You Mean It Might Be Good For You !?

tellner

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Fencers have always had a reputation as cerebral fighters. Cyrano composed poetry while taking his opponents apart. It's traditionally associated with chess. And so on.

It looks like at least a little of that reputation is deserved. According to the article there really does seem to be a connection between training in swordsmanship and better mathematical performance.

Fencing sharpens mathematics skills

The numbers are in and they add up: The sport enhances analytical and reasoning abilities.

Ernest Scheyder Columbia News Service

April 19, 2007

Mitch Slep took up fencing at the age of 14 because he wanted to improve his coordination and loved the grandeur of the sport. Aside from the aesthetics, there was an aspect of problem solving that appealed to him as he tried to psyche out his opponent's next move.

"It's a really high level of frustration and concentration," says Slep, now 26. "I just felt I was hyper-aware of my opponent's movement."

Little did he know that wielding a sword would enhance his mathematical prowess. What Slep found while serving on his high-school and college teams was that the abstract and analytical aspects of fencing heightened his skill with all things numeric.

"There's a lot of intriguing visualization of space that's involved," says Slep, who majored in math during college and is now a Microsoft software engineer in Seattle. "I haven't picked up a sport with as much technical aspects as fencing. It helped me get where I am today."

What Slep discovered is something sports psychologists are increasingly preaching to educators: Dueling with any one of the three types of fencing swords, whether the lightweight foil, the epee or the thrashing saber, can actually improve math skills.

Fencing improves a perception of geometric shapes -- one literally "draws" in the air with the sword -- and a type of "if/then" logic, explains Dr. John Heil, a sports psychologist and the chairman of the Sports Science, Safety and Technology Committee for the U.S. Fencing Association.

"As a fencer, if you are going to make a guess about an opponent, then it's best to use a math-type skill," Heil says. "You think of your body as a box. You're very much visualizing lines in space."

Charting its origins to 18th-century France, competitive fencing offered participants a chance to duel it out without actually killing one another. Until recently the sport was synonymous with European aristocracy -- most matches were refereed in French, and in the United States fencing was predominantly taught in elite schools. Now, however, fencing is branching out to inner-city youth and suburban America as more educators realize its benefits.

Typical among these new acolytes are the students ages 6 and older who don protective meshed helmets to spar at the New Amsterdam Fencing Academy in Manhattan. They focus intently as they lunge with lightning precision in two-minute matches.

For Frank Mustilli, who has coached fencers for more than 40 years, the sport evokes mathematical repetition. He teaches his pupils to count the seconds of an attack in their heads, to form letters and numbers with their weapons to defend and attack, and to mentally divide the remaining match time on the clock to strategize.

Fencing also teaches them to focus on a problem and react and live with the consequences, says Mustilli, who runs a fencing clinic in Orange, N.J.

One of his stars, Steve Caputo Jr., agrees that eight years of fencing certainly honed his reasoning powers. When he entered Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation two years ago, Caputo was given a piece of paper and told to draw a sport by conceptualizing its mechanical and mathematical principles.

Fencing made the exercise a cinch, as positions and moves when holding the sword are numbered in a sequence, says Caputo, 27. "A lot of what fencing is about is getting a rhythm," he says.

Michael Marx, a fencing coach in Portland, Ore., claims that nearly all of his 35 pupils have straight-A averages, helped, he says, by the precision and discipline of fencing.

"It's a very cerebral sport," says Marx, 48. "It's a physical game of chess."

A strong nod of agreement comes from Dr. Penny Hammrich, founder of Sisters/Brothers in Sports Science, a program in New York that uses sports to educate pupils in math and science. Fencing in particular teaches students about center of gravity, force, motion and other mathematical principles by experiencing them physically, she says.

"It becomes apparent to them that these just aren't words on paper," Hammrich says.

These students might find other upsides to fencing as well. Caputo says the sport helped him win a place at Princeton's undergraduate architecture program.

"Needless to say, fencing has changed my life," Caputo says.
 

Langenschwert

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That's really cool. :)

Incidentally, I did use principles from German Longsword to win a difficult chess match. That was a pretty sweet win.

Though I don't think I've used chess principles to win a sword fight. Or maybe I have. I'll have to think about it. :)

-Mark the Sword Addict.
 

bushidomartialarts

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unsurprising, but cool to see it supported in print.

i wonder how much is due to a direct relationship of principals, and how much due to simple general stimulation.
 

CoryKS

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Doubt it. More likely, fencing's "cerebral reputation" tends to draw those who already have an aptitude or interest in such things. Since, as the article states, the "sport was synonymous with European aristocracy" - read: "effete, self-indulgent snobs" - it probably tends to repel the knuckledragger types who would skew the numbers downward.

Update: I want to clarify that I am not saying the sport is poofy. But if you asked the average Joe what he thought about fencing, the image that would come to mind would probably be Tim Roth from Rob Roy.
 

bushidomartialarts

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That's a good point. I wonder if there was a control group...

On the other hand, quite a few studies seem to indicate that fine motor training and practice do in fact contribute to intelligence (at least some definitions of intelligence). It's a matter of exercise. Get strong by doing pushups. Get fast by practicing twitch activities. Get smart by doing logic puzzles.

An activity that combines twitch and logic puzzles at speed sure can't make somebody dumber....
 

Sukerkin

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I'm wondering if anyone has ever seen the quote (I can't attribute it, sorry) "Never give a sword to a man who can't dance"?

It's part an parcel of the same phenomenon. The brain is a wonderfully complicated thing and it works best when the left and right work harmoniously to a goal.

Swordsmanship is a classic case in point (Yeah, fencing pun :D!) where many aspects of cognition, both conscious and sub-conscious, are brought together in combination.

What is often misconstrued is that the body is not just a mere 'support system' for the mind but is the conduit via which the mind perceives and interacts with the world.

In swordsmanship and martial arts in general, it is often touted that it is 'mind and body as one'. That's not totally so as, when you are learning the basics, the mind is instructing the body what to do whilst the body provides feedback as to how things are going. Later, when the body is 'programmed' it can be left to get on with the spinal-reflex movement side of things whilst the mind gets on with understanding the 'combat' environment, reading the opponent and planning strategy.

Even then, the mind is dependant on the body to bring in the perceptions it needs to make its judgements. So, the long and the short of it is that it is hardly surprising that learning how to handle a sword makes your mental accuity that bit sharper too :).
 

RITFencing

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Doubt it. More likely, fencing's "cerebral reputation" tends to draw those who already have an aptitude or interest in such things. Since, as the article states, the "sport was synonymous with European aristocracy" - read: "effete, self-indulgent snobs" - it probably tends to repel the knuckledragger types who would skew the numbers downward.

Update: I want to clarify that I am not saying the sport is poofy. But if you asked the average Joe what he thought about fencing, the image that would come to mind would probably be Tim Roth from Rob Roy.

Yeah, you're right about the public image that fencing tends to have. In reality, though, it is the most alcoholic activity I've ever encountered (and I used to bowl competitively.)

It is an extremely cerebral sport, though, in part because of the length of direct elimination matches at tournaments (15 touches.) Each fencer will have ample time to learn the other, so each must be very thoughtful in their actions and must constantly restrategize and keep up reconnaissance of the opponent, and your own counter recon to lie to them and create a false impression of your own tactics and intentions.

In epee especially, high level fencing can be described as lies piled upon lies. Probably one of the most dishonest activities out there. :)
 
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