Left?

The masked man in the picture is me, testing a theory about my unusual motor skills.

When I picked up a foil for the first time in my teens, I used my right hand, as that’s side I use for most activities. Through high school and college I continued fencing as a righty, and when I returned to the sport after a three-decade absence I defaulted to my right again.

However… I’m not completely right-handed. When I eat or brush my teeth, I’ve always used my left hand. It wasn’t until I met my ever-observant wife that I understood this oddity. “Your gross motor skill — hand and arm dexterity — is on your right side,” she explained, “while your fine motor skill, finger dexterity, is on your left.” Makes sense to me, and sounds a lot better than you’re a freak.

Soon after resuming my fencing career, my coach saw me writing with my left hand, and made a suggestion: “You should fence as a lefty.” I always parried her suggestion with the fact I am entirely right-footed. Roll a ball towards me, and I’ll always kick it with my right foot — that’s the gross motor skill at work. And with balance being an important component of fencing, I considered leading with my right leg of paramount importance.

Thing is, finger coordination in fencing is important for point control. The disengage, in which you drop your blade under an opponent’s attempted parry, is most effective when executed with the fingers, rather than wrist or arm.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided there was nothing to lose by trying. Borrowing a glove and foil from the club, I started fencing as a lefty.

The feeling was as awkward as I expected.

At times I found myself advancing by moving my right foot first, which when fencing as a lefty is behind your body — the motion made me lurch forward, like pushing a wheelbarrow with its front tire stuck in the mud. Each lunge was an argument with my body, an attempt to convince dormant muscles that it was perfectly all right to stretch.

Yet despite these discomforts, I felt my sense of distance to my opponent was somewhat enhanced, which I had not expected as I am right-eye dominant. I also had a better awareness of the tip of my blade — the heightened finger dexterity did seem to make a difference.

At this point, I fence far better with my right hand, and I’m not thrilled by the prospect of buying an almost entire new set of equipment. (If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see a covered zipper channel on the left side of my lame, the gray covering for my torso used for electronic scoring. For safety reasons, fencing regulations require jackets and lames to be zippered either in the back or on the fencer’s non-weapon arm. I can continue using my current gear for practice, but should I enter competitions as a lefty, I’ll need appropriate gear.) But I’m intrigued enough by what I’ve observed these last two weeks to continue this experiment.

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