Dear White Belt: Seriously, Just Tap

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I wish that someone had really emphasized the importance of tapping early when I’d just started jiu-jitsu. I was (and am) stubborn, and I’d always been told to just “tap when it hurts or when you can’t breathe.” So I convinced myself that a tight armbar didn’t hurt or that I could stay conscious for just a big longer when I was put into a bow-and-arrow choke, and I paid the price. Multiple times. Painfully.

There are also blue, purple, brown, and even black belts who wait a bit too long to tap when they’re put into submissions. In fact, one of my worst injuries happened when I’d first gotten my purple belt and was convinced that my foot could hold out just a little longer so I could get out of a toehold (Spoiler alert: it couldn’t, it didn’t, and the resulting crack literally echoed through the gym. Do as I say, not as I do). It’s natural to want to see how far you can push your body, and sometimes, the consequences hurt. But when you’re a white belt who doesn’t yet understand the damage that certain submissions can do to the human body, tapping early and often is even more crucial.

There is literally no reason to risk serious injury in training or at tournaments that only offer medals as prizes. High-level competitors who do jiu-jitsu as a career accept that they might need to risk hyperextended joints and surgery in order to win prestigious titles and large cash prizes. For them, it’s part of the job. But dislocating your shoulder to prove a point against a much stronger teammate or win a small local tournament is fifty shades of not worth it.

Waiting too long to tap doesn’t just hurt — it can also keep you out of training for months, or even end your jiu-jitsu career early. There are lots of jokes that go around about 27-year-old jiu-jitsu practitioners having “old person” joints that creak, crack, and ache, but they’re based in truth. Injuries — especially injuries that don’t heal properly — can create other long-term problems like reduced flexibility and chronic pain. Some accidents can’t be avoided, and by the time you’ve been training a few years, you’ll probably have accumulated a few injuries that happened just by moving wrong or your training partner falling on you at a bad angle. But developing these problems in the first couple years of your jiu-jitsu journey because you didn’t want to tap is unnecessary.

To everyone, but especially to the enthusiastic newbies, please just tap. Not to discomfort or exhaustion or pressure, but to any position or locked-in submission that will lead to an injury or unconsciousness. Friday night open mat isn’t the time or place to prove how tough you are, and you’re never going to make it as a professional grappler if you break your body two years in or regularly need to take six months off to heal. Take care of yourself now, drill your escapes, and ask your teammates for help if you have doubts about how to get out of a submission. Then, by the time you actually have something to prove, your body will be a lot more equipped to deal with it.

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