How to Defend Yourself (On The Mat)

A lot of people these days are talking about ‘self defense.’ We hear a lot about what martial art is the best for self defense. There is talk about what techniques or systems are most effecive ‘on the street’ (wherever that is): “This art works. That art is bull$#+! That would never work in MMA.” None of that is what I want to talk about right now. I would rather you come in and try some classes to see what works best for you and what aligns best with your personal goals. What I want to address here is how to defend yourself once you step inside of a martial art school, specifically a Gracie jiu-jitsu or Brazilian jiu-jitsu school.

A martial art is like a living organism. The technical curriculum, the individual techniques that make up the system, are the body of the art — the bones, the organs, and the tissues that make the art look and feel unique. The way these techniques are presented, practiced, and tested, however, are the life-force of the art — its blood, its marrow, and its soul. A martial art, like a body, that lacks a life-force is an empty shell. Gracie or Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s life-force, its essence, is found in rolling (grappling-based sparring). Without rolling, jiu-jitsu would go the way of many more traditional martial arts that have lost their edge and their integrity. It would become stale and theoretical. Rolling keeps jiu-jitsu alive and honest.

There is an inherent danger in any martial practice or any physical activity for that matter. Finding a way to safely practice techniques that are intended to control, maim, or kill another human being is a difficult task. Finding a way to test these techniques with increasing resistance against more and more skilled or aggressive opponents is an even more daunting proposition. This is where the true beauty and genius of jiu-jitsu lies. Rolling is a means to test oneself and one’s skills at all levels of difficulty and intensity in as safe and honest a way possible, mainly because it has a built-in pressure relief valve, a reset button that keeps all participants safe. You can use this reset button any time, with anyone, as many times as is necessary to keep you safe, healthy, and training without injury. We call it ‘tapping.’

Whether verbal, physical, or both, tapping stops everything, immediately. When rolling, if you are uncomfortable, in pain, about to pass out, or even just claustrophobic, all you need to do is tap and your partner will stop. You can reset and start over or you can take a break. Tapping can be perceived as the admission of defeat, but it is more than that. Tapping is an invenstment in the future. It is a means of self defense so that you can keep training. Tapping today will allow you to train tomorrow. Tapping in jiu-jitsu is what enables us to train as hard as we want one night and go to work the next day fully intact. It allows us to roll again, and again, and again without getting broken. It allows us to learn from our mistakes or our opponent’s skill without embarrassment.  Tapping must, however, be explicit.  Your partner needs to know that you want to stop.  It is as much your obligation to be clear (by physically tapping, saying “tap,” or both) about wanting to stop as it is your partner’s obligation to respect the tap.  Tapping is part of jiu-jitsu’s honor system.

The surest way to have a short and dissapointing jiu-jitsu career is to be too stubborn or proud to tap when you are in imminent danger. The techniques in jiu-jitsu are meant to break joints and limbs or to put people unconscious. Tapping allows us to train to that edge without crossing it. Not tapping, for whatever reason, will not make you better at jiu-jitsu. It will make you injured. Injuries are not strong. Injuries make you weaker and your team weaker in your absence. Knowing how and when to tap, but refusing to during training is short-sighted and selfish. Not knowing how and when to tap is a deeper issue that should be addressed on a personal level with your instructor(s) immediately. Tapping in jiu-jitsu is the essence of self defense on the mat. Tap today. Train tomorrow. Invest in your losses and be a wiser, stronger person for it. That is true self defense. Just ask those who came before you and are still around to teach you.

Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo

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