Number Sense and Elite Athletes 1

What do number sense and professional or Olympic athletes have in common?

If you watch a truly gifted athlete you will see that they seem to have a sixth sense about their sport. They see things other people don’t.

Wayne Gretzky was such a great hockey player because while others were skating to where the puck had been, he skated to where the puck was going to be.

I can tell you that the reason I won so many gold medals in judo is because I knew where my opponent was going to go next. I am sorry if it disappoints you to hear that skill did not come from any zen meditation or some Star Wars “using the force”.

No, it came from thousands of hours of practice. When I teach kids combinations in matwork, I will note when they reach the point that “your opponent has to go this way because it is the only possible way to escape, and that is what you are waiting for.”

It’s the same with math. Number sense is an intuitive understanding of numbers, of how they work, of operations –

that 1,473,846-  1,473,846 has to equal zero because it just makes sense.

Today I was knocking off the last rough edges of Spirit Lake: The Game, revising a video that explains subtraction that comes up at the very beginning. I explained the concept of borrowing when you are subtracting a larger number from a smaller one. Say you have 23 – 9.  You can’t subtract 9 from 3 but you can subtract 9 from 13. So, you borrow 10 from the 20. That probably makes perfect sense to you, if you are the kind of person who reads this blog, but to a great many people, even people who manage to do subtraction well enough, it isn’t self-evident. As far back as second grade, they started memorizing rules without understanding them.

Now YOU may be thinking it is perfectly obvious. Look, 23 is the same as 10 + 13.  So, you are just regrouping

(10 + 13) – 9   to be 10 + (13 – 9)   and both of those are the same as 23-9

Why is it obvious to you? I would argue because the more you handle something – whether a hockey puck, a soccer ball, opponents in combat sports or numbers, the better you come to understand them.

Because I am so convinced of this, I make games that are designed to expose people to numbers in every possible context and as much as possible.

I’ve been asked on a few occasions if we could make math games that didn’t look like math. To me, that’s like asking if someone could become a good hockey player without playing hockey or a good judo player without doing matwork. I think that is the exact opposite of what we want to do.



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