Tapping out is sending a message to your opponent. The most common message is “OK, you got me with that submission. Now let me go”
Many grapplers don’t realize that tapping out can also be used to send a different message, namely: “I don’t know what’s going on here – I might be in danger of getting injured, so let’s stop for a second”
Recently I was sparring and had my opponent pinned in side mount. He wrapped my head at an awkward angle and bridged. To relieve pressure on my neck I decided to go with the it and roll to the bottom. Halfway during that roll we collided with some punching bags at the edge of the mat – I was now wedged into a corner, my neck at a strange angle, and my partner perched precariously on top of me.
It wasn’t a submission per se – my neck didn’t actually hurt – but I sure as hell didn’t want to find out what would happen if either he or I tried to scramble from that position. I tapped out, he let go, and -for once – nothing went snap or pop.
As you become more experienced your knowledge of technique grows – that is a no-brainer. A less appreciated aspect of the grappling learning process is that your mental library of awkward positions also grows as you spend more time on the mats. You’ll figure out when certain positions are merely uncomfortable, vs. actually being damaging. You might be willing to accept the discomfort of a guillotine choke for longer, because you’ll know if it is going to damage your neck or your windpipe.
Even when you get to black belt level, however, you’re still going to periodically end up in weird, contorted positions that might be uncomfortable but not be submissions per se. My advice is, that if you are unsure about the safety of a position, then swallow your pride, tap out and live to fight another day. The worst that will happen is that you will make the day of some junior guy at the club who just tapped out one of the big guns. Not such a big price to pay really, when you compare it to the alternative of not being able to train for many months due to some stupid, preventable injury!
Remember that the tap can be used to send two different messages.
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Additional Resources: Two things that will put a HALT to your training.