I’m A Solid Purple Belt When It Comes To Tapping

Dan and I were discussing leglocks per the recent post. He agreed that the number one problem is that people don’t know when to tap. He proceeded to tell me he was a solid purple belt when it came to tapping. Knowing how to tap and when to tap is a big deal, but we kind of just throw people to the sharks in letting them figure that out.

I’m going to be referencing some other blogs, so before I go any further:
John Torres’ blog post: Part 1 and Part 2
Jiu-Jiu’s blog post: The Safe Word Is Tap

Julia’s post called out a quote from No-Gi-Grappling.com:

Leg submissions are deceptive because your opponent won’t necessarily feel pain until it’s too late and something is torn or broken. Unlike muscles and tendons, cartilage and the ligaments in the knee and foot are not well innervated. This means they do not have many nerve endings in them so there is little pain until they tear. You just feel pressure on the joint before the tear, then comes the pain.

When I read that my jaw dropped. To me, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of when you’re supposed to tap for any submission. Waiting until you feel pain on a joint is the equivalent of waiting until you start drifting out of consciousness for a choke. The difference is that instead of possibly evacuating your bladder and bowels in your pants, you’re possibly going to end up in a cast for 6-8 weeks.

The Anatomy of a Submission Hold

All submission holds have a few things in common. For a wrist lock tori isolates your wrist, then he begins application. As uke this feels like nothing, then pressure, then some pain with the pressure, then worse pain as the pressure suddenly gives as the wrist breaks. For a rear naked choke tori isolates your neck, then he begins application. As uke this feels like nothing, then pressure in your head, then you fall asleep, and then you hope tori lets go of the choke so that your brain isn’t deprived of oxygen for too long because that has some very serious side effects like death.

That pressure in your head is the indicator that the choke has gone south and you’re not getting out. How much pressure you can withstand is all about knowing your own limits and being able to recognize when the choke is something you can escape and when you’re past the point of no return.

I have some features which are mixed blessings. My elbows bend backwards to about a 115 degree angle. It looks pretty gnarly. People do arm bars the wrong way so I get the full extent of this range of motion. That means I have more time to escape. It also means my elbow is at severe structural risk before I feel pain. When my arm hurts during an arm bar it’s because damage is already being done. Just like a choke, for me an arm lock is about recognizing the amount of pressure and knowing my own point of no return. Because of my extreme flexibility, all submission holds really have only three stages: ensnarement, pressure, bad shit happens.

What does it mean to tap?

Tapping can refer to literally tapping on your opponent, yourself, or the mat to signify defeat. It can also refer to calling out one of the accepted terms for defeat – “tap”, “matte”, “stop”, etc. For our purposes, it means doing as much as you are able to to alert your partner or opponent that you’re done.

If you’re on the wrong end of a joint lock, physically tap, but also call out “TAP!”, and don’t give some petty ‘I don’t know if a fly just landed on me’ tap, slap like your joint depends on it (it does depend on it by the way). If you’re being choked or strangled and can’t call out, tap hard, try to tap on your opponent, and concede that you did tap if they let up before the referee calls a stoppage. Being that guy who taps and then keeps going afterward makes you the kind of person that deserves to have the joint broken. If both arms and your voice are tied up (i.e. jigoku jime from crucifix) tap clearly with your feet.

As tori, if your partner says something or you suspect they tapped, stop. It doesn’t matter if they get out. It doesn’t matter if you lose the greatest submission of your life. If you even suspect that they’re in trouble, stop and ask if they’re okay.

When to tap?

One of my biggest qualms with tapping when you feel pain is that we end up in the situation where pain is muted a lot. You step on the mat for competition and your heart starts racing, the adrenaline hits you, and as you start doing an activity that uses almost every muscle in your body the endorphins start to kick in. Waiting to feel pain in this situation is asking for trouble even if you don’t have gloriously messed-up joints like a certain someone. You may be waiting for something that just isn’t coming, or is coming too late.

This is what’s meant by “tap early”. You need to learn to recognize a bad situation and tap before it goes from bad to worse. Waiting for it to be so bad that your options are hope they give you long enough to tap or accept a broken arm is not acceptable behavior for an uke. We talk a lot about not being a dick and not breaking someone’s arm, but at the end of the day, it’s uke’s job to keep himself safe. It’s tori’s job to apply the technique. Not being a dick doesn’t mean not breaking someone’s shit when they’re too stubborn to tap. It means giving them the chance to tap before you break it. In class is different, but in competition you should plan to do any hold to completion.

The second part of the phrase is “tap often”, and this is one a lot of people have trouble with. “Tap early” can apply to competitive bouts – some hardware from a local tournament is not worth having the bone reset and 8 weeks in a split. “Tap often” is really only about training. It’s about a sense of humility and an understanding of safety. I don’t have to be in dire straights to tap. If my calf cramps up during class I’ll tap. If I’m just too tired to go on I’ll tap. If you bent my arm and I know that I don’t have a chance of escaping I’ll tap. Yeah, it’s a disservice to a partner that needs to learn how to actually apply the joint lock, but it’s also my well-being and I reserve the right to tap to anything I damn well please. After all, I’m the one who’s conceding.

The Take Away

“Tap early, tap often.” and don’t rely on pain to be your cue. It should be pressure and knowing your own limits. This is why leg locks are no more dangerous to me. All the warning signs are there. At some point instructors started conditioning people to tap later than they should. Hubris, thy name is “Ouch.”


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