A common question I get about BJJ from the non-initiated is “What is tapping out?” I love answering this particular question as it allows me to portray the sport exactly as it is – respectful and fun, while as realistic as possible. Today, we’ll explore the answer to this question, and discuss the benefits of tapping!
What is Tapping Out in Jiu Jitsu?
The concept of tapping out is as old as combat sports. By definition tapping two or more times with your hand signifies that you’re giving up. This is how warriors of all nationalities used to simulate combat when they were not engaged in battle.
Yielding (tapping out) meant that the other person could’ve killed you, and you recognized that and conceded. This way of play-fighting allowed warriors to stay injury-free and yet train realistically.
It is the same in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Sambo, catch wrestling, and even Aikido. Basically, any sport that involves joint locks and/or chokes has a way of immediately letting your training partner know that they should stop. It is the ultimate safety net and keep you from hurting yourself or somebody else.
The one piece of advice I always give to people when it comes to tapping out is to tap fast and tap often. There’s no point in trying to take submissions to the limit, especially as a beginner, and doubly so as a beginner training in a classroom setting!
The tap will get you out of anything in an instant. Uncomfortable with that heavyweight in top mount? Tap out. Your toes got uncomfortably entangled in the opponent’s gi jacket? Tap out. You landed awkwardly after a takedown? Tap out.
Essentially, tapping out is the ultimate form of defense or better said self-defense. It guarantees you won’t endure bodily harm when you utilize this motion that is commonly accepted in terms of its meaning across combat sports, and particularly grappling martial arts.
What Does it Mean to Tap Out in BJJ?
This is where most people that train struggle. When you start training Jiu Jitsu the tap is perceived as it should be – the ultimate way out of everything. However, after spending a year or so of training actively, some people start seeing tapping out as a source of frustration. They take it personally, thinking it means they’re not good enough and they ‘lost’ in a roll.
Let’s take a look at the deeper meaning of the action of tapping in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The most obvious and most widespread use of the tap is safety. Nobody wants to go home with a hyperextended elbow or torn ligaments in their knee. The same holds true for bruised tracheas and falling asleep, although chokes are a different animal in terms of taps (which I’ll cover later on).
The bottom line is that in this crazy sport of ours, we let other people play with the most valuable material thing that we have – our bodies. It is the ultimate sign of trust, with the tap being the guarantee that helps facilitate that trust.
The social contract that you will let go if I tap, without questioning why I did so, builds the kind of trust that turns strangers into teammates, and teammates into lifelong friends as years go by.
“In BJJ you either win or you learn.”
I call BS on this phrase! I’ve never respected such an approach. Let’s be realistic – you either win or you lose. Forget about the participation trophies and similar nonsense. If you chose to compete in BJJ, you chose to fight with another person. If you tapped out, it means they could’ve killed or maimed you had it been a realistic situation. So you most definitely lost.
Now that we got the self-help nonsense out of the way, let’s see where the lessons are in tapping out. There is a lesson in both winning and losing. It is just that those we learn through losing seem to stay burned in our memories for much longer.
Tapping in Competition
In competition, if you tap out, you lose. You will also be able to walk and use your hands to drink beer after the competition, then get back home and analyze what happened and how the match unfolded until the moment you tapped. That is how you learn the lesson – by staying healthy enough to process the feeling of defeat out of your system first, and go back to the drawing board second.
Tapping in Class
In training, nobody perceives your taps as losses – or if they do they’re new enough to the sport that you shouldn’t be listening to their opinion! There is no need to take training in class so seriously. Take the lesson in terms of what not to do, or what to do in order to deny the same person a tap from the same situation again. Other than that, let it go, slap bump and roll again!
My personal goal when I roll with my students is for each and every one of them to get to tap me out. I won’t give away free taps, but when someone manages to tap me out, the lesson in there for both of us is enormous. It is also a way in which higher belts can learn from lower belts.
