly. Although the five rules above make it seem simple to adapt to the lanes, in practice it is much harder.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, comments, concerns, etc. please leave a comment below, or feel free to contact me.

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