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Employee with unusual hobby: Sandra Hirsch is successful skittle coach

Our colleagues in the KION Group are an interesting bunch of people. Some of them have unusual hobbies or sporting successes, and even inspire people outside of work too. Sandra Hirsch is responsible for International Events & Merchandising at Linde Material Handling. In her free time, she coaches young women working towards the World Champion title – in skittles. Kicking off our series on interesting characters at the KION Group.


The arm swings back. Run-up. The ball rolls, every pin falls down. But nobody cheers when everything is cleared in the training hall. Instead, the prevailing atmosphere is one of concentration. “Skittles is a sport of concentration,” says Sandra Hirsch, “and you can only muster that up if you are in good shape.” Hirsch coaches the German women’s national team. She was an active bowler in her youth, and was the U18 world champion. Today she coaches young women for the world championship. “We’re a global association,” she explains. Together with variants like bowling, it is enjoyed by some 10 million active players worldwide. Hirsch emphasizes that because skittles is not officially a sport, it gets even less TV exposure than the fringe sports that get attention at the Olympics at least every four years.

Why skittles is not an Olympic sport?

There’s no good reason why a concentration sport like archery is part of the Olympics, or a ball sport like curling, but skittles isn’t. Except for the simple fact that sometimes coincidences decide on such matters. Bowling was a demonstration sport at the Seoul Games in 1988 and was shortlisted in 2020 along with sports like wushu and squash, but it was eliminated.

Body awareness, tension, concentration

“Pub romanticism” is how Hirsch describes skittles’ image, particularly in Germany. Something that takes place in pub basements or is a one-off event for children’s birthday parties. That has about as much to do with the high-performance sport that she practices as a backyard game of catch does with the World Series. The clichés in how other people view the sport are like water off a duck’s back to Hirsch; she seems to find it amusing how easily a sport can be misunderstood. She much prefers to talk about the fascination she felt with skittles as a kid: “You always want the perfect throw,” she says. To achieve this, you need coordination, body awareness, tension, concentration – lots of muscles have to work together perfectly: “It challenges muscle groups that you wouldn’t use at all otherwise.” Ideally, it will end up with the perfect choreography of run-up, arm swing and falling skittles.

Hirsch got into skittles through her parents: her mother was also on the national team. The region around Aschaffenburg, where Hirsch grew up, is a traditional stronghold for skittles. When she was still at school she played at club level, three times a week plus strength and endurance training. “When the successes come, you like to keep at it,” she says. “You can tell it’s worth all the work.” Hirsch’s work certainly was worth it: in 1998 she won at the U18 World Championships both individually and in a team. Eventually, she discovered a talent for coaching other female athletes. Hirsch completed her coach training and became the national coach – and has stayed there for ten years. In that time, she has coached her team to the world title twice, in 2017 and 2021.

Sandra Hirsch, working at Linde Material Handling, is a successful coach of the women team in skittles.

Delivering the best possible performance right when it matters

The coach’s challenge is to enable the athletes in the national team to make that perfect throw. Over and over again. In a competition, each player will make 120 throws back to back within the space of about an hour, trying to reproduce the exact same sequence 120 times. There is no magic formula for success, because each person’s muscles interact differently: “Everyone has a different feeling in their body, a different movement pattern,” explains Hirsch. What is more, the athletes have to learn to read the alley. Certain factors, such as the material of the track or the temperature of the hall, affect the way a ball rolls. Moreover, it’s about putting together the right team with different characters who are in top form on the day. In that regard, Hirsch repeatedly mentions “Day X”, that moment at which athletes deliver their best possible performance right when it matters. Again, the motto resounds: Skittles is concentration.

