This article is joint work, and part of a continuing research project, with Dr. John Newhook, Professor of Engineering at Dalhousie University.
We are grateful to Alison Poluck and Monica Graham for their demonstrations of closed technique. Most importantly, we would like to thank Fraser Reid, former Canadian university champion and now a coach at Wilfrid Laurier University – and one of the best brushers in the game – for his demonstrations of brushing in the open stance.
Brushing in the closed stance is usually preferred by most competitive players because usually an athlete is able to generate more vertical force through the brush, particularly during the “pull” portion of the stroke. The closed stance is preferred because, with the correct body position and footwork, the athlete’s chest is over the brush head throughout the stroke. While the pull portion of the stroke is always weaker than the push, an accomplished athlete can still generate vertical force numbers during the pull phase of the brushing stroke in the neighbourhood of 20%-25% of their body weight.
As coaches, we ordinarily teach brushing in the open stance to novices. For novice players, the open stance is considerably safer. In the open stance, the player faces the skip while brushing and the feet are both facing forward, making the open stance much easier to learn for beginning players.
Similar to hockey, where an athlete will have a preference to shoot left or right, in curling an athlete typically has a hand preference for their lower hand on the brush. However, it is usually impossible to find a competitive team where every player can always brush in the closed position. The ideal situation for a team is for both the lead and second to brush closed on opposite sides of a stone, and have the third switch sides, substituting for the player throwing, during the first four stones of each end. In doing so, the third would, likely, have to brush two stones in the open stance, and two stones in the closed stance, on the opposite side of the stone. So the open stance remains relevant even in this ideal situation, and consequently the open stance is the subject of this article.
Brushing footwork in the closed stance
In the closed stance (below, featuring Monica Graham of the University of Western Ontario), the athlete’s body position is perpendicular to the line of travel. The position is called the “closed stance” because the athlete’s chest is “closed” to the direction of travel down the sheet. If brushing left closed, the athlete’s lead leg is their left leg, and the lower hand on the brush is the left hand. Similarly, if brushing right closed, the athlete’s lead foot is their right, and the lower hand on the brush handle is the right hand. While the feet are at 90 degrees to the line of travel, the brush handle actually goes across the chest and so the brushing angle is approximately 75-80 degrees to the path of the stone.
Closed footwork involves “half-moons”, or semi-circles, performed equally with both feet so that the feet are behind the hips as much as possible during the entire bout. The diagram at right illustrates closed footwork movements when brushing right closed. In the diagram, the right foot has grey pads, whereas the left foot has red pads.
With closed footwork the key points are:
- the back is flat, or nearly so;
- feet are perpendicular to the line of travel;
- as the brush goes across the body, the brush head will be about 75-80 degrees to the line of travel of the curling stone;
- the athlete should stay on the balls of the feet as much as possible, avoiding a “plant” of either foot, which translates into a loss of force because the planted leg now supports a significant proportion of the weight of the athlete;
- ideally the brush should be held at a steep angle, underneath the chest of the athlete and so the athlete’s eyes are looking down on over the far edge of the curling stone, or even further.
In the closed stance it is important for the athlete to have a body position where the shoulders are not lower than the hips. This is because a bent-over position, which stretches the muscles in the lower back, is difficult to maintain. This is particularly true when the athlete twists their upper body during the bout, which occurs when the athlete looks towards the target (the skip). Consequently, to avoid lumbar strain, we wish to see a position where the athlete’s shoulders are level to the hips, or slightly elevated in relation to the hips.
The second key point is that in the closed stance we do not want to see the elbow of the upper hand on the brush visible above the back. A hand position that leads to an elevated elbow means that the athlete is largely unable to use their upper hand to support much, if any, of their body weight. A better hand position is at approximately halfway up the handle, so that the upper arm can support 10%-20% of the athlete’s body weight, easing the strain on the lower hand, arm, and shoulder.
There are three key advantages to the closed stance. In the closed stance, the desired footwork is designed to produce a body position where the athlete’s chest is over the brush head. During the pull portion of the stroke, this results in a higher mean sustained force because the athlete’s body weight is used to provide additional vertical force when the force produced by the athlete is the weakest: when pulling the brush back towards the feet. This advantage is usually lost, however, if the athlete uses a slider on their lead foot. Body weight on the slider results in a loss of vertical force through the handle. A second advantage of the closed stance is that it permits brushing more closely to the stone, making it easier to raise the ice temperature immediately in front of the stone. Finally, a third advantage of the closed stance over the open stance is that it permits a steeper brush angle, which again permits a higher amount of vertical force applied through the handle.
