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Have problems with math? Take up fencing

Fencingpic

Students at Manhattan's New Amsterdam Fencing Academy practice their duels. (Ernest Scheyder)

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,” said 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,” said 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: that 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, explained 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 said. “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 it 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 age 6 and up 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, said Mustilli, who runs a fencing clinic in Orange, N.J.

One of his stars, Steve Caputo Jr., agreed 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, said Caputo, 27. “A lot of what fencing is about is getting a rhythm,” he said.

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

“It’s a very cerebral sport,” said 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 said.

“It becomes apparent to them that these just aren’t words on paper,” Hammrich said.

These students may find other upsides to fencing as well. Caputo said the sport helped him win a place at Princeton’s undergraduate architecture program. A further bonus was meeting his future wife at a fencing competition there.

“Needless to say, fencing has changed my life,” Caputo said.

E-mail: ejs2132@columbia.edu