"Rick's kind of modest, but nobody ever dominated collegiate bowling before him," says Gordon Vadakin, 34, his coach for two years at WSU. "He's really something to be afraid of, if you're a pro bowler." Not physically, of course. "It's his mental game," Vadakin goes on. "He has some weapons most people don't understand."
Which brings us back to our opening scene. Steelsmith is Bowler No. 1 and Vadakin is Bowler No. 2. (Never mind the kibitzer, whose grasp of Freud may be a little shaky, anyway.) Vadakin portrays the subconscious as something that can foul up a bowler's release. The key to success, he tells his bowlers, is to program the subconscious with affirmations. It doesn't matter if affirmations sometimes stretch the truth; the subconscious doesn't get out much and can't tell the difference between reality and propaganda. Besides, some affirmations flatter the subconscious. One of Steel-smith's is, "While bowling, I always allow my subconscious mind to perform each shot perfectly."
Neither Steelsmith nor Vadakin claims authorship of these mental training concepts. Former WSU bowling coach Paul Waliczek started exposing his teams to Dale Carnegie's can-do literature in the early '70s. Vadakin (who manages the university's recreation center, which has eight bowling lanes) took over in 1978. Two years later, after introducing his team to a set of motivational tapes called Mental Dynamics for Athletes, he coached the Shockers to their first men's national championship. Since then he has fed his athletes a steady diet of mind food—everything from Maxwell Maltz's seminal Psycho-Cybernetics to the latest SyberVision videos. Says Vadakin, "We realized that if we were to stay on top in collegiate bowling, we had to recognize that bowling is not so much physical as it is mental. It's gotten to the point where we don't even have team practices anymore," he says.
Instead, Vadakin's bowlers gather once a week in a student-union meeting room. There, away from the din of crashing pins, the Shockers hash out strategies, set team goals and write their own affirmations. "It's a free-association sort of thing," says Vadakin. "I recall one session that lasted six hours. Suddenly it was dark, and no one knew how long we had been in there."
Skeptics can scoff, but Vadakin has established the Wichita State bowling program as the country's best, having coached the winners of two national women's titles during his tenure as well as the guys who took the two men's titles. And, of course, he doesn't really do it with sorcery and incantations. A "decent" bowler himself (nine 300 games and three 800 series), Vadakin knows more about technique than he lets on. And one reason he feels he can dispense with practices is that he keeps tabs on his players' progress by bowling alongside them in Wichita's scratch leagues.
Steelsmith, too, is more of a lanes rat than a mystic. He started bowling as a 10-year-old in Topeka and kept doing it after his family moved to Manhattan (the one in Kansas, not the Big Apple), where both his parents work for an engineering firm. An after-school job helping out at Manhattan's Wildcat Lanes stimulated his interest in the business side of bowling. Instead of turning pro upon graduation from Manhattan High, he enrolled at Vincennes (Ind.) University Junior College, where he earned an A.S. degree in bowling-lanes management, made two college All-America teams and led the school's team to the 1985 junior college bowling championship. He transferred to Wichita State because of the strength of its bowling program and now lacks just six hours for his B.A. in business management.
"Collegiate bowling is great preparation for the tour," he says. "I don't think I was ready for the tour after high school." In his 14 pro events, Steelsmith has made the top 24 seven times, putting him among the leaders on the tour. He made it to his first PBA televised finals in February's Miller Lite Classic in Miami, losing the title game to Tom Milton 233-221. He has had to bowl with the rabbits—bowlers who have to qualify—only four times.
Steelsmith hurt his shoulder three weeks ago while converting a right-side spare at the U.S. Open in Atlantic City but shook off the injury to finish 12th. He moved on to Connecticut, expecting to bowl in the Greater Hartford Open, but the continued soreness convinced him to fly home for tests and rest. "I've bowled 473 tournament games since January, probably 700 games overall counting practice and pro-ams," he says. "That's more than I'm used to."
Tests by a Wichita orthopedist last week indicated that Steelsmith's problem is a slight tearing away of a ligament from the shoulder joint. The cause: tight muscles. The remedy: stretching exercises and physical therapy. The prognosis: good. "The orthopedist said I should do whatever my shoulder tells me," Steelsmith says.
Between listening to his shoulder and lying to his subconscious, Steelsmith will be a busy bowler. But he says he tries to see his career now as a series of six-game blocks, the format in qualifying rounds—no more, no less. "My patience runs thin every once in a while if I have a bad block, so I haven't set any long-term goals for myself...no timetable for winning a tournament or anything. One of my affirmations is, 'I enjoy being confidently patient.' " On the other hand, another of his affirmations is, "I am ultimately hungry for a PBA title."