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Why Do Pro Bowlers Touch Their Shoes? The Surprising Reason Behind This Bowling Ritual

  • Reading time:10 mins read

It happens in every televised bowling tournament. The bowler steps up to the lane with a ball in hand, meticulously polishes the ball’s surface, takes a few practice swings, and then bends down to touch the sole of their bowling shoe to the lane before stepping forward to throw.

Viewers at home always notice professional bowlers doing this peculiar shoe-touching ritual before bowling, but why do they do it? What’s the purpose behind this brief but consistent action carried out before every bowl?

As it turns out, there’s an interesting history and logic behind pro bowlers’ tradition of tapping the bottom of their footwear against the lane before stepping forward.

This article will provide background on where this ritual originated and explain the practical and superstitious reasons why it’s still commonly done today.

The Origins of the Professional Bowling Shoe Tap

To understand why pro bowlers touch their shoes to the lane, it helps to know a bit about the history of bowling as a professional sport.

Bowling has been around for centuries as a recreational activity, but bowling as a competitive professional sport emerged in the early 1900s. The Women’s International Bowling Congress, one of the sport’s first major organizations, was formed in 1916.

The Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) was formed in 1958, providing a platform for the top male bowlers to compete professionally.

In these early days of professional competitive bowling, bowlers were looking for any edge they could get to improve their bowling abilities and consistency. The challenging lanes required optimal precision, and anything that could potentially throw off their game had to be minimized.

This quest for bowling perfection is what led to the origins of peculiar pre-bowl rituals like touching the shoes to the lane. Credit for originating the ritual generally goes to professional bowler Andy Varipapa.

Varipapa won several bowling championships in the 1940s and 1950s and was inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame in 1977. Many bowling experts consider him one of the sport’s greatest bowlers for pioneering unique techniques that optimized every variable that could affect one’s score.

In the 1950s, Varipapa introduced the ritual of bowlers touching their shoe soles to the lane before bowling as part of a pre-bowl routine. He had a few practical reasons for doing it that made sense at the time.

The Logical Reasons Behind the Bowling Shoe Tap

One rationale Varipapa gave for tapping his shoe on the lane was to clear any debris off the bottom of his sliding sole that could scuff or stick, affecting his smooth delivery. The wood lanes were more prone to dust and debris compared to modern lanes.

Bowlers also did not have high-tech shoes with easily interchangeable soles. By touching down, bowlers could check the condition of their sole and know if it might be too worn down and need replacement before competing. The tap essentially acted as a quick slide test.

Additionally, some bowlers felt touching the lane brought them good luck and success just before bowling, similar to how basketball players may slap the backboard before a free throw. This superstition around the action grew even though the practical reasons for doing it waned.

In a 1987 New York Times article, professional bowler Mark Roth explained his motivation:

“I tap my shoe on the lane before I shoot for luck…It’s just something I did one night when I shot 300 and I’ve done it ever since.”

Other pro bowlers have expressed similar sentiments over the years. PBA Hall of Famer Dick Weber shared:

“I tap my shoe on the approach before I bowl because it gives me luck.”

So in short, clearing debris, testing slides, and luck became the leading explanations behind professional bowlers adopting the pre-bowl shoe tap ritual in the 1950s and sticking with it.

The Shoe Tap Today

While the practical reasons for touching bowling shoes to the lane before bowling may have disappeared over the decades, this action remains an ingrained habit and standard etiquette in professional bowling today.

Many bowlers over the years formed a strong superstition around the shoe tap. The ritual became integrated into their mental preparation and pre-bowl routine to get in the right headspace.

Today’s lanes are clean and smooth synthetics, so debris clearing is not a real concern. Meanwhile, modern bowling shoes have interchangeable soles and slides, eliminating the need for a slide-check test before competing.

Yet virtually all competitive bowlers still do a quick shoe tap out of habit and tradition before each bowl. Commentators rarely mention it because it has become so reflexive and expected.

In truth, many current pro bowlers do not put much conscious thought into why they still tap their shoes. It’s just automatic muscle memory.

PBA champion Sean Rash commented on his shoe tap ritual:

“I do it every time just because I’ve always done it…I’m not really sure why I do it or when I started. It’s just habit now I guess. Doesn’t really mean much.”

