Do you know how to tap?
That may be the most commonly asked question during a student’s first class. Many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practioners take this concept for granted, but it is important for us to remember that to someone who is new to the sport, this may not be intuitive. Like everything else in our sport, we need to teach this to our beginners.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be a lifetime activity if you train correctly. This is in stark contrast to some other combat sports where the wear and tear on the body is too great to have a prolonged practice. The secret to a lifetime of training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a complex equation of knowing your limits, choosing training partners wisely, taking care of your body and, of course, knowing how to tap.
Many BJJ practitioners learn the hard way on how long we should wait to tap. Personally, no one sat me down and pointed out each specific submission and said “hey you should tap now”. So for some of you this is going to be the first time that the subject has been broached in any depth. I suggest you read over the following paragraphs, think about what I have to say, and then formulate your own equation of when, how, and who to tap too.
For beginners, knowing when to tap can be difficult. No one likes to lose and tapping can be viewed as “losing” (regardless of telling someone tapping is part of learning). My biggest piece of advice is: don’t wait until you feel pain to tap.
Tapping to joint locks and crushes is serious business. As comical as it sounds I have witnessed, first hand, students that do not like to tap. Their arm can be fully extended, body turned away, with an expression of determination. When I ask them why they aren’t tapping they say “I don’t feel it yet”. Depending on the submission, there may not be any pain until it is too late (with armbars, for example). The only way you can know if the pain/discomfort is part of a move is through experience or by asking your instructor. If you are new to the sport I suggest asking your instructor what the move should feel like (if it was not clearly stated) and ask at what point you should tap.
Tapping to chokes can be another situation entirely. For the beginner, being choked can be an extremely scary situation. When applied correctly a feeling of helplessness is quickly followed by a moment of panic. First and foremost, if you don’t know what to do- TAP! It’s better than trying to invent an escape or freezing in fear. Both of these options can lead to months of being ridiculed for taking a nap on the mat.
From experience I have found that when a choke is applied correctly you will know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you need to tap. Much like when an armbar is extended or a kimura is applied there is no doubt that you are caught in a bad place. Often my students struggle with when to tap to chokes and I give them this rule of thumb: if you are in a choke and asking yourself “should I tap” the answer is “no”. The truth is that the time you were allotting to thinking about tapping could have been used to defend instead. If it is time to tap, you will know.
Your ability to sense your consciences coming and going is a perception that can be built over time. If you find yourself going unconscious on the mat then I suggest you tap earlier. If you do not know an escape…tap. If you are scared…tap. Do you see a pattern here? When in doubt tap and sort it out later. As your perception of consciousness develops you will have more confidence to escape (it also helps to know HOW to escape too, but that is the content of a whole other article).
How to tap is as important as when to tap. I have seen students slapping the mat, tapping their opponent, saying the word tap and just about any combination of these you can think of. The truth is any way you can convey to your partner/opponent to stop what they are doing is the right answer. The clearer and quicker this message comes the better off you are (especially for those of you who wait until the last moment to tap).
When tapping in the drills or technique portion of the class I suggest physically tapping your opponent whenever possible. When I am put into a position where tapping with my hand is difficult, I try to reposition my body to make it possible. For example: when someone is putting me in an omoplata I will base my head on the floor so that I can use my spare hand to tap the ankle of my opponent. Early on it may feel uncomfortable to place your face on the mat or contort your body in different ways but as you experience grappling and become more comfortable with your body this will be second nature.
In the rare event that I can not get a free hand to actually touch my opponent I will verbally say tap loud enough so that my opponent can hear at the same time as I slap the mat. For those of you BJJ practitioners that have been around the sport for an extended period of time then you know that there are instances when your body is tied in knots and the act of tapping is physically difficult (as in your arms are bound). In instances like this I suggest grunting, slapping, kicking or doing anything AND everything to let your partner know you are not ok.
While live rolling or competing I make it a point to tap both verbally and physically. While in Brazil there was absolutely NO doubt as to when I got submitted in the class. I’m not saying that you should scream it, but make sure to say it loud enough that your partner knows to let go. There are times that your opponent in competition may be trying to take your limb home as a trophy and it is imperative that you continue to defend yourself while verbally tapping. I can not tell you how many times this little piece of information has saved me an injury. Don’t let your pride get in the way of your ability to hug your loved ones or do push-ups next week.
Tapping is a partner exercise. I let my students know that if someone gets hurt the first question I’m going to ask is “what happened?”. After investigating the situation I’m not going to be upset with the person who is hurt, I’m going to be upset with the person who got the submission. I know that I will receive a lot of flak for writing this, but it is as much your responsibility to not hurt your partner as it is their responsibility to tap (depending on your goals this may or may not apply to competition).
The bottom line is I want everyone to train tomorrow and your desire to pet your ego and get a tap from a training partner is not sufficient cause to hurt them. There are enough accidents involved in ANY sport that we dont need to add to them by petting your ego.
There are instances where students need to tap earlier and they don’t. Sometimes it is out of ignorance (in which case I’m REALLY glad that you let go) and other times it’s out of stubbornness (again I’m still glad that you let go). In the case of “stubbornness” let the advanced belts deal with it. It is not your job to knock anyone down a peg.
The last thing we need to look at is who to tap to. This can be a difficult to know but once you figure it out can save you a lot of problems. Different people take training differently. Some people are casual practitioners while others are training to fight or compete. By knowing someone’s goals you may be able to avoid injuries.
When your partner/opponent has gotten a hold of your arm, leg or any other limb and you can feel them ripping on it, gyrating it, or just plain squeezing it is ok to pre preemptively tap to these guys/girls. If you have been hurt in the past by a particular submission it is ok to tap early. If you feel something pop, grind or feel “weird” then you should tap. Remember we are trying to practice BJJ as a lifelong sport. If you tap and your opponent gets upset because you tapped early (this happens from time to time) IGNORE THEM. This is one place where I am going to tell every one of my students to be selfish with their training. There is absolutely nothing more important than your health.
Tapping is a trust, a HUGE trust. You are trusting that your opponent is going to let go of your arm, leg, neck, etc. and allow you to go about your business as usual. Just like in life we have different degrees of trust with different people. Some friends I would give keys to my house, others I wouldn’t trust knowing my address. Grappling is a lot like this. Trust is built up over time and as you continue through your BJJ career you will build trust with some of your training partners that allows you to really open up your game and push the limits of what your body and technique has to offer. Until you have that trust, I suggest tapping early, often and with intensity.
Thanks for reading,
Black Belt under Roberto “Gordo” Correa