This article was originally printed in Issue 443 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Gwendolen Noronha is one of the world’s leading mental sports coaches and a board member of the Mental Sports Olympic Federation. From 2006 to 2008 she organized Cambridge’s MaRRS International Spelling Bee, the first spelling competition in Asia for school students. She is a founding member of the Indian Cube Association. Busy as she is, Gwendolen found time to share some of the insights that have led her students to break 21 world records.
Daniel Kilov: Gwendolen, you’ve been involved in one way or another with just about every mental sport, from spelling bees to speed cubing to memory and mental calculation. Can you tell us a little about how you developed an interest in these competitions?
Gwendolen Noronha: As a young school girl, I was very competitive. I loved the whole feeling that a competition would bring—the challenges, the rush within to do something extraordinary and the self-motivation. I used to participate in a lot of competitions in school and that interest carried on. When I began working and established an educational firm, I decided that apart from providing quality education to students globally, I also wanted to give them a platform to showcase their talent. I wanted them to experience the thrill and enthusiasm a competition brings while simultaneously being able to promote the awareness of brain health. There needs to be a purpose to everything we do and that was mine. While I was working in the United States of America, I discovered my interest for the field of mental calculations and memory and took it up as a challenge to offer the subject knowledge to more people and to provide opportunities to more mental sports athletes.
It is hard to keep the interest as strong over the years but if today I still feel the same enthusiasm it is simply because there are millions of students by now who believe in what I have to offer and the sport is gradually growing with so many people in the fraternity doing so much good that it keeps me still very interested. I also have a constant push from my partner, Manuel Schneider, who doesn’t let me slow down and wants me to keep aspiring and offering the platform to all mental sports athletes. One needs such a back-up to be able to fulfil the responsibilities with the same interest.
Daniel Kilov: Aside from your role as an organizer, you are also an extremely accomplished coach. Your mental calculation students have set something like 18 world records, right? Can you share any stories about what that was like?
Gwendolen Noronha: It’s 21 world records now! I am still overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself. I debuted as a coach in the year 2012 and in just the very first year we had a total of nine world records. Honestly, I didn’t expect it. I worked hard behind my team of students and the students had the willpower to do their best which was very helpful as a coach. I knew we would make a mark but didn’t expect it to be so good in the very first year.
One incident that comes to my mind was during the Memoriad Mind Sports Olympics in 2012 in Antalya, Turkey where we were participating for the first time and no one knew us. I knew most of them because either they were all former world record holders or champions. However, the results of my team winning 33 medals out of the total of 42 left everybody flabbergasted. Overnight everyone got to know us and were busy congratulating us but there was one former world record holder for square roots from Turkey—Hakan Gurbuslar—who approached me and very courteously said, ‘Your team won the gold medal for square roots and that is amazing, but the score wasn’t worthy of a gold medal status. You have the potential so come back again and show it to the world that your team can break world records too’. These words changed everything for me and eight months later we participated at the Turkey Open Memoriad Championship and broke the six-digit imperfect square roots world record, not once but five times in the span of two days.
Daniel Kilov: For those unfamiliar with mental sports, can you briefly explain the basic techniques used (i.e. the use of an imaginary abacus, etc.)?
Gwendolen Noronha: For mental calculations, we use a combination of the Japanese soroban and the ancient Vedic mathematics techniques.
Veda is the Sanskrit word for ‘Knowledge’. Vedic mathematics is an ancient collection of methods used to solve mathematical problems in an easy and faster way. It uses a lesser number of steps to get to the answer of the problem in comparison to the regular methods that are usually taught in schools. It consists of about 16 main formulas and 13 sub-formulas which can be used for problems related to arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus and conics.
While this helps calculate larger mathematical problems, it still isn’t as fast to beat the speed of calculations, therefore I came up with some of my own algorithms that help students calculate faster using the same method.
