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When You Should Tap: Systematically Embracing Failure To Find Success [Part One]
How do you make progress? If you are the average player, then you go to class, watch random videos on YouTube and roll like a demon.
If you take the game another step further, then perhaps you take notes in a dedicated jiu jitsu journal, practice your basic movements before classes or on the beach, buy the latest videos and roll like an archangel. But what about those of us who are a little more fanatical than others? What can you do to make significant gains in your game without destroying your joints and tendons?
The most difficult obstacle to navigate in a jiu jitsu journey is the space between being a white belt and becoming a thriving blue belt on the way to purple accolades. While there was hope that life on the mats would magically become easier with a newly minted belt, most of us encounter the realization that many of the upper belts at your gym were going easy on us. We were the little lion cub that they fostered until we could start playing for real. When we realize that Scissor Sweep is not as strong as we thought or that we really have no idea how to make our open guard more effective, then the ego begins to whisper negative thoughts into our ears.
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I can count on two hands the number of my best mates who simply walked away from jiu jitsu at this stage. Time, injuries and motivation are the usual reasons, but at the core of the matter is that their ego no longer saw a way forward without submitting to the monster that secretly haunted their dreams: the tap. You see, while there is much talk about "winning or learning" as being the way of BJJ, most lower belts are absolutely terrified of tapping to their training partners, especially if the main coach is watching from mat side.
I am here to make the argument that you need to abandon the ego's hold on your practice and simply accept that you are a beginner any time that you wish to improve any part of your jiu jitsu game. For me, when I received my blue belt, it was a godsend: I could now explore my jiu jitsu freely and deeply. I no longer cared about tapping, because I knew "the secret": anyone who lasts in this art knows that if you want to build a perfect beast of a sweep, sub or pass, then you need to lose, fail and restart. Now that restart may demand that you have excellent escapes and survival skills or it may mean that you simply need to allow the tap to occur.
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What is the cost of a tap? When we tap, we acknowledge that we either failed to defend a submission or we ended up in bad situation based on the choices we made during our roll. The cost of tapping is admitting that the younger, stronger, faster white belt smashed your beginner level Worm Guard entry. The cost of tapping is admitting that the spry, technical blue belt saw your set-up for the kimura trap a mile away. The cost is...free, and that is what is seldom acknowledged on the mats. Now I will admit that I have had a few Norwegian Frost Giants explode in anger, because they felt I should not have tapped to their Flying Knee on Belly. I have heard a few screams from the sidelines about progression and not tapping. Sometimes those are exactly what I need to hear, and more often those are frustrated moments from people needing to feel like they destroyed you. Either way, what matters most is that both players get a chance to practice the specific skills they aspire to in a particular session.
One particularly infamous quote from podcaster/10th Planet Black Belt extraordinaire, Joe Rogan, is that "The best way to get good at jiu jitsu is to strangle blue belts." There is a nugget of wisdom in those words, especially if you are an upper belt or if you are a blue belt who has a never-ending influx of white belts coming to your academy. John Danaher doubles down on this assertion by arguing that "About 80 to 90 percent of your training should be people who are significantly of a lower level skill level than you are and as you get into competition mode, you start rolling with guys who are your own skill level or a little better but I do believe that it is a common misunderstanding that you should always be training with people better than yourself." He continues with the statement: "It’s very, very hard to develop your technical skills on people that are better than you. You will develop your defensive skills but ultimately the point of Jiu-Jitsu is to defeat people and not to become difficult to submit." But what if the true wisdom here lies in the fact that when you train against those who are at a lower skill level, you can often avoid submission and the subsequent damage to the ego.
What can you do if you happen to already be at the bottom of your academy's totem pole? What happens if new students are few and far between at the place where you train? I have two words for you: open mats. If you love your coach and the environment you are in, then perhaps the only way up the ladder is to actively seek out opportunities to roll with lower belts on a regular basis. Camps such as those offered by BJJ Globetrotters and other groups such as Origin Jiu-Jitsu Immersion Camp or a Gracie Adventure Camp are also excellent opportunities to hit the mats with white belts out there looking for some action. You may have to compete for those precious white belts, but a crooked smile and a promise of safe rolls may make you a prime candidate for the week's training.
At the end of the day, what is most important for your jiu jitsu development is a willingness to falter in what you are attempting to accomplish. While the concept of tapping is important, and it will lead to progress as long as you persist and understand when it is important not to tap, it is also critical to explore the benefits of mapping your game to uncover the flaws and strengths of the foundational work that you have put down on your way to this particular point in time.
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