When you sign up for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you will tap often. It won’t feel like a big thing, and in no time, you’ll start figuring out where exactly it is you’re tapping out from. Then you’ll start wondering why people are tapping you out with certain submissions more than with others.
This, in turn, usually gets people interested in either outright defense or figuring out the attacking move they are most often tapping out to. This sets you on the path towards progress and growth. You can expect this to happen over and over again at every new belt level.
From an offensive standpoint, failing to secure a tap will teach you a lot more than succeeding in tapping somebody out. Once again, progress is being made.
This is one of the first things I teach people that are interested in starting Jiu Jitsu in my academy. The responsibility for the tap is shared equally between both training partners.
What I mean by that is that the person caught in a submission only has 50% of the responsibility when it comes to the timing and execution of the tap. The other 50% lies with the person hunting for the submission.
Namely, there is a point where the submission hunter should stop and look at or communicate with the person they’re trying to submit. The idea is to let them know that there’s no way out and give them ample time to tap.
If they think they can “take it” for longer, or are experimenting with late submission escapes, they should let you know. You can then proceed to put more pressure on the submission, but not in an explosive and uncontrolled manner. As the attacker you must allow your partner time to utilize the tap out during BJJ training!
The bottom line is that you are accountable for your actions whether you’re attacking or defending a submission. In competitions, you can take a submission all the way – it is the referee’s task to watch out for the safety of the competitors – but in your gym if you hurt your training partner because they didn’t tap, that responsibility is still yours.
How To Tap Out In Jiu Jitsu
While there is no wrong way to tap out, there are ways in which your tap is not going to be noticed, and that may end up with horrific consequences.
Tap The Body
The best way to tap out in BJJ is to tap two or more times anywhere along your partner/opponent’s body. Tap forcefully, but try and make it a point to tap on their body. That way, they will always be able to feel the tap and know it is time to let go.
Tap Out on the Mats
If you can’t reach the body of the training partner/opponent for some reason, tap out on the mats. Once again, do not tap like you’re brushing a fly off your shoulder, but rather tap out forcefully using the palm of your hand. Tap repeatedly so that the other person knows you’re asking them to stop what they’re doing.
Alternatively, if both your arms are indisposed and you can’t use them to tap, use your feet to bang on the mats. The soles of the feet are best, given their surface but you can also tap out with your heels or top of the foot. Anything that will draw your training partner’s (or referee’s) attention.
Another important thing to know is that when you can’t tap physically with either your hands or feet, or there’s no time for that, you can always tap out verbally.
Simply shouting out “stop”, “tap”, or just yelling will do the trick. As long as you make it a point to draw attention to yourself and the fact you are too uncomfortable to continue, you’ll be ok. Once again, whispering “tap, tap. Tap” is most likely not going to catch anyone’s attention so be clear when you’re using verbal taps.
In competition any loud cry of pain counts as a tap, so don’t get in the habit of making noise when you aren’t intending on tapping. If your opponent cries out in class, always assume it was a tap.
Knowing When To Tap Out
For joint locks, especially as a beginner, do not wait for pain in order to tap out. This is a good rule of thumb even for seasoned grapplers. Not all joints in the body have the same amount of pain receptors. Moreover, personal factors like nerve damage or injuries might mean the sensitivity to pain in a certain joint is low to non-existent.
The best thing to do during joint locks is tap when you feel pressure in the joint. Do not wait for pain because if you tap when it starts hurting, it may be too little too late.
Another important consideration is to continue defending yourself even as you tap. If you tap and then immediately relax you may find the submission still being applied.
For chokes, the same principle applies if it is an air choke. Tap the moment you feel pressure on your trachea. Walking around with a bruised trachea is not fun, believe me.
Blood chokes are trickier, and the perfect example of why you should tap early as a rule of thumb. I’ve seen people try and withstand a blood choke for too long, thinking they can tap. When they finally concede that they’ve had enough, they are still conscious and try to tap, but their hand won’t listen to them and move to tap. Then, they go to sleep.
