Updated: Mar 28, 2020
Sabre and foil are based on a simple yet "non instinctive" rule: priority, the right of way given to who advances first
Points, in case both hit, are awarded to the fencer who "owns" priority at that specific time.
Priority is primarily established by one athlete initiative forward and can then infinitely swap from one fencer to the other
How Priority Starts
Priority is usually established by one fencer's feet/legs moving forward.
Only at "reach" distance do the hand/weapon have exceptionally the "right of way"
How does it change?
Priority "swaps" in two ways only:
1) By blade contact;
2) By the advancing fencer's stop or miss
By blade it can be called beat or engage, or even parry if it happens in the final part of the opponent's attack.
When the fencer who is advancing stops or misses his attack, then, priority "moves" to his/her rival.
How long does it last?
In fencing the concept of time is strictly related to the possibility for a fencer to start a fencing action. The connection subsequently extends to:
A) distance, intended as the distance between players and
B) consequent action of the opponent (what he's actually doing?).
Priority doesn't exclude from this concept: Priority lasts a fencing time (tempo) yet it continues in relation to the opponent's reaction (if he/she keeps defending priority can extend indefinitely).
Being something not naturally instinctive, the first task of the coach is to "introduce" the priority concept into the fencer . But, even before that, a fencing coach should instill the feeling of initiative to his/her pupil. Taking initiative means that precise instinct of initiating any action, offensive or defensive, always first, before the opponent. Priority "feeling" will consequentially come along.
This, far from being mechanical, is one of the hardest steps in a fencing coach's career and his/her relationship with the students. There must exist a connection between the pupil and the coach. Their brains, hearts and ultimately hands must be a whole. The "connection" will then allow the coach to "feed" the pupil with initiative, to give him/her the feeling of always starting an action (rather than waiting for the coach's movement) first.
The coach "allows" the fencer initiative, arm or feet/legs, by "inviting" him/her with small (just initiating) "mirror" movements.
To obtain the student's arm extension, the coach can simply start pulling his own arm back. And if he/she then wants his/her pupil's feet/legs to start moving it would then be necessary to "hint at" an opposite move.
Or, to have the fencer's arm engaging the blade, it is appropriate letting him "find" the coach's blade directed at one of his targets, pointing up for high line engages or down for low line ones. If the coach wants the blade contact while the student is advancing then his/her blade can "come out" while stepping backwards, usually in between feet movement.
Automating priority will then require from the coach:
A) some clear step forward followed by a stop, to obtain a distance parry;
B) some attack, so to attract a beat (while the coach is moving) or parry (in the end of the movement) from the student
A Game of Contrast
Fencing is a sport of fighting. Like martial arts, it's based on contrasts and opposite moves. Therefore movements must constantly change while keeping a clear identity.
All actions have a simple clear objective: "hitting" the opponent by scoring on the valid target according to priority rules but against the rival's movements, in contrast and in opposition to his/her intentions and final action.
Once a "connection" between master and pupil is established and priority "introduced" in the fencer instinct, the art of contrast can be taught. Basically, once you know the rules you can learn how to break them.
Teaching to oppose a movement by a precise action is relatively easy considering it's part of human genetic having the instinct of destroying what appears threatening to us. Teaching when, at which distance and speed to do it it's something else altogether.
Again, the "hint game" can help the coach. He/She has to "create" a situation in which distance and time are "perceivable" yet not completely clear to the pupil's instinct.
At that point, the advancing or retreating (priority) in addition to the coach's arm movement (inviting, threatening, withdrawing) will determine which option will be best for the student and at which speed.
Once "clarified" the (visual) situation the coach can execute the action that the student had perceived and consequentially got prepared to oppose. If the instinct has worked right then the action will result in a smooth and adequate way.
The best part of the game is, at this point, creating as many different actions as possible so as to develop the fencer's adaptability to any "last minute" situation.
The coach can enjoy, based on his knowledge and creativity, proposing all sorts of timing, distance, speed and ultimately arm movement (wide, sharp, slow, forward, full extended etc...) to the fencer.
Finally, "introducing" the possible "contrasting" automatisms into a fencer instinct deserves the maximum attention and most of all best coordination between a fencing coach and a fencer.
Fencing is a game of deception, where everything can be true and false at the same time, where lies and truth work combined to constantly confuse and ultimately mess up the rival's plans. Rules exist precisely to be broken at times J.J.Rousseau