Don’t tap to pressure – (but when submitted, avoid any serious damage)

The sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has had an upswing ever since Royce Gracie managed to win the initial UFC tournament back in 1991, no small feat if you look at the competition. In BJJ the goal is to submit (or “tap out”) an opponent. In other words, when they give up, you win. While working towards a position where you can submit someone, you usually apply different tricks to make the opponent as uncomfortable as possible, something simply referred to as “pressure”. 

High levels of discomfort

Pressure is simply using body weight and leverage to make sure someone is uncomfortable, or in pain, and have difficulties to move and breath normally. It doesn’t look like much in words, but the term “to be crushed” did not come out of nothing. However painful it is, there is a bit of a “rule” around not to give up the fight due to pressure alone. Yes, it may be highly uncomfortable, it may hurt and you can’t breath which makes you desperate to get out. But you need to learn to work your way out…not tap your way out.

When you get locked into a submission however it is very different. An arm bar, a position where the opponent has your arm trapped and an ability to bend your elbow the wrong way; best is to give up before you get any serious injury and/or long term damage. If someone breaks your arm you won’t be playing the game again anytime soon. There are some variations depending on what kind of submission we are talking about, falling unconscious due to a choke is not as bad as snapping a knee for instance, but for simplicity we can keep them all the same and the theory just comes down to:

  • Pressure, toughen in out and don’t tap
  • Submission, tap to avoid injury

Simple in theory. The question is to be able to determine quickly enough when to keep fighting and trying to work your way out and when to give up and tap. A split second decision that could save your elbow.

Sound familiar?

Does this sound like something you recognize, even if you have never sat your foot on a BJJ mat? It applies to all walks of life and not the least to work. Pressure is the feeling that makes you want to stand up and shout “I quit”, the feeling that makes you burn the midnight oil reconciling something rather than to spend it with your family. Sometimes it is the gateway to something good, sometimes, not so much. The hard bit is to figure out what is what, or rather when is when.

There is a major difference in timing when we compare work to BJJ. Saving your elbow may be a split second decision. Saving your sanity at work is almost never that. Weeks and months go by and you can mull the decision over…and over and over. But what this situation lacks in urgency, it makes up for in importance. Rarely will a training partner apply so much pressure you actually get hurt in training, but you may end up a bit bruised and battered. so what? You stay at your old job for three additional years before realizing you should have left long ago, that is a way bigger issue.

The outcome that matters

How do you tell the difference between pressure and submission. In BJJ, as in work, it mostly comes down to experience. Once you have “rolled” (BJJ speak for “sparred”) enough you will know when you feel uncomfortable and when you need to give in before you get hurt. Work is the same, I think we all have either given up in a situation that was really painful but that was actually temporary in nature or not so bad with some perspective. Most people have also found themselves fiercely fighting a flood of work week after week, year after year, in a hopeless situation where the best course of action would have been to leave long ago.

The difference is … Learning

Are you feeling pressure at work because you are expected to do things you are not sure how to do, or are you simply pressured because you have too much to do? On the surface it is not always that easy to tell the difference, but once you dig around in it, you will know. So you learned to hammer a nail into a plank. Good for you. Is your next job now hard because someone is expecting you to build a Swiss Chalet, or is it hard because you are expected to hammer ten thousand nails into the plank every day? Both are challenging and will cause pressure. One is a worthwhile quest that will bring you great learning, sense of achievement and a new skill set. One will make you tired and get you a blister on the thumb.

When I complained about how hard it sometimes was to work in consulting and someone asked me why I stayed, I said: Because every six months I can look back at myself and think “I thought that was hard?”. It is called learning. If you take a hard look at how your skill set is different to six months ago, I mean a real look, you will be able to tell. You worked like a dog and you are no different? Maybe time to work like a dog somewhere else.

Second opinions first

Now and then you meet people that are very impressive. Not necessarily because they are smarter or more experienced or have a fancier title than you. Because they carefully listen to you, have similar experiences so they understand you, excellent judgment, an ability to suspend self interest and a track record of telling you exactly what they think of your whining. You know, the kind of people who ask you if you are ok and stick around to hear the answer. When you find one, hold onto them. 

When in the middle of things it may not always be so easy to determine what is really what. Something that can take you three months to figure out may be evident to someone else in a matter of a minute. When the person who listens to your regular rant, and who normally smiles and tells you to suck it up and see the positive things gets a concerned look on their face and say “hm, that actually does not sound too good”. You know you are onto something. Time to tap?

Tapping at the right time is smart

I was raised with a Swedish proverb “skam den som ger sig” (shame on those who give up). That has served me well in a lot of situation where I would have preferred to quit but have not due to the inherent feeling that it is “the wrong thing to do”. On the other hand it has also kept me in some very S**T situations that I really should have gotten out of sooner, if it wasn’t for being stubborn and thinking that giving up is a always a bad thing.

Tapping out to pressure is not good, tapping out to a submission before you get hurt is smart. Giving up is not necessarily bad. If you are stuck in a hopeless situation you tap, reset and go again, rather than taking permanent and serious damage. The virtue of conscientiousness (the quality of wishing to do one’s work or duty well and thoroughly)  has these days become mental toughness and grit which sometime has become general  toughness (ability to take punishment and keep moving forward). Ability to take punishment is generally good, but beware of the purpose and intention of the punishment. This is a bit of a semantics minefield and worthy of a lengthy discussion. But to be clear. To quit CAN be a perfectly viable and smart option. As with the answer to so many questions: It all depends and experience, not just your own, can help to sort out on what.

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