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The Subtle Art of Not Tapping Oneself

Editor’s Note: The following blog post is written by Easton Training Center Littleton’s GM, Nick Mavrick.

Poised to submit, my hand was raised and trembling next to my opponent’s hip. I was thought I might die. I was suffocating. I had not experienced this kind of panic and its resulting hyperventilation since my days as a terrible Blue Belt. I had forgotten that it existed.

Professor Nick Mavrick

My lungs burned in that empty, deflated way. They felt inside-out. My heart bounced off of the inner walls of my rib cage. It had been so long since someone had put me in this type of seemingly mortal peril that I momentarily lost the ability to deal with it rationally and fight back.

My hand drew back as to tap his hip.

I stopped.

I heard inside my head a voice that I knew well—a voice familiar to many of us. It was Professor Marshall’s voice, or my brain’s approximation thereof. It yelled, “WHAT?! What was that?! Did you tap?!?! Did you tap to side control?! Get out!”

In the span of maybe two seconds, maybe less, my mind took me to another mat in another time — and back. It reminded me of a time during a small group private at the Denver academy. I was with a cabal of similar-aged grapplers to myself (so, pretty old), and on the main mat, the competition team prepped for a tournament.

We were running through some drills when Professor Marshall, frustrated with the effort of one of his prized competitors, yelled out at a student who evidently had had enough of someone’s Shoulder of Justice. He had tapped to relieve the pressure and maybe re-set to go again.

Professor Marshall was having no part of that — not during competition training, at the very least. So he yelled, as he sometimes does, and—after a few choice words–that grappler’s day was done.

“WHAT?!? What was that?! Did you just tap?! Did you tap to Side Control?”  

It was like a record scratch followed by a brief, pensive silence and then the din resumed as everyone went back about their business.

Realizing that there were some dues-paying hobbyists in the building, Professor came over to our mat to address us about the situation.

“I know that you guys are a little bit older…” he began.

Of course, we–the older—needed no such qualification. We felt a little bit older every time we slap-bumped with one of those talented young grapplers on the other side of that fence that separates the two mats.

“But,” he continued, “I consider this to be a pretty tough group.”

Now I felt better.

Professor Marshall pointed at me. He asked, “you ever tapped to side control?”

I gave it a moment’s thought, but I knew the answer. I may not ever have been the most technical or most proficient or even successful jiu jitsu player, but an easy submission, I am not. I’ll take the smoosh for a chance to get out and get even.

“No,” I replied.

He further questioned, “would you?”

Again, I thought how bad would it have to be for me to tap? Would I?

“No,” I repeated.

“I didn’t think so,” said Professor Marshall as he heeled around and headed back to his class.

A simple interaction that has stayed with me almost every day until now, Professor Marshall will not have known the impact of that brief conversation from years ago. I think of it often—mostly on the mat, but also off the mat occasionally, too.

So, there I was hand raised, ready to submit.

Now a Brown Belt, I was training with an old friend whom I had not seen in a gi in over a year — probably closer to two. He was bigger than I am. Stronger, too, by a lot. He has always beaten me and I knew going in that this time would be no different.

He had me in an awful spot. We were probably four minutes into a 10-minute round. I was mounted and one of his specialty moves included suffocating the mounted victim with his sweaty gi jacket. I was without oxygen, brutally mounted, clearly overmatched, and really starting to panic. I had forgotten that feeling of total helplessness on the mat. Helpless and suffocating. It was what I imagine drowning to be like.

My hand trembled, raised and ready…

I thought to myself, “I could die here.”

My hand drew back, but I heard it: “WHAT?!?!” and then “Would you?”

Would you?

I hate to make a liar out of myself.

My thought process changed. “You aren’t going to die. Worst case, you pass out for a minute, the two of you have an embarrassed laugh about it; you go back to training. Now, fight back.”

So, I did. First, I found a way to clear a space through which I could steal a shaft of oxygen from above. Second, I began breaking down his offensive position and getting progressively safer from there. I mounted a respectable defense and survived a bit longer before I was finally submitted with a mounted triangle.

I sat up and took a deep, grateful breath, not wanting to admit to my fleeting moment of nearly overwhelming anxiety. I smiled at my brutal, unforgiving friend and we slapped hands, bumped fists and attacked each other anew.

I knew from the beginning that I was going to get submitted by my larger, more experienced friend and training partner. I was prepared for that. I refused, however, to submit to myself. I refused to submit to my fear—to my panic.

I didn’t succumb to pressure. I didn’t decide that I was too uncomfortable to carry on. I didn’t take the easy way out of a bad situation. Even though I lost that round, it was a moral victory that has stuck with me every day since.

I’m going to get beat sometimes: by my friends, my training partners, even my students-especially my students. But I am not going to get beat by myself.

Header image by Greg Streech.

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