Al Henderson on the Open Stance

Note I apologize in advance for the length of this post. It seemed necessary. S

As I have mentioned I am preparing Al Henderson’s coaching magnum opus, Peak Performance Archery, for republication. I have read this book multiple times and I keep finding things to consider or reconsider. In this case, Coach Henderson seems to be backing me up on my stance of shooting with an open stance. (He is referring to Olympic Recurve form here.)

Here is what he had to say about that topic (from Chapter 8):

The open stance means the right foot of a right-handed shooter is advanced forward and the left foot is adjusted to fit that new stance. The distance forward can vary as the shooter desires. The body and hips are out of line with the target. This stance is used for several reasons. It assists in the elimination of string interference with both the body and the bow arm. I found that most archers think they feel more in command when using the open stance. I believe this is due to the fact that the tension created in the back muscles as the string is drawn to the anchor is better defined. This open stance can work only if the hips remain in the open position as the draw is executed.

A drastic open stance, or expanded open stance, is a good tool to use to show a student who is having trouble feeling and understanding which back muscles to use. Keep in mind the hips must remain always in the open stance position.

The motivation for using an open stance is: elimination of string clearance issues on the chest and on the bow arm, that archers “feel more in command” with such a stance, and it helps with feeling the right muscles in the back as they are being used.

Make no bones about it, using an open stance is to turn the torso so that it is open to the target. This moves the bow shoulder away from the string plane and does, indeed reduce the amount of contact of the loosed string with chest and bow arm.

The rotated torso requires a greater rotation back the other way to get into good full draw position, stressing the back muscles engaged in the final half of the draw and hold even more so and increases the feeling associated with those muscles being flexed.

I have no idea what “feel more in command” means. I guess it is that shots taken with this stance seem more of a kind, more alike, and that the archer feels more consistent.

Recurve Archer’s Triangle (left), Compound Archer’s Trapezoid (right)

All of these comments are based upon shooting with an open torso, created by an open stance, otherwise there is no effect on clearance, etc. This puts the bow arm out of line with the bow shoulders and so puts a kink in that leg of the archers triangle. (This is how compound archers shoot, in what I call the Archer’s Trapezoid.)

Shooting with an open stance actually makes getting in line more difficult, making the feeling of those back muscles more pronounced as they have to work harder. In perfect full draw position, the shoulders and bow arm are lined up and at a 10-12° closed to the line to the target (basically the arrow line). This is simply because the archer is standing to one side of the bow and the arrow has to point at the target to hit it. If a square stance is used, the feet are 10-12° open to the shoulder line. If a 20° open stance is used, now the feet at 30-32° open to the shoulder line, making it harder to get to that 10-12° closed full draw position, not easier. Because it is harder, you feel the muscle tension involved more.

I have given my analysis of this before. Archers prior to McKinney and Pace in the 1970s and 1980s, used square and even closed stances but McKinney and Pace used quite open stances. I think they did this because they were young, lithe, and quite flexible. I have seen McKinney in photos where his draw elbow is 2-3 inches past line. This makes finding a consistent full draw position quite difficult because it could be anywhere over a 2-3 inch range. By adopting a quite open stance (McKinney’s could open up to roughly 80°—toes almost pointing at the target—if he were fighting a strong wind) they reduced how far past line they could get and thus found a “stop” position for their draw that they could feel and this made them more consistent.

McKinney’s “Wind Stance” (from The Simple Art of Winning)

Since Pace and McKinney were winning everything in sight, McKinney winning the WC three out of four in a row, and Pace winning two Olympic Gold medals in a row (would have been three except for our Russian Olympics boycott in 1980), they were the de facto standard of excellence and everybody copied them. Interestingly, Korean archery officials came here to study our programs and our archers in the early 1980’s and adopted an open stance as theirs.

So, elite archers with a very particular problem (having too much range after full draw, solve it which then gets copied by large numbers of archers who do not have that problem.

If you have an archer who is struggling to achieve “good line” by all means move away from an open stance. I often push my OR students to a 20° closed stance to feel what being in line is all about. Then after a bit of that I move them to a 10-12° closed stance to shoot until they accustom themselves to shooting with good line. Then if they want to experiment with stances, I urge them to do so, without losing the feeling of being in line.

So, what should you do if your OR student has an arm or chest clearance problem? For arm clearance, the standard approach is to get them to rotate their bow arm until the elbow crease is vertical. For chest clearance, a more open stance is suggested (and I think ill-advised as a more closed stance requires the bow shoulder to be rotated back toward the target line, moving it out of the way). If none of the usual things work, then opening the stance and opening the torso may just work, but the amount of openness of the torso must be minimal. Why? Because the angle the bow arm makes with the chest is quite restricted, a 180° angle between the two is quite close to the end of your range of motion and so you can feel that as a stretch of the pectoral muscles. If you adopt an angle between bow arm and torso (torso open, bow arm closed) that is less than 180°, then you have the same problem there that McKinney and Pace had a full draw, a range of “acceptable” positions that is quite wide. This creates variation that shows up on target.

In addition, opening up the torso means that the bow arm is coming into the bow at a steeper angle, which means torquing the handle becomes more of a potential problem, complicating that part of your shot. Everything in archery involves tradeoffs (everything!).

Currently in the U.S., the National Training System (NTS) requires an open stance, the first definition of which had the hips in line with the shoulders and later had the hips midway between the angle the feet were making and the shoulders were making. The shoulders and the bow arm, aka “the barrel of the gun,” are lined up with no kink. Again, this is elite archery form, designed for young flexible athletes. Very, very few of our students even come close to this level of fitness, and so an open stance, which is an injection of greater difficulty into their shot, may not be warranted.

I advocate that coaches accept no authority, that they should think everything through for themselves. To that end I am working on a book on coaching based upon physical principles that explains why things work the way they do and what all of the tradeoffs are when changes are made. I hope this to be a resource for your work with your serious students.

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