How to Learn Right of Way/Priority

Many parents are eager to learn Right of Way. It takes a lot of practice! Even the world’s most famous fencing parents do not always get it. I do believe that, with time, most experienced fencing parents start understanding the concept a little bit. However, they have a hard time following quick actions. Which is understandable!

I think you can teach yourself the concept and become quite good at it and thus enjoy fencing as a sport as well enjoy the fencing of your child even more. 

This last bit of advice that I’m giving you is good for fencers in general and for fencing parents as well. Fencers just have an additional means of training in their club, while parents will use this as their major source of self-education.

Here it is. The piece de resistance of learning fencing right of way. Watch videos! Lots of videos.

My recommendation is to look at foil and sabre fencing videos at the World or Olympic level on the FIE channel on YouTube. There are three reasons for this. 

  1. These videos are heavily commented on not only by the FIE commentators, but they also often invite famous fencers into their booth that help to explain the actions. 
  2. There are slow motion replays. I personally would prefer if they didn’t focus on the last touch, because all too often they ignore the complete action. This makes it difficult to see totally what happened. Nevertheless, sometimes you do have an ability to see that parry that slipped past you in the first watch.
  3. The YouTube player has a capability to play the video with a different speed, from slow motion of 0.25 normal speed to 2x fast. This will allow you to play and replay the same action and better understand what happened.

Another fantastic source of fencing education, and in my opinion definitely the best in the world, is CyrusOfChaos on Youtube and Instagram. There you will find tons (literally years!) of videos with great analysis and comments. An additional bonus to learning from Cyrus’s material are the tactical and situational decisions and technical actions. It’s a gold mine!

Don’t just watch videos passively though! Stop the video just before the referee calls the touch, or whenever you think you see one. Try to explain to yourself what you saw. If you need to, rewind and replay in slow motion. It’s ok to make a mistake! That means you’re learning. It means you’re growing. With time, those mistakes will be fewer and fewer.

The same idea goes with competitions (when they resume). Watch the ref and compare your own mental calls with the final call. Look for vocal objections from the coaches. Those objections are not necessarily always right, but at least you will see what they say and why.

Deepening your understanding of foil and sabre bouts

Personally, I find both foil and sabre matches fascinating to watch. The huge amount of actions are a constant puzzle that needs solving. This provides the brain with a large amount of stimuli as we try to decipher the action. Once you start understanding right of way, even at a very basic level, watching foil and sabre is just incredibly fun. Like solving a rubik’s cube or mastering a brain teaser, only with swords!

The overarching, top line, ten thousand foot view of foil and sabre has everything to do with their dynamics. 

Sabre is fast-paced. How fast? So fast that they don’t even have a timer! The sabre bout stops at eight points for a one-minute break and only has two periods. You will rarely see more than a few seconds, usually with no more than five seconds between two consecutive points. Anecdotally, I would estimate that more than nine out of ten of all sabre actions happen within less than five seconds of the previous action. By the time the referee has even had a thought to press the stop button, the fencers have already scored the hit. So why bother? And so there is no timer in sabre. 

Who’s moving first?

A lot of times both fencers charge towards each other when the referee says “Fence!” or “Allez!”, and most of the time both will hit. In sabre, who starts first is SUPER important. The referee will see much clearer the movement in the arms and the legs and will define the attack based on that. In sabre, it’s one of the most common situations. 

Parries and counter-parries

In both sabre and foil, parries and counter-parries are common. They happen less in sabre because it is more difficult to block a hit. What happens more in sabre than in foil are the subtle stops and misses. Here’s quite a common situation in sabre fencing. Fencer A starts with a lunge, and it looks like she will hit. At the same time, Fencer B hits. The initial reaction might be that this is an attack from Fencer A. However, A sometimes misses the touch and B has started right away, and it all happens so fast that the feeling is that A hit the first time. An experienced referee will spot this. An inexperienced observer will not. 

Subtle stops

There are many subtle stops in sabre. The feeling of the opponent stopping is at a whole different level in sabre fencers. They are like having this play out in real slow motion. They feel the stop, then have the ability to switch from one direction to another in a truly unusual and unprecedented way. While this same thing is true of foil and epee fencers, the way that it happens with sabre fencers is unique in my opinion. One of the beautiful nuances of the sport of fencing.

In sabre, these situations almost always guarantee that both fencers will jump in yelling to claim that they made the touch. That dynamic is part of the excitement when watching these fights!

Less in-fighting

While foil fencing happens a lot in close quarters (when fencers are very close to each other, often called in-fighting), this does not happen in sabre almost at all. Most of the time sabre fencers maintain a distance from each other consistently. With the whole blade being able to even slightly touch the whole body from the waist up to register a point, it is impossible to avoid being unintentionally touched by an opponent’s blade in a close combat for sabre fencers. Better keep her far away at all times and keep the distance between fencers is more than in foil when they are engaged. With fewer parries, more amplitude of arm movement, and more distance in sabre, I personally find it a bit easier to follow the blade action in sabre.

These are a few major differences that it helps to notice when watching sabre and foil, but there are many more. I’ll stop here to keep from overwhelming you.

I will point you to one fantastic resource on the internet that will help to build out your understanding of sabre phrases and rules of right of way – Sabre Referees on Instagram and Facebook. This resource is probably one of the best to really see and learn this rule. They publish small blurbs of fencing bouts, then ask for opinions and explanations. Many sabre specialists and fans chime in to express their opinion, and then at the end the sabre referees come back to provide the correct answer. I highly recommend that you subscribe to this account and start following them.

These videos give you a real time breakdown of these matches and provide a consistent resource. You will start seeing these small differences in who started first, or when one opponent stopped and another re-took the initiative. When you start seeing it in sabre, I am sure watching the same situations in foil will be much easier – the speed of foil is slower than that of sabre.

These are the basics! Right of way is something that takes much practice and observation. Clearly novice fencers, families, and fans of fencing have to keep watching and reading about it to learn how to decipher it. 

Come back to this series of 3 posts (see their links below) and reread it to learn right of way or priority. Practice watching bouts over and over again. Ask the coaches and other fencers to give you their explanations. You can do it! Just keep observing and you’ll be fluent in right of way in no time (well, almost fluent and almost in no time 🙂

If you want to learn even more about priority and right of way, read our two companion pieces to this post – Right of Way or Priority for Dummies and Referees and Right of Way or Priority. It’s a massive concept, so it takes a lot to master it!