For these reasons, the closed stance is usually preferred for high performance play. Learning the required closed footwork can be accomplished off-ice using an off-ice closed footwork trainer (see photograph at left, featuring Alison Poluck in the left closed position) or when doing the two-stone footwork drill on-ice. A typical normalized mean force (mean force in kilograms over the entire bout, divided by the athlete’s body weight) for an accomplished female player would be 45% and higher. The highest normalized mean force I have measured for a female player brushing closed is 53%.
Brushing footwork in the open stance
While brushing in the closed stance is usually preferred, it is possible to attain excellent normalized force ratios of 40% and even higher when brushing in the open stance. The open stance is termed “open” because the player’s body is “open” to the target. Open footwork is quite different from closed footwork (see diagram at left) because in the open stance, the body is in a very different orientation. When brushing open, the player faces the skip, ideally at a 45 degree angle, and brushes across the face of the stone at a similar angle. It is more challenging to generate greater sustained force values – that is, during the pull portion of the stroke – when brushing open because the brush handle is held by the athlete at a more acute angle. This is because the athlete must brush far enough in front of the stone so as not to touch the stone during the pull portion of the stroke – remember that the stone is traveling forwards at the same time. As with brushing closed, a higher normalized mean force does require mastery of the open footwork, and some top-quality athleticism from the athlete.
The photograph above illustrates the body position when brushing right open, featuring Fraser Reid of Wilfrid Laurier University. Note that the open stance body position is a more upright position, with the shoulders higher than the hips. Moreover, the open stance footwork is completely different than the closed stance footwork. In the closed stance, the feet are perpendicular to the line of travel and the feel perform half-moon motions to keep the feet outside the hip line. In contrast, in the open stance the feet are aligned with the body, pointing at 45 degrees to the line of travel. During the bout, the feet stride back-and-forth in a motion similar, though not identical, to cross-country skiing (see diagram above, left).
In the open stance, we are striving for:
- an orientation of the body of 45 degrees to the line of travel;
- a somewhat higher grip on the brush handle than is used when brushing closed, to promote a stance where the athlete’s shoulders are higher – perhaps 6-8 inches higher – than their hips. One reason for this is so that the forward movement of the legs is easier. It is very difficult to move forward, holding a brush and sweeping, when bent over 90 degrees at the waist. It is also difficult, when in a bent-over position, to use more than the arms and upper body to apply downward force on the brush. As a consequence, in the open stance the lower hand may be as much as 12-14 inches above the brush head, and the upper hand may be in the upper third of the handle, so that the elbow of the upper arm may appear above the athlete’s back during each pull portion of the stroke.
- Staying on the balls of the feet as much as possible;
- Foot movements that are straight behind the athlete, and not to either side;
- Finally, the athlete should constantly “thrust” their hips forward and downward in the direction of the stone during the bout. A higher position of the shoulders helps to do this. The thrust of the hips forward and towards the stone helps to keep the hips low and the feet behind the hips, which accomplishes three things:
- Moving forward during the bout is easier;
- The athlete is better able to generate additional vertical force by using the weight of their upper body; and
- The athlete can use their legs to strengthen the push portion of the stroke.
With the footwork as shown, brushing in the open position with a slider is counter-productive, as the athlete cannot use the slide foot to propel themselves forward as the slider foot can provide no grip. This leads to very awkward footwork adjustments, almost always leading to a plant of the gripper foot underneath the athlete and a corresponding loss of vertical force.
The video below features Fraser brushing open from several vantage points.
High performance brushing in the open stance
As mentioned earlier, it is possible to achieve top-ranked performance when brushing open. At right is an example of a junior-aged male athlete brushing open, from the right side. In this trial, the athlete achieved a mean sustained force of 16.1kg, a mean maximum force of 64.4kg, and a mean force of 40.3kg while brushing at an average stroke rate of 4.2Hz. At 156 lbs, this athlete has achieved a normalized mean brushing force of 56.8%, rivaling the efficiency of the best players in the game brushing either open or closed. In the CurlSmart chart at right, note the periodic differences in sustained force – the height of the “valleys” at the bottom of the force curve – through the bout. These slight differences are due to which foot is forward (left or right) when striding forwards, with the right foot being slightly more underneath the body than the left. In the right open position, the left foot tends to be kept more to the rear of the athlete, behind the curling stone. The reverse would be true on the left side.
As always, a performance such as this requires dedicated practice, fitness, and impeccable technique. Nonetheless it illustrates that high-performance brushing results can be achieved in the open stance.