Me on the strip at a fencing competition.

Me, fencing in a competition at Vassar College in 2010.

Fencing: More than parries and ripostes.

I used a fence a lot. For ten years, I picked up a foil and went on guard on the strip two, three, sometimes five days a week. Or more, with tournaments on weekends. I was not alone: my teammates did the same. Yet despite the dedication so many of us gave to the sport, the first coach I had, George Platt, used to say that when it came to life versus fencing, "It's just fencing!"

However important the sport is, in the end, "it's just fencing!"

It's as important as you make it to you. The rest of your life, well, that matters too.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to other life decisions, balancing time and energy. And I realized: I really did learn a lot, being a fencer.

Priorities, commitment, and time management

I learned how to make something a priority. How to commit to something.

I was never late to practice, and only missed a day if I was coughing and running a fever. I gave up other clubs, movie nights, Halloween parties, and much more because I had practice, or I had to sleep, we were leaving at 4am for a competition tomorrow.

But remember, it's just fencing.

My coaches in college always stressed that academics came first. If you had a huge test that day, or if you had to a class that happen to clash with practice times, well, there was no help for it; academics came first.

But being busy was no excuse to skip practice. After all, we were all college students; we all had homework and tests and classes. By joining the fencing team, I was saying, this is a priority for me. I'm going to put time and energy into this. Joining the team meant that other things that could have been priorities -- other clubs, social events -- were not so high on my personal list. Fencing was. So I made time for it.

Sometime later, I was working on a academic project. My professor told me, "It's your project; if it matters to you, it can happen, it can be good. But it's your project. If you don't care about it, if you don't make it happen, well, it won't happen. And since it's your project, no one else will care."

Fencing was like that. If you didn't care how many bouts you won, if you didn't care how well you fenced, well, guess what, no one else would really care, either. Your teammates or your coach might be disappointed. But you're the one most invested in what you're doing.

Waiting by the strip for a bout to start

Waiting for a bout to start at the Denver North America Cup event in 2005.

Related to that: When I was fifteen or so, I was fencing in a local competition, a direct elimination bout against a woman of about the same skill level as me. We kept tying the score: 4-5, 10-9. The last round, I won. My dad said it was because I cared. It was partly endurance, too. But if you want to win, you'll put in more effort and go farther. You have to enjoy it. You have to be a good athlete. And you have to be competitive. I remember George saying once that if you don't care when you lose -- if you aren't upset that you lost -- then you didn't care about winning, either.

Failure, adaptation, and emotion regulation

When you fence, you make a lot of mistakes. You get hit, over and over, in the same way, by the same opponent, because you keep making the same mistake. It's frustrating. You lose a bout 0-5 because you kept making the same stupid mistake. Sometimes to a girl you used to beat 5-0. And the thing about fencing is that it's such an individual sport. If you lose, it's all on you. Sure, sometimes the referee makes bad calls. Sometimes the other girl just is a better fencer than you. But not always.

There are two parts to dealing with this. First, the practical side: You lost this touch. Or you lost this bout. What did you do and why didn't it work? Critically evaluate your actions. See the mistakes, or the places where someone out-fenced you. Try to improve. Adapt.

Me lunging on the strip, foil bent as I hit my opponent.

Me, fencing at a Bay Cup event in 2004.

George always taught that if what you're doing isn't working, do something else. Change something. Change anything. Sometimes, if you find yourself doing the same wrong thing over and over, it doesn't matter what else, so long as it's different: a different parry or attack, different timing or distance. Don't get stuck. Don't let your opponent score the same way twice. If what you're doing isn't working, change what you are doing.

The second part is emotional and mental. In a pool round in a tournament, you only have 5 or 6 bouts. You just lost one 0-5. You can't let that negatively affect the next bout. You have to move past it. Re-focus. You can't be flustered and upset when you step back on the strip.

I learned to consciously regulate my emotions and mental state, using combinations of music on my ipod, self-talk, and habits before and during competitions to reinforce states and moods that I empirically found to lead to me fencing better. You can't lose your cool. For me, I fenced best when balanced: Not too excited. Not too calm. Not too upset. Focused. Edged. Finding that state, keeping it, and regaining it was as critical to my performance as good hydration.

Practice and preparation

George also used to say that it was the practice you did six months ago that matters most in your competition today. And day of, I had my routines. You warm up before a competition. That isn't just to prepare your muscles - it was also part of getting ready mentally. Getting your mind in the right space. It was about eating well, and sleeping well -- not sacrificing an upcoming tournament to one evening off. If that meant missing parties, other events, whatever -- well, preparation was key. That was what commitment was. Sleeping was part of that. Eating, hydrating, training.

