Brushing…Really?

Really?  Another article on brushing?  Yes.  Let’s face it, this is the biggest thing to hit the sport of curling since…well, I don’t know since the time we ditched corn brooms for brushes?  It’s a turbulent time for the sport and how the sport grows or not, hinges a lot on what will happen this summer as the governing bodies in curling decide how they’re going to handle the situation.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, (really?) here is the situation in a nutshell.

First, materials and broom constructions have been discovered that have a much larger impact on the ice surface than the stuff we’ve been using up to this point.  Waterproof coated fabrics are so abrasive that they have an incredibly significant impact on the ice surface and therefore the running path of the stone.  That’s one.  Two, are stiffening constructs within the brush head itself are having another huge impact on how much force can be applied to the head during brushing.  I’ve seen homemade brush heads that were literally plywood with fabric over them.

These two modifications in brush head construction have been banned temporarily by Curling Canada because they can unduly affect the path of the stone meaning that you can almost literally steer a stone down the ice with appropriate brushing.

The second half of the brushing conundrum is what is now being called “directional brushing”.  Directional brushing is much like you would think it is.  Instead of brushing across the face of the stone as we have all been taught, brushers sweep slightly off the slide path of the stone across half the stone with the intention of keeping it straight or making it curl.  Yes, you read that correctly, with this technique brushers can make a stone curl more.  Hair brushes are particularly effective at making this happen and so, these too have been banned by the governing bodies.  This style of brushing requires only a single brusher for a number of reasons.  The effectiveness of this brushing style relies naturally on the abilities and strength of the sweeper but also to the state of the brush head itself.  A dirty brush head is much less effective than a new clean one and this effect is so pronounced that in the recent World Championships teams were limited to the number of new brush heads they were allowed to use for the duration of the tournament.

This is not going to be a lesson in directional brushing, rather it is going to serve as a gut check and commentary.  Videos have been posted showing the effect of directional brushing and of the various styles of brush head.  They’re shocking.  It is not a stretch to say that potentially 90% of the shot is now in the hands of the brushers rather than the thrower depending on the brushes being used.

So, first question, should this be allowed?  My opinion is that there needs to be a balance.  I think everyone wants control of shots to be primarily in the hands of the throwers rather than the brushers.  The key is to find the combination of equipment and technique that will ensure this.  The next question is, what ration should there be between control by the throwers and control by the brushers?  I’m thinking somewhere above 70% should be in the control of the throwers.  To clarify, in my opinion only about 30% of the shot should be up to the brushers.  To add to this, I think that this is higher than it was before the broom scandal erupted.

Next question, should you start doing it?  Well, never forget that to be an effective brusher, you have to have good technique.  Directional brushing doesn’t let you off the hook on that one.  You still must be able to generate force and friction with your brush head before you can expect anything to happen.  If you can’t do that, then it really doesn’t much matter what you do.  Directional brushing is not only more complicated but also more difficult than traditional brushing.  In order to be effective you have to stand over the rock and brush almost in the path.  It is much easier to burn stones this way and the footwork is arguably more difficult  as well particularly when you get into a busy house!  It’s important to realize that this is not the magic bullet that will get you out of having to actually brush hard to have an impact.

In many ways, this situation is actually encouraging and let’s face it, not unique to curling.  Golf has gone through many versions of this same debate and continues to do so.  Both golf balls and clubs have restrictions around them to manage the parameters of the game and that evolution of the sport continues even today.  Golf is currently struggling with what to do about the use of the long putter. The fact that we are having discussions about the effect and development of equipment in curling is just one more step towards the bigger things for curling.  We are an Olympic sport and therefore we need to manage how this game evolves.  Now, am I happy that we have to go through all this?  Actually, I kind of am.  The people who came up with the various techniques and equipment modifications are pushing the envelope of performance. Sure, they’re doing it in terms of equipment rather than say, delivery technique but that’s how the sport grows.  We push towards new innovations and see what we like and what we don’t.  We manage how the game is played.  If we want something we’ve never had before in the sport then we must do things we’ve never done before.  These are exciting times for our sport and we should view these latest developments as opportunities to grow, rather than a threat.

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