Hirsch says that the “uncanny will to keep at it and improve” has also shaped her professional life. She has noticed that sport has helped her to be able to focus and stay calm even when deadlines are approaching. Hirsch is responsible for projects in the International Events and Marketing department at Linde Material Handling. Together with her colleagues, she organizes the events where customers can get an idea of the material flow solutions that Linde’s forklift trucks have to offer. As these are often custom-made for individual customers, the exchange between experts and buyers is all the more important, and in the times of the pandemic, this task is subject to difficult conditions: “Touch and feel, that can’t be transferred one-to-one digitally.” She has been working for the KION brand Linde for 22 years; she got into product marketing when she was 19, and she studied marketing a few years later. She was involved in skittles at the same time, and today she has two children of kindergarten age. Hirsch says that skittles has taught her to be “very resilient”.

Sandra Hirsch during a training session with the German Skittle Team.

Between physique, concentration and team play

Her children are still too young to start playing skittles themselves: musculature and the skeleton are only meaningfully defined for specific strength movements from the age of eight to nine. At the same time, Hirsch promotes the idea of introducing children to skittles with dedication and conviction. “You learn so much,” she emphasizes. And not only in terms of physique and concentration – team spirit is also crucial. Hirsch is concerned about the fact that children are becoming less and less likely to join sports clubs these days. “We used to be active in two or three clubs at a time,” she says. “I see a huge gap there now.” Particularly during a time at which so many colleagues have complained about back pain in their home offices, it is not only crucial to have a balance, but also to be familiar with sports from a young age.

But winning over children and young people long term is not that easy. “We lag behind the trendy sports,” Hirsch admits frankly – sports like bowling, for example. It’s not the extra pin on the track, the larger ball, or the three finger holes giving a more comfortable grip that made this variant a competitor: “Bowling became trendy because the bowling alleys had a different idea from the outset,” says Hirsch. With restaurants, music and flashing screens: “Back when we were teenagers in the 90s, we liked going bowling too.” As an association, of course we think about how skittles can become even more appealing, says Hirsch. The national coach is very interested in getting young people excited about the sport. In any case, it shouldn’t fail because of “flashing screens” – more and more skittle alleys and clubs are also making a conscious effort to modernize their look, she affirms. And the atmosphere at international competitions is no less electric than at similar sporting events – with noisy, cheering spectators and sold-out venues.

“Touch and feel” is just as important at intralogistics events like trade fairs as it is for getting people excited about a sport. If you want to feel the fascination of skittles, you have to pick up the ball.

Sandra Hirsch, Event Management at Linde Material Handling

Perfection doesn’t just happen

Nevertheless, Hirsch recognizes when skittle clubs doing excellent youth work gradually lose their players to other sports – or because they turn their backs on high-performance sports entirely: “But we keep at it, we fight for our sport.” Hirsch is always happy to invite people to try it out. Here, too, she sees a connection between her professional and sporting experience: “Touch and feel” is just as important at intralogistics events like trade fairs as it is for getting people excited about a sport. If you want to feel the fascination of skittles, you have to pick up the ball.

Incidentally, Hirsch does less of that herself nowadays, but that has more to do with the fact that she still lays claim to the “perfect throw”. That requires a “proper warm-up program,” as she describes it, and even that takes longer than it used to. “We’re talking about a swing motion that is stopped abruptly, and the legs and knees have to absorb all the weight.” Hence also the intensive strength and endurance training that she did in her youth. “If I were to do it for fun today, I’d tear a muscle in no time.” Nevertheless, she can still be found at skittle alleys much of the time as a trainer passing on her valuesto the next generation: concentration – and striving for perfection.

What's the difference between Skittles and Bowling?

As a sport, skittles has had competition for some time from the sport of bowling. Bowling is a variation on skittles that originated in the United States in the 19th century and involves throwing a ball at ten pins rather than the nine pins used in Hirsch’s discipline. Internationally, both variants are part of the same umbrella organization, and their proximity in this regard is reflected in language: they are also known as “nine-pin bowling” and “ten-pin bowling”. As a high-performance sport, bowling is more prevalent in America, Scandinavia and Asia, while skittles has its strongholds in Central and Southeastern Europe. In fact, skittles has existed in Germany since the Middle Ages. The German Skittles Federation was founded in 1885, the rules were standardized, and a distinction was drawn between the sport and the game.