When taking a ballroom dance class two years ago, I realized I'd learned something else from all that practice: How to practice. You learn it slow, practice it perfectly, under control, slowly, until eventually, at top speed during a bout, you do okay. You can't practice sloppy and expect that when it matters you'll be any less sloppy. Practice perfect.

A group of fencers in white gear standing around.

A group of fencers at George Platt's Swordplay Fencing club in 2006.

Lessons learned

My senior year at Vassar, there was controversy over whether varsity sports should count for academic credit. Suffice to say, one piece of the argument was that yes, you learn a lot doing a sport. If credits equate to learning, you learn as much -- if not more! -- in a sport as you do in other classes. You may learn different things. But you do learn.

(As a side note, the divisions between disciplines, quantifying or categorizing learning, and deciding what "counts" as an academic class don't always make sense to me.)

I learned to prioritize. To commit. To fail. To persevere. To adapt. To prepare.

I learned about the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence. I learned about confidence.

Ten years of competitive fencing. Wonderful coaches, great teammates, and a lot of things learned. Time well spent, I'd say.


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Northeast Conference Champions

That's right: For the first time in program history, the VC Women's Fencing team has triumphed over the other schools in our conference!

I just wanted to give us a shoutout. We've been having a great season, going 30-6 so far -- certainly the best in my time at Vassar, both personally and as a team. This was a good year for it, too. I'm going to miss the team when I graduate.

Take a look at the official Vassar Athletics story!


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three VC women foilists sitting in green chairs, backs to the camera

A new semester...

Long time, no writing -- it's the start of a new semester (my last semester!) and I've been busy with a number of different things:

  • The VC Women's Fencing team. We're in full competition mode. We conquered in Cleveland recently, vanquished difficult foes at Brown University, and are gearing up for a big match at Wellesley next Sunday, which will decide whether we claim the Northeast Conference Championship this year!

  • My undergraduate cognitive science thesis. I'm looking at the emergent behavior of a group of simulated prey robots that can communicate with each other about the presence of a predator. I have questions about communication, environment, and motivation. Being a year-long project, I'm supposedly halfway through, though in reality, it's not so clear-cut. I spent all summer reading papers and doing background research, filled last semester with hypotheses, possible architectures, and more background research, wrote up a first draft this winter break, and am now hard at work on the simulation itself.

  • Taking photos of the weather. An unusually large amount of snow has fallen at Vassar -- what better to do than document it with a camera? (Click for larger versions.)

snow-covered lake, blue skies, sunshine

Sunset Lake II

dark trees, branches laden with clumps of snow

Snow Forest

a flock of round picnic tables, cream-colored umbrellas shading benches of snow, with the buildings of Cleveland rising in the background

Winter picnic in Cleveland

  • Figuring out my post-graduation life. On the advice of many folks, I'm not heading immediately to grad school. My enthusiasm for learning, research, and knowledge hasn't vanished -- quite the contrary. I'm going to spend at least a year exploring the places outside the classroom, longer depending on where I end up. Academia-land? The wide world beyond? Still up in the air.

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A new sport

One of the difficult parts of playing a new sport is that I'm not good at it yet.

My lab played volleyball this summer. Every Wednesday after work, we trotted out to the grass behind the conference center, doing our best not to complain about the humidity and heat. We greeted the other two teams in the league (both of which had clearly played volleyball before--not just in gym class in high school, or, in my case, once during a summer program five years ago), we helped set up the nets, and we began bumping a ball around.

_volleyball sitting in grass beside a brick wall_

Volleyball was not where any of us excelled. Sure, by the end of the ten weeks, everyone in the lab had improved. We could do what might be called a volley. I could be in the right place at the right time to hit the ball, even if the ball then flew off in completely unintentional directions. When I served, the probability that the ball would both get over the net and stay in bounds was greater than chance (if I remembered to stand on the right, that is, because my serves always flew too far left). It was great fun.

It was also frustrating. I knew that given enough practice, I could be a half-decent volleyballer. Instead of the game being a matter of physical skills and pure luck, it could evolve into a complex, strategic battle, with us setting up plays and plotting out how to outwit the other team. But ten weeks isn't quite long enough to get us to that point. (Sometimes, I'm impatient.) We lost just about every match played against the other teams.

Losing is hard to watch

My lab had split into two teams and recruited a few extra interns, so most days, the five or six of us on my team rotated through four spots on the court. This meant that some games, I stood on the sidelines during the game point.

