Two bowlers talking recently in Wichita, Kans.:
Bowler No. 1: "I think the subconscious is the key. Negative thoughts are really your downfall. They work faster than positive thoughts. They get pushed into your subconscious faster."
Kibitzer: "Freud said we're driven by the subconscious, not the other way around."
Bowler No. 2: "I haven't read all of Freud's stuff, and I'm not sure I buy into that. But it stands to reason that a string of negative thoughts will interfere with performance."
Wow, you're thinking, psychobabble has reached Kansas. But it isn't really psychobabble as far as Rick Steelsmith is concerned. A 23-year-old rookie phenom on the Professional Bowlers Association tour, he credits his success not to the 16-pound ball at the end of his arm, but to the three pounds of gray matter in his cranium. "That's the key," he says. "The mental aspect of the game."
He's not kidding, either. Steelsmith, who missed the last two PBA tour events because of a sore right shoulder but who plans to compete in this week's ABC Bud Light Masters tournament in Jacksonville—he's the defender—has continued to work out mentally. Last week he closed the curtains in his Wichita apartment and listened to motivational tapes. He drove around in his gray Grand Am, reciting "affirmations" to himself. Affirmations are upbeat messages to the subconscious: "I enjoy using perfect visualizations before every shot.... It is my character to think positively at all times...."
Steelsmith visualized pleasant things happening—pins falling, more pins falling, strike after strike after strike. "You can get as creative with it as you want," he said last week between brain practices. "Last year before the Masters I stuck a card on my refrigerator that said, I AM THE 1987 BUD LIGHT MASTERS CHAMPION. I pictured myself winning the tournament. I saw myself receiving the trophy at the end. I even visualized headlines saying I was the champion.
"To some people that sounds stupid," Steelsmith added. "But I think you can create situations."
He proved his point last year. In April, Steelsmith led Wichita State University to the national college championship in Omaha and was named tournament MVP for the second straight year. In March, he was named Collegiate Bowler of the Year by the Bowling Writers Association of America (BWAA). In May, he beat Brad Snell in the finals of the Bud Light event in Niagara Falls to become the first amateur to win that title in its 37-year history. (And in bowling, amateurs get to keep the cash—$43,500 in this case.) The next month, he flew to Helsinki for the Federation Internationale des Quilleurs World Championships, where he won two gold, one silver and two bronze medals and bowled the first 300 game in the event's 33-year history. To cap the year, Steelsmith became the first amateur ever named to the BWAA's All-America first team, finished third in the Bowler of the Year voting and was nominated for the Sullivan Award, given annually to the U.S.'s outstanding amateur athlete.
Since the '87 Masters, the bowling world has come to recognize Steelsmith, who turned pro last November, as something special. With earnings of $37,945 already this season, he is on his way to setting a rookie money-winning record and appears a lock for Rookie of the Year. The pros are learning why college bowlers nicknamed him the Wall. (Regardless of the lane condition, Steelsmith can hit the pocket as if what bowlers call a wall existed on every lane.)