The bottom line with chokes is to tap when you feel pressure on your arteries. You’ll grow to recognize this feeling the more you train.
Common Misconceptions About Tapping Out
Tapping out Equals Losing
I already touched upon this briefly. Equating a tap with a loss will block you from learning a valuable lesson as a result of the negative feeling that the perception of losing brings. It is normal to be frustrated when somebody manages to submit you, but that frustration should not be the result of you feeling defeated.
Tapping out will give you the chance to immediately re-assess what you did. If you do not dwell on it as if it is a loss, you’ll be able to immediately use the input from the fact you had to tap out, and use it to make sure the same sequence of events does not happen again.
In a competition match, tapping out will result in a loss, but you still have the lesson that comes with it. You can tap and lose, or not tap – have your elbow, shoulder, or knee broken – and then still lose. You’ll be able to learn your lesson far more effectively with your body in working order!
The Many Forms of Ego
If it is obvious that if you’re trying to withstand a well-placed submission for too long, you’re just being stubborn and risking an injury, while not getting any valuable feedback for your efforts. Bottom line, tap out.
The ego thing, though, has another form that many people do not perceive as ego. When you get really good at a submission hold, you get accustomed to tapping people out with it. After a while, regardless of how good you are, you will start to fail to catch the same people with the same sub.
This may make you feel like you’re messing something up. After all, it is your go-to move and you’ve used it to submit this person over and over again in the past, right? Wrong. It is your ego claiming that you should be able to tap somebody out with a certain move, from a certain position. The lack of a tap is just as big of a lesson as tapping out is.
The Brazilian Tap
This is a highly controversial practice, not often seen, but universally regarded as unsportsmanlike. While I have no idea why it is called the Brazilian tap, this is how I was introduced to the concept.
A Brazilian tap is when a person caught in a submission raises their arm as if they are going to tap. They may even tap once – which for the sake of a tournament does not count as a tap.
This usually elicits a predictable response from the other person – they stop actively applying more pressure which opens up an opportunity for the defender to create space and get out.
Basically, the Brazilian tap means faking a tap so that you can get out. This is not fun, not fair, and is a really dirty move.
Taping Out Higher Belts
No big deal, whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the tap. As I stated earlier, being a higher belt does not make you impervious to submissions from lower belts. However, you should look at them as lessons, and not bruises to your ego. You haven’t magically lost all your knowledge as a black belt if a blue belt manages to tap you out.
The same holds true the other way around. You’re not suddenly a world-class grappler if you tap out a higher belt or a black belt. Of course, kudos to the successful attacks, but do not think you can now use the same move, again and again, to tap everyone out.
Finally, when you’re rolling with your instructor do not play it safe and hold back on attacking. I am talking as a full-time coach and a black belt, go for it! Try to submit us any chance you get. There are times when you should demonstrate respect to your coaches, but holding back during rolling is not one of them.
Whether you tap a lower belt, a peer, or a higher belt, celebrating the fact you got a tap talks volumes about the type of person you are. Rolling is not a competition and gloating about your ‘victory’ makes you look like an asshole.
In competition, the story is different. If you managed to tap out your opponent in the final after just 30 seconds, sure, this is something to celebrate. However, you’re celebrating a victory, not the tap itself, in a highly competitive setting where adrenaline is pumping.
There can be no Jiu Jitsu training without tapping out. Or better said, BJJ wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Tapping out is the ultimate defense against every move that never fails.
Understanding what a tap means, how to properly tap, and when to tap are all crucial aspects of successfully training Jiu Jitsu for a long, long time.
Ogi is a black belt that does Jiu Jitsu full time and is very passionate about anything grappling-related.
He is also the head coach of Enso Jiu Jitsu in Macedonia and an aspiring Globetrotter.