On-ice training for brushing footwork

This past June I wrote an article that described the use of a footwork trainer for brushing in the closed position. The trainer permits competitive athletes to train off-ice, on their own time, and I have been extremely pleased with the results with Team McKenzie over the past three months. Alison Poluck and Jessica Filipcic, who appear in that video, have done extremely well in learning closed position brushing footwork and that has instantly translated into better on-ice performance at the beginning of this season.

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In this second article, I’d like to describe on-ice training for closed brushing footwork, assisted by Alison Poluck from Team Emma McKenzie and Kirsten Marshall, a varsity athlete at Wilfrid Laurier University and the alternate for Team Julie Tippin on the World Curling Tour. Kirsten is transitioning from skipping her U21 rink to playing the lead position on Laurier’s varsity team. As you might expect, Kirsten’s skill development as a lead is a work-in-progress, making her an ideal candidate to illustrate training techniques. Alison, on the other hand, is an experienced U18 front-end player but this season is undertaking the switch from brushing right open to left closed. Both of these young women are a pleasure to work with – as a coach it is delightful to work with athletes who are so determined to improve their skills.

In writing this article I am also indebted to three professionals for their ideas and commentary: Dr. John Newhook, Professor of Civil Engineering at Dalhousie University; Dr. Michel Ladouceur, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie’s School of Health and Human Performance; and Estelle Haines, BMRPT, a practicing physiotherapist in Ste. Anne, Manitoba.

Two stone on-ice footwork drill

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The dryland footwork trainer serves the identical purpose as this on-ice drill, which utilizes two stones to assist the athlete in moving down the sheet in the closed position, so that the athlete can concentrate on the footwork alone with (1) being undistracted by the effort of brushing and (2) both arms stabilized so that the drill can be done safely. In the closed position the footwork consists of “half-moons” with the feet, so that the feet are behind the hips to maximize brushing force by using the athlete’s body weight over the brush head to the greatest extent possible.

As an aside, I would be delighted to acknowledge credit for the invention of this drill. This two-stone drill has been in use for several years across Canada but I am unaware of its originator. I would invite readers with knowledge of its invention to comment on this article using the form below.

The photograph at right illustrates the desired body position for brushing left closed: the body is perpendicular to the line of travel, the shoulders are square and level, and the arms are slightly bent to reduce the strain on the shoulder.

Younger, or physically smaller, athletes may have trouble with this drill if they attempt to get the stones moving from a standing start while in the closed brushing position. If that’s the case, it’s perfectly fine for the athlete to get the stones moving at “draw weight” speed while they are still relatively upright, and then move into the closed brushing position once the stones have been set in motion. Ideally, one would practice this drill at different speeds; once mastery with draw weight has been achieved, the athlete can increase the tempo to practice the footwork required for hit-weight shots.

Coaching effective brushing

In coaching effective brushing, there are a number of points to keep in mind. Here are a few.

Technique matters

At camp, I have witnessed a 15-year-old female athlete out-brush a junior-aged male who is 6-foot-2 (1.88m) and outweighs the female athlete by a full 60 pounds (over 27 kilograms). By out-brush I mean the female athlete eclipsed the male in both brushing efficiency (normalized mean force) and in absolute mean force. How? Better technique. Often, male athletes can get away with poorer technique simply because of their (typically) greater size and strength, although many players that use a slider while sweeping fail to realize how much a slider can reduce the amount of force they can deliver through the brush. Conversely, female athletes usually don’t have the size and strength advantage of male players, and so their technique must be first-rate to generate as much force, and therefore heat, as possible.

With the two-stone drill, an important point is to ensure that the drill is done with minimal “bouncing” as the athlete proceeds down the sheet. The athlete should strive for smooth, fluid motion through both their footwork and their upper body movement. The reason for this is that “bouncing”, particularly in the hips, means that pressure on the brush head will be lost every other step, dramatically decreasing mean brushing force. A second coaching point is to ensure that the athlete’s hips are level with, or lower than, the athlete’s shoulders. The reason for this is to reduce fatigue and strain on the athlete’s lower back:

… it is easier on the back if you teach the athletes the “flat back” position to decrease the bend in the low back. The low back (lumbar spine) is most often aggravated with too much bending coupled with rotation. Keeping the back flat and out of the bent (flexed) position will help protect their lumbar discs and will be easier on their back muscles. Muscles are weakest in a stretched position… For example, if you do a biceps curl with enough weight, you will find it feeling much lighter when your biceps are in their shortest range, and much more difficult to lower as your biceps lengthen towards full elbow extension (straightening). – Estelle Haines, BMRPT

Fitness matters

Brushing in the closed position makes many physical demands on the athlete. The larger upper body muscles (triceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, pectorals) are used to move the brush head and greatly help support the weight of the upper body, along with the athlete’s core. The two-stone drill, however, does not specifically target the muscles that you would normally be using for sweeping; the drill is designed to practice the required footwork. However, holding onto a stone handle with each hand protects an athlete’s shoulders by allowing them the ability to transfer their weight from arm to arm as required.

