Science foils fencing history

A fencing student used an experiment to prove her coaches wrong


In fencing, knowledge is handed down from coach to coach. But a little science could shake up the sport. 

Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Anya Michaelsen, 17, has always loved to fence. But when her fencing coaches taught her to hold her hand high for an advanced movement called a flick, their advice felt wrong, somehow. So the teen decided to run some experiments. She ended up confirming that her coaches were wrong — and that a little science could improve her favorite sport.  

The high school senior attends Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va. She presented her results at the Intel Science Talent Search. The prestigious event is run by Society for Science & the Public and sponsored by Intel. Every year, this competition brings 40 of the brightest high school seniors to Washington, D.C., for a week of activities. They present data from research projects to the public and compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Foil fencing is a sport that uses very thin, whip-like swords. Fencers lunge and make false attacks, trying to get their sword — or foil — past their opponent’s guard to stab at their torso. One ways to get past your opponent is a move called the flick. To do it, a fencer snaps the foil up and down. This makes the blade arc up and down like a whip. With a lot of practice, the fencer can use the flick to get their sword over their opponent, hitting them on the shoulder or the back to score points.

FANCY FLICK This video shows how fencers perform a flick. expertbillage

When Anya was learning to flick, some of her coaches’ advice didn’t pass the smell test. “They told me to keep my hand high,” she says. “And I thought: ‘Why?’ It feels weird and it didn’t make sense to me.” So she asked her coaches why they recommended this. And most told her it was because that’s what their coaches had taught them.

For her experiments, Anya borrowed a high-speed video camera from her father. He’s a scientist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Then she filmed two fencers performing the flick. Before turning on the camera, she marked their shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands and different parts of their foils. As the volunteers fenced, she recorded them performing a flick 80 times each — 40 hits and 40 misses.  Later, when she watched the videos, she could measure how — and how much — each part moved as her subjects fenced.

The teen took the measurements from her videos and put them into a computer program. She used that program to perform a statistical test called a regression analysis. It looks at different groups of numbers, and determines how important any one of them is to an outcome.

In this case, Anya had measurements for hand height, shoulder movement, the distance to the opponent and many other values. Any one of these could be the most important variable -or motion that affects a flick’s success. The coaches had thought that hand height was key.

Anya proved them wrong.

Her new data shows that hand height had almost no effect on whether a flick hit the target. Instead, what proved most important was how close a flicker was to the opponent at the end of the movement, and how quickly his or her fingers moved to bring the sword down in its whip-like action.

Anya was surprised how well her experiment worked. “I didn’t know where it was going in the beginning,” she says. She felt that the hand height probably did not matter, but she didn’t know what movements would prove pivotal. “I remember when I got my first graph, I realized ‘Gosh, this is so exciting!’”

But right now, her results only predict that a target’s distance and the fencer’s finger movements are important for a flick’s success. To prove that these two motions are really the most critical for a successful flick, she needs to do another experiment. Anya says she wants train groups of fencers to do the flick in different ways, to see which method allows the fencer to hit a target most often.

With such tests, the teen hopes to bring a little more science to her sport. “A lot of fencing is old timey and traditional,” she says. But with some good experiments, “we can rethink things and improve them.”

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Power Words

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regression analysis (in statistics) A process that allows scientists to determine the relationships between different numbers. The test shows which numbers are the most important for an equation, and shows how a change in one number will affect another.

statistical analysis   A mathematical process that allows scientists to draw conclusions from a set of data. In research, a result is significant (from a statistical point of view) if the observed difference between two or more conditions is unlikely to be due to chance. Obtaining a result that is statistically significant means that it is unlikely to observe that much of a difference if there really is no effect of the conditions being measured.

statistics  The practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities and interpreting their meaning. Much of this work involves reducing errors that might be attributable to random variation. A professional who works in this field is called a statistician.

variable  (in mathematics) A letter used in a mathematical expression that may take on different values. (in experiments) A factor that can be changed, especially one allowed to change in a scientific experiment. For instance, when measuring how much insecticide it might take to kill a fly, researchers might change the dose or the age at which the insect is exposed. Both the dose and age would be variables in this experiment.

Edited 3/9/2015 4:32 PM: The original image depicted a fight with epee, another kind of sword used in fencing. The photo has been changed to depict foil fencing. 

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.