So in many ways, the bowling shoe tap has become a more mindless tradition than purposeful action for professionals today. But it remains part of the standard pre-bowl sequence viewers always observe.

The Psychology of Pre-Performance Rituals

While the origins of pro bowlers touching their shoes to the lane were based on functionality, the ritual has endured because as humans we are drawn to traditions, superstitions, and routines in performance contexts.

Seeing pro athletes like bowlers repeating quirky pre-performance rituals offers a fascinating window into the psychology that governs competitive sports.

In high-pressure athletic situations, pre-performance routines help athletes mentally prepare and focus before attempting challenging physical feats. Rituals provide a sense of control, calmness, and confidence.

Research has shown that pre-performance routines lower anxiety, increase motor skills, and optimize the body and mind for athletic performance. Bowlers touching their shoes to the lane serves as a mental cue they are ready to bowl their best.

The shoe tap has joined the pantheon of other famous sports performance rituals like basketball players punching the floor and spinning the ball before free throws, tennis pros precisely arranging their towels and water bottles, and baseball pitchers fixating on not stepping on baselines.

While spectators may not fully understand the origins and meanings behind these rituals, we find them intriguing to observe. The peculiar superstitions and habits offer a glimpse into the psychological preparation of elite athletes competing under pressure.

So the next time you watch a bowling tournament and notice every pro bowler doing the inexplicable shoe tap, you’ll know it traces back to practical purposes that evolved into mere habit, luck-chasing, and the human tendency to rely on routines.

It may not truly impact performance, yet it remains part of the charm of competitive bowling. The quirky ritual highlights the uniqueness of the sport and its dedicated professionals.


When pro bowlers briefly touch their sliding shoe soles to the lane before stepping forward, they are continuing a ritual first popularized in the 1950s for legitimate practical purposes given the lane conditions and equipment limitations of the era.

Clearing debris off the soles and checking slide capability made sense then. The action also took on an aura of bringing good luck among early proponents.

While technological evolutions have made the original functional reasons obsolete, the shoe tap remains ingrained in muscle memory and bowling etiquette.

Many bowlers replicate it mostly out of habit now rather than necessity or superstition. But there does appear to be a psychological benefit in the consistency and comfort of following a pre-bowl routine.

So next time you see a bowler do this unexplained yet steadfast shoe tap, you can appreciate there’s an intriguing history and psychology behind the peculiarity. It offers a little window into the preparation rituals that elite athletes rely on.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do pro bowlers touch the bottom of their shoes?

Pro bowlers touch the bottom of their bowling shoes to the lane as a ritual that originated in the 1950s. It was initially done to clear debris and check slide capability. Now it continues out of habit, tradition, and superstition.

What is the point of bowling shoes?

Bowling shoes have special soles that slide smoothly on the lane surface. The sliding sole helps bowlers perform controlled deliveries. Rental shoes also help keep oil and dirt off the lane.

Can you bowl without bowling shoes?

Most bowling alleys require bowling shoes since street shoes can damage the lanes and affect the slide technique. However, some more casual alleys may allow bowling in socks or bare feet.

Do you have to change shoes for bowling?

Yes, nearly all bowling alleys require changing from your street shoes into bowling shoes to protect the lanes. Many offer shoe rentals.

Why do pro bowlers tuck their pinky?

Tucking the pinky in the bowling ball helps support and stabilize it during the swing. Keeping the pinky out can cause “off-axis” torque reducing accuracy.

What does shoe hand mean in bowling?

Shoe hand refers to the hand a bowler uses to touch their shoe to the lane before bowling. Right-handed bowlers often tap the shoe with their left “shoe hand.”

How sanitary are bowling shoes?

Bowling alleys sanitize rental shoes between uses by spraying them with disinfectant. However, bringing your own shoes is more sanitary. Many alleys now also offer disposable shoe covers.

What happens if you don’t wear bowling shoes?

Bowling without proper shoes can get you ejected from the alley. It also risks slipping, sticking, or damaging the lane surface. Injury could also occur.

Do you have to wear bowling shoes at Hollywood Bowl?

Yes, Hollywood Bowl requires patrons to wear bowling shoes on the lanes. They offer shoe rental services. No outside shoes are allowed.