Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Steve Barker's 23 Questions with Mark Johnstone

23 Questions with Mark Johnstone

Wow, what a busy and exciting time the last few weeks have been across the country. The schedule has been packed with Youth Challenge Provincials and 4-Steps to Stardom Zone finals for our youth bowlers, and Open Zone/Provincial Qualifiers, cash events and Masters Tournaments across the land for the adults. Thankfully in this age of instant information, results of these events can be found easily through Twitter, Facebook, local and Provincial websites or other great resources such as Jeff’s blog site here, or on Karie Kreutz’s

Great scores and stories were reported from all over the country, but a couple of individuals from the Edmonton Open qualifier really stand out. For the ladies, Annette Campbell threw 2921 for her last 10 (a local record!) to lead the women for the 20 game block.
On the men’s side, Mark Johnstone’s remarkable performance leads us into today’s “23 Questions” feature. Sitting in 6th place after the first 10, Mark turned in an incredible last 3 games of 355, 398 and 405 (that’s 1158!) to finish with 3106 for his final 10 to become top qualifier.

For “Johnny”, throwing monster scores is certainly no fluke. In December of 2006 he rattled off an astounding 5 game score of 1767, which featured one of his two career perfect games, and 23 strikes in a row! For this feat, he was named Global TV’s Elite Athlete of the Week and the feature and interview are available on YouTube (Search “Mark J Bowling Interview”).

In the decade since Mark’s rookie year at the Open Nationals in 2003 in Surrey, where his Alberta team won Men’s team Gold (defeating my Southern Ontario team in the final), “Johnny” has set the National standard for excellence in our game! His list of accomplishments includes winning the 2011 TPC at Callingwood, 2009 TSN Championship and being the 2011 Alberta Masters Singles Champion.

Just 30 years old, and already a veteran of numerous Canadian Championship appearances, Mark has won 5 combined National Men’s team Gold Medals between the Open and Masters!
When Jeff Young and I originally discussed the idea of “23 Questions”, Mark was one of the people on our “short list” of potential interviewees.
Here is my discussion with one of the absolute best players in all the land:
When did your bowling career start?

I believe I started at about 12, so 18-19 years ago.
To gauge an idea of your progress, what was your average in your First year of Senior?

It was probably around 200.
What was your average in your LAST year of Senior?

In my last year of Senior, it was 248.
Was anyone instrumental in your YBC development?

My coach was Robert Gallagher from Wetaskiwin where I grew up until I was 21, as well as Geno Ziebarth.
What do you use for a target?

I look at the pins on my first ball. It’s all about feel for me. I use the arrows for my spares and for cleaning up wood.

As a coach, I sometimes have trouble working with bowlers who bowl by feel like you do. For those who use arrows, a tiny change in target or starting position can be an easy fix, but since you don’t use a specific fixed target, how do YOU adjust if you are punching a lot of Headpins or if you are “just” missing?

Sometimes when I am punching HP’s, it’s because I’m not getting the ball out on the lane enough or I am getting too low. I know I am not throwing a great ball so there is no sense in changing anything.
There are also those moments when it feels great and I am still punching. I am sure we can all attest to that. Sometimes I move up, back, left or right depending on the lane conditions. I also pay attention to the other bowlers who are getting strikes and try a similar line. Or maybe just a ball change to one that has more or less movement. That’s when understanding the conditions in warm-up pays off. Have a couple different shots in your back pocket for times like these.

Do you aim for a specific pocket or just try to hit the headpin?

When I am throwing well, left or right pocket works. Sometimes if hitting the middle at a high percentage gives me Headpin problems, I will try to hit a specific pocket.
Have you noticed a major difference in lane or pin-fall conditions from west-to-east or from Province-to-Province?

I couldn’t say that one province is better than the next in pin-fall. In my mind, the higher scoring centres do a better job on maintenance and consistency in conditions.
What is your favourite lane condition set-up and what are some of the differences?

I like freefall, even though I’ve only bowled on it a few times. (Note: Interviewer now feeling really old!)
I prefer wood lanes. I find the natural break of the ball is better. Not too oily/wet so the ball can break. I think this makes for better pin action.
Synthetic lanes tend to slide a bit. The good thing about synthetic lanes is that the approaches are consistent and smooth.
I think that the new pin bases are also great for this game, as it seems to me scores are better across the board.
What are some of your favourite bowling centres?

Callingwood Lanes is a place that I bowl very well at. I also enjoy Dakota Lanes in Winnipeg, Heritage Lanes in Red Deer, Scottsdale Lanes in B.C. and Golden Mile in Regina.
How many league games do you play every week?

I play 8 games per week. 5 in a match play league on Wednesday and 3 in a fun league on Thursday.

A fun league?

Yeah, I need a break from the serious parts of the game.
Do you practice regularly?

I don’t practice as much as I used to. I used to practice at least once more per week and I tried to bowl a lot of scratch and handicap tourneys in the area.
I tend to use a lot of the warm-up time before league/tournaments to experiment with things. If I need some extra practice, I will go in and throw some balls.
Do you practice to prepare for major tournaments? (If so, what do you work on?)

If I make Nationals, I will practice at least once a week prior to the tournament, because league is done by that time. You need to stay sharp mentally and physically.
Just recently for the Open, I went in and did some extra practice, mainly because I had been punching a lot in previous weeks. I was experimenting with an outside line to reduce the Headpins. I have a back-up, so I was focusing on getting the ball out to the left and letting it come back and maybe get a few thin strikes.

