Submission Grappling and the Negotiation of Pain

Recently, I was talking to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt and I asked him what he loved about BJJ. His response was that it allowed people to train safely at 100% intensity. This is only partially true, however. Grappling for position and control can be done at high intensities with a great degree of safety, but the submission itself must be applied gradually so that the recipient has the opportunity to submit. With adrenaline pumping and hearts beating heavily, control can take a backseat to the desire to win and, in the midst of sparring or rolling, this distinction can blur. It takes a great deal of mental clarity to be able to fight for a dominant position against someone trying to do the same to you, but to then put the brakes on to attack a joint or apply a choke at a speed that is non-injurious.

When you get struck by a punch or a kick, there is no way to stop it before it hurts. Of course, there are blocks, parries, and slips that one can do to minimize impact. One can also use pads, headgear, and gloves to make strikes softer, but a strike’s only real function is pain through concussive force. The same goes for throwing. When a person falls, no matter how gracefully he or she rolls or slaps out, the ground hits back. Throwing a person to the ground is essentially hitting that person with the earth and, even though one can minimize the force of impact from a throw, the impact itself is non-negotiable. In submission grappling, however, pain is negotiable, not inevitable.

In submission grappling, tapping, or submitting, gives the recipient of a technique control over whether or not that technique is painful or injurious. Conversely, not tapping gives one’s partner implied consent to continue with a given attack or series of attacks under the assumption that he or she is not hurting his or her partner. This relationship hinges entirely on trust. Both parties have entered into an agreement that neither will perform a technique so fast or with so much force that the other person can not tap. Every submission attempt should be performed with enough control and at such a speed that it actually allows space for the submission or the tap to happen. Accidents aside, this makes submission grappling, so long as all parties involved honor the agreement, as inherently safe as any martial training can be. It allows us to practice maiming and killing techniques over and over again with the same people and still go to work the next day unharmed.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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