Bowler's relentless quest for consistency

Few people get more out of life than athletes, a driven tribe who personify a set of virtues that we could all learn from. This week, The Sunday Times explores consistency with the 2018 PWBA Las Vegas Open winner and 2015 world champion bowler Shayna Ng, in the fourth of a six-part weekly series brought to you by DBS Bank

I could tell you Shayna Ng is as slim and tough as a piece of rebar, as precise in her explanations as a science teacher, used to get seriously miffed when she made a mistake and has a thing about lucky underwear in finals. But none of this is the reason why she's possibly like no athlete I have met.

When I inform athletes about the subject of my interview - let's say it's on desire or work ethic - they mostly shrug and say fine. Ng is not fine. When I tell her we're going to talk about consistency, she does something unusual.

She does research.

"I was, like, am I really that consistent? What am I going to say about consistency?" she later told me. "I don't think that I am particularly consistent.

"So then I started to prepare for today. I started reading a little bit about consistency and then I looked up some stuff. I thought there was this quote, it's very short, but it makes a lot of sense to me. It said consistency is not rocket science, it's all about commitment."

And so let's say that no rocket science is required to conclude that Ng is committed. Not because - and I've edited this list keeping space in mind - she won silver and gold at the 2010 Asian Games and two silvers at the World Women's Championships in 2011; was the QubicaAMF Bowling World Cup champion in 2012; won gold, silver and three bronzes at the 2015 Women's World Bowling Championships; grabbed a silver and a bronze at the 2017 World Bowling Championships; and was this year's PWBA Las Vegas Open champion.

No, she's committed because she prepared for this interview.

"Consistent" can seem like the tweed jacket of sporting attributes. Short on sexiness. It lacks the edge of "ruthless" and the glamour of "courage". And yet to be consistent is what athletes pursue, this ability to find skill and hold nerve every day, whatever the day.

If you've got the flu or an ingrown toenail that's killing you, well, dammit, you just adjust; if you're worried about funding and your dad's cancer, bad luck, you push on; if a new rival's risen and a change of equipment is testing your feel and you're having a no-feel, off day, then too bad, you abandon excuse and just find something.

  • Achievements

  • Asian Games, 2010

    • One gold, one silver

  • World Women's Championships, 2011

    • Two silvers

  • QubicaAMF Bowling World Cup, 2012

    • Champion

  • Women's World Bowling Championships, 2015

    • One gold, one silver, three bronzes

  • World Bowling Championships, 2017

    • One silver, one bronze

  • PWBA Las Vegas Open, 2018

    • Champion

Consistency is talent that knows no rest. It's Rafael Nadal redefining repetition on clay and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo never tiring of collecting goals. It's Tiger Woods saying of basketballers LeBron James and Michael Jordan and ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky: "What separates those people... it's just the duration. They're able to do it, not just for one year, not just for one game, not just for a little spell. They're able to do it for a number of years and accumulate highlights that we will always look at."

That's consistency at its most refined level and Ng is finding her version of it by staying unsatisfied. She's constructing a CV of growing heft, chasing consistency by refusing to accept she is consistent. The finest athletes live more by always asking more of themselves.

"You are looking at it from a very big picture," said Ng, "that's why I seem consistent to you. But within all these wins, there have been a lot of struggles. So if I break it down into smaller periods of time, it doesn't look consistent to me at all."

Of course, she has "ups and downs", for that's the essential humanity of sport, where perfection is chased even as you know it can't be found. But athletes find a value in everything and even the "lull" or low moment has a purpose.

First, as Ng explains, "if I had never bowled badly in my life, if I had never failed in my life, then when I win, I won't feel as great".

Second, it's an education. "People don't learn as much when you do well as when you don't do well. Because when you don't do well, you tend to reflect more. After a bad competition, I want to improve myself and the willingness to learn is the most."

But consistency isn't just about minimising lows, but ensuring even at your worst, you don't slip into anonymity. In short, can you dig deep to make your bad day a bearable day? Can you scrap to reduce the fluctuations in your graph?

As golfer Rory McIlroy once said: "Everyone's going to have bad weeks. It's inevitable. We're not machines or robots... (But) the thing that I'd like to do a little bit more of, is make my bad weeks a little better. So instead of a missed cut, at least grind it out and try and finish in the top 10 or whatever it is."

You are looking at it from a very big picture, that's why I seem consistent to you. But within all these wins, there have been a lot of struggles. So if I break it down into smaller periods of time, it doesn't look consistent to me at all.

SHAYNA NG

I quote McIlroy to Ng and later she asks me for a copy of the quote and it's because he echoes what she feels. A psychologist, she said, once told her that "not winning is actually fine. You don't have to keep winning all the time. But when you don't win, you have to maintain a certain level. Don't keep your benchmark so low that once you don't win, you're at rock bottom".

To interview Ng, whose calm never quite disguises her intensity, is to take a 48-minute erudite ride through the athlete's brain. Just listening to her speak on anger is a tutorial, but it also points to the fine, emotional balance athletes require to perform day after day.

"Anger (after a good shot that doesn't result in a strike) is good. I feel that you should be angry because if you're supposed to do something and you don't execute it right, I should feel angry with myself.

"But I normally would get over it quick. I'd feel angry for five seconds, just let it all out. Do not bring that with you to the next shot. If you were to bowl with no emotions, no anger, nothing, that's bad also. You need to be angry to have that kind of fighting spirit."

All of this, every little bit of self-control, every use of emotion, every act of discipline, every obedience to routine, helps bring consistency. On tour, Ng will keep friends at a distance, post less on social media, eat the same food if she can and shower precisely the same way (hair first). "Excellence is a habit" isn't just a glib poster, it's a lifestyle.

Consistency is also an attitude, it's a philosophy you wrap yourself in where giving your best can't be a negotiation, it has to be the rule. And for Ng, it is.

"When I go for every competition, I always have to give my all. It doesn't matter whether it's the SEA Games where it's just a few countries or Asian Games or World Championships. It doesn't mean that at the SEA Games, I don't have to bowl as well as during a World Championship. It's the same."

So she'll stand there, no rival before her, just motionless pins and an oiled runway down which her life will slide. Her challenger is herself and she has to drive herself, beat herself, be herself.

One good strike even you can do, but she has to do it for 10 hours of a competition day and, by the end, her fingers are cut, the skin split, and they're hurting "like sh**", but she can't stop. Because she knows you can't ever find consistency, you can only chase it every single day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 10, 2018, with the headline 'Bowler's relentless quest for consistency '. Print Edition | Subscribe