The Japanese soroban uses a decimal system. The soroban helps in increasing the power of imagination wherein after a certain period, the person practising it doesn’t require the physical device anymore and can calculate by imagining the device in their minds. It sounds all so complex, but it is very easy. It just requires lots of dedication and continuity.
Daniel Kilov: Can you give an example of an algorithm that your athletes use and how they would use it?
Gwendolen Noronha: Once a student has learnt the basics and the advance level of a subject, let’s say, square roots, they will be capable to solve the given task mentally without the use of a calculator or notes. With regular practise this will help them to go faster and achieve greater accuracy with greater speed. However, when we talk about world records, one needs to be calculating at an astonishing speed to be able to solve an imperfect six-digit square root by presenting an answer of three digits and five decimal places in maximum two to three seconds per task. This speed can be achieved by certain algorithms and techniques of number identification and pattern recognition. At the initial stage, it may seem tough but once the student gets used to it, they do it almost subconsciously. Each number when appeared with a combination of another number, results in an answer that will have a range of numbers and as we keep calculating, the range reduces, getting us closer to the answer.
Daniel Kilov: Moving beyond the basics, what is it about your training methods that allows you to routinely produce competitors of such a high level? What do you do differently to everyone else?
Gwendolen Noronha: I feel I am more invested in what I do. Most people try to learn and practise the same methods, but they expect instant results which doesn’t help them. Training for mental calculations requires patience. There are many online platforms and brands that offer mental calculations training but the one thing they all lack is the algorithms. They all manage to understand the use of a soroban or abacus or even learn the methods of Vedic mathematics but that enables them to get only to a certain point and not beyond. I have tried offering my algorithms and training methods to others as well but somehow people don’t always understand everything. Over the years, I have just accepted it that this is one of those few things in the world that cannot be duplicated and needs to come directly from the source and not by passing on to others in the hierarchy. Hence, I am now launching our own online portal titled ‘Mepronto’ wherein I will reach out directly to everyone who wishes to learn.
I am here to spread the knowledge and awareness and not to keep it restricted to myself. I love what I do and have a purpose that doesn’t let me stop or take a break and I think that is why I manage producing champions. I do not do it for myself nor do I do it to make only money out of it. I do it because I feel the need to keep my brain active and to motivate others to focus on brain health. This ulterior motive makes me routinely give results.
Daniel Kilov: What led you to develop your method?
Gwendolen Noronha: While I was coaching my very first group of students, I realized that we could solve faster and there was a very good accuracy maintained. However the speed wasn’t fast enough to be able to not only break world records but also set new ones that would be difficult for anyone else to break. It was this need that helped me look deeper into the methods we mixed.
Daniel Kilov: What’s the most interesting or entertaining story you have from your time as a coach?
Gwendolen Noronha: Being interviewed by a German journalist at the Mental Calculations World Cup 2014 in Dresden and in the presence of my students I happened to say that I have always disliked mathematics. It was funny because we had just finished the award ceremony where I won the title of the ‘World’s Best Mind Sports Coach for Mental Calculations’.
It was awkward and chuckle-some at the same time during all my coaching classes that followed, because my students kept asking me how that was even possible.
All my years as a mental calculations coach, no one knew that I secretly hated number crunching. I kind of still do, because as a child I did suffer from math anxiety. However, once I learnt that about myself, and discovered that over 95% of students feel the same, I realized that I needed to make mathematics fun so that I can contribute to reducing the stress students face due to math anxiety.
Daniel Kilov: What do you think is the biggest gap in the mental sports world now? What should the community be talking about more?
Gwendolen Noronha: There are many of us who have almost the same objective but are working individually to reach the goal. I think unity provides strength and it is important for us across the world to unite under one common roof so that we can spread the awareness of brain health. We are gifted the power of showcasing the extraordinary performances of the human brain and it is necessary to use that to help everyone.
The community should be talking about increasing the number of events, not just championships but other events where we can interact with the public, the media and can educate the masses.