At what age, did your career really take off?

I would say in 2007 when I was 25 years old. I started having success in Open, Masters, cash tournaments and TSN. It’s taken off a bit more the last couple years.

Who was instrumental in your adult bowling development?

I would have to say that the one person who has helped me get to the next level other than Robert and Geno, would be Lynn Howell. Even though we have had our share of differences,  he has helped me with my bowing especially and with life in general.
I also want to mention the support I’ve gotten from my girlfriend, Jen Baldwin. Over the last 3 years she has been there every step of the way. She keeps me on the straight and narrow, I guess. Also, her Dad Gil Baldwin has been flying all over Canada to cheer us on!
In a hotbed such as Edmonton, was there an “awe factor” competing against, or teaming with, legendary players such as Bruce Morter, Lynn Howell, etc, when you were younger?

I really didn’t know Bruce or Lynn too much until I moved to Edmonton in 2002. Geno used to talk about them quite a bit. It was more a thrill for me watching Mark Jackson and Geno as they bowled in Wetaskiwin where I grew up.
They have so many stories and experiences, that you could listen to them for hours. I feel honoured to have had a chance to bowl and “medal” with so many greats; Geno Ziebarth, Lynn Howell, Bruce Morter, Mark Jackson, Tom Stevenson, etc. There’s just too many to mention!
I have learned a great deal of things by watching and listening to all these guys, on and off the lanes.
As mentioned above in your profile, you have the ability to throw a number of monster games in a row. How do you stay in the moment and remain calm when throwing a number of huge games consecutively?

I think the main thing is to try not to get too worked up emotionally and caught up in the moment. I would take one ball at a time. The only thing that I have to be concerned about is keeping my ROUTINE and throwing a strike. Taking a deep breath before my approach helps keep me calm.
When you are throwing well, you don’t have to think! It just comes naturally. If only it would be like that all the time.
I have noticed at National Tournaments and cash events that people tend to lose energy and become tired due to the high level of intensity. It’s pretty hard to be fired up all the time for 3 or 4 days! You need to pick your spots.
Are you always aware of your own scores (individual game or totals) or do you try not to look at them? 

This is a tough one, as each situation could be different. When it comes to the Open and team totals, I need to know the scores as I usually play “anchor”. I would rather know if I need a 28 count or a strike or spare.
When it comes to cash tournaments/Open trials/Masters, I usually set a goal for myself so I know where I am in my head and where I need to be. Making cuts and throwing a “keeper” score for Masters are my goals, not the place I finish. Don’t get me wrong though, I always want to win!!

In a match or tournament, do you watch your opponents and/or their scores?

In match play, I tend to do better when I am not looking at my scores or my opponent’s score. I know in my head that all I can control is what I can do on the lanes and that is to throw a strike. When it’s getting close, again I need to know what I need.
I believe that a bowler should always be aware of his/her scores. I think it helps the next time you are in the same situation. (What did I do last time? What can I do differently next time?)
Watching other bowlers in situations has always helped my game. I say to myself, “What is that guy doing to be successful? What type of ball is he throwing? What line is working? Does he throw hard or slow? How does he handle himself in certain situations?”
Okay, with perfect games, enormous totals, National Championships and tournament wins to choose from, do any of your accomplishments stand out above the rest?

Well that is a tough question. I would have to say that Masters Nationals Gold in Saskatoon 2009 sticks out in my mind. I had a chance to play with a team from my childhood as all 5 of us (Geno Ziebarth, Gary Baird, Karie Kreutz, Victor Fobert and Coach Lynn Howell) were from the Central Zone in Alberta.
Although it wasn’t televised, Gold at the 2009 TSN was special as it was my first major singles win.
23 strikes in a row, with 1511 for 4 and 1767 for 5 is a stats accomplishment that I am proud of.
All the friends I have made over the years from this sport that I love!
You’ve accomplished more than the majority of players out there would even dream of, but what’s still left on your bowling “bucket list”?

Open and Masters National Singles titles! I was 2nd in Open singles in 2010 and would like some redemption!
I just won my first cash tourney and would like to win a few more of those. I always tell myself anyone can win one, but not everyone can win two or more.
And finally, what piece of advice would you give to an aspiring bowler who wants to improve their game?

Don’t be afraid to ASK FOR HELP!! You get to a point in your career where the help no longer comes to you! You have to seek it out.
Be open to new things and be open to feedback.
The #1 thing that can help you is to establish your muscle memory. In order to do that you need to Practice, Practice, and Practice!! The more games the better. I used to practice corner pins, then chop- offs, then hitting the middle, hundreds of balls over and over. Bowling is about repetition!
Just simply BOWL!

Thanks Mark! We appreciate your time and good luck to you and everyone competing at the upcoming Coca Cola Classic in Regina!

Thanks, and can I add one more thing?
I just wanted to say thanks to those out there who are trying to better the game. The “Jeff Young Blog”, 5PinUniverse, Club Tour in Ontario, Western Canadian Cash tour, we as bowlers are the only ones who can build this game and I believe we are taking steps in the right direction.


  1. Another great read and a welcome return to the best part of this blog! Hopefully more 23 questions segments are planned for the near future.

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