To move the athlete down the sheet during the drill requires significant effort from virtually all of the leg muscles: the extensors, flexors, abductors and adductors, internal and external rotators of the hip, as well as the the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles. Lack of fitness on the part of the athlete will compromise (a) the brushing position, (b) the efficiency of the player during a game or tournament, (c) the athlete’s stamina, or possibly all three. However, while strength training can assist with specific muscle groups, the best way to improve one’s fitness in brushing is to practice the drill (or use the dryland footwork trainer if off-ice):

…the best way to exercise the muscles in the legs is precisely as you are doing…mimicking the actual movements that are needed. Open kinetic chain exercises are good at training and isolating a certain muscle group but it takes much longer to train muscles individually when so many are needed for the specific task at hand. Going to the gym, for example, and working all leg groups can definitely help strength when it comes to sport; but sport-specific movements in a closed kinetic chain exercise…which is what the legs need to do in sweeping…will also help coordination of all the movements. With practice, the muscle will develop “memory” of the correct movement that is needed…much like practicing a piano piece until your fingers know where to go automatically. – Estelle Haines, BMRPT

Kirsten-brushing

The athlete matters

In the delivery, the precise positioning of the hack foot, the slide foot, and the stone differ depending on the physical characteristics of the athlete; athletes with broad shoulders will typically have the stone in a different position than those with narrow shoulders. So it is in brushing. Through observation, coaches may suggest fine adjustments to footwork and hand positions to suit the individual athlete. Video analysis is essential.

Readers will notice that in the photograph at the top of this article Kirsten’s body position has her hips elevated, and higher than her shoulders (illustrated with the red line). There are two reasons for this. One, Kirsten needs to work on bending her knees to a greater extent than she already is, which will lower her hips and level her back. The second issue, however, is a more difficult problem to solve – this second issue is due to Kirsten’s height. Kirsten is over 178cm in height with her shoes, and consequently the handles of the stones are slightly too low for her. This exacerbates her lower shoulder position compared to her hips. In other words, using two stones alone may not necessarily be appropriate as a drill for taller athletes.

In the photograph at right, Kirsten’s brushing technique and body position (left closed) is considerably improved over her brushing position last season: her back is relatively flat, brush head is underneath her chest, and her left foot is extended behind her hips. Moreover, the broom angle is relatively steep, which allows Kirsten to utilize as much of her body weight as possible to produce additional vertical force through the brush head. This has translated into a considerable improvement in Kirsten’s mean brushing force, as measured by one of John Newhook’s CurlSmart broom prototypes. Improvements, however, are still possible. One potential improvement is with Kirsten’s ability to keep both feet behind her hips for slightly longer periods with each forward motion. A second improvement is for her to stay more on the balls of her feet through each footwork movement.

The video below illustrates Kirsten brushing in both normal and slow motion, along with Alison and Kirsten utilizing two different footwork drills. In the video, note the difference in the height of Kirsten’s lower hand on the brush when brushing, and the height of her left hand when using the two-stone drill.

Variation: Using a single stone

The astute reader will note that the weight distribution between the hands is 50-50 when using the two-stone drill, or when using the dryland trainer. Any curler will tell you that the weight distribution between the hands while brushing is not 50-50. An 85-15 ratio is plausible (with 85% being the lower hand), but other ratios are possible. To a significant extent, the variance in ratios is due to the distance an individual places between their hands while sweeping. Michel Ladouceur at Dalhousie’s School of Health and Human Performance is unaware of studies specific to curling that identify precisely what that ratio is, and hopes to study those measurements sometime this year.

One-stone-drill

In an attempt to provide a more realistic experience with an on-ice drill, some teams have started using a single stone footwork drill, utilizing a single hand on the stone while the other hand is unstabilized. The photograph at right, and the video above, show Kirsten practicing this particular drill. In the one-stone drill the weight distribution of the hands is 100-0, arguably an improvement over the 50-50 distribution with the two stone drill but still different from the 85-15 ratio that one would have when brushing. However, there are other important, and negative, considerations with the one-stone drill that cannot be overlooked. These include:

  • The shoulders and upper body have twisted towards the forward arm holding the stone, a natural consequence of having an unstabilized free right hand. Hence the upper body position is no longer mirroring the position of the shoulders when actually brushing.
  • The athlete is in a somewhat precarious position with their upper body supported by only a single arm; there is significant risk of a rotator cuff injury to the athlete.

Estelle Haines, BMRPT explains:

With the athlete trying to bring their arm towards the center of the body to balance their weight on it, the torso twists in the opposite direction. At times this twist also seems exaggerated because they are also having to physically pull the weight of the stone along the ice, which they would not, of course, be doing with their broom. The mechanics of the arm in this position are quite different from using the arm to sweep (repetitive flexion and extension of the shoulder) and, instead, using it to drag the stone along the ice (more shoulder horizontal abduction). Also important to note is that, in sweeping, the opposite shoulder, via the broom, helps add stability to the shoulder of the lower arm. There is no such help for the weight-bearing shoulder in the one-stone exercise.

By going to the one-stone method, in a closed kinetic chain exercise, you are forcing the smaller muscles that comprise the rotator cuff to stabilize the athlete’s shoulder as they transfer their entire body weight onto it. On a slippery surface, with the legs moving, you are asking for trouble. The athlete can do very little to vary the weight on their arm. You are then increasing the instability by asking them to move their legs. As the rotator cuff tires, there is a greater chance that the athlete doing this drill will allow the rock to slide out from under their center of gravity slightly and suddenly no longer be able to reposition it under themselves. That sudden movement, allowing the stone to slip away from them, may result in either a rotator cuff injury or potentially a dislocated shoulder.

For the reasons above, practicing one’s footwork on the ice with a single stone is not recommended.

Future work

Michel Ladouceur, John Newhook, and myself continue to develop our knowledge of brushing to both discover better ways of brushing and better ways to coach this important aspect of the game. Work on an “on-ice footwork trainer” is in the design stages and I hope to be able to describe that apparatus in a subsequent article later this year.

2 Comments

  • Will the drill/ technique differ for the open position and how?

    Thorbjørn 23.10.2016
    • Hi Thorbjørn – the short answer is yes. Although the upper body position is similar (shoulders level, flat back), brushing in the open position requires completely different footwork, and will be the subject of a another article.

      Glenn Paulley 23.10.2016

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