That was difficult.

I had no direct control over whether we won or lost. I had to stand there, watching, as hands missed the ball, as the ball smacked the dusty grass, or flew too far out of bounds. I had no power over how hard my teammates tried (whether they desired to win enough to dive after the ball; whether they were tired and sweaty and just wanted it to be over). I could be a cheerleader, but I could not actively influence the outcome of the game.

That was new.

_two fencers on the strip at the Denver NAC 2005

My usual sport is fencing: highly individual, always solo. When you're on the strip, it's just you. If you mess up, if you lose, you only have yourself to blame. Even in team competitions, you're just adding up the scores you and your teammates have separately acquired. You don't realize, unless you've been part of a team, how important it is to trust your teammates. And that's what made volleyball difficult: because none of us were that good, it wasn't easy to trust my teammates to be there, backing me up, putting in their best effort to win even though the games were casual and couldn't be taken seriously given our level of experience.

The thing about trust is, most times, it has to be earned.

Trust and control

Fortunately for my lab, playing volleyball is not what we did full-time. When working on our summer project--establishing the Autonomous Vehicle Lab--I learned I could trust my labmates to have my back. We all cared about the outcome; we could trust each other to each do our part. Not being in control of every little detail (and occasionally standing on the sidelines) was okay, because I knew my labmates were trying just as hard as I was to debug their programs and get the quadcopters flying.

I guess the moral of the story is (besides the obvious "teamwork requires trust"), if you ever have the chance to play a new sport, do so. You never know what you'll learn.


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Varsity athletics for academic credit?

I recently discussed the varsity athletics for academic credit proposal that was in the works at my college. Well, here's the news:

The proposal passed.

Starting in September, varsity athletes can get half a unit a season for up to four seasons for participating in their sport. The details, of course, are still being hammered out: what to do about freshmen who may drop the sport and walk-ons who may not make the team, whether an academic component (such as writing a paper on the history of the sport) will be required, which semester the credit will be granted for sports that span both semesters, and so on.

It passed, but...

The proposal passed with approximately 2:1 approval. Of the concerns expressed by faculty, the main worry was that students who were getting credit for their sport would choose to skip class or labs in favor of practices and games--or even in favor of some downtime before the practice or game. Such things already happen. Some faculty have complained of student-athletes emailing the day before a class or the day before a big paper was due to say "Sorry, I can't be in class or turn in that paper yet, I have [athletic event] to attend instead." That's just wrong. Being an athlete does not grant a person special privileges. If anything, it holds a person to a higher standard, committing to both academic and athletic excellence.

The faculty are worried about student-athletes abusing their newfound credits, and, well, so am I. As much as I'll argue that many important things can be learned from participation on a sports team (and I have, just see the end of my previous discussion of the varsity athletics proposal), at this time, in this college, academics come first. The best way to allay these worries may simply be to demonstrate, over the next few years, that granting credit doesn't change how student-athletes behave. We can help this effort along by proactively ensuring that student-athletes are committed to both academic and athletic excellence. Give a boost to the general student-athlete reputation, so to speak. Here are two of the things we're doing:

  • Our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee drafted a Best Practices document some time back, outlining suggestions for successfully balancing academic and athletic commitments. All teams are being reminded that this document exists for a reason.

  • The athletic department is designing an academic excellence program geared towards helping freshman and sophomore student-athletes. Upperclassmen will be advisors and mentors, providing new student-athletes with academic advice as well as advice on how to balance their academics and athletics. Other awesome stuff TBA--the program is still in the brainstorming stage. Hopefully, it'll be rolled out in the fall.

Relevant facts in favor of credit

All of the above is happening whether or not you personally agree that credit should be granted. If you do, great. If you don't (and my previous discussion didn't convince you), I'd like to introduce you to a few interesting and relevant facts that may change how you think about the proposal:

  1. In the academic year 1971-72, the number of units required to graduate increased from 32 to 34, due to a decision to grant credit for Physical Education courses. Varsity athletes, under the new rule, will be able to get a max of 2 units from their athletics participation.
  2. Varsity athletics are the only area of the college in which student performance is closely overseen by faculty members (in this case, our coaches) but is not awarded credit. Areas that do get credit include drama department shows, voice lessons, and jazz ensemble, to name a few.
  3. We don't have a physical education requirement. Most, maybe even all, of our peer institutions do have such a requirement and do allow students to count varsity athletics towards this requirement. Oberlin College has no such requirement, and funnily enough, awards credit for participation in varsity athletics.

Give it a think.


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