Bowling is one of the world's simplest sports: the object of the game is to roll a ball with force at a set of target pins, endeavoring to knock over as many as possible. It is for this reason that forms of bowling have been played in many cultures for thousands of years. There is evidence that a primitive form of bowling was played in ancient Egypt at least as early as 3000 BC. The early German Christian monks bowled. Italian bocce is similar in concept to bowling. The English played games that evolved into modern bowling and the outdoor sport of lawn bowling through the Middle Ages; Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have awaited the coming of the Spanish Armada by playing a game of bowling.
The modern game of bowling was developed in the United States as a result of the import of various forms by its early settlers. The first reference to bowling being played in America is likely contained in the famous Washington Irving (1783–1859) story, Rip Van Winkle, published in 1819, in which Van Winkle, asleep for 20 years, is described as awakening to the sound of "nine pins," a Dutch variant of bowling.
Bowling gained considerable popularity in the United States into the 1890s. The 10-pin variation of the game was the most popular, and in 1895, the American Bowling Congress was formed. The early 10-pin games were played with wooden pins and a wooden ball. There was no mechanization of the bowling lane, and all pins had to be reset by hand, a task usually performed by a "pin boy."
The first significant technological development occurred in 1905, with the development of a durable, hard rubber bowling ball. The construction of the ball permitted it to be thrown harder and with greater effect at the standing pins. In 1914, the first hard composite rubber ball was manufactured, a still greater advance in the ability of the bowler to play effectively. In 1952, the first automated pin setting machine was developed. The automation of the bowling lane coincided with the advent of televised bowling competitions in the United States. The popularity of televised bowling spurred a boom in participation and the construction of bowling lanes across the country. Bowling was perceived as a sport that was both inexpensive and accessible to the average person, as well as one providing high level competition opportunities for skilled players. In 1961, the Pro Bowlers Tour began, sponsoring large prize money tournaments in cities across the United States.
Bowling had enjoyed a parallel popularity in many countries during the growth enjoyed by American bowling. In Canada, a 5-pin variant was invented in 1909, and in many Canadian centers both 10-pin and 5-pin games were played. The international bowling governing body, known by its French language name, the Federation National des Quilleurs (FIQ), was founded in 1952. It maintains authority over the 10-pin bowling game played in the United States and throughout the world, as well as the nine-pin game played mainly in Europe. The FIQ has a membership of over 120 countries, and while bowling is not a medal sport in the Olympics, the FIQ has been recognized as a full member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 1979.
Whether contested in a 5-pin, 9-pin, or 10-pin format, the object of modern bowling has remained constant throughout its history: to knock down as many pins as possible with as few bowls as possible. The 10-pin game is the best example of the rules, strategies, and training procedures that exemplify bowling. Ten pins may be played as a head to head competition, or in a team format.
The 10-pin lane is 60 ft (18 m), measured from the first pin (the head pin) and the foul line, behind which the bowler's feet must be positioned when the ball is delivered. The lane is 3.5 ft (1.2 m) wide, and it is typically constructed from either highly polished wooden panels or an equally slick, frictionless synthetic material. Bowlers wear specialized shoes constructed with a sole that permits the bowler to slide along the surface when delivering of the ball. The lane is bordered on each side by gutters; if the ball enters the gutter, it will not score.
The ball must not exceed 16 lb (7.3 kg) in weight, nor may it be greater than 27 in (70 cm) in circumference. The ball must be constructed to be 100% solid, except for the permitted finger holes bored into the ball to permit the bowler to secure a firm grip. The smooth surface of the ball (usually a plastic composite material) and the construction of the lane creates very little friction on the ball when it is delivered.
The pins are set in an equilateral triangular shape, with each pin placed precisely 12 in (0.3 m) from each other. The pins are set by an automated machine, and the toppled pins are swept out of the lane by the machine between the first and second bowls.
The scoring of a 10-pin game is straightforward. The game is divided into 10 competitive segments, known as frames. In each frame, a bowler is permitted two bowls to knock down the assembled pins. If the bowler does not strike down all of the pins with the two deliveries, the points scored for the frame are the number of pins knocked down. If the bowler knocks down all of the pins using both bowls, a spare is scored, where the bowler scores 10 for the frame plus a bonus, calculated as the score for the first ball in the next frame. When the bowler knocks down all 10 pins with the first ball in a frame, a strike is scored; a strike is counted as 10 points, plus a bonus from the next two balls. For successive strikes, the bonus scores are cumulative, meaning that in a 10-frame game, with bonuses, a player can conceivably roll 30 strikes for a perfect game of 300.
Bowling has a significant physical and mental component when contested at a competitive level. There are a number of different accepted approaches to the delivery of the ball and the accompanying footwork needed to best combine power and accuracy. No matter what approach is employed, bowling is a classic repetitive-type activity, with the ball delivered from a crouched position that has the potential to place significant strain on the structures of the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and lumbar regions.
The wrist is the joint most vulnerable to injury in bowling. The 16 lb (7.3 kg) ball is released at the end of a sweeping arc motion, where the bowler draws the ball back past the waist, so as to create additional distance through which the ball may be accelerated prior to release. The arm and wrist of the bowler are taken through an eccentric motion, where all of the forces of delivery are radiated through the wrist. When the wrist is itself not stable at the time that those forces are received, the tendons of the wrist, which connect the muscles of the forearm to the hand, and the ligaments of the carpal bones of the wrist joint have the potential to be overstretched; in time, this overstretching can cause a micro-tearing of these connective tissues. Many bowlers wear custom-fitted orthotics on the wrist of the throwing hand to provide extra stability to the joint in its repetitive motion.
Although the aerobic requirements of the sport itself are modest, bowling requires a high level of focus and mental concentration and a well-developed ability to manage stress. Aerobic fitness will assist the bowler in maintaining a heart rate that will contribute to effective stress management. Stretching and flexibility exercises are also important to the prevention of muscle strains that are associated with the repetitive throwing and footwork required.
Many elite bowlers employ different forms of mental training, including the visualization of their successful shots. A bowling alley has a number of highly distinctive sounds associated with success: the sound of the ball as it travels down the lane, the distinctive collision between the ball and the pins, and the sound of the pins falling. Visualization will seek to include all of these auditory clues in the visual image to be conjured as the bowlers concentrate on the next successful shot.
As the physical demands of bowling are less than those encountered in many elite sports, with a mental component that can be developed with experience, bowling is a sport where its best competitors may continue to perform at a high level into their 40s.